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“Garden Story” Invites You to Inhabit an “Animal Crossing”-Like World With More Fights

The new game from Portland game developer Picogram feels like a mix of “Animal Crossing”, and classic “Pokémon.”

If you like slasher puzzles and helping out sensitive neighbors—who are probably talking about you on whatever this video game world’s version of Nextdoor would be—consider the fusion of farm sim-meets-fight and forage that is Garden Story.

Recently released on Steam’s and Nintendo Switch’s marketplaces this past August, Garden Story was developed by a Portland game maker and distributed by Rose City Games, making it a thoroughly Portland-made game.

Filipino digital artist Picogram started working on Garden Story in 2018, about a year before they connected with RCG.

“They help with distribution and development, but the hands-on work and direction for the game stayed with me,” Picogram tells WW. “I talked with a few publishers, but ultimately went with RCG because they were local, and I wanted to be involved locally.”

Community-focused narrative is a highlight of the game—obviously important to the game’s creator—and most of the central character’s quests come at the pleading of a produce-populated village called Spring Hamlet, where Concord, a young grape and the game’s main character, lives.

In the not too distant past, a giant, mana-spouting tree that sustained the hamlet, its Smurf-like inhabitants, and the larger world fell prey to a blight that everyone calls Rot.

In a plot that feels like it predicted the pandemic era, disease and climate change run rampant through Spring Hamlet—leaving its infrastructure on the verge of collapse. Concord is chosen to be Spring Hamlet’s new guardian, following a familiar, day-by-day, fight-and-forage gameplay. Quests and side missions revolve around completing tasks: simple village maintenance, activating puzzle bridges, or swapping supplies with villagers.

Along the way, Concord meets a frog named Rana (a wise-mouthed spiritual cousin of Hello Kitty’s Keroppi); a tough, aviator cap-sporting cherry called Maraschino, who guards Spring Hamlet’s shores; and the aloof, Brooklyn-accented fungi refugees from Autumn Town.

Concord’s neighbors are classic Portland passive-aggressive. Your predecessor Plum coddles you, while several other residents talk down to you as they openly doubt your abilities.

Though players are encouraged to complete tasks in their own time, they’re often reminded that Spring Hamlet is used to “making do” if tasks aren’t completed. However, if Concord loses all health without completing the daily tasks, you’re reminded exactly how neighbors suffer the consequences. This interface feels like a manager saying, “It sounds tough that you died,” then following up with “When can you clock in for your shift?”

Garden Story offers a satisfying ratio of dialogue to playtime, with sufficiently challenging villains and bosses. The game’s score, by local composer Grahm Nesbitt, who’s also scored Picogram’s free browser titles P.E. Noire and Planet Pain: Hyper-Conflict—compounds the game’s vintage-inspired graphics, shifting dungeon formats giving the gameplay the mixed feel of Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and classic Pokémon.

Another interesting note: Garden Story’s main character, Concord doesn’t express a gender—being a grape and all—which seems like a casual reflection of Picogram’s own identity.

Picogram is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns, and goes by their artist moniker—for reasons both creative and personal, but mostly related to the harsh realities of working in the gaming industry. “It can be a little volatile,” Picogram says. “As opposed to working solely under the brand of a studio, making games as an individual opens up a lot of windows to personal griefing.”

Though initial reviews complained about the game’s buggy qualities, newly released patches weeded out technical problems, freeing players to root themselves in Garden Story’s world.

PLAY: Garden Story is available from Steam and Nintendo Switch. $19.99.