A lot of situations in games seem chaotic at first – the disorder of large-scale battles, wave upon wave of enemies raining down onto you until their number and actions become indiscernible, or the rapid alteration between dodging projectile fire and melee attacks in a run and gun game. But while combat can be chaotic, you win by creating order, finally achieving flow by finding patterns and thus reaching the magical point where a game’s difficulty and your skill level meet.
Flow through order, or rather neatness however, is less about muscle memory and skill level, and more about those times you can’t help but want everything to be organised. City builders are likely the neatest games by design, encouraging you to build your residential area here and the cultural hotspots nearby, a safe distance from the health hazards of an industrial area but not too far to make it difficult for people to get to work. In Frostpunk, everything you build forms a ring around the generator, the pulsating heart of your city. Even home design in Animal Crossing spinoffs keeps you from veering off into chaos by making you follow someone else’s suggestions.
I’ve seen pictures of giant Stardew Valley farms, fruit trees in elegant rows and vegetables forming large acres. Minecraft buildings often feature whole sheds full of tools and raw materials, neatly sorted. It makes sense to be orderly in these games, as it does in most others, but I’ve never been able to do it myself.
No matter how much I try, my game cities end up a hodgepodge of buildings that would make any urban planner cry. I forget what layout I wanted my farm to have literally while I’m working at it. No matter how much I tell myself I will retrace my steps in a Metroidvania to uncover as much of one particular part of a map as possible, or commit to clearing out part of the map in an open world game before moving on, I simply get side-tracked.
While your fun with a game isn’t necessarily dependent on how neat you’re being, save for maybe Tetris, it’s very obvious that games want you to do things a certain way. If I come up to an outpost in an open-world game from a funny direction and die while trying to complete a mission, the checkpoint will drop me gently but firmly at the optimal vantage point. The need to guide a player is understandable – leaving you to it is difficult when a game has no way of telling whether you do things the “wrong way” because you feel like it, or because you’re genuinely confused. A game with Dishonoured proportions of freedom is hard to come by.
Recently however, I found my own little spot of carefully constructed chaos where I least expected it – the mutant soap opera Mutazione. In Mutazione, gardening is of central importance. The plants you grow are used in food and medicine for the small community, but perhaps more significantly, they have the power to simply make the characters, and you as the player, feel good, as nature is wont to do. Throughout the game, you resurrect a number of small gardens, but they’re really just gardens in the loosest sense. Gardens often are the orderly counterpart to untamed nature – take a neatly clipped front lawn or flower beds that accentuate a house, rose bushes trimmed so they don’t run onto your neighbour’s property. Our intervention in this way is usually the very antithesis to letting nature run wild.
Mutazione however, is an island completely reclaimed by nature, where mushrooms grow in abandoned shopping malls and vines climb up overturned skyscrapers. Everything is just a little wild, and this philosophy extends to the gardens you create. The only restrictions to look out for are that certain plants need a certain kind of soil to grow, thus ensuring variety in each garden, that planting something too close to a poisonous flower or mushroom will result in its death, and that you need to find a space where a plant can reach its full height.
To actually fill a garden, you definitely won’t just use plants that fit its main soil type. Even the mood of the garden, which matches your garden to its environment, is only a rough guide. There’s even a trophy for just planting whatever you want, simply because it looks good.
It doesn’t seem like a huge act of player freedom to let them grow a garden willy-nilly, but I enjoyed it so much because I simply couldn’t go wrong. Whether I grew trees so tall you couldn’t see the characters lounging on a bench behind them, or stuffed a garden with the biggest possible variety of plants, it always just looked so good. Where every other game made my struggle with order apparent, Mutazione took me by the hand and told me not to worry about it too much. Of course this is in line with its story, which is very much about letting go of old regrets and patterns of everyday life in order to try something new.
I’m sure a lot of work went into making it possible for me to go wild, seeing as all seeds you can collect in Mutazione to furnish your garden with bloom into plants that go well together, and that is as deliberate a design decision as it is to make you grow in environments where nothing clashes with your own creation. But instead of an activity that could easily have become about management and organisation in one form or another, purposefully or not, Mutazione went with an undemanding form of gardening anarchy where everyone wins.
Eventually I spent more time with my gardens than the main plot, redecorating them several times and then just letting protagonist Kai sit there to listen to their music. As much flow as there is in keeping order, I think I liked this much better, simply sliding through a catalogue of flowers and arranging them into the wild beauty usually reserved for mother nature alone.