Playing Gorogoa, I'm struck by two notions. First, this is an unusually pretty game. Second, its spirit is fresh and original. Yes, it's a point-and-click adventure. But it's also a game about shapes, colors, perspectives and physics. It's that rare thing in video games: an idea that feels new.
It's like a picture book split up into tiles or pages on the screen. The story is simple. A boy glimpses a magical creature and tries to follow.
I click on the tiles to zoom in or out, or to move left, right, up or down. I move the tiles around to create adjacency. When the tiles match of correspond in some way, the story moves forward.
There are times when the pages behave like semi-translucent layers, sitting on top of one another to create strands of stories. Other times, I need to use logic or the physical weight of things in order to progress. The puzzles are engrossing without being obtuse. I am constantly rewarded with lush new pictures.
After playing the first few hours of the game — due out on Windows PC and mobile in the spring — I drive to a co-working space South of Market in San Francisco to meet with Gorogoa creator Jason Roberts. He’s a softly-spoken man in his early-40s.
Prior to making Gorogoa, his previous life was as a software engineer drudge, traipsing around Silicon Valley from one job to the next, "on the margins of the tech business." In his spare time, he drew and painted.
When he played Braid and saw that the success of indie games might offer a chance of a new life, he decided to quit his unhappy professional life. "I never before thought it was possible to make a living doing something enjoyable," he says. He decided to work on a project that he knew would mean lots and lots of doing what makes him happy: drawing. "I needed a great project with lots of art."
A hand-drawn video game means creating thousands of pieces of art. The painting is done in Photoshop.
"I knew nothing about game design," he says. "I didn't even know what the tools were. It was like starting to build a road without knowing the destination." He released a well-received demo back in 2012. Just as he was burning through his savings, he secured backing from the Indie Fund and then from movie company Annapurna, which is setting up a games label.
"I had no idea how much work it would be," he says, adding that the nature of the game's design means that "each new puzzle is just as hard to build as the last."
One of the main reasons the game has taken a long time to make is that he's making it on his own (although Joel Corelitz is providing the score.) Also, when he began the project he learned a lesson familiar to many artists who decide to work full-time on their talent. He started to get better at drawing. This technical improvement meant that he was constantly going back on his work, refining and polishing.
It's been, he says, a labor of love, even though it doesn’t always feel that way. "I'm not into doodling. Drawing for me isn't about relaxation. It's tense right up until the point that it starts working for me."
Roberts says the game is about connecting adulthood with childhood, about rediscovering the belief in magic. "Some games are power fantasies. But the fantasy that I indulge is the idea that there is an underlying meaning to everything, a hidden message or structure to the world. It's not necessarily that I believe that to be true. But I did believe it when I was a child."
He wants Gorogoa to capture that sense of mystery about the world. "I'm interested in the magical and the physically impossible. I'm fascinated by the idea of a book that you can enter. I want to give people delight in the miraculous. The complicated narrative structure of the game is about faith in the invisible, about what it means to be a child versus what it means to be an adult. It's about devotion."
Gorogoa’s mixture of the complex and the simple and its delight in beauty and magic make it a game to look out for in 2017.