In February 2022, novelist, futurist, and Orion contributor Ken Liu joined video game designer Liz Fiacco to discuss Cloud Gardens as part of the CSI Skill Tree series, hosted by Joey Eschrich at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination.
WE SPEAK SO MUCH about nature these days: cleaning it up or removing ourselves from it. Much of the discourse that we engage in seems to be about removing the human from nature. And that obviously sets up an opposition between what is human and what is nature, which we all sense deep down is not quite right. We don’t really want to think that way, and yet we seem to be unable to escape that kind of discourse. When we see human objects in nature, we have been trained to view it as negative. It seems to suggest that we’re to make it so that humans are no longer there. Can that really be what we mean?
Cloud Gardens takes on all of those questions. It’s ambivalent and doesn’t come out with a specific message at all. You are invited to think about this. If humans were gone tomorrow from this planet, nature would not somehow be restored; it would simply grow into the spaces where humans are now, and you would end up with a landscape where the human and the “natural” are mixed together. And we are forced to rethink what it means to have nature, what it means to be part of it, what it means to have these extracted objects being a part of the landscape. The game tries to make you take the perspective that nature is just as happy with an abandoned parking lot as it is with rich soil. It will figure out some way of using it. It’s about the radical acceptance of human irrelevance. And in that irrelevance, we achieve our potential, because we are no longer standing outside of nature, but are truly part of it.
Joey Eschrich: Welcome, everyone, to CSI Skill Tree. In this series, we take a close look at video games to examine and celebrate the work they do in envisioning the future and building rich, thought-provoking worlds. The game we’re going to be talking about is Cloud Gardens, a strangely soothing gardening game that explores environmental themes in a cryptic and quietly complex way. It refuses end-of-the-world catastrophism and it raises questions about the boundaries that we always construct between the organic and the built; the human and the non-human, the sublime and the dystopian.
Ken Liu: I found Cloud Gardens both cryptic and also strangely inviting. When you start the game, you’re presented with this post-industrial landscape, some sort of ruin, wreckage of where humans are no longer there. It might be an abandoned parking lot or a broken highway entrance ramp. You poke around it until you find a seed, and you plant the seed somewhere in that landscape, and then you’re given a bunch of objects: a wrecked car, old computer monitors, traffic cones, things that are left behind. As you place these objects in that landscape, they generate some energy that causes your seed to grow. The plants flower and bear fruit, and allow you to get more seeds and plant them around the landscape. The cycle continues: more objects to place, to encourage the growth of the plants. Tour goal is to get to the point where the coverage of plant life is sufficient for you to advance to the next stage.
Liz Fiacco: Opposed to farming games, where you might be growing plants, there’s a focus on analog placement. You can really drop objects anywhere. They have a tendency to tumble off ledges and stuff. So you have to accept these surprises. It becomes part of the aesthetic. It’s just a little bit haphazard, a little bit accidental. It’s a game that promotes overgrowth, as opposed to a very manicured kind of garden.
Joey Eschrich: You’ve called this a reverse development game, unlike empire-building games like SimCity or the Civilization series. Cloud Gardens isn’t about linear notions of growth, it’s not about economic expansion, and yet you’re moving these dioramas around and positioning things. As a game designer, what kind of challenges does that present?
Liz Fiacco: It’s a challenging prospect to step away from this idea of exponential growth in games, because we’re in that system in real life. The way they go about that is to build it as a puzzle game: you make these individual spaces, then you start with a blank slate on the next one. So it’s not like you’ve got progression.
Joey Eschrich: It really refuses the opposition that you might feel between the trash and the plants. It’s not a versus game. You’re actually placing both, and they interlock with each other.
Ken Liu: A lot of these gardening placement games are like that: they are not games that tell a story, they invite you to tell the story with it. So when I was playing, the idea of going as fast as possible towards the next stage was no longer interesting to me. I don’t think it’s a game that tries to encourage you to rack up high scores or try to go for achievements and whatnot. The real point is, can you figure out what happened here? Who were the people who lived here? Who were the people who abandoned these things? What were they doing before they left?
After a while, you start to construct this story and invest yourself in that landscape, and it becomes not just a puzzle, but the place where people whose stories you care about took place. And at some point, the stage is over and you’re shuttled onto the next stage, where there’s a blank canvas and you get to do this all over again.
It ends up becoming a very meditative experience. It doesn’t fill you with this dread that you’re not accomplishing some sort of goal. It’s not about extracting resources, not about taking things out and exchanging them for higher value. It’s really about putting things down.
Joey Eschrich: Liz, could you talk a little bit about environmental storytelling, building on what Ken is saying?
Liz Fiacco: Sure. Environmental storytelling in video games means setting up a space so the details of that space imply certain backstory to it. It can be on the nose, like “zombies inside” spray painted on a door; or it can be subtle, like walking into a living room and seeing a bunch of unread magazines on the coffee table. It implies something about the people who use that space, and the history of that space, and the timescale that space exists in. It’s a very interactive way to understand what happened there without needing to stop the game and explain it to you.
