Gnomes Garden is one of those games that doesn't mandate high expectations or drastic stakes. You won't scream and rage-quit after another unceremonious death. In fact, you may briefly ponder that the existing time limit is impossible to complete, pout, and then try again in a bit. I haven't played in a bit because Martha is Dead was taking up my time, but I am eager to return to it when I need a soothing game that sets the exact fair amount of expectations.
Yet this game has a dark side. When I was streaming it, I jokingly referred to it as "Taming of the serfs!" The game seemed to involve some backward politics that the pixels did not want to betray with their shiny qualities. I often talked about it during streams, why the king was useless and the princess is a micromanager.
I've only played the first two games in the series, and Gnomes Garden is an entire franchise. There's even a Halloween version! Both follow the same pattern, with point-and-click strategy games. It's pretty low-key, in that you won't die, and as a result, you basically play for bragging rights. Bragging rights are fun, though, as is a low learning curve when your fingers don't know how to dodge bullet hell.
A great storm devastates Gnomes Kingdom. The King falls ill as a result, with his gardens ruined. His daughter determines that he will only get better if she takes over his kingdom repair duties. She travels from town to town, helping build houses for witches or firemen, and collecting seeds for trees. You get flags based on how quickly you finish the missions; there's even a power-up where you can stop the timer for a few seconds. Getting one of those is a lifesaver as the tasks become more complicated and difficult.
You would think that with such stakes, the princess would be the one to go out and get the villages repaired. She seems tough enough in the picture book-style illustrations. In the second game, a jealous sorcerer thinks that she's enough of a threat to transport her to a kingdom where they have the same problems, and she resolves to help so as to find a way to get home. But no, this princess won't wield a hammer to grab the stone. We don't even see if she has a casual work outfit.
Instead, the princess orders different gnome serfs to do the work for her. Specifically, you'll do that by clicking on the items that you want to collect, the wooden obstacles that you need to chop to clear the roads, and the fields where you can gather food. You can even invest in a higher number of serfs. While you do make progress, the princess only appears onscreen during the picture book cutscenes She's willing to collect the seeds that can revive the gardens but won't roll up her sleeves to learn how to carry bundles of pumpkins or grapes, or how to collect stone from a quarry. You can collect power-ups to make the serfs move faster, to stop time when you want to get the highest flag, or to rapidly hammer through the different items you need to break up. The game encourages you to work fast rather than unionize. No one gets a break until you complete all the goals on the list, or reset if you feel that you cannot find an answer.
This system seems familiar. It was once called feudalism. We may have seen it in Europe, where peasants would live on rented-out land and deliver their goods to barons, lords, and kings. While William the Conqueror claimed that it worked, it didn't. Serfs often had to pay more than what they were owed as laborers, all because there were no unions or worker protections. When the Black Death happened, this system started to fizzle out as sickness wiped out people. Some historical scholars even claim that feudalism didn't exist the way that we saw it at the time, and that it was a construct to explain complex societal structures.
The devastation happened because goofy fantasy feudalism doesn't work. When the kingdom fell to ruin, the gnome serfs had no incentive to go out and repair the fields which bore fruit, or fix the holes in their homes. They lacked the resources that would put food on the table and keep them going for another year. The princess had to come out and provide the resources that they needed. What feels classist is they waited on her to provide the direction as well.
Another interesting obstacle may contribute to this theory: the elves. In the later levels, random elves come in on paths that you clear and incapacitate your serfs by blowing magical music at them. You have to get a fireman hut built and give them the means to blow their horn in the elf's faces to make them leave. Once they're gone, your serfs need a few seconds to recover from the enchanted dizziness. They somehow have to recover alone and don't get a moment to recover if you are moving fast. Yes, this is as ridiculous as it sounds and I was a bit surprised the first time that I encountered these little bastards.
What incentives do the elves have to inhibit your renovations? They should want the fields back, along with the lumber and the shrines where you can get freebies to help with the repairs. Yet they come and mess things up, for no reason. The stone ogres just seem to be conscious rock and are happy if the witches manage to remove their magic. They don't even attack you, just block the paths. But the elves? They are bastards and don't even have a reason to be. There probably is a lore reason.
But, in all seriousness...
I don't think this game is an intense analysis of feudalism and why it doesn't work. The story is meant to be a light-hearted romp that teaches the importance of resource management when you have witches in need of employment. You can spend a bit of time going through the map as well as the different climates, and wondering if you can befriend the Kraken that shows off its tentacles in the coastal levels.
It's more a comment that the simple worldbuilding leaves a few holes when you have a protagonist that is supposed to be proactive and brave but doesn't really get to show her stuff onscreen. We are acting like her, but we are being bossy. It does make her seem exactly like the person who let the kingdom go to ruin: her father. So the princess needs to get a move on to ensure that she is a ruler that has a support system, as of the first two games.
It'd be great to explore more games from the creator that aren't in the Gnomes Garden franchise. They know how to create a relaxing aura when some of us don't want to wind down by shooting something up.
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