First posted on 20 May 2012. Last updated on 20 May 2012.
While some critics may argue that computer games do not qualify as art, to claim that Amanita Design's Botanicula is not a work of art is in many respects an insult to the game's creator. This is because Botanicula is truly a visual and aural marvel, replete with the same mysterious and surreal feel that is the trademark of the developer's work.
The game begins in a strange, ethereal world where a translucent, luminous tree grows. A large, spider like parasite starts to drain the life from the tree, and a seed from the tree lands near one of the game's protagonists—a tiny creature resembling a nut with eyes and legs. The creature picks up the seed, and with the help of his friends, it begins a journey down the great tree to find a place where the seed can be planted.
As with Amanita Design's previous games, Botanicula has a very minimal interface, with virtually no instructions or directions and almost no text or dialog. Expressions or thoughts made by the characters appear in the form of images, which may take a bit of thinking on your part to interpret what is being said. Progressing in the game is also made difficult since the solutions to some puzzles may not always be obvious. Sometimes it all boils down to repeatedly clicking on every object on the screen in the hopes that some action will happen. However, since nearly every screen is interactive, at times it is hard to tell which elements of the screen are actual puzzles and which elements are merely there for decoration.
The game features 5 main characters who travel together on a quest to save their home. Sometimes, they encounter an obstacle that only a particular character in the group can overcome. Each character has a certain skill—the character that resembles a tiny feather can fly, the character that looks like an almond is very strong, and the character that is as thin as a twig can reach into tiny spaces. Often, however, there is no real rhyme or reason to which character is best suited to which task, and you may have to select several characters before the correct character to solve the task at hand is found.
The difficulty of the puzzles in Botanicula often lies in trying to discover the puzzles themselves. Once a puzzle has been discovered, though, the method to solving it usually becomes apparent. For example, a particular puzzle involves strategically nudging a spherical object out a series of holes in a large, hollow chamber in order to gradually move an unreachable key on top of the chamber towards the protagonists. Another puzzle requires you to make a group of little creatures sing simultaneously by clicking on each creature in turn. Often, you will have to locate a certain number of objects in order to progress in the game, and a number of puzzles must be solved in order to locate all of these objects.
Botanicula has a point system. Depending on your score at the end of the game, you can view a number of bonus animations depending on how many points you earned. There are some additional puzzles in the game which are not essential to completing it, but if you solve these puzzles, you will gain additional points. Often, clicking on some of the creatures in the game will reward you with a "creature card": a card with the likeness of the creature depicted on it.
The surreal, otherworldly look of Botanicula ranges from dreamy and whimsical to dark and ominous. The locations vary from the glowing, ghostly branches of the tree to the murky gloom of an underground lake. There is movement on nearly every screen: pollen like specks floating in the air, mossy tendrils swaying in the breeze, and tiny particles moving through the transparent limbs of the tree. Many strange organisms populate the world—some are vaguely familiar, while others seem completely alien. There are wingless woodpeckers with insect like legs, creatures that look like garlic bulbs with eyes and teeth that bark like dogs, and strange entities that resemble large black lollipops balanced on the end of their sticks.
The music in the game is minimal, usually playing after the characters have solved a puzzle. It has an earthy, tribal feel to it, with the sounds of voices chanting and rhythmic clapping, which fits the organic, mystical look of the game very well. The sound in the game is a mixture of natural sounds (birds singing, insects trilling, some human voices) with several artificial sounds (metal banging, musical instruments playing). At times, even the most familiar sound is played in a setting where it is least expected, adding to the game's surreal feel.
Botanicula is not without its downsides, however. Sometimes, an essential object may be hidden on a screen and cannot be located without repeatedly clicking on and arbitrarily searching the screen. There are also some exits on a screen that can easily be overlooked.
Additionally, I ran into a couple of glitches that made progress in the game impossible, forcing me to load a saved game. I also experienced some screens in the game where the animation and sound got out of sync.
All in all, Botanicula is a strange, beautiful game, and what it lacks in dialogue and story it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Though some of the puzzles may be a bit obscure and difficult to figure out, there is still much to see, hear, and do within the game's surreal world. Though Amanita Design's games may be an acquired taste for some gamers, in other ways these games have a nearly universal appeal. In many respects, Botanicula is a work of art in the way it holds a mirror up to nature, though the mirror used by the game's creator is more like the mirrors found in a carnival funhouse: at first glance, the reflection is foreign and a little unsettling, but upon closer examination, a strange, unique sort of loveliness of its own can be seen.