Ah, to be good with plants. Apparently it was a thing, wasn’t it, that my generation all got into house plants, especially during lockdown. A friend of mine has a positively ebullient front room full of lush, green darlings that have names like Hercules. My brother-in-law, absent any real space, has mounted glass spheres of water on his wall and grows little flowers and trailing vines from them. I, on the other hand, am a plant killer. Apart from in Strange Horticulture, when I run a spooky and ethereal plant shop in a town called Undermere, in an alternate-universe version of The Lake District. There, my plants are happy and weird, and with them I can save the world.
I can do all manner of more mundane things in Strange Horticulture, though. This is, after all, partly a quiet life sim about running a plant shop, where you’ll be greeting customers, exploring the surrounding lands using a big map, and following little clues to find more specimins. The other part is a puzzle game, where the puzzle is “what plant do I need?”
Your customers will come in asking for a flower that is a traditional gift for weddings, something that’ll help them sleep, or will clear up a rash. So out comes your copy of The Strange Book Of Plants. At first, it only has a few pages. Using a partial illustration (maybe the shape of a leaf or a cross section of a flower) and a description that might give you petal colour or the detail that the leaves are very sharp to the touch, you cross reference it against what you have on your shelves, and voila. It is so satisfying and rewarding, and you begin to feel like an expert.
Every day, you ding the shop bell to call another customer forward until it’s time to close the shop. If you give someone the wrong plant you collect some Dread, which seems roughly approximate to ‘The Fear’, that classic consequence of a terrible hangover. Too much Dread is game over. But each time you succeed, you get a new page or two for your book. You also get more Will To Explore, so you can unfold the area map and follow additional clues – fun little mini-puzzles where you might have to cross reference directions on a map or follow a river to its source. Sometimes you’ll get a letter from a friend pointing you towards a mountain pass just east of a certain lake. Other times it’s a cryptic clue from a playing card that seems to be drawn from your dreams each night.
For alongside the complaints of locals, Strange Horticulture is also quietly supernatural. Your desk has a secret drawer containing strange devices – some sort of arkane magnifying glass, and a metal disc inscribed with seemingly random symbols. As time goes on, you start gettings visits from customers who are investigating a strange murder. Each night you dream the next part of the story of a girl running away from home.
There’s a mysterious cult living in a forest, and a second mysterious cult who worship some kind of plant-based monster. You can choose to help different parties with the plants you provide, so there are a few different endings on offer. You’re saving the world, but in the role of the mysterious shopkeeper who gives the hero just what they need. Or not. Perhaps your mysterious shopkeeper kinda likes the idea of the world ending. Just as you can give an annoying lawyer a plant that will make his rash worse instead of better, perhaps you’ll give someone who needs resolve a plant that actually makes them afraid at just the wrong moment.
Sometimes that does depend on you having the right selection of plants at your disposal. If you’ve not been curious enough, or chased down all your leads, you might not have everything you need by the end of the story. While your shelf of plants is initially quite bare, it becomes positively overflowing with gently moving flowers and fungi if you put the effort in. And it’s very gratifying that if you are the kind of player who takes a lot of time to colour code the labels on your plants, and organise them first by their usage and then alphabetically, for example, then you are rewarded. As the Strange Horticulture goes on, just over a fortnight in game days (or 4-ish hours in real life), the clues to find new plants become more cryptic. By the end, you might be asked to just remember which plant it is that can open locks, or is an antidote for a particular poison. There’s a very robust hint system if you get stuck, but it’s way more fun to try and fully inhabit being that weird plant enthusiast in the grotty old plant shop.
I think that’s what I find most impressive about Strange Horticulture. It’s a completely 2D game with hand-drawn art, and you’re basically trapped in one room with a cat for the whole game. The setting is perhaps vaguely Edwardian but mostly unmoored by its strangeness. But it’s so immersive! It’s very easy to imagine how it feels to brush your hand over the cover of your encyclopedia of plants and flip through the pages. To experience the slight panic as a customer approaches and you sweep secret letters and tools back into the hidden drawer of your desk. The gentle animation of all the plants makes them feel so alive. The pattering of the rain on the windows. It gets cold in the shop, especially in the rain. If only I could persuade Hellebore to come and sit, purring, on my lap sometimes. Ah! Hello sir! Why yes, I have just the thing to help you sleep. Let me see now… Strange Horticulture is quiet, meticulous, delightful, dark, and beguiling. An utterly lovely game.