I’m going to talk about a puzzle game today but, no, SHOCKER, this isn’t an episode of The Ouroboros Sequence. I want to talk about a specific design choice for recent release Evergarden (Flippfly, 2018) and muse on whether it’s inspired, bullshit or mostly harmless.
As you might know if you’ve watched my recent E/TX stream, Evergarden is a discoverable systems game which means I’m going to have to spoil some of it. Press on if you’re an Evergarden fan or you don’t mind the smell of fresh spoilers in the morning.
How It Works
Okay, so Evergarden is a game of two halves.
The gardening puzzle is the half the player sees first and was the seed from which the rest of the game unfolded. You can see its origins in a 2012 Ludum Dare game dubbed Hexarden and Flippfly began turning this game into a commercial release a couple of years later. It has taken six years to travel from jam conception to Steam storefront.
Evergarden explains the basics but no more. Flowers pepper a small board of hexes and the player can use a flower to seed an empty adjacent hex or combine it with an identical flower. When combined, they become a “bigger” flower. Seeds grow when the player instructs Evergarden to pass time.
Well, that’s all good, right, but it doesn’t tell you why you’re doing this. Making more flowers and bigger flowers will lead to higher scores. When all turns are exhausted, the cute origami deer beside the board is the happy recipient of beams of light from the flowers but nothing else happens. The board and score is reset. Have at it again, player.
However, with each combination, the number of petals of the resulting flower increases. If the player manages to combine two six-petal flowers, they become a stone tower. This is progress: each tower spits out a triangular tile at the end of the level and these tiles are effectively keys to unlock new areas of Evergarden.
By this point, Evergarden has attempted to impress upon the player that “triangles are important” yet this particular player failed to notice the empty triangle slot below the garden puzzle. Filling the slot unlocks the next stage of your adventure.
Okay, let’s take a closer look at where I am now, psychologically. Consider my expectations.
I had worked through the gardening puzzle several times, banging my head against a hex wall. Now I’d unlocked the next part of the game. I could explore different areas in a forest of hexes! Each area had a baby puzzle in it like solving a Tangram puzzle where you have arrange triangle tiles into a particular shape. There are also some hidden objects to locate, like a tile resting on a riverbed. But this exhilaration and feeling of momentum reaches a dead-end. Tiles are used to unlock new areas; I always needed more tiles. That meant more gardening.
My perception was that my liberty had been stolen and I was being “forced” back to the garden puzzle to “grind out” more tiles for the “real game”. The further you progress, the more tiles are required. Initially, you’ll need six to unlock a new area. Then it’s eight. Then it’s ten. If you’re only getting a handful of tiles from each run at the garden, then you are going to be busy with those flowers…
The garden puzzle’s closest relation I can think of is Threes (Sirvo, 2014) where players must merge tiles to double their value. To keep matching pairs on a small 4×4 grid requires careful management; to stay in for the long haul, to make it to the 768, 1536 tiles and beyond, requires prolonged effort. Pondering over every single move can be exhausting. Six Match (Aaron Steed, 2017) is similarly exhausting because games can stretch over hours… over multiple sessions… and one mistake can lose you one of those valuable lives.
Evergarden’s garden puzzle is a mental workout like Threes and Six Match which means I felt especially aggrieved being cajoled to do it again and again when the forest was where I wanted to go. My interest in Evergarden withered. The End.
Perhaps I can scapegoat this on the trailer which looked like lots of cool stuff was happening out there in the hexaforest. But Evergarden is not about the forest, it is about the garden. It was always about the garden, about that Ludum Dare jam game from 2012.
I had misunderstood.
Everything points back towards the garden. Obviously, you need triangular tiles to unlock new areas but powerups for the garden puzzle litter the forest. Without these powerups, it is difficult to achieve truly high scores. You’re not unlocking the forest, so to speak, but upgrades. And the forest expects you to do better in the garden with these new toys.
On the weekend, I went back to Evergarden and knew I needed to grind out some more tiles. With a careful selection of powerups, I kept the garden going for over 40 minutes and earned a pretty great high score and a couple of second level towers.
I took my tiles and unlocked a couple of new forest areas. I had no intention of spending another 40 minutes in the garden after that and, as I went to close the game, everything fell into place.
The forest is not just about powerups or even a difficulty curve (increasing tile requirements for progress) but it also acts as a reward mechanism, like a cutscene between levels; the forest, at least so far, has not featured any particularly difficult puzzles to solve. Slot this into place here, click on that there, it’s all secret box stuff rather than puzzle-solving.
Previously I’d explained Evergarden as part-puzzle and part-point-and-click adventure, but I don’t think that’s appropriate any more as the expectations it sets up are misplaced. Who ever heard of a point-and-click adventure where you have to solve puzzles to make progress? Uh, okay, ha ha, I know that sounds dumb. What I mean is a point-and-click adventure where you have to solve the same puzzle again and again to make progress.
However, I can happily report I’m enjoying Evergarden again now that I see the garden as the core experience. I haven’t seen anyone else have a problem with the “framing” like this so it might be specific to me. When forced to choose between my two loves of exploring and puzzle-solving, it seems exploring is the more seductive…