Gamers can fall out of love with gaming. It happens all the time, people get older and lose the time or interest to devout to the past-time that seems sacred to many. That’s where the creators of the exploration and adventure game Shu’s Garden come in, hoping to reach out to those who have lost their love of games.
In Shu’s Garden players control a joyful space-cactus as she bounces and jumps from planet to planet helping plant life grow and meeting new animal friends. The game has no inherent goals except to spark the imagination of players, and allow them to relax and explore a vibrant, happy universe. Despite the light-hearted nature of the game, creators Colin Sanders and Jason RT Bond have some very serious reasons for designing such an experience. We sat down with both of them to learn the truth and purpose behind Shu’s Garden.
Jesse Tannous: What inspired and drove you to create a peaceful game that doesn’t really challenge players in ways that traditional video games generally strive for?
Jason RT Bond: We have a lot of that other thing, right? I’m okay with challenge-based games too, but as I’ve gotten older I find that I also want some virtual worlds that I can just visit and play in and reflect without the stress of “gameness” in the ludological sense. I like going for a short nature walk in Proteus or Dear Esther or a scenic drive in Euro Truck Sim 2. Shu is kinda like that, but more bouncy.
JT: How would you describe the point or purpose of Shu’s Garden?
Colin Sanders: To me Shu’s Garden is about creating your own purpose. There’s nothing in the game that says, “this is what you must do to be successful” so it’s up to the player to reconcile that by creating their own meanings. I think it’s important to approach the game as you would a toy. Players must create their own goals based purely in their imagination. For example, one player thought it was important that the turtle and the giraffe should meet so they spent a bunch of time trying to achieve that goal. Another thought they would try to jump around the largest planet without ever touching the ground. They spent a while planting and growing trees in just the right places so they could bounce from one tree canopy to the next. Once you achieve one goal there may be another thing in the game that catches your eye and motivates you to try something new. That kind of imagination guided play, to me, really gets to the core of what Shu’s Garden is about.
Jason RT Bond: Early on we included a little game of tag you could play with your blue friend, Ira. You just picked up this red badge/ribbon thing and tried to stick it onto the other character. At the time, the tag game was just one of several little activities to do in the world. But people seemed to project new intents on it, thinking it was a game of keep-away or that Shu’s mission must be to carry this star to new worlds. So in the enhanced version, which has a lot more characters and planet-hopping, we switched it up: other characters simply follow the ribbon whenever it’s being carried now. And for the player, that might mean trying to win a game of keep-away, or using it to lure other characters to new planets, or just tossing it into the midst of characters and then sitting back and observing their behavior like you are making a nature documentary. So instead of just a little game-within-a-game you might get bored of, we now have this tool the player can use for whatever purpose they imagine.
I hope that a lot of the game is like that. The plants are complex systems unto themselves, with internal rules on how each species grows and the possibility of combining different ones to make hybrids. But they aren’t an activity that you do or a puzzle you are meant to solve; they are an element of the world with life of their own, and you engage with them under rules of your own imagining.
JT: Out of all the possible options you went with flying space cacti, giraffes, birds, and turtles to fill these surreal worlds, any particular reason?
Jason RT Bond: Shu herself evolved from a little game jam thing we made in 2010. We had this idea for a rolling, shrinking, bouncing ball mechanic, and not much else. It felt really happy and energetic, so we just knocked out this simple yellow smiley face with a cute voice, to support this sense of joy as you bounced around.
Later, when Colin and I decided to take that mechanic and feeling into a more fleshed-out game world, I toyed with a few ideas for giving her a more unique character. Things like a big mop of curly red hair, a bandana, a nose ring, little arms and legs that tucked into her body. But ultimately, because she spends most of the play time rolling around, these kinds of details just blurred out and made her look lopsided.
So late one evening in a half-asleep state I stuck quills on her (a nicely radial kind of detail) and said she was a space cactus. And with caffeine replacing sense I hit on the idea of a long tail which stretched out when she shrunk small (as if she’s squeezing her mass out into it) and snapped back in when she popped back to full size, jumping her into the air. That I thought would help convey the energy of the jumping mechanic and would also help trace her motion through the world. And maybe it works? Plus it reminded me of the pull string on a talking doll or the tail on a Popple (do people remember the Popples?), which just seemed like nice associations.
