This is an essay I wrote last semester for a Game Criticism course.
Erik Svedäng likes to draw. He also likes to go for walks in the countryside, listens to Sagor & Swing and makes games. The synthesis of all this is his game Blueberry Garden, a wonderful magical journey of exploration and discovery.
As a player, we assume the role of a beaked protagonist as he explores this strange world, an avian Alice in a digital wonderland that is like a trippy doodle brought to life. Like Alice, we wander around the garden chancing upon fruit-laden trees, strange elf-like creatures and giant random objects. There are no rules, no instructions, and we try out things just to see what happens. At some point we discover that we can fly, and it is a sublime experience.
The game is like a dream that is familiar yet strange, and we are constantly trying to make sense of it all. The dreamlike quality is even more enhanced by the unreality of the drawn landscape and the quirky characters, the white fluffy clouds and the evocative music, which mainly plays when we are gliding through the sky and lulls us away from any sense of impending doom. Despite the fact that we don’t know the beaked character, his name or his motivations, as players we identify instantly with his deadpan expression and his endearing gait.
At a conceptual level Blueberry Garden is an attempt to create an ecosystem. There are berries growing on trees and the inhabitants of the garden eat them. From the seeds more trees grow. Birds fly around, the elf-like creatures and the moose scurry here and there deliriously. The world of Blueberry Garden is quite abstract; we never truly get an overview of the space or where we are in this world. Like real life, it is only the space around us that is visible at any time. We begin at the ‘home’ a disembodied door in the middle of the garden, and over time we understand that it is really a sort of elevator taking us to higher levels. Home is also accessible at all times and a place where we accumulate all the collected objects.
It is a world that can clearly exist without the protagonist; we are almost incidental. Even when our actions affect some events, most things continue as before – response, if at all, is negligible. Sometimes we are even hindered, like the elf-creatures and the birds that eat up the blueberries before us, or a random bird that bumps into us in the sky. Early on we stumble upon the goal of the quest, and each time the discovery of an object is like a glorious epiphany. Unlike a quest, however, we hardly feel any sense of urgency throughout the game. Despite the impending doom, the lilting music and the lazy, meandering pace makes the game more of a holiday exploration than a race against time. Blueberry Garden uses the game elements quite cleverly and successfully to break the standard rules of game design and create an effect that is almost cinematic.
The game essentially tells a metaphorical story about traveling through life and thinking independently. Although as the player we need to assume the role of a nameless odd character to embark on the quest, the experience of becoming such a character goes beyond simple role-play and feels completely in character with the world we’re about to engage in. This beaked character is faintly reminiscent of Buster Keaton with his deadpan expression, and the game, if visualized in monochrome, could be a silent film from the early days of cinema.
The offbeat visual style, the music and the pacing of the game all contribute significantly to creating a lyrical cinematic experience of travelling through this intricately drawn world where anything can happen. There is no sense of urgency here, no race against time, no clock ticking – the game meanders with the measured pace of a film. It implies somehow that the journey is more important than the achievement; and the experience of the quest is therefore larger than the goal itself.
Like cinema, we as the player/audience are allowed ample room for thought, and to interpret the game in our own way. In a film, it is the protagonist who evolves as the film progresses; here it is the player who may grow through the process of playing the game and recapture some lost innocence.
Erik Svedäng has used his design sensibilities cleverly to create a game that is unconventional in its philosophy as well as in it’s making, standing out from others in its genre in what it asks from its players. Blueberry Garden can be truly enjoyed when approached with a curious soul and a ‘suspension of disbelief’. In this magical place, the player is required to be able to deal with a lot of ambiguity, almost like real life. There is no zooming out here, no way of seeing what the garden in its entirety looks like. Even when the game is over, we never find all the answers; there is no ‘one’ truth that we can achieve.