Developer: Joel McDonald
Platform Tested: iOS (available here)
Price: £3.99 (as of 10 February 2017)
Hours played: ~4hrs
My Verdict: Awful / Average / Ok / Good / Great!
Prune is a 2015 game developed by Joel McDonald, around the ethos “Cultivate what matters. Cut away the rest.” (McDonald, 2015). It is centred around one single mechanic: pruning a growing tree’s branches by swiping the mobile device’s screen. The trees grow automatically within the game space and it is up to the player to cut branches in order to direct the tree’s growth into a lit area where it can flower, with additional challenges and stage objects added as the levels progress; to help chart their course, the player may pinch the screen to zoom in and out. The level is won when the tree bears the right amount of flowers, and is lost when the tree’s growth is stopped or destroyed by an adverse object.
Prune could be classified as a meditative game: there is one single mechanic, the minimalistic sounds and visuals take centre stage and, interestingly, there are no written instructions at all. The gameplay is taught through a mix of visual cues (swiping motion symbol on the screen, highlight of the branches) and sounds (cutting sound, breaking sound when hitting an obstacle, chiming sound when flowering). In both areas, the game is rather striking, with an almost monochrome palette brightened by the occasional blue and red, and single-note sounds that seem to echo through the game’s world. Each game screen is also very empty at the level start, almost encouraging the player to fill this void by playing (figure 1). Indeed, aesthetically, Prune is a very sensory game, allowing the player to lose themselves in what they see and hear without the burden of text, pop-ups, or or complex mechanics.
There is also an element of challenge and strategy, as the tree grows in real time and requires quick thinking by the player so it can be stirred towards the correct direction(s) and avoid obstacles. Should the player not react quick enough, the tree may wither or hit an obstacle, meaning the level needs to be replayed. Later game stages include more complex mechanics, such as wind, objects gradually burning the tree (figure 2), or elements that can be opened when touching the tree, requiring new strategies as the game gets more complex. While the levels grow in complexity, resulting in more and more failure as the player learns to navigate new obstacles, Prune is a forgiving game; any level can be replayed without penalty, and it even allows the player to skip a level after several failed attempts. This player-centric approach emphasises the experience over potential frustration, and further enhances the meditative feel of the game.
Prune is a very consistent game, wherein all the artistic and gameplay elements complement each other while fitting with a strong overall vision. However, because the game hinges on one single mechanic and one artistic vision, the game can become repetitive after a few hours of play. The pruning gameplay can also become troublesome on small screens, where the user may not have enough time to zoom in and prune the correct branch, resulting in occasional frustration. Maybe it’s not a game that can be played for days, but it is worth losing yourself in its beauty for a little while.
McDonald, J. (2015) Prune. Available at: http://www.prunegame.com/ (Accessed 10 February 2017)
Prune (2015) Joel McDonald. Images my own.