On the back of their recent successes, we catch up with Voxel Agents to find out what made this surreal puzzle adventure game The Gardens Between such a hit.
In 2015 Film Victoria supported The Gardens Between with funding that allowed the team to be “more ambitious with their craft” and to refine one of the pivotal elements of the game: the characters. Three years later, after a lot of hard work, the game is enjoying a successful release and has just received the Game of the Year award at the Australian Game Developer Awards.
We speak to Voxel Agents’ Founder Executive Producer and Level Designer, Simon Joslin, and Writer and Producer, Brooke Maggs. Simon tells us about the various disciplines that have gone into the game and why it is resonating with players. Brooke talks to us about her role as writer and producer on The Gardens Between, including how the two disciplines helped each other, and how she got into narrative design.
Simon Joslin, Executive Producer and Level Designer
Congratulations on the release of The Gardens Between and – a month later – winning Game of the Year at the Australian Game Developer Awards! How does it feel?
It feels amazing! It’s impacting people more than we imagined – including quite a few tears shed, and players inspired to reach out to long lost friends! These are the kinds of responses we hoped for during development, and it’s really special to hear from players how it makes them feel, and how significant of an experience it is for them.
The reception to the game has clearly been very positive – can you tell us more? What have been the measures of success for you?
We focus on creating unique games that surprise, that delight. We provide players with experiences they simply cannot have anywhere else. We strive to build something new and innovative, something that brings new ideas and challenges players in ways they’ve never encountered before. Based on the reception we’re received, we’ve definitely achieved those goals.
The game is reaching a wide audience – who is playing it and what makes it appealing to so many people? Was this part of the initial plan?
The game is about childhood, friendship and growing up. It’s a universal experience that we can all relate to. I think it’s a special experience to be able to return to a time of innocence, when the world was a true wonder, and friendships were larger than life – more important than anything else.
Some players respond to the universally relatable storyline, and other players respond to the unique, intricate puzzles. Many players respond to both, and that’s where it gets really special because it’s so rare for art, story and gameplay to all mesh and work together so strongly in a game. I’ve personally never achieved it before, and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved with The Gardens Between. It’s also a fair bit of luck that the team working on this project complimented each other so well. That’s not something we planned, it just happened.
With more and more games being released, how do you make a game that stands out? What makes The Gardens Between unique?
The Gardens Between has a unique time rewinding experience, where you’re not controlling the characters like in other games, but rather you’re controlling a small scene, like a diorama. You watch it unfold in front of you, and reverse it at will, experiment with objects in the scene and see the cause and effect of your changes. It’s an inherently fascinating experience just to control time, something we can never do in our real lives.
The Gardens Between is also unique in its presentation. The aesthetic was developed by our artist Jon Swanson over the four years he worked on it, and underwent a huge amount of iteration and exploration.
How does it sit alongside Voxel Agents’ other work? What are the key differences and how is it similar to the other games?
We focus on concise and delightful design as a studio. Those design skills have been refined through developing Train Conductor World and Puzzle Retreat, and leveraged in the creation of the much more tightly woven and intricate world of The Gardens Between. The puzzle designs in The Gardens Between have benefited greatly from that prior experience.
The Gardens Between was funded through Film Victoria’s API – Games funding, how did this help specifically and in terms of the game’s overall success?
The Film Victoria API - Games funding enabled us to be more ambitious with our craft and to refine, further, something that was absolutely pivotal to achieving success. Thanks to the funding we could afford to bring on Josh Bradbury as our animator, and the game benefited hugely from his contributions. The character’s personalities are told through the way the characters respond to the world, and to each other, and the way they move about the world. That was all led by Josh and the game wouldn’t have been the same without him.
Can you tell us about the team and the various disciplines that have gone into making The Gardens Between?
The major contributions come from Brooke Maggs’ early work in setting a strong narrative structure that the rest of the development fit into, the gorgeous and lush worlds Jon created, the animation as we mentioned from Josh, or the relaxing and perfectly attuned auditory accompaniments from Tim Shiel, and finally the level designs from Henrik Pettersson and myself. It was a big project, and something we’re truly proud of.
