Dark, twisting worlds filled with giant, human-sized bugs and mutated creatures aren’t normally where you expect to find an easygoing adventure. Yet Mutazione manages to deliver comfort from some environments that might be intimidating in any other game.
Developed by Die Gute Frabrik, the studio behind Sportsfriends and Johann Sebastian Joust, Mutazione is a 2D point-and-click adventure that fuses an extensive story ... with gardening. The game follows Kai, a funny but shy teenage girl, as she visits her ailing grandfather on the island of Mutazione.
The island’s name — the Italian word for “mutation” — refers to the human mutants that now live there after the area was hit by a meteor. Kai might find herself making conversation with a pile of jelly, or a cat woman, as she explores her new surroundings. It’s a charmingly off-beat collection of characters that adds an extra surreal layer to the game’s tone.
Kai’s grandfather, the town shaman and gardener, has fallen sick and can’t leave bed. The town’s gardens begin to die, and Kai may be the only person who can bring them back. Kai’s grandfather evades her questions about why gardening is so important on the island, and why she alone must take on the burden of keeping the gardens healthy. The townspeople urge her to trust her grandfather, however, and thus our hero begins her journey.
Learning to slow down
The game doesn’t saddle Kai with dozens of to-do items, which allows her to focus on completing one task at a time. I never felt like I was finishing a never-ending number of fetch-quests.
It helps that the in-game days are, quite literally, long. The game took me around 9 hours to complete, and takes place over the course of a single in-game week. That leaves a lot of play time to each individual day, and there’s really a sense of urgency propelling me forward.
I spend my time exploring the island, talking to the villagers by clicking through dialogue, or tending to the gardens themselves. Although talking to each and every villager every day isn’t necessary to advance the main plot of the game, I often find myself hitting them up to talk anyways. It’s the only real way to get the dirty deets on everyone in town, which adds much more context to events in the game. It reminded me of times spent with my own grandma, gossiping on the porch, learning about the goings-on of distant relatives and neighbors. It feels a little naughty, without tripping over into mean-spiritedness.
But participating in gossip sessions won’t help me bring the gardens back to life. I also spend a considerable amount of time arranging plants in various gardens scattered throughout the island. Kai gardens by herself, but soon finds out that the practice leads her to develop intimate relationships with the islanders. As she gardens, and completes tasks for the locals, she demonstrates that she cares about them, and their home.
And the flora and fauna aren’t just pretty set dressing. Gardening allows Kai to interact with the plants by caring for them. Once Kai learns a growing ritual — one that significantly speeds up the growth of the plants — from her grandfather, she’s ready to plant her first garden. As she sings, something magical happens: A chorus of plants join in; each plant sounding like an individual instrument that contributes to a larger harmony. Mushrooms sound like violins; a large palm blares like a trumpet. You get the idea.
Kai doesn’t harvest these plants for any sort of commercial value — there is no money in Mutazione — but tends the gardens for members of the community. Each garden positively impacts a townsperson that has an emotional connection to the site.
The spirits of the island’s inhabitants are raised as Kai plants more and more gardens. It’s about creating growth, and connection, not profit or efficiency. It’s a rare game in which you’re asked to give something, whether it’s your time or effort, instead of taking something you need to move the story along. It’s a game about being of service to a community, and the rewards that comes with that act.
Mutazione isn’t a game to beat, it’s a game to play. We too often separate the idea of productive tasks from acts like drinking tea with a friend or trying to grow some flowers. But everything we do, if done mindfully, can be helpful for our own growth if we’re walking the right path. Everyone is their own garden, and Mutazione may make you a little more willing to plant the right kind of seeds for happiness.
Mutazione is now available on Apple Arcade, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a Steam download code provided by Akupara Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.