Prune is an iOS game about trimming and shaping a bonsai tree as it grows, angling it out of the shade and into the sun, so that it can bloom. It’s a simple premise that gets wonderfully tricky at times, with your tree twisting around obstacles like a snake. What’s even more wonderful, though, is the wordless, visual storytelling that emphasizes hope, life, and the beauty of little victories against overwhelming darkness.
There are five levels in the game, each broken into several stages, and each level has its own unique environmental style. What begins as a flat world with only abstract floating orbs to block the sun, grows into a mountainous world with deadly red suns, then descends into a cave system, from which you emerge into a more modern world of girders and steel, which in turn becomes an industrialized gauntlet of buzz saws and fire that feel almost supernatural compared to the earlier levels.
This series of environmental changes, along with the requisite increase in difficulty, paints a picture of survival that climaxes with a battle between Nature and Man. In the beginning, survival is challenging but is nowhere near impossible, and the obstacles that you face feel indifferent to your tree, existing as obstacles purely because of a coincidental placement in the world. I need sunlight, but your shade is in the way, just let me get around you and… flowers! The introduction of metal and machinery and concrete—- walls placed purposefully to impede and saws placed purposefully to slice-—adds a sense of conscious animosity to these newer obstacles. Humanity is trying to kill you.
Yet this entire struggle is presented in the most peaceful way possible. We don’t attack. We don’t kill. We just prune our tree and help it bloom. Every level ends the same way no matter what kind of opposition you face. Humanity may be the strongest and cruelest antagonist, but even they fall away in the end. The final level shows the skyscrapers and smokestacks being buried under dirt and wind until the world returns to its original flat plane. And there you are still, ever growing.
The best part about the game is that it never forces you into the next stage. The camera will zoom out and a button will appear to move on, but you have to tap it. This means that you can take the time to admire your handiwork: the barren trunk of your tree, trimmed of every branch to streamline its growth, snaking through the world until its tip breaches the shade into the sun and then blooms. It’s hard not to feel good looking at such an image. All that life literally on the edge of darkness.
Much of presentation emphasizes that darkness, from the hard edges of the shade and shadows to the music that grows ever more ominous with each new environment. In particular, the sound of wind over everything, conveying a sense of grand desolation even in tightly confined spaces. But the gameplay requires you to overcome all that. Every level then become a microcosmic battle between optimism and pessimism or between life and death.
You’re a single little seed against the world, but you are mighty.
Prune is not the best game of 2015, but it is certainly the most uplifting game of 2015.