Developed by: Jason Roberts
Published by: Annapurna Interactive
Available on: iOS, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PC
Rare is the game that feels accessible yet strange, intuitive yet mind-bending. “Gorogoa” is an exquisite point-and click game that’s not like anything I’ve played before. It occupies a spot somewhere between a puzzle game and an interactive graphic novel. The story it tells revolves around mystical experiences, and a strong current of ambiguity flows through it. It is a work that folds space and different places in time on top of each other and trusts players to arrive at their own conclusions about what it all means. Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen some critics say it left them cold and others say it left them floored.
“Gorogoa” takes place on a four-squared grid over which players can click and drag tiles around as though playing a virtual card game or manipulating the panels of a comic book. Clicking on a panel can change a scene or allow one to zoom in on, or away from, objects or slide things between panels. Panels can then be combined in specific ways to solve puzzles that move the narrative forward. Such actions resonate with the game’s larger themes of discovering, through study and spiritual practice, hidden correspondence in things that otherwise seem isolated and distinct. A simple puzzle may require one to zoom in on one panel’s detail, like a bird resting on a tree, and in another panel, a painting that depicts an apple on a branch. Aligning the panels next to each other fuses the scene together so that the apple is on the branch of the outdoor tree.
At the start of the game a magical-looking creature passes low over a city skyline. From a window a boy clutching a book in his hand follows the creature with his eyes. Opening the volume in his hands he finds a picture of the creature and, below that, a picture of two men — one young, the other elderly — kneeling together and holding up a large blue bowl. Suspended in the air above them are five differently-colored symbols. Inspired by his finding, the boy fetches a blue bowl from a closet shelf and stands in the doorway. In an adjacent panel, one sees a door facing out on a street. Dragging that panel over the one of the boy standing in the closet doorway creates a new scene: the boy steps out onto the street where, eventually, an apple falls into his bowl. Via a thought bubble we see that he associates the apple with one of the signs that appeared above the bowl in the book.
As the boy undertakes a quest to find four other pieces of magical fruit the game introduces other characters who may share similar identities. Among them are a scholarly-looking man who, from the comfort of his home, pours over texts pertaining to the same apparition that transfixed the boy, and another young man engaging in similar study as a war rages around him. Themes of pilgrimage, ritual, and an openness to metaphysical discovery unite the strands of their stories.
When I spoke with “Gorogoa’s” creator Jason Roberts, who spent over six years working on the game, he said, “I see it as being about the hunt for secret meaning in the world for a clue to something that leads outside of the material world but that is not accessible through ordinary or direct observation of the world, but only by recombing things in impossible ways. So, I hope that it has some spiritual meaning in the broadest sense. Not so much in the answering of spiritual questions but asking those questions.”
The joys of the game are rooted in its structure: seeing how one seemingly disparate scene links up with others and dissolves into the next is like witnessing a masterful display of legerdemain. Roberts told me that one of the people who inspired the direction of the game is the renowned comic book artist Chris Ware. Discussing the formalist elements of Ware’s work in relation to his own Roberts said, “The layouts on the page are so huge and elaborate that it becomes sort of the work in itself [which] transcends the sequential and chronological structure of traditional comic book panels and becomes a broader, multi-dimensional collage. I wanted that but with moving parts.”
If I were curating a show about video games as art I would include “Gorogoa.” It sinks or swims depending on one’s appreciation of its aesthetic values, and in all likelihood one’s feelings for the game will hinge on whether one finds it beautiful rather than whether one finds it fun.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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