Ever since the advent of games like Flower and Flow, experiential gameplay has become more commonplace and is sometimes even the basis for entire games, mostly downloadable titles. The UnderGarden exemplifies this philosophy, while offering a few interesting puzzle designs and a beautiful soundtrack accented by the blossoming of colorful flora. In The UnderGarden, it’s not the where you’re going; it’s how you get there.
Marketed as a title "for gamers and non-gamers," everything about The UnderGarden could be described as "soft." I don’t mean soft in any negative sense; quite the opposite. The main character(s) looks like a pudgy, floating gnome that can don top hats and sparkles to whiz through caverns with illuminated plants and bubbles with no risk of injury or death. The only reason to avoid certain enemies is to get through tight spaces or maintain your "pollen count," which can be regenerated at fountains. Pollen sticks to the character and allows plants to grow throughout the level. Each stage can be beaten with only a few fruit-bearing plants pollinated, but a percentage of total plants blossomed drives completion objectives, along with special hidden flowers, gems, and musicians.
The musicians, essentially just small NPC versions of the main character, provide aural ambience and visual enhancement that epitomize the game’s "enjoy the journey" vibe. Aside from getting a check of completion for keeping musicians with you throughout levels (using a tethering system and some basic physics), I could not figure out what the musicians effectively did. It seems that their only purpose is to change the colors and shapes of certain glowing plants while playing soothing tunes on their tiny instruments. Get a whole group together and it’s a symphony of light and sound, kind of like Auditorium but less puzzling. The musicians are the graphic equalizer of The UnderGarden.
Puzzles are equally as lighthearted and rounded as the characters, keeping the game moving along from similar level to similar level. Say, for example, that there’s a cracked rock blocking your path, and a wind tunnel next to it, making the detonation of an adjacent bomb fruit impossible. You’ll have to float a little ways up and drop the bomb at just the right height so it flows through the wind tunnel to blow up the rock and provide access to a hidden item or chamber. It’s not complicated, and there are maybe five or six different fruit types that provide variations on this type of puzzle, but overall you’re going to need some patience or a distinct love for pleasant digital environments in order to feel compelled through the plethora of lengthy stages.
The UnderGarden has no real story, no discernable goal, and only the softest sense of challenge aside from its substantial length. It’s both a return to the compulsion of traditional point-driven gaming and an exercise in non-compulsory experiential gaming, and it delivers both styles in one of the most pleasant indie packages since Flower. Now only one question remains: "What lies above the UnderGarden?"