All successful online advertising must follow the constraints of the platform it appears on. Sponsored posts that appear in social media feeds are targeted and calibrated to a certain audience. If it’s a video ad, the best examples are usually short, punchy, and tell a story on mute, luring a viewer in the split-second window before they scroll past. These constraints can also lead to some creative and uncanny forms of advertising. As Stravinsky once wrote, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” Such is the case of Lily’s Garden.
The most famous ad for Lily’s Garden, told with stiff 3-D animation like a mid-budget kids cartoon, goes something like this: We see Lily, a plucky young woman with thick-rimmed glasses, gazing with excitement at a positive pregnancy test. She clutches it to her chest. In the next shot, she brings the results to her chiseled-jaw boyfriend. Lily tells him the news and he spits out his coffee. In the next shot, he speeds off into the sunset on a scooter, and then we see Lily, sitting on the porch, sobbing into her hands.
It’s heavy stuff. A devastating tale of love and loss told in just 11 seconds. And then the title appears: the cheery Lily’s Garden logo appears floating over her slumped body. Below appears an enormous button enticing the viewer to “PLAY NOW.”
Lily’s Garden is not some cinematic experience, or a Pixar movie taking a surprising dark turn like in the first minutes of Up. It is a match-three mobile game, similar to Candy Crush, developed by the Danish company Tactile Games. The premise is that Lily’s great-aunt Mary has just passed away, tasking Lily with fixing up her property in 30 days in order to inherit the property outright. By completing match-three levels, the player earns resources that they can use to upgrade Lily’s new property and unlock the next part of the serialized story. Like other popular mobile games, it has plenty of free-to-play hooks meant to convince players to spend money. It is also, just going by the ads, relatively daring in terms of subject matter.
The breakup ad went viral last month, for obvious reasons — it’s a good twist — but it’s not the only one floating out there. For one thing, there is an extended cut of the ad that goes even further into left field. In this version, a few seconds after Lily’s boyfriend flees, she stops crying and looks up with a smug grin. She wipes away one of the lines on her pregnancy test with her finger, spins the test like a cowboy holstering their pistol, and goes back inside. A box labeled “Blaine’s stuff” flies out the door onto the lawn a second later.
So, to recap: Lily’s Garden is, apparently, a match-three game about a woman who tricks her deadbeat boyfriend into thinking she’s pregnant, so that he will leave her forever. And I guess there is a garden that factors in somewhere?
Compounding the oddness of this situation is that not only does none of this information have anything to do with the game play, it’s not mentioned in the game at all. It is all contained within targeted ads, and they’re nearly impossible to find outside of that context. You might only encounter this bizarre micro-fiction if you’re lucky enough to be targeted by the algorithms. It’s like the mystery of Lily’s Garden is a secret message that will self-destruct in five seconds. If you’re lucky, you might be gifted with one of the other ads for Lily’s Garden that happen to be floating around cyberspace.
In another ad, Lily texts Blaine messages of affection, only to then immediately come across him on a romantic lunch date with another woman. In terms of big swings, I think my favorite is the ad in which Lily, through pantomime, conveys the different penis sizes of her two love interests, Blaine and Luke (the accompanying social copy reads, “👌🍆Lily at it again👌🍆”).
The targeted ads inform me that Lily, apparently, lives for drama. The reality of Lily’s Garden is even more complicated. For one thing, the fake-pregnancy story line is not present in the game itself. According to Stella Sacco, the game’s writer, those ads were created by a separate team. “All of those are all totally fabricated for, I guess, virality,” she said “And to that degree, I would say that it worked.” Lily’s Garden has a similarly intricate story line, but fans hoping for more information about the Lily from the ads might be found wanting.
Most mobile games are designed to appeal to every demographic on Earth simultaneously. Consider this: what is the narrative of Candy Crush? Nobody knows, it’s just bright colors and harmless shapes. Plus, most games have their narrative crafted to justify the mechanics of that game. For instance, if a developer makes a game where you can just hop into any car in the virtual world, the player’s character might be designated a car thief in the narrative, as in Grand Theft Auto. But according to Sacco, Lily’s Garden and its narrative structure is very deliberately targeted at what I’ll call (non-pejoratively!) “Facebook Moms,” women over 30 who make up the largest audience for these types of mobile games.
“It’s definitely a much more fleshed out project than I’ve worked on in terms of narrative for that particular demographic,” she said. “They are the largest demographic of people who play games on phones, which is wild. And they’re also kind of unique in that, in general, the industry doesn’t really take them seriously.”
At a previous developer Sacco worked for, they apparently had an in-house category for these games called “pink,” and all the games for women fell into that bucket. “It’s all pinks, and, you know, cute animals and all of that kind of stuff,” she recalled. “But nobody is really appealing to the women out there who watch cop shows every night, who love Hallmark movies. No one is taking them seriously. And so this story was an effort to do that.” That helps the game stand out in contrast to other popular puzzle/gardening hybrid games, like Gardenscapes. Lily’s Garden is Tactile’s most narratively rich game, but it publishes a number of formulaic mobile titles with bright palettes, with names like Bee Brilliant and Cookie Cats.
While the actual game doesn’t feature a pregnancy hoax, or discussion of dick sizes — body shaming isn’t a thing that Sacco says she’d ever include — she does say that the narrative does touch on themes that are more mature than what you’d normally find in a mobile game. There’s a custody battle between Luke and his ex, and there’s a mystery as to why great-aunt Mary didn’t have kids of her own.
The increased emphasis on narrative and characterization has reportedly paid off. It’s not tough to find plenty of people praising the game’s story. Part of that stems from the effort of the game’s creative team, part of it is because, admittedly, mobile games like it have a low bar to clear when it comes to narrative depth. “As a trans woman, you know, trans women don’t necessarily get to write for mass market,” Sacco said, noting how her experience led her to try to create a different type of female narrative. “So many pieces of [women’s] media are catty, and really do involve women tearing each other down. It is everywhere. And the amount of people who have reacted positively to [the substantive female friendships] in the game, it makes me happy.”
The reaction to the narrative thrust has been strong. For maybe the first time ever, it seems like people are playing what superficially seems like just another chintzy mobile game … for the story? The game’s Instagram page, run as if it is Lily’s own account, adds another layer of storytelling. Lily polls fans about what to do with the engagement ring Blaine gave her, she posts #tbt photos of her time with her great-aunt, she posts Stories about her changing hairstyles. She has 300,000 followers. There are exactly two types of comments. There are players cheering on Lily through her journey as if she were a real character (“LILY U DONT DESERVE HIM TAKE CARE OF YOUR NEW ‘BABY’ WITHOUT HIM”) and there are players who need tech support (“I’m stuck on level 86 please help me”). Lily’s Garden has tapped into the sort of obsession that fans of visual novels and character-driven dramas cultivate on platforms like Tumblr, and translated it to the most mass-market gaming sector.
All of this — the ads that have become memes, the mobile-game art-style, the soap opera–like seasonal narrative, the players that obsessively follow and react to Lily’s exploits like any other fandom — has created a disorienting potpourri of separate sectors of the internet. You get earnest Facebook denizens, ironic Twitter users, stans, gamers, messy bitches who live for drama all fixated on the same property for substantially different reasons.