Friday, June 8, 2012

Botanicula: this is our world

Ok, I'm cheating. I haven't even finished this game and I'm writing a review. I wasn't intending to write a review. I don't write game reviews. Sometimes I'll say a sentence or so to a friend.
But I have been rendered incapable of not writing a review of Botanicula.
Here there be spoilers--if you care about that. Short version: play this game. Long version: I'll explain why.

I didn't read any reviews, just watched the teaser and character sketches. I knew I'd enjoy it, because I enjoyed Samorost 2 and Machinarium (I've played Samorost 1 as well, but wasn't as impressed). Amanita makes games I like, and even when the game itself has been simple, I've enjoyed its style. The music in Machinarium led me to Floex, a pseudonym of Tomáš Dvořák, who wrote it. His latest album, Zorya, has a track on it called Mecholup which I have left on repeat for an hour before. Gone to sleep listening it, woken up, kept listening. There aren't many songs that can claim that distinction. But I digress.
The setting is fecund, teeming with crawling and flying creatures, tiny and huge, beautiful and ugly, ridiculous and ethereal, all with their own stories, songs, idiosyncracies. And the team of main characters is just that -- a team, not an individual hero. All of them have different strengths they can bring to each challenge they collectively face.
It is a story of community, a story of not being able to go it alone. It's a 180-degree turn from Machinarium, set in a often bleak junkyard city of fading grandeur sparsely peopled by robots, with a focus on machines and machine life, and a solo hero lead. Machinarium is a story which very much feels as it if were created by young men (and the goal of the game is to save the hero's girl), but Botanicula . . . I said to my husband "there's so much grossness and cuteness, the kinds of things that would appeal to little children, the kinds of lessons that would occur to you after having kids. Somebody had a kid."
The cards that you collect over the course of your experiences in the game remind you of who you've met . . . it's like drawings from a nature walk, a reminder of where you've been, even when you change maps. I can imagine a parent asking a child to retell the story, practice recalling events in order, but even as a adult paging through the cards as their inhabitants move and make characteristic noises, I find them charming. There are so many scuttlers and creepers and buzzers, pollinating, exuding spores, breaking out of their eggs, laying eggs, bursting into song. So many sweet little details -- like the way the team says "yoohoo!" leaping across a branch, or the victory music that plays when you accomplish the first few goals. So far the puzzles haven't been very difficult, but they seem to get harder as you go along.
The environment brings together the sky and the earth, both of which we visit. They're two different worlds, but the trees bind them together, earthily alive and yet celestial, capable of miracles . . . just like the creatures who live there. The strange glowing life of the trees is the life of the things that live on them, an immanence . . . Buzzing life cycles are inescapable: the unnatural horror we encounter again and again in the stories of bereaved creatures we meet (more and more damaged as the story goes on) is balanced by the calm, even silly presentation of creatures that eat one another, or that tear apart the tree's leaves being born. Their is a natural violence, different from intentional evil.
For beneath it all is a vein of menace. The threat of the strange spectral spiders, and the evidence of their passage.
The characters we meet are emotionally engaging. Many of them, especially as the game goes on, have -- presented in terms understandable to a child -- been through truly terrible things. Worse things as the game goes on. It is a landscape of war. I've read too many stories like this, set on the planet we all live on, not to understand what I am seeing. Although Amanita's designers have the skill to defeat even this knowingness . . . .
Thinking of that makes me start to cry, even though in the game it is just something I am dimly aware of and push to the side. Everything doesn't immediately make sense when you see it; the awareness grows on you. There's an emotional range here that I have never seen in a game, innocently cheerful characters frolicking along in a landscape stained with horror.
I think there was a point where the player helps a character whose partner has been killed commit suicide. Either that, or clicking just continues the storyline to take them offscreen. I don't know. I'm not sure. But the character . . . goes away. And is reunited with the one they miss, taken away with a lot of others of their species who I imagine also having been killed by the spiders, by a great big bee acting as a metaphorical Charon. As an adult, I can't help but see death there. Then and when other characters go offscreen in certain ways. I find myself thinking of the beetle-man whose head was torn off for sport.
I didn't understand it at the time, but now I do. It's very simple, very elegantly presented. So much is ambiguous, everything said without words, said with motion, music, sound, pictures. A child who cannot yet read could understand it. And the main characters seem like children, in their wishes, at one point, when they are talking to a djinn. I think of the four questions of the seder. The four children. (Although here, there are five).
At one point in the game, we see an astronaut land on the moon. A recording of Buzz Aldrin starts, talking about "one step for man", but he is interrupted. A tentacle draws him into a crater. We see that in a wishdream granted to one of the main characters. It is ridiculous, but it is also true, almost a gloss on theodicy, or a mirror for the other horrors of the game. And I know that this isn't a throwaway moment, not in the context of the other things I saw.
If anything carries on the spirit of Sendak, of Bradbury, of the writers and artists who shaped my childhood, among those two whose recent deaths have reminded me with force of everything I had forgotten, it is this game. A game that comes face to face with wonder, and with atrocity.
If anything proves games can be an artform, it is this game. No game has even gotten at me like this (mainly because I haven't played enough IF).
I recognize this world. It is so beautiful and so painful, so painful because it is so beautiful. So painful because it holds nothing back, but presents it so simply that at first one cannot understand, like a child, but grows to understand with time.
And it is silly and endearing and hopeful at the same time.
Play this game.
EDIT: July 6, 2012. So I hid this entry after posting it because I was embarrassed, but having finished the game, I'll stand by my assessment. Its deceptive simplicity, its silliness and seriousness, make Botanicula a classic. It's breadth, inventiveness, biomimeticism, and depth of emotion make it unique in my experience of games. Maybe I haven't been playing the right games.

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