When I take my first steps in The Garden Path demo, I spend a moment soaking up the gentle ambiance of the natural environment surrounding me. I listen to the soft breeze accompanied by birds chirping in the background and watch as leaves float down from the trees. Orbs of light flitter and fade above the foliage, and music begins to play as I encounter a big, friendly bear called Augustus, who wears a large rucksack with a little teacup hanging off of its side. Augustus, who is a ranger bear, gives me my very first task to find the second half of a secateur tool, which can be used to cut and collect plants. So, after speaking with my new fuzzy friend, I head out to find it and can't help but feel immediately charmed by the look and feel of the garden. Welcoming me in with its warm colors and adorable characters, I can easily imagine just how it could provide the space to help me unwind.
When carrotcake solo developer Louis Durrant first started working on The Garden Path a few years ago, the idea behind the game was born from a desire to create a relaxing experience you can play after a long day that also offers a sense of progression. "I wanted to make a game that I wanted to play," Durrant begins. "I think sometimes in the evening, you want a game that's relaxing, but at the same time, it feels like you're moving something forward. And those are the two pillars of what I wanted to make. Something that I could play, and it's low stress, but at the same time, it felt like I was constantly building on something."
A garden to call your own
The Garden Path draws some of its inspiration from the likes of Animal Crossing, Studio Ghibli, and The Moomins. It's a slice-of-life gardening sim coming to PC that wants to give you the freedom to explore at your own pace and nurture a garden when and how you like. As a sandbox experience, you can come across various plants and natural elements which can be collected using the various tools you start out with. Anything you collect can be used to make trades to visiting merchants, who carry seeds so you can grow your own herbs and spices. After finding the other half of the secateur tool, my new bear pal Augustus fixes it for me, and I go about cutting nearby shrubbery and foliage to collect different plants – such as chamomile and carrot flowers. When I encounter a local merchant wandering around nearby, they helpfully give me a trowel and offer to trade with me so I can get my hands on some seeds.
Whatever you plant will grow over time, with the garden syncing up to the real-world clock, with day and night cycles not unlike Animal Crossing: New Horizons. As seasons change, so too will the garden, and depending on the soil and the environment you plant your seeds in, the plants will continue to grow and bloom even while you're away from the game. This takes the pressure off of always having to be present, and the way the time flows gives it a slower and more laid-back pace. One of the first things I notice is just how well the art style and music of The Garden Path works to create both a relaxing atmosphere, and a world you want to get lost in for a little while. With an illustrator background, Durrant brought their own distinctive hand-drawn artistic style to the look of the game and drew inspiration from minimalist composers to bring the soundtrack to life.
"When I started the game it had much more simple graphics and it was more garish. The colors, in my typical style, I would ramp the saturation all the way up, and everything was very in your face," Durrant says of the initial approach to the art style. "But I kind of came to a point where I was like 'this isn't working' for a couple of reasons. So as such, I've kind of had to retrain myself just for this game to kind of bring everything down a notch. Just so you know, with a forest and a garden like it is in the game, not everything – when there are so many little things – not everything is vying for your attention. Not everything is as bright as it can be."
"But also nature isn't always the most bright and colorful thing," Durrant adds. "And I think paying a nod to the more subdued tones in nature, and letting certain things sort of take a backseat, allows flowers and things to be more eye-catching. And so I think that's why it's sort of come to that point where everything is quite simple, but makes up a bigger picture that hopefully is quite pleasing to the eye when everything is on screen at the same time. That's always been my objective."
The soft, subdued colors that bring the garden to life are also accompanied by little musical motifs, with gentle notes pinging when you collect a plant, for example. But music also finds its way into the mechanics of the fishing, which you're able to try out once you get a rod. Instead of using bait, you draw song-fish swimming in the ponds and rivers to you by whistling the right tune. You do this by moving a musical note around a grid until a circle appears. By holding the note inside the circle, the fish will come towards the end of your line so you can catch it. With so many fishing minigames out there, this is certainly one of the more unique takes I've come across, and it's quite delightful to listen as your character whistles a little melodic tune.
As you set about exploring and completing little tasks, you can also encounter various visiting travelers, and characters known as the Vegetable folk who you can befriend and get to know, and even invite to move into your garden. From the likes of Caroline who looks like a cauliflower to Imogen who has an avocado for a head, these garden companions bring an extra helping of charm to the experience. Outside of fishing, exploration, and getting to know the local inhabitants, you can also make tea from the herbs and spices you collect.
The idea of bringing something consumable to the table in The Garden Path was partially inspired by the first Animal Crossing game on GameCube, which Durrant recalls playing at the age of six. While fruit was originally a lootable item, that quickly changed when the Vegetable folk became a part of the world, since fruit, as Durrant jokes, "are your friends walking around the garden with faces and mouths". So instead, you can find herbs and spices which you don't typically see in games and use them to make tea. The tea ties into the "light RPG element" of your character, who has stats that influence the way you interact with the garden.
Since the launch of the Kickstarter campaign for The Garden Path, along with the release of a demo, Durrant tells me that there has already been so much support for the project: "I was always hesitant to do a Kickstarter," Durrant says. "I always knew it'd be a game that would have a more niche audience, at least in my head. So to just have this many people supporting it is beyond my imagination. I think with the demo it's great to see people engaging with it, since it's just sort of a small slice. And because it is just me working on it, I know there's a few bumps along the road, but people have been really supportive. And I think just having everybody on board to give me the feedback and being able to work on that feedback and then deliver the changes, and then seeing everybody's response to that has been really positive."
With its charming look and soothing atmosphere, The Garden Path looks set to carve out a little virtual space where players can unwind and take things at their own pace, which is ultimately what Durrant hopes to deliver. "I think if it can just be something that at the end of the day you log in, and it feels like your little space. And that when you log in, there's not this big fanfare made, it doesn't tell you about all your dailies and everything. It's just, you can log in, and it's that space that you can go in and commit as much as you want to the game," says Durrant. "And make a little progress every day, and be happy with that and log in the next day, hopefully looking forward to something that the game has to offer. I think if I can provide that, I'll be really proud of myself."
The Garden Path is set to release on PC later this year in 2021.