Behind the new and stunning The Gardens Between is studio The Voxel Agents — an Australian-based developer already known for its successful Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat. The Gardens Between, released on September 20 for PC, PS4, and Switch, is their latest accomplishment, and has received showers of praise from every direction. We spoke with Creative Director and Co-founder Simon Joslin, one of the remarkable minds behind this contemplative and creative studio, about all things The Voxel Agents.
|| First things first: congratulations on your release of The Gardens Between! How does it feel? Did the studio enjoy a collective sigh of relief, or perhaps celebrate like mad?
Yeah, we’ve taken it down a notch for sure. We had to work pretty hard to get the game finished, so we feel quite relieved to have it out there!
|| What was it that drew the core team of The Voxel Agents together so many years ago, for so many years after? We know Simon Joslin, Matthew Clark, and Tom Killen formed the original studio in 2009 after studying together at the same university. What was it that clicked so magically for the intrepid trio?
I think the simple answer is that we were good friends. We enjoyed playing together – Starcraft in the university computer rooms was a mainstay! We enjoyed working on projects together. I guess it was just natural that if we were going to start out on our own together, we’d want to be with people we trusted and knew well. Plus you have to get along pretty well when you’re going to spend this much time together. My wife jokes that Matt is my “other significant other.”
|| How did The Voxel Agents’ initial titles pave the way for the eventual creation—and now release—of The Gardens Between? Your studio is known for the Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, each immensely successful in their own right. How did you take the leap from mobile gaming and trains to something like The Gardens Between?
At the center of it all is our focus on underlying central concepts that we feel are supremely unique and fun. We start with pretty raw functional ideas, and follow them to their logical conclusions, wherever they take us. So it’s not like we sat down and said “hey let’s make a story-driven puzzle game,” instead we found that the ability to move an entire scene forwards and backwards through time had a really satisfying sense to it – there’s just something innately fascinating about watching things move through time, something you can’t do in your normal life! Then we build on those ideas to craft worlds and stories around them. Likewise when we first struck on the ice sliding concepts of Puzzle Retreat, or the train management mechanics we felt motivated to explore them forward. I think what you see as a common trait amongst our games is that they are ultimately very simple, but have a surprising depth within the limited aspects.
|| For players that have not yet heard of The Gardens Between, can you give us a brief break-down of what they can expect and look forward to? Who is it for, and what’s the elevator pitch for its story, style, and gameplay?
The Gardens Between is a single-player adventure-puzzle game about time, memory and friendship.
Best friends Arina and Frendt fall into a series of vibrant, dreamlike island gardens peppered with everyday objects from their childhood. Together they embark on an emotional journey that examines the significance of their friendship: the memories they’ve built, what must be let go, and what should never be left behind.
Lost in a mysterious realm where cause and effect are malleable, the friends find that time flows in all directions. Manipulate time to solve puzzles and reach the apex of each isle. Follow the duo as they unpack and explore their significant moments spent together, lighting up constellations and illuminating threads of a bittersweet narrative.
As a player you get drawn in by their friendship, delighted by the creative and surprising surreal worlds, and you want to finish the game to find out what it’s all alluding to.
|| The Gardens Between is described as an “homage to the enduring power of friendship.” Is there a personal link to this aim between the studio and the game? We can’t help but draw a few connections from the backstory of the trio behind The Voxel Agents to the focus of your latest entry.
There’s definitely a strong element of the team members in this game. Especially for a few of us, there were events in our lives that are mimicked by the game on a conceptual level. We all contributed significantly to the characters that Arina and Frendt became, their shared memories are drawn from the team’s early lives.
|| What’s one of the fondest memories you have of developing The Gardens Between? The entry has earned numerous accolades and traveled extensively. What’s a moment that stands out to the team? Was there an equally memorable moment of frustration, as well?
One particular moment I won’t forget is the day that the art and design teams came to a head. As designers, we’d been working on the really complex pulley system garden. When we first put the puzzle together the garden was a complete mess and looked nothing like it does today. The pieces were everywhere and it was a garbled mess, but hey it was a puzzle and it worked! We’d proven there was a cool puzzle concept in there – that’s a major hurdle!
When we tried to pass it onto the art team though they flat out refused to touch it. We said, “well hey we’re not artists so we need you to make it pretty.” They said “that garden will never be pretty.” We were just butting heads and the conversation ended in an impasse! It wasn’t looking good.
The next day the art team came back with a cheat sheet of what makes a garden pretty. It was so simple. Gardens must follow the basic philosophies of Japanese rock gardens ‘karesansui.’ They should use repeating pyramid motifs to form a central symmetrical design. It was like they’d let us in on the magical tricks they’d been pulling this whole time! Immediately it was obvious to us why they wanted us to try again, and with the cheat sheet in mind, it was pretty straightforward to knock it into shape. Suddenly our whole team had leveled up :)
|| You have three games to share amongst The Voxel Agents for the rest of your lives. Which games do you choose, and why? Never fear—all consoles allowed.
I may not be popular amongst the rest of the team for this, but I’d pick long plays, like Stardew Valley, Minecraft and Starcraft ;)