Who Will Remember You?
The bonsai diary is a contemplative experience that stretches across 400 years in the life of a single bonsai tree. It is a unique soloing experience that focuses on drawing iterations of a bonsai tree as it grows through multiple generations of caretakers. It’s surprising to me how much the calligraphy inspired gameplay matches the themes of growth and legacy. Every stroke of the pen is deliberate and consequential. Choices you make now will affect what you are able to do in the future. By focusing not only on the physical act of drawing but also on the conceptual journey of nurturing something through generations, Gene Koo elevates the experience from a simple artistic endeavor to a poignant reflection on our own transient existence and the lasting impact we can have.
This is a fun game with a tactile tracing element. The physicality stands out from the digital journaling games I’ve been playing recently. As such, it became part of my morning ritual to sit down with a cup of coffee, and my favorite pen to doodle out a little tree as I was waking up in the morning. Often, I would find myself returning to themes or just imagining the future design of my bonsai in quiet moments throughout the day. Even though it isn’t complex, the game is elegant and left a big impression on me.
If you want to play this game, there are a few things you’ll need. First, you must have a physical copy of the book to write in. Second, you’ll need a calligraphy pen or a felt-tip marker for drawing. The good news is, at the time of writing, you can download the game for free from Gene’s Itch.io page and print it out yourself. It’ll require about 15 pages to print the entire book. Once you staple it all together, you end up with a decently thick A4-sized book. One thing I appreciate is that games like this become their own keepsakes. This one will serve as a lovely collection of your drawings and meditations.
a note about kit and artistic talent
For me, this was a great excuse to dust off my calligraphy kit and play around with some old dip pens left to me by my grandfather. It felt thematically appropriate, and I just love the weight and feel of those pens. If you are the kind of person who has a brush pen or some quills laying around, I don’t think I’ll have to sell you on grabbing them for this game. However, you don’t need specialty tools to play The Bonsai Diary (or to do any calligraphy). A cheap Crayola marker is surprisingly versatile and will work just as well.
Likewise, you shouldn’t be intimidated by a lack of training or natural artistic talent. Drawing these bonsai trees is simple and a lot of fun. The book gives a step-by-step process for drawing bonsai, and a few tips and tricks as you go along to keep things interesting. So, regardless of your background or tools, you’ll end up with a fantastic looking bonsai by the end of the game.
Layout and Design
I’ve got complex emotions about the layout of this book. It reads right to left, but having grown up reading manga, that’s not too weird to me. I’m more interested in a tension between design concept and book layout. Although I love the game concept, it necessitates a layout choice that falls short aesthetically to me.
Let’s start with the positives. The book’s structure allows for layered drawings. This means you can trace over your previous bonsai diary entry with a new one. I find this design choice to be quite clever. It makes the potentially awaked concept of ‘growing’ a bonsai through tracing feel natural. The experience flows intuitively from one page to the next, avoiding any potential confusion. The interplay between game design and book design is an interesting space to me. In this case, the two elements mesh in a way I find very satisfying.
Unfortunately, this unique setup also leads to some layout issues. Each diary entry uses a two-page spread, but only the first page is available for drawing and writing. The back page must be left mostly blank to enable tracing for the next entry. The instructional content and journaling prompts end up being squeezed into the inside of the first page. Meanwhile an expanse of white space stretches across the outer edges and back page of the book. While there are some bonsai facts peppered in to break up the emptiness, the overall aesthetic falls short for me. It’s a design contradiction I don’t have a solution for. The layout of the book has to be a specific way in order to get the mechanic to work, and I love the mechanic. However, no amount of mental justification can make me like the way each page spread looks.
I’m perhaps making a bigger deal than warranted over a relatively minor issue. If you don’t care about layout and publishing, you can probably overlook this problem completely. I present it here mostly as an interesting puzzle I’m not sure I could solve. Although I don’t have a definitive answer, I hope Gene Koo keeps working with this tracing mechanic, and I’m curious to see how they address the layout in their next game.