There’s a vast set of contributions that go into The Gardens Between and the way they combine is one of the most unique things about it. The game is all about observation, whether to interpret and read the story from the world, or to notice what in the world might change with time or from your input. So in relying on observation from the player, the game comes together when the disciplines are in harmony and working together to catch the player’s attention with sound, animation, composition, timing or visual design.
That requirement became super clear early on, and is also what makes the game so hard to make. You simply have to have a lot of discussions between disciplines, and then create iteratively, passing it back and forth between the creatives. Many times you accidentally are working over the top of each other’s work due to the nature of the art, story and gameplay all being so heavily intertwined.
Brooke Maggs, Writer and Producer
Tell us about your experience working on The Gardens Between – what does it look like to be a writer and a producer on a project?
I’ve always wanted to write for games, so when I had the opportunity I was thrilled. The whole experience helped me grow as a storyteller and as a creative professional. In the beginning, I wrote short stories, character profiles, synopses, poems and world bibles to conceive of the story with the team.
As our creative focus narrowed on two specific characters and their journey, we had to find a story structure that suited our main game mechanics: manipulating time. By this stage of development, I was doing less writing and more designing of the story by crafting a satisfying structure that would inform the development (tone, mood, narrative beats) of each level. It was clear then my role had changed to narrative designer.
By virtue of being the one with the laptop and writing all the time, I also took meeting notes and worked on other copy. I was writing marketing materials, website text, competition applications and recording milestone dates – all tasks within the realm of the producer. Switching between writer and producer helped me consider the creative promise we were making with our potential audiences when we described what we were making.
What was your favourite part to write?
My favourite part of the game to write and design story for is definitely the beginning and the end. Naturally, they’re also the hardest parts and the ones that went through the most iteration!
How did you get into narrative in games and what drew you to this area?
When I was young I loved reading and playing story-driven games. I loved being lost in game worlds and wanted to write for games. I knew I was a storyteller, and fiction and games appealed to me the most. I was also interested in technology and design, which I studied at university. When I graduated, I had a brief stint in web design before moving into teaching at Swinburne University. While teaching, I was also furthering my study in professional writing, editing and literary theory.
My love for games meant I soon moved into teaching games studies at Swinburne and was being introduced to people in the games industry. Luckily, The Voxel Agents were looking for a writer and I was recommended. I submitted a short story, went in for an interview and the rest was history!
You’re a Film Victoria Women in Games fellow too – how did that tie into your work on The Gardens Between?
The Women in Games grant allowed me to sharpen my skills as a writer and narrative designer. I was working full time on The Gardens Between for around three years and I realised it had indeed become a career. The grant was not only a way for me to advance my career but a vote of confidence from a panel of industry professionals who saw my potential. That was incredibly valuable and certainly encouraged me to forge ahead and conceive of what I was capable of doing for The Gardens Between.
The grant also allowed me to travel and speak to other writers and narrative designers, exchange thoughts, ideas and processes that ultimately gave me the idea to move away from text documents and to work more visually with the team.
What excites you about Victoria’s games industry currently and what are the challenges ahead?
It’s an exciting time in the Victorian games industry due to its encouraging atmosphere and the support Film Victoria provides. These two things create the kind of environment where one person with a great game idea can get things rolling, a small studio can start up, and a medium sized studio has the support to take their businesses to the next level.
The industry is full of talented people who are willing to take a chance on their own ideas which means interesting, experimental games are being made. I’ve also noticed a trend toward more experimental narratives and storytelling which is wonderful!
There’s plenty of potential for the industry to break new ground and it’s growing all the time. I perceive challenges will be in how businesses grow sustainably and balance developing profitable games, attracting and compensating new talent and reaching overseas markets and new audiences.
Image: (L – R) David Little, Simon Joslin, Brooke Maggs, Matt Clark, Jon Swanson, Josh Bradbury, Henrik Pettersson.