Dear budding game designers: Want to sell me a game? Here's a simple recipe guaranteed to trigger my grab-wallet impulse. Forget about character, story, action, or intrigue. Who needs 'em? Guns, stealth, and EXP - leave 'em on the white board. All I need is a dead grey world and the power to bring it back to colorful life. Technicolor Lazarus. Dorothy opening the door to Oz. The Red Balloon. Hooks me every time.
I will happily wear many hats. Lazarus the Painter (De Blob, Katamari Forever); Lazarus the Botanist (Flower, Okami); Lazarus the SuperFund Cleanup Manager (Prince of Persia, Epic Mickey) - variations on a regenerative theme. Show me something dead and let me revive it. I'll gleefully restore every flower and tree. Mix in some chill music, light platforming, environments worth exploring, and a dash of puzzle-solving, and I'm in the palm of your hand.
My latest Technicolor Lazarus infatuation is The UnderGarden, an enchanting and beautifully constructed puzzle-platformer set in a mysterious subterranean world. The player steers a chubby floating pixie through each level, pollinating the flora and trees, gathering fruit, and unlocking hidden areas. Tiny musicians appear throughout each area, collaborating on an ambient soundtrack the player can assemble by collecting them together and towing them through the world. It makes no sense, really. Which is good.
If you're looking for brand new ideas here, you won't find them; but it doesn't matter. The UnderGarden's captivating atmosphere and deeply satisfying explore-and-discover gameplay won't leave you pining for innovation. The UnderGarden is a pleasure to play because its game world is such a wonderful place to be. Is that enough to recommend a game? Of course it is.
Happily, The UnderGarden's charms are more than atmospheric. Reviewers have typically described it as a "zen-game," and I won't quibble with that description. It offers an undeniably peaceful experience with no clock and no way for the player to die. But The UnderGarden is still very much a game, full of environmental obstacles and a variety of mechanically useful tools to solve them. It won't break your brain, but you'll need more than your autopilot-mind to progress.
The UnderGarden hasn't fared well on Metacritic. Most reviews complained the game "lacks substance." I would say that depends on what we consider substantive. Is simply being in a world that feels good to inhabit substance enough? Just how much game does a game need? Who's to say, when I'm floating aimlessly about, that I'm not playing to the fullest extent of my ludic sensibilities?
What's special about The UnderGarden is its fusion of atmospheric music and lush visuals with fluid, tactile movement that just feels right. Simple. Lovely. Like water flowing over rocks. Just being there. You can play to progress...or you can simply play to be, with no other thought in mind.
Mr. Braddock: Ben, what are you doing?
Benjamin: Well, I would say that I'm just drifting. Here in the pool.
Mr. Braddock: Why?
Benjamin: Well, it's very comfortable just to drift here.
The UnderGarden is available for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. I recommend giving it a try. Even better, play with a friend. Co-op UnderGarden is dual-dharma delicious.