When I was 11, my parents took me to a theater to see a French documentary about insects called “Microcosmos.” The film showcased exciting time lapse and gorgeous close-up shots, footage of the beauties and grotesqueries of an alien world lurking in the well-manicured gardens of suburbia. It stuck in my mind for a long time afterward, setting itself apart as a different beast from your average nature program. Rather than assigning a narrator to contextualize the action, the miniature insect dramas of “Microcosmos” play out to an amazing soundtrack that wordlessly frames the action and amplifies the natural sounds of the insect world, leaving the viewer adrift to interpret as they wish. Garden slugs slam together and teeter like battling sumos to an operatic aria, and panic-crazed ants scurry to avoid the thunderous pecks of a hungry pheasant; seriously, check it out on Netflix. It’s amazing footage. It confirmed for many at the time something most kids and Henry David Thoreau naturally knew: bugs are interesting little critters who inhabit a bizarre kingdom.
Like “Microcosmos,” the world of Botanicula is at once familiar in surface setting, yet becomes strange and otherworldly in execution. Insects, plants, fungus, seed pods, birds, snails and many other miniature denizens of nature serve as the primary inspiration for the scenery and characters, yet each has an odd twist to it. The art style is vastly imaginative in variety yet so cohesive that each creature becomes part of a larger whole, filling a tiny strand in an improvised Darwinian tapestry. Unlike their sometimes stingy or bitey real-life analogues, each critter on display here exists for you to poke, prod, or otherwise play with. This may seem like an obvious statement (of course games are meant to be played with, right?), but this one captures such a curious, capricious spirit of discovery that I found myself clicking on something over and over again long after solving a puzzle simply to see what would pop out next.
“Puzzle” is perhaps too strong a term for what you’ll find in Botanicula. Much more accessible than previous games like Machinarium and the point-and-click adventures of yore, there are very few obstacles that can’t be surpassed by fiddling with them for a minute or two, giving something the right item, or simply clicking everything on the screen and watching what happens. Citing a lack of challenge would certainly be a valid criticism in most cases, but players going into this game looking for one might be missing the point. Think of it as less of a game and more of an interactive art exhibit, a room full of toys that want to be played with so badly they won’t make you work too hard to find and enjoy them all. In a world where companies will always eagerly license every popular children’s property to churn into awful games, Botanicula shines bright as an enjoyable experience truly suitable for any age or skill level.
There are a very specific set of skills necessary to create appealing characters without using words or traditional narrative. I don’t know exactly what these skills are, but to quote former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” Of course, he was talking about hard-core pornography, but the sentiment is the same. It takes a strong command of visual language to successfully pull off something that communicates mostly in abstractions. It’s what put Pixar on the map, and Amanita Design deserves the same accolades.
On starting the game, you’ll be introduced to five protagonists who would otherwise look at home scattered on the forest floor: mushroom, nut, twig, feather and lantern… thing. A short introduction sets the journey in motion: a strange corrupting force is disrupting the status quo of their botanic landscape and they set out to correct it. Certain points in the game will require you to select one for a task at hand and watch what happens, with the results ranging from cute to delightful. Generally there is only one character who can solve each obstacle, but watching each member of your little entourage’s failed attempts is half the fun. It’s such a satisfying, highly visual and tactile simplification of the “band of adventurers each with a unique skill necessary to attain the goal” theme that by the end of your quest you can’t help but feel attached to all their tiny victories and defeats throughout the game.
The sound design goes a long way toward making a memorable experience as well. The enchanting soundtrack, provided by Czech musicians DVA, combines the evocative dreaminess of Brian Eno’s “Another Green World” with the ethereal beauty of Sigur Ros. Instruments fade in and out as you come in contact with different characters, making the visual and audio elements of the game mesh together so well they become difficult to divorce. Although there are no lyrics, the soundtrack is not devoid of a human voice. Most of the sound effects in the game are produced using only a mouth and microphone, including a fair share of weird chanting, melodic buzzing, pops, mumbles, taps and squishy noises that give even more character to the bizarre menagerie. The end result is charming, a three hour trip to a strange and memorable otherworld that always has something interesting to share with you.
Botanicula is a game I’m entirely unsure how to pronounce. It’s the newest member of the tricky, elusive class of words we see written before hearing properly pronounced – “epilogue”, “taupe”, “Phoebe” – and silently hope we won’t make an ass of ourselves as they leave our lips for the first time. Perhaps that’s the same way I feel about attempting to neatly sum it up: it displays such a raw, unbound spirit of creativity and independence that I’m afraid to describe too much and condense it as something fully effable. If traditional video games are sentences on a page forming a narrative, Botanicula is the swirling maelstrom of potential nouns, verbs, and linkages that fires through an orator’s neurons as they tell a passionate story for the first time.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a massively imaginative point-and-click game with an incredibly unique art style and a perfect complimentary soundtrack. One of the greatest joys of indie games comes from the fact that they often have small teams who labor completely from passion. Instead of trying to appeal to as many 16- to 35-year-olds and shareholders as possible or figure out what advertising strategy will get the most “Likes” on Facebook, they snatch the freedom to create exactly what they want and dictate how it will be created. When games like Botanicula have such a strong unified vision, it’s hard not to romanticize the industry this way. Regardless, Amanita Design has certainly earned a few of your measly bucks as entry fare to their garden of unearthly delights.
Release Date: April 19, 2012