Exploring non-places inside dark games — A look into Sand Gardeners’ games

As many of you probably know, I play hundreds of games every year. I’ve played thousands during my time with this industry. This means that I’ve seen hundreds of Flappy Bird inspired games, hundreds of match-3 games, and thousands of space shooters… After a while they all start to blend together.

Occasionally, I hit gems. Games that are super well polished, games that do something interesting and new, games that surprise me. These are the games that I remember, at least for some time, games that I might play more, and cover in some further way.

Even more rarely, I see developers that consistently create games which captivate, surprise, and intrigue me. Ones that link together and create more and more of a story – ones I crave and follow as the developers continues to create. These games stick with me for a long time.

Sand Gardeners happen to be two developers in this rare category. They are creating narrative based games that blur the line between games and art. Most of their games have something to do with hotels and several of them follow the story of the same hotel, albeit told from different perspectives. After playing through many of their games, and hearing the announcement of Brownie Cove Express, I got the chance to sit down with half of the studio, Sam Machell, and discuss what they’ve created so far.

I first saw their creations in game jams — seeing little glimpses into their full potential. In speaking with Sam, he told me that they started participating in game jams to see the full process of creating and then releasing a game. You see, Sam is an artist using games as a medium to showcase his creations and thoughts. The other half of the studio, Zephyr Raine, is a developer who wanted to create games along the same lines as Sam. Game jams are where they found the time and determination to complete some of those ideas.

Cashbags, Definition of a Ghuest, Between Stations, and First Morning all explore the same space — a hotel. This hotel concept seemed very interesting to me. The idea of having your story take place in a home that is not quite a home — a story built over several games, and through several different point of view. It seemed very important, for want of a better term.

Sam explained this idea of a ‘non-place’ — places like motorways, hotels, shopping malls — where stories happen all the time, people populate these areas, but they never play major roles in their life. He looks to explore these places and focus more on the deeper side of what they are — temporary homes which you expect to leave, to move on from. The idea of existing in a place that is meaningless, a place which you are going to leave, is very prevalent to our generation. Hotels seem to be the perfect example to use.

In Cashbags, you play the manager of a hotel called Brownie Cove. You seem to be doing this for the money, hence being named the Cashbags Man. People come to your hotel looking for happiness and a place to be stress free — and you provide them with that, for a price. This home becomes permanent for most of them as the world outside is harsh. The hotel has plenty of dark aspects to it — it quickly becomes obvious that you don’t run the paradise everyone thinks you do…

Between Stations has you relaxing in your hotel, watching television and trying to relax. Like most hotel TVs there are loads of static channels. Between them, you sometimes find a show or two worth actually watching. These are the shows you can focus on, calm and peaceful, until suddenly some aren’t. You could be watching a nature documentary and suddenly remember spiders hatching under your bed, or scrolling through the static when you glance upon words about someone having a panic attack — someone calling out to you.

These games aren’t meant to be calming or normal. They don’t have end goals or quests. They are just showing you parts of the world that you probably haven’t experienced.

Though there isn’t much out on Brownie Cove Express, it is clearly taking part in the same town. Sam shared small details of the game with me, as he didn’t want to reveal too much. Unlike their previous games, Brownie Cove Express is going to focus more on the people in this strange town.

Previously, their games were made for game jams. Sam felt it was ‘hard to create a person during a jam, but easier to create a world’. Now, they are taking the time to flesh out the humans around these places — their stories will be told through flashbacks and memories, allowing you to relate more with the human side of things.

Brownie Cove Express is aiming to do something completely unique with words. Instead of simply interacting with, and choosing different ways to progress the story, they hope to create puzzles with words. To find ways to showcase them in a different way, and to force players to see these words around the game in a completely new way.

The game takes place in winter — it is full of cold and snow. Sam and Zephyr are working on making the game feel both cold and desperate, showing a much more raw version of these people — the occupants of this ghost-esque world. He would like the game to be released in winter, as that is the end of times. The game after, Sam hopes, would be more like spring — warm and new.

Sam is known for once boiling an onion. He thought the funniest thing he ever said is ‘can you boil an onion?’ So, he did a livestream where he boiled an onion in water — one with it’s skin on and one without it — just to see what happened. Personally, I think he should try it again with various different liquids — cream, chicken stock. Maybe he should even boil shallots.

Whatever Sam and Zephyr end up doing, I am sure it will be out there, both wonderfully done and captivating. That seems to be the case with everything they create. You can follow them on Twitter individually, or their studio @SandGardeners. If you are into slightly dark, super artistic and unique games, do keep an eye on these budding developers.

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