The half-joking question often asked of modern art is not whether it’s any good, but whether it’s art. A similar question could be asked of Amanita Design’s beauteous Botanicula: This point-and-click adventure is great fun to stumble through, but is it a game? The answer lies in the studio’s clever self-description of their product: As an “exploration game,” it’s meant to be more relaxed and looser than their previous title, the engaging Machinarium.
Sure, there’s a story (a parasitic spider is leeching the life force of a giant “home” tree and its residents, and you’ll simultaneously control a band of five creatures looking to preserve the last glowing seed), but the emphasis is more on the atmosphere (ambient sounds and lush, reed-heavy music from the band DVA) than on the puzzles, many of which can be solved by simply clicking on every object on a screen. In this, it’s a bit like Monty Python’s Complete Waste of Time, which was also chock-full of surreal, nonessential objects to interact with. (Jaromír Plachý’s whimsical, cardboard-like animation even brings Terry Gilliam to mind.) These interactions reward you with short scenes; all told, there are 123 “things”—puzzles or otherwise—to find in Botanicula’s colorful world.
Considering that Botanicula often plays like an interactive e-card, the better question, perhaps, is whether it’s enjoyable: Simply put, yes, it is, and filled with delightful surprises. The game is divided into six sequences—the various biomes of the tree, growing darker as you approach the parasite. Consequently, the game is bit-sized and rarely complicated to navigate, though there’s an adorable in-game map that highlights your path on the veins of a leaf, just in case you get turned around as you search each zone’s branches for an arbitrary number of objects: five keys (the most literal thing in the game, for what it’s worth), three feathers, 14 birds (to power a hamster-wheel-run engine, naturally), etc.
At the game’s best, collecting these objects requires you to think beyond outside the box; puzzles are disguised, and then you’re asked to learn the rules that will allow you to solve them. (You don’t only click on objects, you can also sometimes drag and push your mouse into them.) Given the lack of in-game text or dialogue (the characters “speak” a gibberish language, or use pictographic thought bubbles), this can sometimes lead to frustrating moments of trial and error, particularly annoying when you finish a puzzle without quite understanding how. Still, this is preferable to the less creative sequences, particularly a few dull mazes, in which it’s immediately clear what you need to do, but difficult to control. Likewise, though the game presents you with five characters (the bulbous Mr. Lantern, the nut-shaped Mr. Poppyhead, and the obvious-looking Mrs. Mushroom, Mr. Feather, and Mr. Twig), you’re only allowed to switch between them for specific puzzles, all of which are more a matter of playful experimentation than any sort of logical selection. Then again, that’s the Botanicula way: free-flowing wonder over rigid presentation. And despite a few thorny missteps along the way, the whole experience is bright, quirky, and entirely ripe for the playing.