A game that can be completed in a single sitting is an opportunity to experience an idea from start to finish without external factors getting in the way. It could be a boss rush that's just a gauntlet of the meanest brutes around, or it could be a touching tale that makes the most of its brief runtime by getting to the heart of the matter. A short-format game risks wrapping up before its time has come, but paced properly, it can be the perfect fit when the right idea comes along. In the case of The Gardens Between, the heartfelt interactions that play out on-screen between two friends on a sentimental adventure make the game the definition of short but sweet.
It begins one dark and stormy night, when as if by magic the two friends are pulled into a strange world while hiding from the rain in their cozy treehouse. They materialize on a planet dominated by water, and the islands they sail between using their treehouse-turned-boat are manifestations of their memories, recreated with real-world objects. Supersized couches and knick-knacks function as structures and obstacles in the imaginary dimension, and sometimes as mechanisms used to solve puzzles. Your goal on each island is to reach the end of a path and deliver an orb of light–a process that solidifies the friends' memories as constellations in the night sky.
Though you can influence each character's actions, you don't directly control their movement. Rather than move them to and fro, you can shift time forward and backwards, and the two characters will walk along a path in kind. They each possess a distinct ability–one can carry a lamp to transport orbs of light, and the other can activate switches that reconfigure puzzle-related elements in the environment.
The environmental puzzles run the gamut from simple cause-and-effect scenarios to unorthodox headscratchers that require the use of dreamlogic. In practically every case the necessary hints are right before your eyes; shifting time to and fro and paying close attention to the way things change is often all you need to deduce a solution. The trick is usually the manipulation of objects that are free from time's grasp in conjunction with finding the right moment in time to let them loose.
Without these puzzles The Gardens Between would struggle to last an hour, yet despite being modestly challenging and inventive, they somehow feel unimportant in the grand scheme. There is no context for their existence as obstacles other than being opportunities for two friends to cooperate, but the tiny doses of narrative at the end of each island reflect the objects in the scene rather than the efforts used to pass through it. Puzzles are the "gameplay" that allows you to play a part in the two characters' journey and in a way make the realization of each memory feel earned, but they fall by the wayside when the spotlight is focused on the two teens.
Though the world they venture through is full of creative touches and small magical moments, the two characters own every moment. From the way they subtly peep at one another while crossing paths, to the adorable gestures they use to point out helpful objects in the distance, their body language clues you in to their special bond. They say so much without ever uttering a word. Their cute and quirky selves are infectiously adorable, and before you know it, you've tumbled head over heels into their world and ultimately the formation of a new, unforgettable memory by the end of their journey.
It may only take two to three hours to see everything The Gardens Between has to offer, but the warm and fuzzy feelings from start to finish ensure that your memories of playing it will live on. The expressive faces of the two teens and the relatable memories they share will speak to anyone who's ever had a close childhood friend, and while the puzzles won't go down as the most ingenious or demanding, they nevertheless give you more time to spend frolicking in a nostalgic and heartwarming world where friendship is all that matters.