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GDC 2009 Blueberry Garden Hands-On

April 1st, 2009 by pixelsocks

We’ll try not to fill up on humble pie as we kick off these hands-on impressions, but a slice is due for being dead wrong about what Blueberry Garden is. After getting our hands on both it and sole developer Erik Svedang we can report that Blueberry Garden is a game about figuring out what Blueberry Garden is about.

Go ahead and read that last sentence a few times, it took us a little bit to grasp it too. After delivering the barest education on the controls, the game abandons you to discover what you can do, what you can’t do, why you keep dying, and what you can do to prevent it. It’s a game that credits your intelligence, but uses its accessibility as collateral. According to Svedang, “Most games tell you what to do, and you don’t really have to pay attention; you don’t have to analyze what’s happening.” That sentiment is at the heart of Blueberry Garden.

“Maybe I can lash his corpse to the others and
ride the macabre raft to salvation…”

At first, exploration is the name of the game. You’re a mostly flightless bird (though you can glide) who can eat fruit and collect objects to stack on a growing tower of miscellany. Noodling around will reveal that various fruits grant temporary flight, water-breathing, and other power-ups you may recall from the SNES era of 2D platforming. Noodling around also reveals that the water level in Blueberry Garden is inexorably rising and you wish you hadn’t wasted all that time screwing around with the fruit. In your doomed attempt to rally, you’ll discover two things: you drown after about one second in the water, and that tower you were lackadaisically building is Higher Ground. Once the water level has risen unmanageably high, it’s game over and you can give it another try–a little wiser for your troubles.

A subtle point that Svedang highlighted about the game is that every part of Blueberry Garden updates in real time. This is important because games tend to keep track of onscreen action and little else–coders don’t squander your computer’s limited resources on things you can’t see. This has the benefit of making the visible part of the game look as good as possible, but the price you pay is that time doesn’t really flow in the game’s world unless you’re there to see it. Developers can circumvent this problem with varying degrees of grace by using savvy design, but the game’s verisimilitude is inevitably taxed by little inconsistencies that you have to ignore. If you’ve ever walked backwards in a platformer to reset an enemy, you know what I mean.

Eric looks pleased that I just drowed. Again.

Blueberry Garden‘s “always on everywhere” design means that your actions have consequences. You don’t have to be there to ensure that events you set in motion will continue without you, and by the same token, if you destroy an essential puzzle piece, it’s gone forever. Meaningful causality makes Blueberry Garden immersive in ways that games usually aren’t. Your decisions matter, and if you make the wrong ones, you drown.

Fans of these gameplay cornerstones will call them inductive, and detractors will call them trial-and-error. One of the IGF judges remarked, “I played the game for ten minutes and put it down forever, but I eventually went back and spent forty minutes just trying to figure it out. When you think about how much time I had to play these games, that means it was really compelling, and that’s why I had to give it the grand prize.”

Aside from a bit of polishing, Svedang reports that the project is finished, and he hopes to sell it for “a few bucks,” in the near future. This game definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you want to figure out whether you should be waiting with baited breath, just ask yourself if it sounds like inductive gameplay or trial-and-error.

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