A digital triptych with a large center panel and two smaller side panels depicting different wilderness areas in Age of Empires 2.

screenshot courtesy of SCRNPRNT

In 2020, scenic nature is everywhere in video games. Take Ghost of Tsushima, an open world frolicking across the pampas fields of 13th-century Japan, or the wildlife-filled islands of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Part of their appeal (admittedly with very different vibrations) is the pastoral fantasy; they provide safe havens in which we can get lost.

This is not the case in The Garden of Earthly Delights, a new interactive chat room where each user is an animal from the classic Microsoft Age of Empires II strategy game. Lions, deer, and even penguins populate a remote in-game landscape, while AI-assisted humans shoot them down with arrows. Death fills the screen, chaos reigns; it’s named after Hieronymus Bosch’s biblical triptych, but it’s more like a cartoonish take on the old American West.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is simple yet powerful. You transform between animals using the directional arrows and explore the landscape using the WASD keys. If you happen to be skewered by an incoming projectile, the game teleports you to another host, almost tormenting you with the perpetual loop of reincarnation. There is a trend in nature-rich games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 seek realism. The physical ends of their worlds are often described as environmental phenomena such as huge bodies of water. The Garden of Earthly Delights exchanges such virtual barriers for a literal and extremely visible frame, and in doing so, draws attention to the fact that these virtual creatures exist only for our own gaze, almost like a zoo.

It’s worth ending on how its creators SCRNPRNT describe the game as “online chat room for animals of Age of Empires II. “I only chatted with one other player, but even this short exchange highlighted the futility of trying to give a voice to non-humans through people; of course, it was us talking, not the animals. However, this part of the game added a weird dimension that I didn’t expect, once we started chatting I momentarily forgot about the death and destruction of the game. It was like the kind of distraction technique many of us employ on a daily basis, whether it’s to guard against environmental crises or whatever. In the end, it felt like a neat microcosm of what it means to play to video games right now.