Bonsai seems like a slow-paced subject for a great video game, but Prune might be the best designed iOS game to come around since Monument Valley: a lovely, serene, and haunting puzzler about bonsai on an alien planet.
In Prune, you need to guide a tree as it grows from the shadowy floor of an abstract world. The goal of every level is for the tree to grow to a sufficient height for it to flower and spread its seeds. Each branch of the tree reduces the possible height it can grow to, so in order to guide the tree’s path and make sure it flowers, you need to prune it as it grows, tracing a finger across the limbs you want to excise.
It seems simple and gentle enough, but over the course of dozens of levels, Prune consistently ratchets up the difficulty: later levels, for example, introduce the concept of pollination, so you need to string trees together. Other gameplay elements include giant red orbs that will poison your tree if they touch them. The simple silhouette art seems like it was just plucked off a Japanese silk screen, while the chill, ambient music makes even the most frantic bonsai session seem relaxing.
What makes Prune even more special, though, is what a departure its subject is for the game’s designer. Joel McDonald has been a fixture of the FPS gaming scene for years: after programming the classic Quake 4 map, Placebo Effect, he went on to work on the Call of Duty series, among others. It feels like in another world, Prune could have been about a far gorier and less imaginative form of amputation.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love shooters, and grew up on Quake,” McDonald told the Verge. “But working on first-person shooters for so long is like only eating oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oatmeal can be pretty darn tasty, but sometimes you just want some huevos rancheros, y’know? Prune is my huevos rancheros.”
You can download Prune for iOS here, starting at $3.99.