I’ve been accused of being too erudite in my tastes. In my old age, my nostalgia for the golden era of gaming often blackens my judgement. I’ll reflexively bat my hand in disgust at mainstream titles, all too eager to throw them to the lions over their perceived sacrilege to the classics. Botanicula, however, has managed to penetrate my icy heart.
Botanicula is a point-and-click adventure game made by Amanita Design, the Czech developers responsible for the Samorost series and Machinarium (likely my favourite game of 2009). The player controls a small walnut-like creature and his four friends, navigating through an enormous tree in order to stop their home from being destroyed by villainous spider creatures. The game focuses less on inventory management than its genre mates, instead relying on single-screen puzzles. This is a refreshingly streamlined approach shared by Amanita Design’s other offerings, and it makes Botanicula easy to jump in and out of.
Although Botanicula’s gameplay is similar to its predecessor Machinarium, its aesthetic couldn’t be more different. Machinarium’s world was one built of rust, concrete, and light bulbs; Botanicula’s is like hopping from page-to-page in a child’s scrapbook of leaves. Characters are nuts, leaves, or twigs with googly eyes drawn on them. The environments are patchwork landscapes of nature photography and loose-handed doodles. The cut scenes remind me of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Hats off to Amanita Design for challenging themselves with their art direction and then rising to that challenge – the game is gorgeous.
Charm is Botanicula’s currency, and the title is eager to spread the wealth. Click on something – anything – in the environment, and you’ll be treated to a short vignette, animation, or puzzle. In one instance, I clicked on an unassuming ant-like creature again and again to discover that every time I did so he would haul a larger load out of his leafy home. On the last click, he pulled out a grinning jack-o-lantern, and tinny banjo music cascaded out of my speakers. There are dozens of Easter eggs like this in every level, and each one rewards you with an achievement for finding it. The attention to detail in Botanicula is staggering, and rooting out these hidden treasures is satisfying on a childlike level.
I’m repeatedly impressed by Amanita Design’s ability to convey narrative in their games without any text or spoken dialogue. The denizens of Botanicula speak in muffled gibberish, instead conveying their meaning through speech bubbles filled with doodles. In any other game this may have become confusing, but the little twig and leaf characters are so expressively animated that they rarely lead the player astray. It still floors me that anyone in the world, regardless of language, could pick up the same copy of Botanicula as me and play it effortlessly. Amanita Design must save a hell of a lot of money on localization.
My sole complaint about Botanicula is the difficulty curve. There isn’t one. Veteran adventure game players will find themselves sleepwalking through the early levels, and even the final act will only provide a modest test of their puzzling aptitude. I appreciate that Amanita Design designed Botanicula with a more casual audience in mind, but they likely could have afforded to trade some of the game’s charm for challenge.