Alien Garden

by Bernie DeKoven on October 10, 2012

During our preparations for our keynote presentation at IndieCade, Eric Zimmerman and I were discussing some of my earlier, foundational work with computer games – specifically my work with art games.

In 1981 I closed the Games Preserve to work at Automated Simulations with Jon Freeman. There, I developed a series of games called “Mind Toys,” the first of which was a strategy game called Ricochet,

the next, Alien Garden.

My role was, and, unfortunately, remains an unusual one for the computer game industry. I designed the concept and the game play, but did not program or develop the games (other than to tweak the design to take advantage of what the programmers discovered during the development process). Because “designer” has come to mean the person who designs and executes the code for the game, game historians frequently do not credit me for my contribution to these games. Nevertheless, they were my games as much as they were the work of the people who brought them into virtual being.

After I completed Ricochet (which was designed to take up no more than 4K, and produced in tape and cartridge form for all the major game consoles of the period), I was fortunate to have Jaron Lanier for my programming partner with the Alien Garden project. He understood the concept and fantasy, and, along with the programming, created a delightfully alien soundscape.

Alien Garden has been considered one of the first “art games” produced for a game console. Some also understand it as one of the first “virtual toys.” I consider it one of the first non-combat games. There’s nothing to fight here. There’s nothing to defend against. Unless you want to. It’s as much of a puzzle as a game, putting the player in an environment that was not innately threatening, inviting the player to explore and discover the properties of the alien flowers.

In the game, the player is an alien bee. When the bee encounters a flower (a crystal made of character graphics), the bee can make a new kind of crystal appear by either eating the current crystal, or exploding it. With success, the alien bee can create a beautifully varied garden.

The crystal transforms depending on how the bee interacts with it. The bee can try to eat it, sting it, or brush it with its wings (the bee can be reoriented via the joystick). It can also pull itself into a ball if it wishes to protect itself from unanticipated flower fury.

Each different crystal, however, has different properties. And what works for one crystal probably won’t work for the next. So, to reveal the varied glories of the entire garden, the player has to experiment, observe, and remember.

You do get scored for how much you eat. Though nothing happens if you decide not to eat. And the higher your score, the narrower the channel you have to fly in safely.

Ah, so much fun to have, so much to play with.

That clarified, the reason for this post: I just discovered that some Atari-8-bit game-loving soul went to the trouble to make a video of Alien Garden in more or less action, thereby answering all further questions. Behold:


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