Prune is a serene, graceful trip through a beautiful, desolate world. Its eponymous focus—pruning trees to allow them to grow—provides a peaceful gameplay mechanic that is used in a surprisingly varied series of low-stress levels. Through its abstract simplicity and player-friendly challenges, Prune weaves a touching narrative that makes our actions feel like much more than simple swipes on a screen.
Each of Prune’s gorgeously minimalist stages begins with a patch of viable earth: in this patch you can plant a single seed, which will sprout a tree. That tree will surge upward until it has no more room to grow. Pruning branches or twigs from the tree will allow it to continue growing from its remaining limbs, stretching up and outward as the surrounding environment permits.
Your only goal is to help that tree reach a shaft of sunlight and sprout flowers. Once it buds enough flowers—denoted by stars in the sky—the level is complete. It doesn’t matter what path your tree took to reach the sunlight, how many branches it has left, or how crooked its trunk is: if enough of the tree touches sun and produces new life, it’s considered a success.
While this is an effortlessly simple goal at first, Prune soon introduces new obstacles and opportunities for your tree’s growth. Some help, by allowing flowers to grow without sunlight; others harm, by chopping and breaking your tree upon impact. Some hazards will poison your tree, forcing you to prune afflicted branches to save the rest; others will allow you to guide your tree’s growth directly, avoiding dangers but putting its fate more heavily in your hands.
These objects combine with a variety of layouts to create levels that stretch the limits of mere pruning. Stages will pin your tree in tight corridors, within tiny shafts of sunlight, surrounded by hazards—and sometimes all three at once. But other stages will provide wide open space for growth, endless sunlight above, and no dangers in sight.
Despite the difference in challenges between these, all stages focus on low-stress gameplay that favors the player. Trees can be replanted at any time to try a new approach to a level, and if you’re stuck on a stage for too long, it can be skipped without any repercussions. There’s no timer or limit to how much you can prune or plant, and longer stages even have a type of tree checkpoint in place. Since your only goal is to reach sunlight and grow flowers, there are many paths to success on each stage.
While all of these features create a game that’s easy and engaging to play, Prune’s true victory is its emotional draw. Despite having almost no fail state or true danger, I found myself on edge as my tree stretched its last twig towards the light, about to sprout but also out of room to grow. I was torn when my hard-fought sapling had to be cut nearly in half, poisoned by a red river I didn’t catch in time. I was proud of my crooked tree that was just long trunk and one single branch, ugly by any standards but blooming beautifully.
Prune pulls out these emotions through its noninvasive but cinematic soundtrack, its abstract yet easily recognizable world, and its dialogue-free narrative, all of which become progressively darker over its five environments.
Its most important emotional feature, however, is its combination of player interaction and lack of control. While you can prune your tree to help it reach the sunlight, you don’t determine exactly where it grows. Some trees will sprout wild horizontal branches; others will shoot up quickly before slowly spreading out; and others still will be a mess of twists and turns that shouldn’t be able to stay standing, but do.
No two trees will grow exactly the same, and in this they become less like a program we’re operating and more like a pet we’re caring for. You try your best to help it thrive, to protect it from danger, to see it grow up strong. When it falters, you feel more guilt than frustration. When it succeeds, your pride is not as a player, but as a guardian. You may have less control, but in Prune, you have much more.