Monsters are a bit like us. They are materializations of our darkest fears, and reflections of our darkest selves. We fear them, and yet we can't stop pitying the poor creatures, because we all have days when we feel like them. Days when our body feels all wrong, like a skin suit that doesn't perfectly adhere to our shape. Days when we feel like we don't fit anywhere, when we are broken and lost. Monster Garden is a game for those days.
In Monster Garden you play Mr. Bobo, an orange creature with a big butt and an even bigger heart. Bobo wants to create a safe space for monsters: a place where friends can chill together without danger or worries. To do this, he visits pocket dimensions enclosed within withered seedlings, exploring strange places and recruiting new friends. As he heals the seedlings, the garden grows, becoming bigger and brimming with life.
Monster Garden features no fights, or items, or plot twists. You almost expect to find those genre standards sooner or later, because this is an RPG Maker game and so many of them feel compelled to stick to the formula, but Monster Garden remains committed to nonviolence. The only way to interact with other monsters is through dialogue. Instead of directly choosing your lines though, you decide which monster in your party will speak.
Every creature has a different way of dealing with others, and learning their personalities is crucial to obtain the desired outcome. The long-tongued Foofter, for example, is a shy and timid friend. He doesn't deal well with mean monsters, but he's good at relating with other anxious beings. FRYER, on the other hand, is just a giant eye bolted on a lump of flesh. His specialization is to rudely stare at everyone, an act that could intimidate monsters or enrage them. There is no 'correct' way to play: sometimes monsters reach an understanding, sometimes they don't. And that's fine.
Traditional RPGs tend to treat the party as a bunch of pawns at your disposal, but Monster Garden recognizes their individuality—and most importantly, it deals with the idea that sometimes it's OK to step aside and let other people talk. It's rare to find a game that gives so much dignity to individual characters, let alone to monsters.
We are used to butchering endless spawns of virtual goblins and demons without even regarding them as living creatures. When games let you play as a monster, they usually treat it as a power fantasy, allowing you to trample over your enemies and use exotic abilities. Some games, like Pokémon, allow you to tame and control monsters. Others, like the recently released Monster Prom, make you fight to conquer their hearts. There is almost always a degree of power control at play, but Monster Garden eschews this entirely.
Each encounter in Monster Garden can be handled in many different ways, and this explains why such a short game (around 30 minutes for a complete playthrough) can have so much replayability. It also tracks your progress, monitoring how you explore locations and the elements you interact with. Depending on your actions, you may encounter completely different monsters during each of your playthroughs.
Monster Garden might be about monsters, but its most unsettling aspect is not the creature design: what really makes you feel uneasy is its simple tone, the cheerfulness, the bright colors. You almost expect something to go wrong at any time, because games usually aren't—can't be—this pure.
At first it looks and feels like a game aimed at kids, like a Teletubbies episode in videogame form. As you start playing though, you realize it is indeed for grown-ups—confused, broken and tired grown-ups. The text reads like a manual of self-care for millennials, with monsters constantly reminding each other that it's OK to feel tired, it's OK to fail, and it's OK to feel scared, and lonely, and hurt.
You know that sensation when you scroll your Twitter feed and amidst the war, the horrors of capitalism, the depression and the rage you spot a single tweet that says "IT'S OK TO REST SOMETIMES"? Monster Garden is like that tweet. Its contrast between cheerfulness and despair vaguely reminds of Everything is Going to Be OK, although Monster Garden feels more optimistic.
The solution to everything wrong with the world, according to monsters, is Monster Love: a powerful, mystical energy that seems to permeate the universe, akin to Star Wars' Force.
In an essay published on his website, the creator explains what Monster Love exactly is: "Treating bizarre creatures with casual frankness, playing around in a safe, warm world, following mysterious rules, and having an endearing lack of self-awareness… All of these reflect different aspects of monster love, but at its core it's about treating the unknown with curiosity and respect instead of the desire to destroy it in the name of protecting what's familiar."
It's such a lovely concept brimming with childish innocence, like a Disney movie where the Power of Friendship triumphs over all. The focus on love is also one of the reasons Monster Garden is tagged as a dating sim on Steam, even though no dating elements are actually present. (The author made a short promotional dating sim based on the game, though. You can try it here.) In a world riddled with despair, perhaps the idea of fixing everything with the power of love is the ultimate power fantasy.