Preview: Cloud Gardens Is a Rare Tranquil Sandbox

The world is stressful, especially this year. We’ve all been doing our own thing to combat it—I’ve been listening to soothing music while working, and I try not to have a constant stream of news coming in to distract me with negative thoughts. Video games, unfortunately, have few options when it comes to meditation. That’s why when I got a hold of Cloud Gardens, I knew this digital Zen garden is exactly the thing I needed.

Okay, maybe Zen garden isn’t exactly the best way to describe Cloud Gardens—Zen gardens are about clean, stylized landscapes where Cloud Garden is more open to interpretation. But Cloud Gardens can definitely serve as a meditative aid, or really, anything you want to make of it. It’s relaxing and surreal, with the ability to play purely in sandbox mode, or to play each level as you see fit. There is a fail state, but I think I only failed one or two levels—most give you the leeway to do what you want, and still succeed. Then again, the fail state is one  of the things that annoys me about this game—you have to wait a moment before it gives you the ability to restart. Well, that’s what I thought until I started impatiently hitting ‘esc” to reveal  a menu that allows you to restart at will, enter sandbox mode, or even skip any levels with no penalty.

Screenshot: Cloud Gardens

Cloud Garden tasks you with planting seeds and growing plants over scenes of urban decay. It’s like a post-apocalyptic garden, where you’re the gardener directing the plants to reclaim their dead world. Placing artifacts (mostly garbage and junk) coaxes the plants to grow. While placing the item, you can see its area of influence—with larger items usually causing more growth. It’s a strange mechanic, where garbage is essentially making these plants grow, but it ends up being cathartic, fun, and strangely expressive.

These scenes aren’t completely random, either. Some of artifacts can create scenes that might be familiar, like plastic seats around a wire spool that looks like it served as a table. Some of the props are even empty drink containers you can place about to make it look like people were enjoying the end of the world before it ended—now nature is just here to overtake everything.

Screenshot: Cloud Gardens

The level design—if you can call it that—is also pretty clever. Each scene is potentially part of a larger scene. Often, after a scene would build on itself a few times to create a large diorama, I would just sit back and look at my work. Don’t expect crisp super high-fidelity graphics, though—these scenes are all low fidelity, but purposefully stylized to be so. It somehow works to emphasize the decay, and the beauty of the plants.

Cloud Garden is still in Early Access, but it will probably give you much of the same experience now as when it is completed, though in its completed form there will be more levels to play around in. According to the Steam store page, Cloud Gardens should be in Early Access for only a few months. As it is now, it’s extremely playable, but with a limited selection of levels . Right now there are four different locations to play around in: Highways, a junkyard, rooftops and the greenhouse. The greenhouse is considered just a “preview” as there are only two levels, and the rooftop area only has 12, as opposed to the fifteen in each of the highway and junkyard sections. The number of gardens is a little meaningless, though, because despite their different setups, it’s about what you make of them.

Screenshot: Cloud Gardens

There isn’t a “correct” way to play Cloud Garden, it’s all about what you make of it. After you make your creation—or even during—you can turn on the camera mode. This allows you to take pictures, as well as make video of your garden growing.

Cloud Gardens is a calming, meditative game. If planting seeds and coaxing plants to grow over decaying cityscapes sounds intriguing, it’s definitely worth picking up. For me, Cloud Gardens was a strangely contemplative experience—and one I’ll relish revisiting once it exits Early Access

Cloud Gardens is available now on Steam Early Access




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Antal Bokor
Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian.
He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.

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