Review: Spring Falls. Natural awareness in an abstract puzzle game?

I discovered the indie game Spring Falls thanks to the “Bundle for Social Justice and Equality” (which I discussed here). The game has been created by Eric Billingsley, @SparseGameDev.

Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls
Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls

Spring Falls is not about natural heritage, but about nature more broadly. Here I will try to describe the game, without too many spoilers, and analyzing whether it could raise nature awareness or educate about nature. Please note, that I am not aware whether or not it was one of the purposes of the game author.

In terms of gameplay, this is a puzzle game: at each level, you have to find a specific configuration to reach the next level. During these puzzles, the player’s objective is to make flowers blooms.

Cropped screenshot blooming flower in Spring Falls
Cropped screenshot blooming flower in Spring Falls

The game is organized around hexagons, which figure the ground. The player can lower these when they are wet: close to water. As a consequence, the player’s control over the scene is similar to terraforming.

Screenshot of an hexagone tile in Spring Falls (wet ground hexagon at the center)
Screenshot of an hexagone tile in Spring Falls (wet ground hexagon at the center)

For a flower to bloom you need adjacent water and fertile ground on the same level. Lowering the ground allows the player to control the water flow. The player can create ponds or rivers. It is also possible to expand fertile ground if there is water and an appropriate ground tile nearby. As such, the theme of the game is well embedded in its gameplay.

The game is built very elegantly around the concept of the waterfall. The first level is at the top and, with each level, you go down the waterfall. The difficulty increases as you go down, as more game mechanics are added: some ground pops up, and you get to also monitor closely the level of water.

The overall atmosphere of the game is relaxing, thanks to the visuals, sounds of water, and music, as well as the intuitive and rewarding gameplay. It reminded me of playing Monument Valley, with less narrative and a different theme.

The game can become frustrating as difficulty increases, and the plants keep dying. As I progressed through it, the game felt less relaxing but more compelling to me, but it will of course vary a lot depending on the players and their play context.

A player can always reload a level or go back to its previous actions, but it might still be hard to find the solution as there are multiple combinations. In case you are stuck on a level, please note that you can jump one level and still continue playing.

While the game is not about gardening, it requires the player to be extremely cautious about the vicinity and mutual interactions of plants, fertile ground, and water, which is an important activity in gardening and in permaculture.

The game also discusses water, an element present in almost any game where the player is supposed to grow plants. However, unlike most commercial agricultural games, the player has to deal sometimes with the scarcity of water (See “Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game” by Alenda Chang https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5dc9/bb6ff9b6bce9861f456fd9950aca12731dfb.pdf?_ga=2.256099083.1687778027.1597254755-361296542.1597254755, a paper that I discussed briefly in this previous article). These points make me think the game could be interesting for increasing nature awareness.

Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls, where all tiles are underwater, preventing the fertile ground to expand and the plants to grow.
Screenshot of a level in Spring Falls, where all tiles are underwater, preventing the fertile ground to expand and the plants to grow.

There are no humans or animals, so nothing to distract the player from the vegetal and the mineral world. Beyond its mineral and vegetal quality, the world is fictional: the location and the flowers seemed unknown and undefined to me. They could have been inspired by actual flowers or place, but nothing is named or clearly indicated.

As in Vestigia-Songe, the reward and objective is a full-bloomed flower (sometimes several bloomed flowers simultaneously). It can be both a good and a bad thing for nature awareness. Flowers are from the vegetal realm, but they also increase the idea that precious and beautiful plants only must be taken care of. This is reinforced by the fact that, in some levels, all the fertile ground must dry for a flower to bloom. It is an obvious thing to do for a developer as people are used to be rewarded with beautiful flowers, not weeds, but in terms of nature education, it might not be ideal to reinforce the current hierarchization of vegetal elements.

Modifying the ground is the main mechanics. It would be rather frowned upon in permaculture, which generally considers the ground should be touched as few as possible (see especially “No-till farming”). This questions the game’s use for education about nature, but as the game is not really about farming, I wouldn’t consider it a huge issue. Moreover, terraforming is not unlimited in the game.

Finishing the game took me 3-4 hours. It was a very pleasant experience! I recommend it either if you are into puzzle games or games about nature.

Please let me know if you try it! I would be interested in getting other players’ feedbacks.

Edit: After sharing this article on Twitter (https://twitter.com/edwigelel/status/1293916569748168707), I got some additional informations from the author of the game, Eric Billingsley:

“the hexagonal tiles are meant to evoke columnar basalt formations.”

“Some of the water sounds were recorded at Latourell Falls in Oregon (pictured here), which has those rock formations. Other sounds were recorded in the Gatineau Hills in Québec.”

Picture of Larourell Falls, a location that inspired the game Spring Falls, by Eric Billingsley (shared with the author’s authorisation)

“Though the flowers are unnamed in the game, most were modeled after botanical drawings of flowers from the Canadian Rockies from the book “Rocky Mountain Wildflowers” by A.E. Porsild and Dagny Tande Lid. The drawings are quite beautiful!”

We can consider that the tiles and the sounds of the game indicate a strong nature awareness of the author, at least. Its perception of natural elements are mediated to the player through the game.

On the other hand, the flowers are based on a book mediating nature. As such, we can consider they are a second degree mediation (minimum, if the book has been drawn from direct observation by Dagny Tande Lid).

The game is actually much more grounded in real-world nature than I felt when I played it and analysed afterwards. It is probably due to the absence of names for the plants and places, or of any references.

In term of game study methodology, it shows once again how informative the creation process of an art piece can be.


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.