It all begins with a single seed and a dilapidated caravan that sticks upright out of a derelict patch of earth. A streetlight stands in the corner of a small section of concrete, and the only signs of life are two blackbirds that soar through the sky and occasionally land on the edge of the caravan or the ground nearby. It doesn't look like much right now, but soon, it will begin to blossom with lush green plant life. Nature will start to reclaim this abandoned, neglected space.
Released in Early Access, Cloud Gardens from developer Noio presents you with various 3D dioramas. Each one shows a different urban scene surrounded by an otherworldly mist, as though you're peering through a veil of clouds. Just like the caravan scene I encounter, you'll quickly notice that all of the locations you come across appear to be long-deserted and in a state of ruin – with the likes of broken-down cars without any wheels and rusty shopping trolleys long out of use. While you wouldn't normally associate words such as soothing and relaxing when it comes to a post-apocalyptic setting, there's something so incredibly calming and rewarding about watching the plants grow over the decay and give each area a new lease of life.
In each diorama, you'll find seeds you can plant with different varieties of vegetation to unlock, and you're able to set plants down on the ground or over objects around every location. To encourage the greenery to grow, you'll need to place different objects, such as car tires and signposts. As you grow more plants, a light meter on the left-hand side of the screen will fill up to allow you to move onto the next diorama. When the plants and flora spread, it will begin to sprout flowers which can be plucked to gain more seeds. On the right-hand side, you'll see a seed grow in size when you gather the flowers that blossomed, and after it's fully grown, you can harvest the seed and add more until the diorama is overrun with foliage.
Since you're given the freedom to grow the plants anywhere you like, you can essentially create your very own mini-gardens in the sky. A puzzle-like element does come into play as you try to fill up the meter just enough to move onto the next area by successfully growing enough plant life. Some spaces are smaller than others, so it can take a bit of experimenting to make sure you have enough room to place down all of the objects to help all of your plants grow. In one area, for example, I find myself stacking objects into perilously balanced towering heaps just so I could fit them all in. As you progress through each diorama, you'll unlock items you can use in the sandbox mode, where you can let your creativity run wild by making landscapes of your own and growing plants to your heart's content.
The music and sounds also follow your actions and add a gentle kind of ambiance to the experience. At the moment, I'm finding it incredibly hard to find a moment of calm, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Cloud Gardens gave me that moment for just a little while thanks to its dreamy lo-fi vibes and tranquil atmosphere. After playing through several dioramas, I find myself sinking into a relaxing kind of rhythm I didn't know I needed.
Signs of life
While it certainly helped me find some downtime in my day, I can't help but get hung up on wondering what happened to this world. In the caravan diorama, for example, I'm given suitcases and rucksacks to litter across the ground. Who do they belong to? What happened to them? Why were they left behind? On one occasion, I set down a teddy bear on top of a pile of rusted cars, and I catch myself thinking about who might be missing that cuddly little toy.
A lot of the locations you see appear to be long-abandoned highways and roads, with rusted, empty cars. Where are these cars headed? And how did this place become a wasteland? While I don't think you ever will get any answers, the sense of world-building and mystery gives the dioramas a tantalizing edge.
It's incredibly satisfying to watch as a barren wasteland transforms into a lush, verdant landscape that blossoms with color and life, and I spend a lot of time appreciating the visually striking contrast of nature overrunning urban, manufactured spaces. It evokes the sense that beauty can still be found in most rundown of places; nature can persevere. If you're looking for a game that offers creativity and calm, Cloud Gardens might just be for you.
Cloud Gardens is currently out in Early Access on PC.