Blooming Buds Studio describes its recent title, Calendula, as "a game that doesn't want to be played." While that may be true in regards to the game's core theme, I honestly believe that this is a game that's just begging to be played. Or rather, it's begging to be observed, analyzed, and dissected. Because, while it's not exactly what you would expect out of a video game, it's still very much worthwhile, especially if you dig experimental projects with intense audiovisual presentations.
Title Screen Driving You Crazy?
I'm going to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, because there's a lot in Calendula for you to discover and wrap your head around on your own. I'll go into as much detail as I can without giving anything specific away, because discovering how to progress in the game is what makes it such a tremendous experience.
Right off the bat, you're presented with what appears to be your typical video game menu screen. You've got your configuration options, you can view the credits, you can load a new or saved file, and there's even an online option that doesn't really connect you to a server but definitely has a purpose. When you first start playing Calendula, your natural instinct may be to start a new game — probably after checking out the visual options. In just a matter of seconds, however, the game “crashes” and you're sent right back to the title screen.
From this point on, Calendula challenges you to play it. The game doesn't outright deny you the ability to play, but it presents hurdles that get progressively more complex as you try to load your save. Every time Calendula crashes, it auto-restarts and you're forced to figure out how to get back into the game, and every time you attempt to do so, the solution is different. By the time you reach the end, you'll have seen the opening screen many times. And that's all a calculated part of what Blooming Buds Studio has set out to do.
To go into any more detail would greatly diminish the superb series of events that Calendula has you go through. I will say that the bulk of what you have to do to get to your save file is play around in the menus. Those audio and video configuration screens, that online chat option, the credits screen — everything that you're given in that main menu serves a purpose at some point during the course of the game, and it's up to you to decipher the vague hints presented to you and utilize everything that's in front of you.
An Experiment in Human Thought Processes
I knew Calendula would be a bizarre game, but I had no idea how much it would really mess with me. In a way, it's an experiment in the human thought process, and it plays with the relationship between game and player. Even though I knew that being sent back to the main screen was all a part of the experience, by the fifth or sixth time, I let out a frustrated groan — for a split second, I'd forgotten that this was all purposeful, and I entered the same mindset that I'm put in when a game actually crashes.
Seconds later, I smiled because I realized that while I was playing Calendula, it was Calendula, in fact, that was playing me. Unlike a game that crashes unexpectedly and creates angst in the player, Calendula purposely glitches. As a result, it creates emotions — it can annoy you when it crashes, but then bring you joy when you realize you were part of the joke, in essence becoming the video game equivalent of Andy Kaufman. The game also encourages you to decode it and figure out a way to progress and see more of its main game, which is actually a simple walking simulator that only lasts seconds at a time.
While the game is happily distorting your mind and thoughts with the puzzle solving it throws at you, it also messes with you from an audiovisual perspective. Aside from glitchy screens and static effects, Calendula also features a ton of strange, sometimes disturbing imagery. Eyes, blood, flowers, creepy masks, close-ups of fluids spilling down drains – all of these things create a surreal, eerie mishmash that's hard to comprehend but serves the game's purpose magnificently. Probably the most haunting image is the blurry visage of a person, hunched over, walking slowly by.
The sound design is equally moody. When you're not hearing the strange computer sounds as Calendula returns you to its main screen repeatedly, you're trying to figure out what mysterious voices are saying. Other times, you're simply listening to white noise as you walk down a tunnel during the short game-y parts. It all comes together to make you feel as if you're not alone — and, in a creepy way, it's not a person but Calendula that's there with you, taking the form of a false companion.
You Don't Play Calendula — It Plays You
By the time I reached the end of Calendula, I'd hit the 45-minute mark. No, this isn't a long game by any means, but it's a meaningful one for sure. Admittedly, I wasn't too keen on the finale, but everything leading up to those final seconds completely gripped me.
I can't help but to be reminded of Pony Island. Unlike that game, which has you playing a character trying to hack his way out of a game, Calendula has you, its player, trying to hack your way into it. The game builds a relationship with you — a broken, dysfunctional relationship — but it strings you along and doesn't let you stop trying to figure it out.
I wouldn't use the word "fun" to describe Calendula, but I would say it's a must-play experiment and an analysis of our perceptions, reactions, and relationships with video games. More than just telling a generic story, Calendula takes a daring, quasi-invasive look at the way that we, the players, deal with the video game medium. In that sense, there's no way to describe this game other than absolutely brilliant.