The Miller's Garden

by Damon L. Wakes

2021

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Number of Reviews: 6
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A simple idea well-communicated, November 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

A short mood piece – if it were a painting, it’d be a landscape – The Miller’s Garden provides a tidy meditation on impermanence. There’s no backstory or characters, just a situation: the player comes to an abandoned garden by the side of a river, which is slowly being reclaimed by weeds and water, and each day can choose how and whether to try to shore it up – cutting the reeds, mowing the grass, maintaining the rocky banks.

Of course there’s a catch, and the catch is – well, spoilers for a ten-minute game: (Spoiler - click to show) entropy, because this isn’t a farming sim. No matter how much you shore up the riverbank, the water will eventually drown the garden. Pleasantly, this isn’t just a matter of nature swallowing the hubristic works of man, since my reading of the game is that the construction of the now-defunct mill changed the behavior of the river, and now the river is in turn changing the garden. There’s a nice sentiment that emerges here, as you tend the garden to create some transient beauty before the inevitable comes, without the game implying that this is a futile or useless task (besides the occasional prompt asking you if you’re sure you want to persist until the end – I detected no judgment when I said I wanted to do so.)

It’s a lovely idea and it works on its own terms, but I wished there’d been a little more descriptive zing to the prose. Since this is such a small thing, confined to the same few locations and the same few tasks over multiple days, I would have liked to see a little more detail on exactly what kind of flowers are growing, or have the river’s rise rendered with a bit more sensitivity. Still, there’s a power in restraint in a piece of this kind, so I can respect that.

Highlight: The game is pretty much of a piece, but I got a lot of enjoyment from the opening epigram, which quotes from a recent scientific paper on the game’s exact subject matter – I can’t help but wonder whether it was the impetus for the piece’s creation.

Lowlight: I’m not sure if this was a bug or not, but about midway through the game, the garden’s flowerbed location seemed to disappear, so I could only go from the lawn to the river-bank. I liked that flowerbed, so I missed it!

How I failed the author : it took me way longer to realize the flowerbed had gone away than it should have (blame sleep deprivation).