You are tending a garden. You plant seeds. You water them. You watch as cactus bombs and bamboo spears sprout out of the earth. They start as simple curls, but spread out reaching the sky. That is, before the men come and cut them. The day after, the factory bellows. You plant again, water, and wait.
This is A Good Gardener, a farming game by Ian Endsley and Carter Lodwick (with music by Scott Archer, and some help from Dan Anthony Kelly). Nearly everyday in this game plays out the same, but slowly the real violence of what you are doing slips out. You aren’t growing food or material for clothes, but weapons. An army officer comes by and expresses how pleased he is with your work. You receive a medal. The war goes on.
The game’s vibe is gentle. Your bombed out shack has blue walls and rich brown soil, surrounded by deep green trees and a straight blue sky. An upbeat tune plays as you water your plants. A Good Gardener indulges one of video gaming’s most powerful joys: watching things grow and change. The plants start small, but after a few in-game days (a mere 5-8 minutes) they bloom into surprising vibrancy. It is a pleasant little thing.
But just as you settle into the dream of your little farm, the war interrupts. Your officer appears, shares a few pleasantries, and vanishes with the harvest. The music halts the next day as the factory churns. The smoke of industry rises above the walls of your shack. It’s an upsetting shift. It turns a simple joy into violence. It shows how war pervades every moment of life, transforming honest work into part of its relentless effort.
It is disturbing too, how it takes a genre known for peace and makes it about destruction. A gardening game was something I thought might distract me from the ugliness of many games’s callous violence, but no. Instead I had its ugliness placed before me, to be meditated over as I watered its plants. It’s a perversion of Candide’s mandate to “Let Our Garden Grow.” Rather than an honest counter to and escape from the chaos of the world, that chaos is growing in your own home.
Flickers of humanity come from your relationship with your commanding officer. Every time he visits, he opens up a little more. He shares statistics about the war, invites a solider to present one of the weapons you have made, and begins to unveil exactly who you might bel. You cannot say anything back to him. He says, “I hope I can find a way for you to talk with me. But for now, it’s good enough that you listen.” It is a friendship, but the game never lets you forget that you are his prisoner, even as he comes over without his uniform and entrusts in you his anxieties. Even simple conversation, connection, is tainted.
This is the first time for me that a game has echoed the mundane sharpness and the metaphorical weight of a Kafka story. This speaks to my limited experience of alternative and no-budgets games, but also to A Good Gardener’s unique influences and power. Granted, it’s not as mysterious and layered as a story like “In the Penal Colony.” But it has many of the same strengths, an ability to turn the normal strange, to unveil the monstrousness of what we take for granted, and to show the way human relationships turn and strain at the systems that contain them.
Eventually, violence does come home. You will see fire and blood before the end. Those final moments feel powerful though, because of all the mundane terror that lead up to it. Violence never comes out of nowhere, we must water it and grow it for the harvest to come. A Good Gardner forces us to consider what atrocities we take for granted, what we are growing in our gardens.