And what Ken was getting at with this game is, it puts that back in the player’s hand. They give you this limited palette to work with, and then it’s up to the player to decide the significance of each object as they place them down. “Okay, it’s a briefcase. What did they use it for? Were they traveling across the continent?” You make your own environmental storytelling within the space.
Ken Liu: I remember I got these beer cans. This is where they were having their little party. And who knows what they were thinking about? Maybe it was the last day before the end of the world, or maybe they just decided to stop here for one day.
I also found it really interesting that none of the signage is written in a readable language. You can see their traffic signs or road signs, but you can’t tell what’s written there. Modern life is so filled with reading. We read everything. Everything is a signifier. This game actively resists that approach. You’re here not to extract meaning, you’re here to imply a story for yourself.
Liz Fiacco: In your head, you’re like, “Oh, a beer can. I’m going to put it next to these lawn chairs. This is where they have the party.” And then immediately the beer can falls off the ledge, and now that becomes part of the story. The game’s physicalized mechanics co-authors that with you. And then time and nature takes over of the direction of the growth.
Ken Liu: We speak so much about nature these days: cleaning it up or removing ourselves from it. Much of the environmental discourse that we engage in seems to be about removing the human from nature. And that obviously sets up an opposition between what is human and what is nature, which we all sense deep down is not quite right. We don’t really want to think that way, and yet we seem to be unable to escape that kind of discourse. When we see human objects in nature, we have been trained to view it as negative. It seems to suggest that we’re to make it so that humans are no longer there. Can that really be what we mean? This game takes all of those questions. This is a world in which one of the tools you have is this chainsaw. And you’re going to have to figure out when you want to cut down the wild growth and place more human objects into it. You’re going to have to figure out how you feel about the fact that the way to make this plant grow is by putting a stack of tires next to it.
It’s very ambivalent and doesn’t come out with a specific message at all. You are invited to think about this. If humans were gone tomorrow from this planet, this is exactly what would happen. Nature would not somehow be restored; it will simply grow into the spaces where humans are now, and you would end up with a landscape where the human and the “natural” are mixed together. And we are forced to rethink what it means to have nature, what it means to be part of it, what it means to have these extracted objects being a part of the landscape.
Liz Fiacco: The interplay between human leftovers and the natural is what drew me to this game in the first place. I had just moved to Pittsburgh and I was really interested in this sort of post-industrial aesthetic, where a lot of these old factory buildings that were no longer in use were starting to get overgrown and then reused by humans in another way. That kind of exchange is very interesting to me: humans develop something, nature takes it back, and then humans develop it again.
Joey Eschrich: It strikes me, talking to the two of you, what a neat trick these mechanics pull off. Other games that are about remediation have a moral valence to them, even if they don’t mean to. “We’re cleaning things up, we’re busting out the concrete and letting the roots grow again.” And that narrative about withdrawing and making things untouched, that sort of Emersonian impulse, can be destructive and profoundly anti-humanist.
We’re going to have to learn to live in those ruins and find beauty in them. We’re going to have to find ways to value nature in that form, because, most of us don’t get to experience the sort of untrammeled, beautiful, pristine environments.
Ken Liu: I also like that the game’s mechanics make you experience something that I think is increasingly rare in modern life, which is the idea that being human can also mean being not in control. Our discourse is very focused human agency. We design a city, we build a city, we are going to remove the wilderness, we’re going to impose our will on it, but that’s not the only way to be human. But a lot of it is about throwing some seeds out and then seeing what happens.
Liz Fiacco: It definitely rewards you for that. I don’t think I’ve ever played a level in Cloud Gardens, and then at the end, felt dissatisfied with how it looks. It looks beautiful no matter what happens.
Joey Eschrich: The game is indeed complicating the human/nature binary, but you do have this five-fingered glove that you use when you move your cursor around. So there is this sort of way that the player is shaping these environments. You have to do things to it to make things happen. Does this reliance on interaction undercut the agency of the natural world?
Ken Liu: Because this is something that I think about a lot. I’m very influenced by a line of thinking that dates back to the early American transcendentalists, that’s much more commonly now expressed through writers like Annie Dillard, this radical skepticism about traditional Western notions of human agency being opposed to nature. The very idea that we define certain things as poison and toxin to nature, implies certain knowledge that we don’t actually have. Whatever heavy metals and polymers we produce, if we just leave them in nature, nature will evolve, given enough time, to consume it. What to us is poison will be food to someone else. So to say that something is poisonous is not really about nature, so much as it is about us. It’s poisonous to us as we are constituted. It is a self-interested discussion about making the environment suitable for us.
The game tries to make you take the perspective that nature is just as happy with an abandoned parking lot as it is with rich soil. It will figure some way out of using it. It’s really about the radical acceptance of human irrelevance. And in that irrelevance, we truly achieve our potential, because, we are no longer standing outside of nature, but are truly part of it. What we do, the acts that we commit, are acts of nature.
Liz Fiacco is a video game designer at Wildflower Interactive. She has worked on games including Kena: Bridge of Spirits, The Last of Us 2, and Uncharted 4.
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.