In 2020, picturesque nature is everywhere in video games. Take Ghost of Tsushima, an open world romp through the pampas fields of thirteenth-century Japan, or indeed the wildlife-filled islands of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Part of their appeal (admittedly with very different vibes) is the pastoral fantasy; they offer havens for us to lose ourselves in.
This isn’t the case in The Garden of Earthly Delights, a new interactive chatroom where every user is an animal from the classic Microsoft strategy game Age of Empires II. Lions, deer, and even penguins populate a landscape lifted from the game, all while AI-assisted humans shoot them down with arrows. Death fills the screen, chaos reigns; it's named after Hieronymus Bosch’s biblical triptych, but it feels more like a cartoonish vision of the American old west.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is simple yet potent. You metamorphose between animals using the directional arrows and explore the landscape using the WASD keys. If you do happen to get skewered by an incoming projectile, the game teleports you to another host, almost tormenting you with the perpetual loop of reincarnation. There’s a tendency in nature-rich games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 to strive for realism. The physical endings of their worlds are often depicted as environmental phenomena such as huge bodies of water. The Garden of Earthly Delights swaps such virtual barriers for a literal, extremely conspicuous frame, and by doing so pulls attention towards the fact that these virtual creatures exist solely for our own gaze, almost like a zoo.
It’s worth ending on how its makers SCRNPRNT refer to the game as an “online chatroom for the animals of Age of Empires II.” I only conversed with one other player, but even that short exchange highlighted the futility of attempting to give a voice to nonhumans through people; of course it was us speaking, not the animals. However, this part of the game added an eerie dimension I wasn’t expecting; once we started chatting, I momentarily forgot about the in-game death and destruction. It felt like the kind of distraction technique lots of us employ on a daily basis, whether that's to guard against environmental crises or whatever else. Ultimately, it felt like a neat microcosm of what it means to play video games right now.