Part Dr. Seuss and part popup book, Botanicula presents a world that is both natural and fantastical.
I spent a good chunk of last week at E3, where I was inundated by games striving for authenticity. Most of these were shooters, most of them boasted impressive motion capture and textures, and most of them started to blend together after a while. In between explosions, I kept thinking about Botanicula (a humble point and click adventure game from Amanita Design) and how much more alive it seems than many of these photorealistic spectacles.
Botanicula is a whimsical fairy tale with a slightly dark edge. Playing through the game feels a bit like reading something from Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl An unlikely group of critters takes on a force that threatens their world. Along the way, they meet a variety of friends and rivals, many of whom have their own problems that must be solved by completing puzzles or simple reflex challenges. The game's overall story is linear, but there are a multitude of side characters and corners of the world to explore. This adds a multitude of small branching paths to the game, so many that the path from the game's beginning to its end is more of a thicket than a straight line. Some characters and decorations are there for no particular story-related reason. Such pointlessness feels organic; they feel like they are there naturally rather than being part of a contrived gameplay system.
Fictional creatures can still seem believable in the context of a fantasy world, even if they'd never exist in ours. Botanicula's aesthetic takes some cues from the natural world, but its unceasing string of bizarre characters and locations gives it its own identity. The game's curvy landscape and strange plant life resemble something from a Dr. Seuss book. All the characters are either plants, insects, or some combination thereof. Their colors, shapes, and behaviors seem perfectly endemic to the their surroundings. These creatures run the range from friendly to menacing and it's often hard to tell which ones will act what way. Almost every screen has new species to meet, which makes Botanicula feel like an extended version of the cantina scene in Star Wars. Seemingly threatening characters turn out to be pushovers, while innocuous little bugs sometimes become huge roadblocks. The game continually presents you with unexpected situations that feel completely at home in the game's world.
I've already compared Botanicula to great literature and picture books, but it might be more accurate to compare it to a pop up book. As is the case in Amanita Design's other adventure games, Botanicula involves more than simple pointing and clicking. Waving the cursor over leaves causes them to rustle. You have to time your button presses to avoid obstacles or bend branches to create springboards. Sometimes, simply clicking on something multiple times will reveal a new character or open a previously hidden path. Its artwork is more than set dressing. It is meant to be explored. Because of this, Botanicula feels more tangible than many other adventure games.
This physicality extends to Botanicula's sound design as well. As Kirk Hamilton writes, Botanicula's soundtrack embraces the "living side of audio" because its music and sound effects were created by "real instruments and human voices" as opposed to digital effects ("Chiptunes, Schmiptunes: Embracing The Human Side of Video Game Audio", Kotaku, 3 May 2012). Such an approach complements the game's biological aesthetic. Woodwinds and banjos accompany your journey across massive trees. Vaguely human choruses and nonsense dialogue emanate from the anthropomorphic plant life inhabiting the world. In the midst of the industry's dub-step obsession, such a traditional soundtrack is soothing. Like the game's visuals and gameplay systems, its sound is simultaneously natural, fantastical, and perfectly fitting.
Botanicula's world is undeniably alien, but it is also believable. The world and its characters are outlandish but fit perfectly in the game's weird ecosystem. While there is a single main path through the game, there are dozens of characters and other small happenings waiting along the way. Most of these have no other purpose than to simply exist, thereby giving the game a sense of spontaneity. This liveliness is also communicated through the game's audio, whose traditional instruments augment the game's physical themes.
The result of all this? A fairy tale that is simultaneously magical and believable, one that is both digital and organic.