In the time it took me to understand how Cloud Gardens worked, I’d gone on an emotional journey from fleeting confusion to intense trance-like focus on the game and only the game. Like a visual mantra, each new platform whispered the same tempting words to my lizard brain, inviting me to twist and turn and examine every angle before planting my seeds. To avoid the encroaching horrors of the real world, I silenced my phone, shut off Discord, and turned my full attention to the current platform on the screen. In the world of The Rooftops, I could fully embrace my sole function as a clever and methodical person trying to grow a tree.
White design discourse has done a lot to ruin my love of brutalism, but spending time in Cloud Gardens is a serene delight – there’s nothing but you, your seeds and a placid concrete slab. There’s no real language, which is a huge plus, because I already have to read enough crap in real life. And most importantly, your only companions are a few inscrutable black crows. It’s a game about growth and beauty and ornamentation and the lovely wild things that can spring up in unexpected places. It’s an elegant exercise in finding balance that allows you to project as little or as much environmental neurosis onto the gameplay as you want.
A big part of Cloud Gardens’ charm is bumbling around with what you’re given. There are six themed levels – Highways, The Junkyard, The Rooftops, and part of the Greenhouse are currently playable in early access – with modular platforms that you have to fill with an arsenal of greens. You start with the humble wisteria, a woody flowering vine, but as you push on, you get more seeds: the much-loved monstera, hardy cacti, and a particularly energetic bryophyte-type moss. The idea is to fill these platforms with life (“jungle brutalism!” shouts a voice in the distance).
You know what they say…
But as with all sowing and reaping, this is inevitably a game about balance. You must grow your seeds by strategically placing junkyard objects around the platform. Abandoned refrigerators, bicycles, plastic chairs, oil barrels, beer bottles make for odd fertilizer, but as you head into higher levels, it becomes a quasi-spiritual challenge to use your trash arsenal wisely. Your plants must bloom in order for you to create a new seed. Each new seed pushes you a little closer to completing the level.
Right now the game is still chugging through early access, but what’s there is already a richly rewarding timesuck. There were occasional moments where I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong – not surprising given my lack of a real-life green thumb – but these were quickly overshadowed by my desire to see more glimpses of this abandoned world. (There’s also a handy “skip this level” button with the option to give feedback, which I didn’t end up using because I’m a relentless meathead.)
Finishing what was available, I found myself immersed in a sort of aesthetic meditation, with each finished platform evoking a deeply tangible sense of satisfaction. Depending on your speed, Cloud Gardens is a great contemplative puzzle with little pressure to stay stuck if you don’t want to be. I’d like to think that much of its charm is a reflection of the way we’re conditioned to respond to processes of growth, decay, and rehabilitation. Perhaps the secret ingredient to its appeal is buried in the psychogeography between environmental guilt and our relationship to abandoned spaces. Perhaps it’s our lizard-brain drive to help things grow and flourish in unlikely surroundings. Or perhaps, Cloud Gardens is simply a very good deconstructed variation of Katamari, albeit one that refuses to hold your hand.
[Reviewed on PC]