Diorama. A word ever so close to “diarrhoea” and yet the two seem at odds with each other. One, literal shit. The other, an educational or resourceful exhibit, displaying something in a raw state. You could make a diorama of diarrhoea, thinking about it, and while that would perhaps also illustrate the concept of decay – of both food matter and human spirit – Cloud Gardens uses neglected objects and machinery combined with nature to do an even better, less grotesque job of it.
There’s certainly a more pinpoint genre for these types of games nowadays; “simulator” doesn’t quite cut it. I’m not expressive enough to come up with one, but to paint a picture, look at last year’s indie hit Unpacking for a vivid image of what I’m referring to. It goes beyond the mundane chore emulation of games like PC Building Simulator or House Flipper. It’s arguably more profound, sedate and placating all the same, but in less of a way in which mundanity drives satisfaction; the very act of doing this thing is abundantly satisfying. Packing away pants and cutlery in neatly organised regiments was the joy in Unpacking, and here it’s less controlled or precise. Watching the somewhat random process of nature unfolding is the dopamine hit.
First, we’re armed with seeds, balls of rapid, verdant growth. We toss one at the floor or at the ceiling or on top of a car, and it starts to sprout. Secondly, we throw some shit at it: chairs, garden gnomes, tires, bottles, satellites. Lastly, we repeat it all. It’s barebones, and not in a bad way. It’s a simulation of nature in the same way Townscaper is a simulation of city infrastructure. It’s rudimentary, lacking depth, and somehow remains interesting. It’s a testament to everything which isn’t the gameplay itself. Opting for a style often found nowadays in trashy PS1-style indie horrors, Cloud Gardens evokes a sense of nostalgia, partly through that manifest lens of old technology, but also through how indistinct objects are; easily identifiable, sure, but reduced to the bare minimum polygons, creating an effect akin to the vaseline smeared recollection of dreams.
Over the course of the game, you acquire new seeds and objects, the former play a major role throughout the “main” game, if you can call it that. Some cling to walls and other vertically-inclined objects and sprawl up and across them with tendrils and vines, while others remain planted to solid ground and sprout upwards into blooming, verdant displays of cacti or exotic buds. Levels are completed almost without thought, and any semblance of challenge has been omitted in search of something which prods and pokes at the right side of your brain.
In that sense, as a video game, it didn’t do much for me. With no narrative nor goal to speak of, I find staying motivated with anything a challenge; my expressive self is seldom explored. That said, I’m glad most people aren’t like me, because Cloud Gardens is of a quality which matches anything in this niche, combining breezy, seamless gameplay with soothing and dynamic audio. The visuals do evoke those dreamy sensations, combined with everything else causes Cloud Gardens to excel as both a creative art toy and a meditative play thing.
I stopped playing around world four, which I must assert is a testament to the games quality. You notice very early on that it’s a game which doesn’t ask anything of the player. It’s content in being the symbolically neglected counterpart to other games in the niche like Townscaper, and in the same way it’s a calming, inoffensive experience which I don’t regret spending an hour or so with. My lonely inner architect may weep as Cloud Gardens exits my memory as time passes, but it’s a game which will live on through the joy and satisfaction of many much more expressive people out there.
You often hear “Good UI is invisible”, and I think controls are the same. As is always the case with Twitter, petty drama recently transpired pertaining to Elden Ring’s UI, with developers of unrelated studios bemoaning the game’s supposedly bad UI, presumably because, as the meme goes, there weren’t a million Ubisoft indicators telling you what to do next. Elden Ring’s UI was never an issue for me, and thus the lashing it was getting from some came out of left field. It was a prime example of the invisible architecture surrounding us.
But take Torrent for example, our trusty steed in the Lands Between: Engaging with platforming while riding Torrent made me wonder whether FromSoftware have ever seen a horse, and took me straight back to the excruciating jumping puzzles of Dark Souls. It was obvious how bad it was, and I’m sure most of that is down to how superb the rest of the game controls. Little Nightmares had me thinking about every game I’ve played recently, and made me so relieved that the unseen and underappreciated design of good controls is so prominent and pervasive, because despite everything Little Nightmares does well, any enjoyment was completely and utterly dashed by a truly painful experience, one where I spent more time battling with a heinous control scheme, which on paper should have been the least problematic aspect to a rudimentary platformer like this of all time.
