As the common adage goes, April showers bring May flowers. So, naturally, this month we’re talking about gardening and growth in games, and maybe interpreting that a little loosely because why not? Why be beholden to a single definition of a word? May is also the month of May Day, encompassing both the Pagan celebration of the beginning of summer and International Labor Day, which brings attention to labor rights, worker exploitation, and the various and extensive problems with capitalism the world over. So let’s not limit ourselves to what it means to garden in a game—let’s think about planting and growth in all their forms!
What’s your favorite gardening or growth mechanic in a game? What makes it so special?
Melissa Brinks: In the six years (woof) since we last did a roundtable on gardening in games, I’ve become a better gardener. I have more space, and fewer plants drown in our lovely but persistent PNW rains. Few games really capture the feeling of gardening to me—it’s hard to replicate the surprise when a plant you thought had died comes back the next year (shoutout to my peonies!) or the first time you taste a homegrown tomato and your opinion of an entire food changes. Lots of games let you cultivate plants and turn them into other things, but I don’t know that a game has really captured the rewards of gardening.
That said, I do want to say that even though I’ve never played it all the way through (do not come for me), Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time having places where you plant magic beans that don’t benefit you until later/until you travel through time has absolutely fascinated me since I read a walkthrough of the game in Nintendo Power magazine. It may not be the same as eating raspberries off the vine, but the delayed gratification of it, especially because you may not know what you’re doing when you plant it, has always tickled me.
Sara Davis: I also am learning to be a better gardener—although, in my densely populated, concrete-and-asphalt neighborhood, that exercise is limited to volunteering in parks and tending to a few sun-blasted patio containers. Mainly what I have learned is what a constant, never-ending labor gardening is! It’s a daily quest. You can earn rewards from it while you level up your skill but there is always. more. to do.
And that’s just real life. In games: I appreciate the realism/surrealism balance of The Sims 4, in which I find gardening so time-consuming it’s usually the responsibility of a full-time stay-at-home Sim, but which rewards you for maxing out that skill by allowing you to grow some truly bizarre and game-breaking plants. I also appreciate how every Bethesda game encourages curiosity in identifying and harvesting plant life, which honed my interest in foraging long before I began learning how to do so safely in my urban environment.
Zainabb Hull: In my old The Sims 3 save, I got married to the handyman and then turned him into a full-time gardener, and to this day, I feel really bad for him because he ended up feeling lonely and overworked all the time. But that garden needed tending, dammit! As working-class city folk who only recently gained access to gardening—and as a disabled person who’s limited in the ways I’m able to garden—I appreciate the sense of reward and ambition provided by games like The Sims. I’ll probably never be able to grow a real-life tomato, and I can’t spend hours weeding, but my Sims can!
My favourite growth mechanic, though, comes from A Bewitching Revolution, which Melissa introduced me to recently. In that game, you cast spells to plant trees which then sprout fruit for the community kitchen. In reality, of course, communal gardening and farming is much more complicated and requires greater capacity and commitment than simply casting a spell. Nonetheless, I appreciate that the reward for gardening in this game is a shared one. That sense of gardening and growth in nature as a communal effort is really important to me because so much of the land we grow on and the food and plants we grow are stolen from Indigenous people across the world—and at the same time, Indigenous knowledge and agriculture practices are dismissed and devalued. Gardening for me is very much connected to decolonisation, and a vital aspect of that is using gardening as one way to support and connect with our local and global communities.
What purpose can gardening, planting, and similar mechanics serve in a game’s narrative? What’s a particularly good or bad example of this?
Melissa: For the most part, gardening and growing mechanics allow players to either make money or make items. This is really beneficial, and in games that offer it, such as Stardew Valley or The Sims, it’s one of my favorite ways to progress. But even so, like I mentioned above, there just aren’t many games that let you plant things for the joy of planting them. Ornamental plants in The Sims don’t really need to be cared for in the way that the actual garden items do (which may be a good thing given how long it takes to complete a single action). I suppose you could just plant things for fun in Stardew Valley but the actions to accomplish that are often repetitive, and they’re really just there to be harvested (or in the case of flowers, to create another item to be harvested, such as honey).
Viridi, which I wrote about in our last gardening roundtable, is all about growing succulents, and requires only a small time investment per day, much like real gardening. I think Viridi is probably the best example among these, but I eventually reached a point of wondering why I didn’t just water my actual plants and look lovingly at them instead. Maybe because virtual plants don’t spontaneously get brown leaves and pale spots, I say with a pointed look at my Calathea.
