At first glance puzzle games are just that, interactive experiences with conundrums for the player to scratch their heads over, but actually a lot of puzzle games interweave narrative into their fabric, meaning that it's not just about solving one brain teaser after another, it's also about experiencing a journey at the same time. The narrative is the thread, and the puzzles unlock the doors to your progress, if you will.
This is exactly the case with The Voxel Agents' new game, The Gardens Between, as you progress through a set of levels that blend faraway island adventures with domestic familiarity, rewarding you with more nuggets of story each time you successfully complete a puzzle. The story in question isn't always clear since we're given no dialogue and only vignettes of the two characters, but that's the beauty of it - things aren't spelled out for us, but instead we're encouraged to just take in the childlike joy of fantasy and adventure.
Each 'level' of The Gardens Between takes place on an island with a path that the two characters follow to the top. It's far simpler in practice than it is to explain on paper, but essentially you use either of the analog sticks to make them walk back and forth - in turn reversing and progressing time respectively - and you use one button to interact with things. The goal is always to get the lamp you hold, fill it with light, then activate a shrine at the top of the island that lets you progress.
With us so far? Good, because here's where the complications come in. You're not just pressing forward until you win, but you do use this movement of time to solve puzzles. For instance, there's one section that requires you to enter a code on a telephone, but the only way you can do that is by rewinding and forwarding time as your characters jump across a set of keys on the floor. There's another example where you need to stop time as a droplet of water freezes between two wires, which in turn completes a circuit.
But wait! There's more, as while one character holds the aforementioned lamp, the other can use mechanisms in the world to shift it around, such as moving robots that can carry the lamp to different points, or reversing a particular chain of events like a giant Jenga tower toppling over. It's only by using them in conjunction that you can progress through The Gardens Between, and something so simple in essence eventually requires a bit of deeper thought.
The beauty comes from how creative The Voxel Agents gets with all the puzzles, as the examples we've highlighted demonstrate. This isn't just a case of seeing a door and finding a key, but about thinking how these moving parts in the world can be used in inventive ways to solve the conundrum at hand, which never becomes too frustrating as it requires you to simply observe and analyse a predetermined timeline that you're playing backward and forwards.
There are also plenty of other cogs in this machine that can work as a help or hindrance, like particular flowers that give light to your lamp and others that take it away, providing new elements to work with. None of this ever keeps you stuck for long, but it does keep you guessing and trying new and exciting approaches in each level.
Each of these levels is also constructed around elements drawn from the real world, like paddling pools and televisions, all of which is meant to be a representation of an episode in the life of these two friends. What's more is that when you complete a selection of levels, you get to see a short vignette about what they were doing using pieces from the levels, showing their adventures as BFFs, which is really sweet.