It’s a puzzle platformer, the same ilk as Playdead’s acclaimed Limbo and Inside. I haven’t played Inside, but I’ve played the former, and while I’m a touch ambivalent on it as a whole, it’s a game you have to respect for its industry impact alone. Without it, would Inside exist? Would Little Nightmares exist? Would I exist? In Little Nightmares, we play as one of the only sources of colour, a small yellow child with a tiny lighter. We skip, hop and jump merrily through what becomes increasingly obvious as the bowels of a hefty ship, crawling under tables, sliding through vents and leaping across countertops, escaping the grasps of ghastly humanoids, plump, grotesque people with a hankering for child meat apparently. It retains a large element of mystery behind what’s going on, but the evil at play is pungent, making our escape all the more enticing.
I make the comparison to Inside, although from my understanding, that game’s environment exists on a 2.5D plane, but gameplay wise only allows for strict horizontal, flat movement. Little Nightmares does both, less than gracefully letting you leap, jump and fall from platforms on all axis. It’s best to picture the game as a play, the camera stoically positioned in the stands while our protagonist runs across the entire stage. It moves occasionally, and in one scene in particular zooms right out in a stunning display rivalling any cinematic shot I’ve seen in recent memory, but mostly stays still while we struggle to gauge depth. It wouldn’t be terrible if Little Nightmares didn’t demand much from the player – and on paper it doesn’t, but that’s a testament to how badly it fucks up. To say it’s sluggish would be offensive to molluscs. I genuinely thought at one point I was playing through cloud gaming, with every movement, jump, shimmy and slide feeling significantly delayed. It’s clearly a common criticism; even those that love the game concede this flaw, yet what those people adore about the game, I merely tolerate in the face of a profoundly unenjoyable game experience. Depth is the crucial element to Little Nightmares’ failings, and contrasted to Limbo, a game which opted for a safe, slightly dull 2D platformer, Little Nightmares comes out worse by virtue of opting for a more complex environment. Depth was never an issue with Limbo for that reason, and with Little Nightmares, it’s not as simple as berating the games jumping sections, because the lack of depth perception affects everything, from sliding through a narrow cut in the wall to walking sedately on a pipe, you’re always susceptible to its shortcomings.
I do feel a sense of remorse for piling on the game so severely in a single paragraph, but it’s an honest, guttural response to the infuriation felt playing it, and the only reason for that guilt is that Little Nightmares has plenty of redeeming qualities. It’s a game which creates a dour atmosphere from the off. The ship is palpably muggy and hostile; our several encounters with the chef enemies illustrate a complete lack of humanity, ready, willing and eager to make us a part of their next meal. The kitchen level in general is a sickening location with meat strewn across every room and our chef antagonists treating it with the same respect as we do in the real world (meat is murder, folks). While it’s never really needed, you can flick open our protagonists lighter to brighten up a room, and despite its diminutive size, it produces a fair amount of light, not so much out of amazing power, just in contrast to the complete lack of it anywhere else. And while it’s hard to appreciate with it making the game a chore to play, camerawork plays an important role in showing scale, and oftentimes to the effect of inducing dread; the aforementioned stunner of a zoom shot puts into perspective how powerless and tiny we are in comparison to everything around us.
One thing I know I should talk about is the soundtrack, which manages to bring about intensity in all the right places, chase sequences in particular ramp up from the mellow ambient noises to create a disparate and chilling impression. The thing is, do you ever get into a mindset where you can only focus on one thing, so much so everything else, as obvious as it is, just slips your cognition? That’s pretty much Little Nightmares, a game which maddened me so much that sensible critique is void. I wouldn’t recommend it, in spite of my anger-tinged judgement and clear ability to recognise its strengths. It simply wasn’t enjoyable – no, it was exactly the opposite: a frustrating, irritating, unenjoyable video game, emphasis on the “game”.