RPS advent calendar 2022, 4 December

It is the fourth day in the RPS advent calendar and today it is raining. But it’s nice rain – relaxing. It’s a purring cat. You have a pier on, and nothing particularly planned. Maybe you’re recataloging your rattling, living inventory.

What else could it be but strange horticulture!

Alice Bee: I often think that I could imagine running a small shop selling a niche of products. Except, I didn’t want it, because that would mean doing another kind of tax and paying rent on the premises and ordering stock and so on. So what I would really like is to run a shop like Strange Horticulture. It’s a place out of time, a retail simulator where what you sell are answers to problems in the form of weird plants. You are sitting in your shop and people come as supplicants to an altar and ask you: I need the plant to help me sleep, what is it? I am suffering from visions, so should I take the plant to stop them, or make them stronger? Which of these plants will open a lock?

And you open the large illustrated tome of plants, and you turn to the right, and you note the description. And then you look through the pots on your shelves and you find what your customers are looking for. There’s a deeper mystery too, but what I loved most about Strange Horticulture was that tactility. As I moved around the plant pots, reading about how some leaves felt sharp, or others smelled citrusy, I was transported! I felt like I was really pulling open the secret drawer of my desk and scrutinizing the map of the area, really adding new pages to my instruction book, carefully writing out my labels for the plants. What a lovely, and slightly creepy shop owner to be.

There is no cat in this picture.

Rebecca: Did you know that in Strange Horticulture you can prevent the cat Hellebore from being startled by the ringing of the shop bell? What you need to do is to pet him right before you goof, starting him into his sheep-stepping animation, therefore overriding his scared animation. I know this because my partner played Strange Horticulture before I did and was so adamant about not scaring Hellebore with the clock that I actually went into the game thinking there was some kind of hidden cat stress meter I needed to manage. Then I remembered that my partner is just a big softie when it comes to cats. I still did it every time, because you should be kind to Hellebore.

From Strange Horticulture, a map of the Lake District opens on a table with a magnifying glass and playing cards placed above.

Kendal and Tebay are lovely too, if you’re ever tempted to put together a Strange Horticulture inspired tour of the region, which I’ve just decided is what I want to do on holiday next year.

Strange Horticulture wasn’t a hard sell for me: it’s an indie game about running a small plant shop in the company of a friendly black cat, and to be honest, I’m thinking of throwing myself into this job to pursue that very dream at least once a week. Also, I have an abiding interest in video games set in the UK that aren’t based around London. As far as I can remember, I’ve only visited Windermere once in my life, but it was one of those random nice days out that somehow become a core childhood memory, so I was beyond excited to see the Lake District as the setting for a game.

There’s also a certain fascination I have with any game that puts you in the shoes of a character who would traditionally be an NPC. I’m a sucker for the sub-genre where you run a blacksmith shop or a sundries market stall and give the heroes the key item at exactly the right time, but for you it’s just a normal day. In Strange Horticulture, the leading figures in an intricate occult mystery pass through your shop on a daily basis, but you mostly just putter about the place and think about your plants. It’s a delightful side angle to watch this dark adventure from, with the added bonus of upping the scare factor considerably.

Remember now: there are steps for Hellebore, thereafter ring the bell.

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