Cloud Gardens is a diorama game with surprising star power
Cloud Gardens seeks to start a dialogue between game and player about nature and the built environment. It's a conversation I don't really want to butt in on here, because I've played the game and had the privilege of thinking my own way through it, and I shouldn't rob anyone of that. But there's something else here that I love, so I will gush briefly and incoherently instead.
This is one of those diorama games. You start each level with a floating chunk of real estate - a tumbledown road or the skeletal rig for urban signage. Then you apply little nubbins of plants to the diorama and watch them grow. The aim is to reach a certain level of coverage, and you can encourage plants to grow further by chucking in extra items that you're given - street signs, a stack of tyres, a shopping trolley perhaps, or a couple of empty bottles.
I was enjoying this for a few levels and having one of those dreamy, ruminative days that a diorama game can hand you. But then I unlocked a new kind of plant to grow - my third or maybe fourth. And everything changed.
Monstera. The Swiss cheese plant. The 'seventies plant. The 'Sorry, the Vice President is out shopping for water beds right now can I put you on hold' plant. This is not just the office plant par excellence. (Using phrases like 'par excellence' is the sort of Abigail's Party stuff that goes down whenever Monsteras are invoked; do you like Demis Roussos?) Oh no. It's the office plant from the days in which everyone in the office smoked. There is something about toxic clouds of grit drifting through the gappy leaves of a good Monstera that reminds me that I was born in the late 'seventies and lived my formative years to the sound of (Don't Fear) The Reaper coming from the 8-track of my mum's Mazda.
I digress. Monsteras are those plants with the wide leaves with holes in them. They're beauties - right from the tropical forests where those holes, I have been told, allow light to travel into the depths and the lower branches. These plants need a good moss pole if you're going to try them in your house, and you should because, so long as you get a nice bit of (indirect?) sunlight, they will do you proud.
Give me a Monstera and I'm anybody's. It helps that the Monsteras in Cloud Gardens have all the worldly charisma of the real-world Monstera. I plant a seed in the wrong place and nothing happens. Pick my spot a bit better, though, and the shoots erupt with those magical canopies spreading outwards. One of the joys of a real Monstera is that the leaves arrive rolled up, like treasure maps or messages passed at the opera, and then gently unfurl as the new leaf moves between different styles of plastic before hitting the heavy wax-paper loveliness of the mature Monstera foliage. In Cloud Gardens they just sort of appear - at least I think they do. But that's why you have early access right?
It's not just the Monstera that keeps me playing. It's fascinating to see Cloud Gardens battle itself over how much of a game it wants to be. In a recent Edge preview, the developer Thomas van den Berg admitted that when he saw Townscaper he thought "Oh my god, I didn't know you could get away with that." Pure play and no objective. I am a diorama-y sort of person so at first I found Cloud Gardens' focus on win conditions was rather hemming me in.
But then I realised that, actually, this is plants. They grow or they don't, and if they don't, you've probably killed them so maybe you should have the stinging punishment of a restart to make you think about that. Monsteras may be able to take the worst that I can throw at them, but woe betide any fool who buys a Fiddle-Leaf Fig, perhaps having taken a liking to their papercraft shapes, glimpsed in Selling Sunset, say, when the stagers have played their tunes in some awful cavernous white box in the Bird Streets. We have a Fiddle-Leaf Fig at home, and it's a tyrant. I swear if I look at it the wrong way it coughs up a leaf or two and turns yellow.
Fiddle-Leaf Fig as a hard mode? That would work. I love that this is where games are right now. And I love my Monsteras, real and virtual.