OPINION | GAME ON: Zenlike calm of ‘Cloud Gardens’ lets players build a better post-apocalypse

"Cloud Gardens" is a post-apocalyptic puzzle game by indie developer Thomas van den Berg in which you plant seeds to overgrow urban decay within wasteland dioramas. Game On. (Photo courtesy of Noio Games)
"Cloud Gardens" is a post-apocalyptic puzzle game by indie developer Thomas van den Berg in which you plant seeds to overgrow urban decay within wasteland dioramas. Game On. (Photo courtesy of Noio Games)

Picture a crumbling highway overpass, cars rusted and broken down, directional signs faded and overgrown by vines.

It's a familiar sight in post-apocalyptic movies such as "I Am Legend" or video games like "The Last of Us" and "Fallout." There are also, of course, unlimited real-life examples, such as those stunningly depicted in the 2018 book "Naturalia," featuring photographs of nature taking back abandoned places.

I find these images haunting and beautiful. I even got to see many examples in real life when I spent some years growing up in a very rural environment, where it was not uncommon to see overgrown, abandoned roadside cemeteries, gravestones almost entirely covered by weeds, or farm buildings more than 100 years old slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Now that aesthetic has been turned into a video game in "Cloud Gardens," where you're the artist creating whatever scene you think is beautiful.

The basic game-play is not just artistic but also solving a puzzle. Each level is presented as a small diorama surrounded by clouds, a tiny corner of a wasteland, such as a child's playground or building rooftop. To solve the level, players will alternate between placing a natural element, such as the seed of a flowering fruit plant that grows downward or vine that grows in all directions, and then placing a man-made element, like a metal directional arrow sign, a pile of old tires, trash cans, abandoned vehicles and beer bottles.

Placing the man-made elements stimulates the growth of the natural elements, causing them to flower and grow fruits. In one puzzle diorama, a metal fence surrounds a rusty, junked car. Adding piles of tires causes plants to grow and fruit. Clicking harvests seeds from the plants, and after enough seeds have been added to the scene, a single headlight flickers on, adding an interesting element.

There isn't really any set right or wrong way to expand the scene, as each person's placement of the visual elements is going to be distinct. After nature has overtaken enough of a diorama, the puzzle completes and unlocks the next challenge.

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"Cloud Gardens" also includes a photo mode, to take snapshots and video images of your creations to share online.

Completing the puzzles also unlocks items and structures in the "Cloud Gardens" sandbox mode, which allows for a more freeform creation.

What starts out as a simple diorama element, such as a square of parking lot concrete, quickly grows more complicated as the diorama's build space expands. By the end of the level, what was once almost literally a blank canvas is now a large rectangular lot covered in junked cars, piles of overturned shopping carts and various bits of garbage, all beautifully overtaken by nature.

It's understandable that "Cloud Gardens" is not a game for everyone. There are no enemies or time limits. "Cloud Gardens" is more of a vibe than a video game, like tending to a zen garden except instead of artistically placing rocks, sand and bonsai trees, you place overturned subway cars, plastic patio furniture and dangling wisteria vines.

Post-apocalyptic wastelands are often accompanied by depictions of violence and suffering, but there is none of that here — only creation and a symbiotic beauty.

Accompanying the lo-fi art style is ambient music that becomes accentuated by each relic or plant placed.

In the puzzle mode, scenes can actually kind of be almost too cluttered, as a certain number of elements must be added to move on to the next puzzle; but in sandbox mode, players are free to design their small corner of the overgrown wasteland however they see fit.

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