Apocalyptic comfort in liminal spaces (a casual Cloud Gardens game review)

an animated gif of clouds moving behind trees and buildings
During my blogging break last month, I learned how to make simple animations. Here are some clouds.

I'm not much of a gamer, but I always have an eye out for chill city-builders, and bonus points if they have a solarpunk vibe. My current favorite game is Terra Nil, a reverse city-builder that came out earlier this year. In it, you restore ecosystems, turning wastelands into beautiful forests, tundras, and tropical paradises. Then, when you're all done cleaning up all the toxins and radioactive waste, re-planting and re-introducing flora and fauna, you build yourself a spaceship and leave the planet, happy in the knowledge that you fixed something that humans destroyed.

But the other day I downloaded the 2021 game Cloud Gardens, which the dev describes as "partly a gardening simulator, partly a dystopian landscape builder, and partly a puzzle game." The game presents you with a series of floating islands of apocalyptic liminal spaces: broken-up highways, scarred parking lots, rusted train tracks, abandoned greenhouses. Then you grow plants to cover up the grimy ruins.

An abandoned car lot in the game

After planting seeds, you get them to grow by placing trash, rusted-out cars, and other bits of society's detritus on the landscape, giving the plants new surfaces to grow on. Your goal is to cover the entire scene with plants. It's an extremely chill game with only a light layer of strategy involved in deciding where the plants will grow the best and where to place the objects so they don't crush the foliage.

While filling up a particular landscape with the provided objects--one of those playground spinny things and children's toys--I realized that I was constructing a sort of post-apocalyptic version of a liminal space image, many of which feature empty playgrounds.

One of many liminal spaces in the game

It's a bit strange that a game set in an abandoned, fog-swathed world with an unsettling number of highway underpasses could feel comforting, but it really does, in much the same way that "liminal space" images do.

I dunno, maybe there's just something about growing wisteria on a porta potty using a cursor shaped like a worn glove. In contrast to Terra Nil, this game is a bit simpler--you aren't reconstructing an ecosystem, leeching the toxins from the land, and making a hospitable place for animals. You're just reintroducing nature in the form of green growing things like vines, moss, monstera, mushrooms, and cacti. And the only animals seem to be the crows that swoop around you as you garden. (Though I haven't finished the game yet, so I couldn't say definitively.)

Anyway, the game is soothing and haunting in the way that a lot of images of liminal spaces can be. If it seems up your alley, it's definitely worth checking out Cloud Gardens.