Strange Horticulture 1

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Kate gets green fingers...

Come here. Sit down. Shut up. Why haven't you played Strange Horticulture yet? No, that was rhetorical. And also, a trap. I said shut up, didn't I? You gotta listen.

Okay, okay, I won't actually yell at you for not playing this game, because that's not the way to get people to listen to you. I want to highlight the brilliance of this hidden Switch gem, because GOTY season tends to trample all over the smaller, quieter indie games in favour of blockbusters with seven-figure budgets — but even so, those small indies can get a lot done with the resources they have, and that's precisely why I want to bring Strange Horticulture to your attention.

Strange Horticulture is almost everything I want from a narrative game: Intrigue, mystery, subtext, and COOL MAPS. It draws you in with plants, and hooks you for good with something deeper and scarier than you expected. If you like Inscryption, The Forgotten City, or Return of the Obra Dinn, you'll like this too.

Strange Horticulture 4

You can choose to interact with this conspiracy however you like, as long as it involves flowers

You play a horticulturist who runs a plant shop, and people come in and ask you for specific flowers and leaves for various reasons. Sometimes they have an upset tummy; sometimes they're trying to poison their terrible husband. Hey, no judgement here — although it's important to know that you can not only refuse requests that you disagree with on a moral basis, but you can dupe the requester into thinking that you gave them what they asked for, instead providing them with a plant that induces death-like sleep but leaves the victim ultimately unharmed.

But the plot begins to unravel as you stumble into cults, horrors, and conspiracies, and suddenly even the innocuous requests start to seem like they're part of some grand behind-the-scenes plot. Plus, you can choose to interact with this conspiracy however you like, as long as it involves flowers. You can "accidentally" poison people, help the other side, and generally just stir things up for the sake of it, all by providing your customers with plants.

Strange Horticulture is a masterclass in subtextual narrative design, in which the player is presented with facts, and can make decisions based on those facts without the game ever telling you what to do. If I leave a bottle on a table that says "poison", I'm not telling anyone to poison anyone else, but someone could draw conclusions about the bottle's contents and applications from just the label. Likewise, Strange Horticulture provides you with plants that look similar, but have drastically different effects, and then walks off, whistling nonchalantly. Hey, you're the horticulturalist, it's not our fault if you get it wrong, is it?

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I love games that trust the player to use everything in their toolbox without having to be handed the tools. It's a growing genre — Return of the Obra Dinn, Outer Wilds, The Witness, and Tunic are all pretty hands-off, and in being hands-off they allow for these fantastic moments of self-made discovery. There's this feeling that the game exists without you, and you are just exploring it, like a museum, and putting together everything yourself, without the game state ever really changing.

I love games that trust the player to use everything in their toolbox without having to be handed the tools

Strange Horticulture is more on-rails than many of these, as it doles out new plants carefully to advance the plot, but it still captures that feeling of discovering things for yourself — it never tells you what to do, to the point that there are some things it doesn't tell you at all. There are many things that you'll need to find out by reading between the lines, catching onto the subtext, or simply by asking yourself, "I wonder if this would work?", and honestly... there's no feeling better than finding out the answer to that question is a hearty "yes".

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So, Strange Horticulture is easily one of my Games of the Year, and I sincerely hope that 2023 brings more of the same. Now, go play it. Or you'll be in trouble.

What's your underrated gem of 2022? Write me an essay in the comments! And go play Strange Horticulture!