It is arguable that a lot of the gameplay happens while you are away from your pen and paper. In quiet moments, you might find your mind wandering back towards your last diary entry or making plans for the future of your bonsai. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to try and play this game slowly. Each diary entry is relatively simple. There is a drawing section and a writing section, and both can be filled out quickly. However, the game matures if you apply intention to each diary entry and allow yourself room to breathe between different entries. That being said, there aren’t any rules in the book for that. Additionally, I’m not sure I can effectively provide a break down of the experience of day dreaming. For those reasons, we are just going to stick to analyzing the parts of the game that happen while you are drawing in the book.
Keeping a Bonsai Diary
In previous sections, I’ve touched on the joy of the tactile tracing mechanic—how using a calligraphy pen and overlaying paper for new drawings is both deliberate and meditative. But let’s shift focus to the actual process of “growing” your bonsai tree. I’ll delve into the specifics here without rehashing what’s already been said.
To start playing The Bonsai Diary, you begin with a sketch of a simple seedling. This is going to be the core that you trace multiple iterations over. Each new page requires you to reproduce the shape of the previous page, gradually evolving your bonsai by adding slight details. While tracing, you’re limited to extending the existing trunk or branches. Then, you can add just one new stroke to your tree for each diary entry. This restriction is what inspires the meditative quality of the game. Each choice you make is a permanent mark on your tree’s future, compelling you to plan your bonsai’s desired shape multiple drawings in advance. It’s a test of intentionality, demanding thoughtful consideration before your pen touches the paper.
Of course, plans might need to change or be adapted because about half the diary entries have something unexpected happen to the tree. Adding new, unique requirements to that pages drawing. This introduces a tension between your future plans and the need to adapt to the present, keeping the game dynamic. Without these unpredictable prompts, the mechanic could risk feeling like an artistic exercise rather than a game. The journaling part of the game also help maintain a more game feel. While not be as fully realized as the tracing element, it lends thematic structure, preventing the experience from devolving into a mere art project.
While I’ve emphasized the game’s tracing mechanic, it’s crucial not to underestimate the role of journaling. This element is ingeniously designed to complement the game’s overall meditative and multi-generational focus. Each diary entry features two journaling prompts. The first typically pertains to the tree, while the second is more focused on the caretaker. The questions don’t always follow a strict format, but collectively they support the games thematic arc. You navigate a variety of experiences as both the bonsai, and as generations of caretakers. Often the bonsai serves as a thematic mirror for the caretakers’ experiences. I don’t think there is anything groundbreaking going on here mechanically, but these questions underscore the multigenerational and introspective aspects of the game.
Interestingly, the game positions you, the player in 2023, as the inaugural owner of this bonsai that will endure for the next 400 years—a timeline that you will not witness the end of. The game starts by asking how YOU are doing, and what are YOUR hopes and dreams for the future. Then, eventually, the game moves past you and leaves your hopes and dreams behind. Even though I knew it was coming, the emotional weight to killing myself off and passing the bonsai to an imagined future generation had an effect on me. It caused introspection in that moment, to be sure. However, there was also a meta awareness for the rest of the game–I was imagining a group of people to morn myself, then move on and slowly forget me. It was an effective technique, and drove home early what the game was trying to get at.
A Journey Worth Taking
The Bonsai Diary stands as a slow, contemplative game. It is steeped in unique mechanics and a focus on artistry that elevates it beyond traditional journaling games. It challenges us to consider not only how we nurture something delicate and beautiful but also how we leave marks that endure even when we’re no longer around. The game prompts introspection, and if my experience is anything to go by, it will leave you pondering long after you’ve put down your pen. In an age of fast-paced digital distractions, this tactile, thoughtful experience is a sanctuary of sorts. So, take the plunge—you might just find it’s not just your bonsai tree that grows, but perhaps a part of yourself as well.
A Few Shameless Plugs
I’m glad you stuck around! If you are interested in small press games I have a few more recommendations that might be worth looking into.
If you are want more Journaling game reviews you can read my thoughts on Dead Cleveland, A zombie horror survival game.
If you want to look at a bunch of one page RPGs with different themes and mechanics you should check out my review of 5 different one page RPGs from the Trans Rights for Texas bundle.