The other animals are easy: everyone likes giraffes because they are absurd and majestic creatures, my niece said she liked sea turtles so okay, something needs to be in the water anyhow, and birds were easy to animate and make flutter around using physics.
The universe of Shu itself is weird and alien but is also meant to be relatable to our own world. So yeah, most of the creatures are kinda like ones found on planet Earth, but also not. The worlds themselves are pretty barren to start with, with strange relics of civilizations now lost, and you’re bringing life back to them. This was all part of the environmental theme we were running with at the time of the Kickstarter, although it’s more atmosphere than something fleshed out. I want you to have a vague feeling like, although you are bouncing around filling the universe with joy and life, you are doing that in a place that has seen some mistakes, some loss.
JT: Colin, earlier this year you wrote a blog post explaining that you felt many people have “fallen out of love with video games,” is Shu’s Garden in anyway a response to those feelings?
Colin Sanders: It definitely is. Every year there is a fairly large group of people who stop playing videogames, and for the rest of their life they never return to them. I believe that more diverse content is necessary to prevent these people from falling out of love with videogames. I don’t mean that the current slate of videogames and genres need to change, but rather that we need more videogames in new and different genres, and about new and different things to keep this group of players interested. People who have really enjoyed traditional RPGs but are starting to grow tired of them may find a game like Shu’s Garden refreshing because it’s not like a traditional RPG at all.
They will have to play it in a different way and they will end up thinking different things. With greater video gaming variety, when one style of play starts to feel dull there’s another style available to enjoy. And I believe it creates sort of a feedback loop where enjoying experiences outside of what a player traditionally loves increases their enjoyment and appreciation of that traditional genre. If there are enough options for this kind of player, the kind who is about to fall out of love with videogames, then they may keep playing their whole life. I don’t think that Shu’s Garden alone can solve the issue of people falling out of love with video games, but it can be part of the solution which is to add more gaming content to a genre that is not as well represented as others.
JT: What keeps you in love with games? Do you think that will last?
Colin Sanders: The joy of interacting in worlds different than our own keeps me in love with games. I don’t just mean fantasy worlds, with space cacti and such, but any world that is constructed inside the computer whether it tries to approximate our own world or not. As I’ve gotten older I have started to crave new types of interaction and my taste in content has evolved, so the kinds of games I loved growing up are not the kinds of games I want to play now, but even the most traditional videogame expressions can still make me smile. Will it last? I feel that since I’ve made it this far in life and the love hasn’t died there’s a good chance it will last forever. The video game landscape is only going to expand and diversify from here. There’s going to be a lot of great content for people of all ages and interests even if it doesn’t quite exist yet.
Jason Bond: I’m not in love with games. Not the products we’ve created. Not the industry which surrounds them. Definitely not “gamer” culture. I used to be in love with them, or I thought I was, but not anymore, and not for a long time. In my worst moments, I might even hate them. They make me sad and cynical. They make me feel old.
But despite that, I do still have a deep love of this medium. This thing enabled by computer technology and art and means of interaction that we broadly call “videogames”. When I was three and played my first Commodore 64 games I became captivated by these myriad virtual worlds, with their deep little secrets and endless possible behaviors. Pixel worlds that couldn’t be and yet were. Creatures and people and events I could never experience outside the screen. They all seemed alive, and I wanted to fall into them. Perhaps I could even build worlds of my own there? I realized then that these spaces were locked away in our imaginations and here was this medium “videogames” that held the keys to bring them out into the world, to make them live and be where other media could only depict. I knew this medium was important. Wherever the industry plants its feet, however badly I might crash and burn as an indie creator, and no matter if I become so jaded that I can no longer pick up a controller, I can never un-know that.
Shu’s Garden is available in several places including itch.io, iTunes, Google Play, and most recently Steam.