I’m standing over a pond, which is dimly lit by the soft glow of the moon above. Aside from the constant chittering of insects it’s practically silent – a beautiful night for fishing. My tutor, a muskox dressed in knitwear, towers over me while explaining how to catch fish by whistling to the watery depths at the tip of my worn out hiking boots. It paints a cosy, surreal picture that feels totally in tune with the hand-drawn storybook aesthetic of The Garden Path.
That little glimpse of serenity stems as much from the gameplay as it does the art style. In my time with The Garden Path’s short demo, I’m free to chase after dust flies, gush over the benefits of good tea with a macaque, and plant any seeds I stumble across to start building up my garden. All of these activities are introduced to me through characters like the bejumpered muskox, who set tasks like collecting wood or planting seeds, teaching me how to play the game while giving me the tools I need to be more independent.
Tranquil life simulation games are often appealing because they offer you agency over your itinerary. While other games demand improvements to your mechanical skill to overcome challenges and progress further, The Garden Path presents you with an overgrown garden to prune and nurture at your own pace.
Even when compared to other relaxing games like Stardew Valley, The Garden Path stands out for its soothing tone. Both games offer you the idyllic fantasy of escaping to somewhere peaceful and turning an unkept, forgotten plot of land into something that can thrive and foster new life. In Stardew Valley, though, you have to be aware of your limits. Try to do too much in a day and you’ll pass out from exhaustion, and if you plant a seed then you have to commit to watering it every day or it’ll wilt. There’s a lot you can do in Stardew Valley, but time constraints often mean you have to weigh up whether you should.
The Garden Path asks almost nothing of you, leaving you to fish long into the night without the need for sleep. Even if you don’t have the time to check in for several weeks, you’ll return to find that time has passed and that seed you left might have blossomed into a sunflower. This is a hands-off gardening game, designed to be played in small bursts over weeks and months.
I'm free to chase after dust flies and gush over the benefits of good tea with a macaque
Exploration is also a key part of The Garden Path, and from very early on you’re free to explore and follow crumbs of intrigue as they appear. Some of my early garden work attracts a sentient mandrake to the area, who tells me about an odd, human-like statue they saw on the way in. After tottling off in the vague direction the plant points me in, I stumble across a rock carving of the gardener that came before me. Finding the statue completes one of the game’s quests, letting me spend my captured dust flies on new plants and trinkets for my garden.
Explore a little, farm a little, explore some more – there’s a real comfort in doing what you want and letting a routine form naturally.
There’s plenty I’ve yet to see. While I’m free to plant seeds, fish, and wander, my time as a gardener has yet to start in earnest as the demo is all too brief – the full game promises different soils, mulches, cuttings, and flower pots for lax landscapers to use in their garden. In fact, developer Carrotcake says the full game will also include seasons, over 40 different residents, and more furniture and equipment to decorate your blossoming home and garden with. There are also plans for seasonal events, projects for residents to help with, and spirits that’ll occupy the garden.
A secret garden I can return to between busier moments in life is an appealing pitch, although it’s a little too early to tell if it achieves that just yet. Given the charm that leaps off the game’s handcrafted vistas, though, I certainly hope it does.
If you fancy supporting The Garden Path, you can back it on Kickstarter here.