The garden is peaceful and serene, filled with edible fruits, lush flora and weird little party hat-wearing beasties that reproduce like crazy. Life also seems pretty good for the bird-beaked man in the bowler hat…until the water starts rising. Unlike his strange protagonist, Swedish game developer Erik Svedäng is in a situation that’s far from dire. Last month he took home the Seumus McNally Grand Prize at this year’s Independent Games Festival for Blueberry Garden – a whimsical and beautiful 2D platformer where you explore and interact with a delightful little world and attempt to keep from drowning in it.
Conceptually, Blueberry Garden has been years in the making. Svedäng first began mulling over the idea of creating an exploratory game that experimented with interactive storytelling and a vibrant ecosystem long ago. “The game that made me feel it was possible is probably, first and foremost, Shadow of the Colossus,” he says. “I was also very inspired by some music I listened to at the time, especially Sagor & Swing and Detektivbyrån. I tried to capture a lot of the feeling in their songs, which for me is about the Swedish outdoors.” Three years ago, he came up with the current structure for Blueberry Garden and created extensive drawings of how it would work. Actual production began in 2008, and it was submitted in nearly-complete form for this year’s IGF competition.
The gameplay is pretty basic, notes Svedäng; you walk around, pick stuff up, glide through the air and explore. Eating different kinds of fruit produces various magical effects, and finding an odd assortment of objects is crucial to your survival. Beyond that, it’s up to players themselves to figure out what there is to do and how to do it. “The most important part is probably that I’m trying to give the player a lot of room for thought,” he says. “It’s not a game where you get clear instructions on what to do; you have to think for yourself.” As time passes, the game environment continually fluctuates. The decisions you make and the consequences of those choices have an impact on the ever-changing garden realm and whether or not you’ll survive in it.
“The ecosystem is something that I wanted to try for a long time, since it’s such a compelling idea. Most game worlds feel kind of fake in the sense that they reset when you move away from an area,” says Svedäng. “Usually, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to see if I could create a world that felt alive in a more fulfilling way. The ecosystem doesn’t really add a lot of gameplay; it’s more about creating the feeling of a real place.”
Even before digging deeply into the game, it’s immediately evident one of Blueberry Garden‘s major selling points is its quirky hand-drawn presentation. The minimalist art style is magnificently sketched, and Svedäng uses well-placed splashes of color to highlight specific elements and breathe subtle warmth into the design. So far, the general response to the game’s look and feel has been very positive, which is gratifying, he says. Its unique visual style was developed during years of doodling, mainly in school, while listening to teachers give lessons. “When I finally made the game I just drew like I was used to, not trying to think too much,” he adds. Ironically, Svedäng is now an instructor himself, teaching game design to students at the University of Skövde. Drawing the game up from his own art style came easily, but animating his sketches into the game world was a more difficult process. With a little research, he was able to pull it off and is pleased with the end result.
About half of Svedäng’s past game projects – Flipside of the Devine, Det Goda Livet (The Good Life), and Bönvagnen (The Bean Vehicle) – have been collaborative efforts created as part of a small team. The special nature of Blueberry Garden has necessitated its development be a one-man project. The amount of control granted by taking the solo development approach is excellent, he says, and it allows things to be accomplished easily and speedily. But it has had some drawbacks: Working on the game has been a rather lonely affair. Svedäng is definitely looking forward to collaborating more with others on future projects – particularly now that he’s met so many talented people in the indie development community.
In creating Blueberry Garden, he hopes to instill feelings of curiosity and surprise in those who play the game. “Those two things are something that many adults lack in their life, since everything is so predictable; you go to work, eat, sleep, etc,” he says. “In my game, hopefully people can sense that there are things they don’t really understand but that they want to investigate and maybe bring back some of the magic from childhood.”
As an independent developer, Svedäng is particularly excited that players are now starting to turn to indie titles to get their most profound gaming experiences. He feels it’s great that gamers and other developers are so supportive of the indie development community as a whole. Winning the IGF Grand Prize this year bolstered his resolve. “For me the greatest thing about the prize is that it’s some kind of proof someone might actually like the game. I wasn’t really sure before,” says Svedäng. Receiving positive feedback about the game and hearing players enjoyed the experience has been a big boost, he says. “I mean seriously, that’s the reason you don’t keep your work to yourself, right? Every time someone tells me they got something out of the game I feel so happy.”
Blueberry Garden is essentially complete and only a minor amount of polish is left to be applied to the game. It’s planned for a PC release in the near future, though a solid date hasn’t been decided.
Nathan Meunier is a freelance writer, a regular contributor at The Escapist, and a die-hard indie gaming enthusiast.