Not long ago I asked on Twitter whether there was content people wanted to see more or less of on this blog, and one respondent said he missed the reviews of casual games with a narrative bent. (Miss Management remains my gold standard in this field, but there were others that I also really enjoyed.)
I answered that I don’t play as many of those as I used to: partly because my schedule has gotten more demanding, and partly because the time management and casual simulation games went through a phase where they just weren’t that great any more.
However, that conversation reminded me that there was a casual game I’d been meaning to try out — a mobile game called Lily’s Garden that received a warm write-up a while back from Carly Kocurek. And I’d heard a little from narrative designer Stella Sacco about what she was doing with the content, and was intrigued by the promise of a nuanced, grown-up storyline.
The premise of Lily’s Garden is that Lily has been through a difficult time — in particular, she’s caught her useless, slick boyfriend Blaine cheating on her — and she simultaneously inherits the sprawling estate of her Great-Aunt Mary. When she gets there, she finds that the gardens are a mess, and that she’ll only get to keep the inheritance if she gets the place cleaned up within a month.
This is a daunting challenge — I think a professional landscaper would have a hard time cleaning up this much territory in 30 days — but fortunately Lily’s neighbors prove friendly, and she’s soon building a little community. Her neighbor Luke pitches in to restore the gazebo; her new friend Regina comes to help out with carpentry and related tasks.
Almost all of the interactivity comes in the form of gardening, which you do in screens like this:
Solve a level, gain a star. You can then spend stars on performing tasks on Lily’s task list: one star to weed a flower-bed, maybe, but some of the bigger chores are two or three-star tasks.
Every time you do a task on the task list, you get a little bit of story — about the people Lily is meeting, how they help her, what they say to her while they’re working.
Sometimes you might have two or three tasks open at a time, and be choosing which to do next, which means you have some light ability to choose which narrative track you most want to pursue at the moment: interact with Luke’s adorable dog, or go and talk to Lily’s skeezy cousin? You do have to get through all the tasks for a given day before going on to the next, so it’s not as though you’re ever choosing not to see a particular story episode, but in this way it’s not completely linear.
The structure is also really nice from an experience pacing perspective. If you want, you can trade off in strict order, playing a level or two and then immediately spending your stars on a narrative passage. Or you can play a whole bunch of levels, rack up the stars, and spend them all on a glut of story. Your choice.
So far there have been one or two other experimental aspects that I’m a bit more dubious about; at one point, there’s a cliff-hanger plot event that you have to wait a few hours to play, or else (you guessed it) spend coins to accelerate the big reveal. This struck me as cheesy. Your mileage may vary, and of course, I have no access to Tactile’s metrics on whether this has proved to be a successful form of monetization. It is still a way less creepy form of monetizing than the narrative games that charge you real-world money to have sexual agency in the story.
Other than that, though, most of the monetization is about giving yourself ways to play more levels more quickly, or getting a few extra moves when you’re just a little way off winning — so it’s a more systematic form of monetization. I played the game for about a week and a half without spending anything on it, and then I did buy some coins in order to support Tactile. (I spent about as much money as I would have spent on two premium games, on the judgment that I’d had roughly that much gameplay.) But it’s possible to have the intended narrative experience without paying at key junctures, which sets this apart from a lot of f2p narrative pieces.
I have not gotten through the whole story — indeed, I believe that Tactile is still releasing new content over time, so I think it’s not complete, but I haven’t yet reached the content barrier myself.
But the story that I’ve found, I’m enjoying. It starts off in a pretty standard way, with a call to (mis)adventure, and the heroine with a crew of eccentric helpers is a standard trope from Gilmore Girls to Flo’s Diner.
Lily’s ex-boyfriend Blaine is cartoonishly awful, and maybe that’s appropriate; Lily’s not really in a frame of mind to see any good sides he might have, at this point. But the other characters have their secrets and quirks. They don’t always get along, either, for reasons that are not necessarily anyone’s fault; Lily spends some time mediating between people when none of them are bad or even unpleasant, but they are just a bit at odds.
It also helps that the gameplay is excellent. Lily’s Garden is a free-to-play game, and it frequently invites you to spend money on power-ups and extra lives. However, it’s quite a lot of fun to play even if you don’t spend anything. What looks initially like a basic matching implementation soon morphs into a fairly elaborate puzzle game:
…and you can also create explosives that will clear big chunks of the board. The explosives interact with each other, too, so you may find yourself spending five or ten turns creating rockets and bombs and getting them placed just right to cause the chain reaction to destroy exactly the things you need destroyed, and then setting the whole thing off in a gloriously explosive multi-second sequence. It’s all the gratification of a good outcome on Peggle, except with a lot more intentionality about the setup.
Still, sometimes bad luck means that even with skill, you can’t get clear a level on a particular run through, and you have to go around again, or extend your move count to give yourself an extra chance.
Obviously some of that design is motivated by the free-to-play aspect of the game — Tactile wants you to get stuck just enough that you have a reason to pay for unlocks, naturally — but I also felt it worked, thematically. In Lily’s universe, things sometimes just go sideways, and it’s not a simple question of not working hard enough or being fast enough — as some time management games imply.
The fantasy of this game is not about being magically perfect enough to get everything done and keep everyone happy all the time. It’s about being a human who sometimes fails at stuff, or sometimes has a really bad day, but whose competence, hard work, and friendship is enough to keep things moving forward most of the time anyway.