The unfortunate truth behind accepting videogames as an art form is that we must also accept the haughty culture of snobbery that is so often associated with the creative community. Where games twenty years back were made solely for the sake of fun, projects today (especially in the indie scene) come burdened with a self-described “deep” message that players are expected to observe with solemn awe. It’s just a game, developers. I don’t play Doom while reflecting on the mysteries of the universe, much in the same way I don’t play football to gain spiritual enlightenment.
This sentiment is lost on indie studios who seem to think that if their project doesn’t feature heavy action, beautiful graphics, or a compelling story, then the whole project must convey some deeper meaning in order to hold any value. Gravity Ghost, a physics-based puzzler by Ivy Games, sadly falls into this latter, more pretentious category. While indie game’s like Lisa are emotionally deep because of their emotional plot, Gravity Ghost’s only depth comes from the crater it makes when falling off it’s self-ordained pedestal.
With a galactic setting and gravity physics similar to Cosmochoria, Gravity Ghost struggles to set itself apart from that which has already been done well. The crayon-based art does very little to offset the horrid writing and disorganized plot, and the music (by Faster Than Light’s Ben Prunty), while appealing the first time around, quickly becomes something akin to tonally-varied tinnitus. The simplistic nature of the whole experience leaves me wondering who this was made for. On one hand, this could prove to be a successful children’s game, but if that’s the case, why go the way of the PC instead of the tablet?
With a set of minimalist motion controls, players must navigate the cosmos as Iona, the ghost of a girl who was killed by a black hole, or a fire, or from falling off of a tree (the writers couldn’t make up their mind, apparently). As you search for the ghost of your pet fox, you soon discover other animal souls that need to be reunited with their bodies, and with each successful pairing you’re given a glimpse of Iona’s life in a series of cutscenes. With little to no reference as to what is going on, the story becomes an inside joke that only the developers fully understand, leaving players left to wonder what is going on and why they should care.
Which is exactly where the game’s pretentious air (or lack thereof, since it is space) of self-awareness stems from. Gravity Ghost ignorantly champions a theme of meditative introspection when it should instead focus on how hypocritical it is. The game portrays Iona as a petulant child who, for all we know, caused the entire universe to collapse into a black hole, and the writers try to weigh the player down with a sense of guilt or need to fix everything. There normally wouldn’t be anything wrong with this approach because it instills a sense of purpose, but when the game proclaims that there is no dying, no fighting, and absolutely no losing, you almost have to do a double-take. An entire world’s worth of life has been snuffed out and you’ve asked me to fix everything, Gravity Ghost, how the hell is mortality and failure inconsequential?
In keeping with the theme of mixed messages, Ivy Games tries to sell Ghost as fun way to unwind, a virtual drug to take the edge off a hard day at work. This too would be perfectly alright if it wasn’t a total lie. Sure there’s no time limit and many of the levels are a simple trip from Point A to Point B, but a handful of the puzzles feel damn near impossible with the game’s grade-school grasp on the concepts of gravity. More often than not I’d find myself shooting past the planet with the key or animal soul, only to spin right back around, slingshot past it once more, and land square in the middle of the rock I started on for the eighteenth time in a row. If meditation means what my girlfriend’s yoga instructor told me it means, this is the stark and total opposite.
After breezing through the game’s mere hours of unique gameplay, all you’re left with is a discomforting sense of confusion. The game’s highfalutin Mother Nature reverence, purposeful minimalism, and disjointed story all contribute to the massive sneer I imagine the developers must constantly wear whenever they mention their handiwork. Despite how hard it tries or how high up it can turn its nose, Gravity Ghost just isn’t enough of a game to consider being fun, and certainly isn’t enough of a message to consider being deeper than a kiddie pool.