Around here we are HUGE fans of Amanita Design and their wonderful games. I have written before about Samorost (which you can play for free at that link—and which Luc has played through a dozen times by now), Samorost 2 (a $5 download) and Machinarium, (free demo at the link), all games made by Czech game designer and artist, Jakub Dvorský, founder of Amanita. He looks like a very nice guy, don’t you think?
Certainly his games have a wonderful sense of humor, a quirky charm, and a whimsy that I find tremendously enjoyable. And so interesting to look at! So when I found out that Amanita had a new full length game out this April, I was super excited.
Botanicula, designed by Jaromír Plachý of Amanita, is a point and click adventure/puzzler with a cast of tiny adorable heroes who are trying to save their beautiful tree from creepy spider parasite things that are slowly killing it. A simple story that belies the depth of the engagement it drew from Luc, 6, and I as we played through it together.
Firstly, you can’t talk about Botanicula without talking about the art which is phenomenal. The first levels are gorgeous, luminous, full of humor and strange, friendly characters.
While the later levels become increasingly dark and eerie as the heroes descend into the depths of the tree,
and then to the destroyed parts of the tree that are dying or already dead,
and further still, into the heart of the problem. “This is pretty creepy, Mom,” said Luc at one point. “I’m worried.”
I was, too! Our intrepid heroes are so small, the threat they face so large!
Luc and I play together in this way: Luc sits on my lap driving the mouse, while I offer suggestions and occasionally get a turn. Luc is quite adept at playing with game environments—click this? Pull that? Put this on that, or inside this other thing, or talk to that guy, or swallow this…? I’m a little better at reading the map and keeping track of what we’ve done and where we’ve been. Botanicula requires no reading (nice for a six year old who isn’t much with the reading yet), and in fact uses no words at all, communicating entire complex puzzles and stories through visuals and lovely music, something I found added to the other-worldliness of the game. Reading is my other game-duty so in this case, I was off the hook and Luc and I were on an equal footing with figuring things out, which was fun.
Secondly, when talking about Botanicula, I think you have to talk about the places the characters move through. I’ve said the art is amazing, but this is another quality: so many inventive, funny, beautiful, scary, but primarily surprising screens! Over and over we would click on a new screen and give a little gasp when we saw where we were. It’s the art but its also the story in the art, if that makes sense. If you want to feel wonder, this is your game.
Third, I felt true concern for the tree-world and its parasitic predicament. The puzzles we did as we traveled were interesting and provided gratification and short-term direction, but the larger plot was what really had my attention. Sometimes, the puzzles were dead easy, involving only clicking everything on the screen. Which was fine for Luc. At other times they were quite challenging, even impossible to figure out without a little help. “Mom, we need a walkthrough,” Luc would say after fiddling with a given environment for a while with no apparently change. (We used this walkthrough at Jay is Games. Because sometimes you just need a little help. And sometimes you need a lot.) But always, I worried about the beautiful tree world filled with its hundreds of quirky characters that would be lost if we didn’t find a solution. Botanicula’s story, as simple as it is, matters.
Fittingly, given its subject matter, Botanicula is being used to help the World Land Trust save rainforest land. I didn’t know that until I started this blog post, but I did buy our copy through the Humble Bundle (which is now over). I like a company that puts its money where its heart is.
But listen, after playing the game for several hours the other day, we were outside and I notice a couple of small ants climbing a blade of grass…and I was struck with an empathic comprehension of their world—of being so incredibly tiny, in such a giant landscape—far beyond anything I have ever experienced for an ant before. I also projected a whole heroic anthropomorphic story on the little ants and thought that, even though they are small, they care about their world as much as I care about mine—and that it is the same world. Just at a different scale! They might even be on a quest at this very moment to save it! I was surprised by this little flight of fancy—my brain was still in the game and saw those tiny ants as the tiny game characters for a moment. But I felt it was undeniable that the story and art of the game had stretched me into thinking about a cross section of life I don’t usually consider. Which was cool.
So. If you like beautiful games with lush music, quirky humor, wonder-producing art, and a compelling story—especially if you don’t want to fight, be timed, memorize charts, read life-bars or power-ups, or read anything at all—this game is for you. It is an immersive, tutorial-free, exploration of a compelling and gorgeous landscape through the eyes of funny little people. Luc and I loved it. Highly recommended.