Mutants are often metaphors when it comes to stories. They’re ostracized by an uncaring society, say, because of differences that frequently translate into a secret kind of strength. They’re a means for stepping outside ourselves and looking back. That’s great and all, but in Mutazione, I’m delighted to report that the mutants are people more than they’re metaphors. They live their lives, they bicker and develop obsessions. And they have their own histories which they sometimes struggle to make sense of, like everyone else.
Years ago a meteor struck a small island and transformed its inhabitants. You play as Kai, an outsider who comes to the island one summer to visit a mutant relative who is dying. Maybe the whole island is dying – there is certainly something up with the biosphere. Anyway, because of the set-up I was prepared, in the first five minutes, for a melancholic affair concerned with the stately ending of things. I was ready to spend my days talking to that relative of mine as they drifted further away, and wandering about a landscape that was itself drying up and preparing to scatter. This is not the game at all.
Mutazione is more full of life than anything I can remember playing for quite a while. There’s something of Life is Strange to it at times, in its love of conversations, its love of downtime, and its assertion that absolutely everyone you meet is worth getting to know. But elsewhere it’s completely its own thing. It’s a talking game, as you prod through tentative conversations that bubble upward with the sprightly pop of WhatsApp chats. (The choices make you genuinely ponder them: Be kind or be funny? Be cruel or say nothing?) It’s an exploration game as you learn to find your way around an island where a now-distant catastrophe has given life to a new culture, where bars and archives and boat yards are pulled together out of leaning chimneys and stoved-in roofs, where weird nature is on the march again. And yes! It’s a gardening game – a gardening game! – as you plant seeds and learn how to grow different types of shrub and lichen and tree and grass, each one reaching up to form the kind of dreamily abstracted, almost childish shapes beloved of Clarice Cliff and her Bizarre Ware.
Gardening is at the heart of things, in fact. Throughout the course of the adventure Kai can gather seeds from the plants she finds scattered around the place. When events allow for it, she locates a series of empty beds waiting to be filled with life. Plants come in groups, which you have to learn to understand. They have their own requirements for the sort of soil they need – if they need soil at all – and a simple on-screen display allows you to pick spots where they’ll have enough room to grow. And they all need something more, too – something that I don’t really want to spoil, but which makes Mutazione’s gardening a very memorable process.
The seeds you find and the plants you grow give a bit of shape to the various narratives in play on this strange, sometimes troubled island. This is a story with a lot of different shades to it, I think: sometimes it’s melancholic, sometimes it’s almost soapy. What brings it all together, though, is a quiet kind of dignity that is granted to everyone you meet, and a richness to the parts of their lives that they’re willing to reveal to Kai as she gets to understand the place.
Gardening games. There is a future in this. What I love the most about Mutazione is that Kai doesn’t drop in and simply fix everything, like Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, bustling through and then disappearing in a bi-plane. She nurtures, and maybe sets a few things going, but she also tries to understand things that are already taking place, and she bears witness to things that cannot be tidily resolved.
As anyone who’s ever killed a plant through overwatering will know, gardening can be cruel, but it’s also hypnotic and fascinating and energising. It encourages us to move at plant-speed rather than human-speed. Slow down a little and wonderful things are possible. What a game.