I will, however, offer another small shoutout to A Bewitching Revolution, in which planting seeds causes trees to grow, and those trees provide food for the community. The planting and growing are very simple mechanically, but it’s so nice to see the urban landscape transformed by an action that is both mechanically and literally simple, even if guerilla gardening may technically be illegal in some places.
Zainabb: I agree that gardening mechanics are usually a part of a broader trade or wealth system, which is why I think A Bewitching Revolution‘s growing mechanic works so effectively. In many games, you’re growing for yourself, whether to sell items, level up, or unlock new plants. In A Bewitching Revolution, you get the usual reward of successfully growing something in-game, but the actual harvest is shared communally. It’s a neat twist on a mechanic that’s so often used to uphold capitalist ideals in games like Animal Crossing.
I also appreciate the macabre growing in Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden, a clicker game where you grow and harvest organs to sell in an alchemist’s shop. When I first played this game years ago, I expected to get bored almost immediately but instead got sucked in by its charm. Look, cultivating organ plants speaks to my lil goth heart anyway, but some of the quests are unexpectedly poignant and I ended up taking pride in my efforts. This obviously encouraged me to keep clicking, but it also works from a narrative perspective, where some characters (and the player) might express hesitance to use organs in elixirs and potions. After seeing the positive impact of those potions on people’s lives, however, both characters and players learn to sit with unsettling feelings about what they’re harvesting and become pulled further into the story.
Planting, rewilding, and similar concepts can be quite political. Do you often see or use these ideas this way in games? How does that work?
Melissa: As you may have gathered, I would like to see more of it! Phoebe Shalloway’s SOLARPUNKIFICATION is one of my favorite examples of this idea. Based on the emergent genre of solarpunk, in which the future is imagined with an ecological and anticapitalist mindset, SOLARPUNKIFICATION has you inhabit a crumbling dystopian city, planting rooftop gardens while avoiding the police. Like A Bewitching Revolution, SOLARPUNKIFICATION is explicitly political; it is not shy about what it’s saying, but it is playful about it. Watching the useless brown roofs transform into thriving green spaces is an excellent reminder that revolution doesn’t look just one way, and that change can start small and spread further.
Sara: I belong to a Discord community called Rewilding Our Stories (yes, you’re welcome to join!); the group is mainly organized around environmental and ecological themes in fiction, but many of the group members are gamers too—and interactive storytelling is, of course, a particularly rich medium for exploring and engaging with plant life.
One of the community founders keeps a list of eco-games and resources related to these games on dragonfly.eco. I admit I have not played most of them, but it’s great to get a big picture view of how these themes are appearing in contemporary titles. When we did an interest group meetup recently, the titles most often referenced were Horizon Zero Dawn and Sunless Skies, both of which imagine the natural world as active and responsive, sometimes hostile, rather than an inert environment for the player to master or move through.
Zainabb: I would also love to see more overtly political planting games, especially from BIPOC creators! I think, too often, white western creators tend to depoliticise or de-emphasise the role of white supremacist colonialism in shaping how we understand and behave toward the world around us, like with Horizon Zero Dawn. I’m so interested in seeing how Terra Nil, currently in development from majority-white South African studio Free Lives, presents its vision of ecological “restoration.” The game tasks the player with adding greenery and waterways to a blasted wasteland, which holds plenty of potential for catharsis and distraction (helpful or otherwise) during our real-life climate crisis. However, the concept of “bringing nature back” to otherwise arid lands is an argument used to justify colonisation and the violent displacement of Indigenous people. Similarly, the game’s current lack of people leans a little too much toward ecofascist ideals than I’d like. Design choices like these might seem innocuous to some (including devs) but they’re loaded with political meaning that frequently goes ignored in discussions about environmentalism.
What’s the best or most meaningful thing you’ve grown in a game?
Zainabb: Having purple flowers spontaneously sprout on my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island felt pretty great! I would love to grow a Cowplant in The Sims 4 one day. You know, for the added danger.
Zora: I don’t garden much, in-game or out, so I’ve just come in here to brag: I grew the lunar tear in real time in Nier: Replicant. Persistence pays off! (I have not yet finished the plot of that game.)