February 3, 2009

Rosetta

[This post is a spoiler-heavy discussion of Gravity Bone, a thoroughly worthwhile -- and also free -- indie game.]

There's not a lot to get about Gravity Bone, the indie game from Pandemic designer Brendon Chung. You can't understand the purpose of the missions you receive, or the significance of the woman in the number 99 shirt. You can't reconcile the hints at galactic exploration with the exploding birds. You're surrounded by surrealistic imagery and blockhead characters, and what on earth is a "gravity bone" anyway?

The game has no ultimate reveal, and its deliberate obtuseness (it takes its music cues from the film Brazil) leaves it vulnerable to misconceptions. New players, knowing that Gravity Bone is indie, weird, experimental and well-received, might equate the game to Passage and Braid and the Marriage and assume that Gravity Bone's absurdity-for-absurdity's-sake actually belies a message. Gravity Bone isn't an allegory, and players who assume that it is may suppose instead that the game poorly communicates it -- especially in the early stages of the game where nothing stands out beyond its aesthetics.

In Gravity Bone's second level, there's a part where the player can cruise the list of residents at an apartment complex. The names are immediately recognisable as Seinfeld, Cheers and NewsRadio characters, and this I think was a mistake since it gives the impression that everything else in the game can be similarly decoded. Most of Gravity Bone will never be explained, and its mysterious fragments and non-sequiturs are there to trick players into thinking that answers are actually forthcoming.

Though it isn't as infused with subtext, Gravity Bone is very similar to the Marriage and Passage: at a certain point, the player has an epiphany. They don't fully appreciate why the game's so well-renowned until their moment of clarity, and then the game's over. Anyone who's played Portal knows that revelation well: it's a fun enough physics game for a while, but -- "oh! I see." All these games lead the player to a realisation, after which the game's true purpose is evident at last. With the Marriage, it's what the symbols represent and how they behave; with Passage, it's how the play changes based on whether the character is married or not, and with Gravity Bone, it's the ending. (This is where, I believe, the still-present frustration with Braid arises from: its story is the one puzzle in a puzzle game that will never be definitively solved. There's a "correct" interpretation, but one that remains unconfirmed. It's like Jonathan Blow gets off on being withholding.)

The criticism that Gravity Bone ends too soon, or that it comes off as incomplete are misguided. The ending doesn't send a message other than it exists to confound expectations, which is a motivation I can appreciate. Without its conclusion, there's less to recommend about Gravity Bone. The unique lo-fi art style is nice, and the reductive Hitman/No One Lives Forever spy gameplay supports it for a time, but the ending is what makes Gravity Bone such a laudable piece of game design.

The game is one long exercise in structural misdirection, pulled off masterfully. Kieron Gillen explains why at Rock, Paper, Shotgun: Gravity Bone, like most games, progressively introduces new skills and talents, and in mapping your equipment to hotkeys 1, 2 and 4, suggests the existence of an item #3. The player will die before it ever materialises.

The game asserts the existence of a deeper fiction and plot threads that will never be resolved. It establishes a pace of simple, episodic missions, and ends before anyone would predict. Gravity Bone is a 300-page novel that ends on page 60. Because the art style is so charming and pronounced, players might think that that's the big attraction and therefore the extent of the game's creativity. Gravity Bone's purpose is to manipulate expectations by cutting them short, which is why it's effective at all. Everyone who plays Gravity Bone gets played by Gravity Bone. If you remember the debate over Portal's shortness from a year and a half ago, the consensus was that Portal's brevity was beneficial. Here, it's essential.

To argue, as commenters in this Gamers With Jobs thread do, that Gravity Bone is more of a proof-of-concept and isn't even a game because it lacks victory conditions is to miss the point utterly. Presumably they also think that Passage isn't a game because the player dies at the end, and a better use of Jason Rohrer's time would have been a full-length squad-based treasure hunting game, or to let the Passage player unlock an alternate ending wherein instead of succumbing to old age they can speed away on a motorcycle.

Occasionally, games will off the player character in what is clearly a final cutscene, but Gravity Bone makes the foregone conclusion a genuine surprise. Pretty much everyone has played a game in which they assume the role of the universe's greatest hero but fall down an elevator shaft or get shot by some hoodlum in the first level. Gravity Bone canonises that embarrassment.

Gravity Bone needs no sequels or additional installments. It subverts video game convention with such finesse that it rattled hardcore gamers. It ends at the exact right time and there's nothing more to be done with it. This is the rare game that manages to communicate its intent exactly and would be compromised by saying anything further. It is a full stop, conceived and executed perfectly.

9 comments:

qrter said...

Well said, I agree completely. In the case of Gravity bone it is what it is. And it is it very well.

It's a game that managed to move me, doesn't happen that often.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Good read. Gravity Bone struck me as a fine addition to the growing canon of short games like 'You Have to Burn the Rope' and 'Million Point Pong'.

The hang-up for people being that they're the subjects of the joke.

Nels Anderson said...

I thought the woman in the 99 shirt thing was obvious, isn't it a reference to Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon, of course) from Get Smart? Maybe I just spent too much time watching Nick at Night as a kid ...

Duncan said...

Nels: You're probably right, but it still doesn't really explain why she's winning a foot race or why the game chooses to end on that image. There's an interview with Brendon Chung here where he's weirdly evasive about that bit for some reason.

http://fidgit.com/archives/2009/01/the-man-behind-the-strange-won.php

qrter said...

It's also interesting to note that when he uses the song "Brazil" he isn't referencing the film "Brazil" (or actually anything, really - he just likes the music).

Valentin Galea said...

You are over-analyzing it!

To me the short duration of it is just how much work the sole author did manage to put it. It's a time constraint.

teo said...

Personally, I think that what's about Gravity Bone is how it can communicate so much without saying anything at all.

You instantly realize what you are (a secret agent) and I felt more in character in this game that I do in standard game with lots of exposition and explanation.

I loved the ending too though, but I think there's more to the game than just that

doctorfrog said...

Consider also the possibility that you may be playing an NPC in Gravity Bone: a regular person, like you or I, pretty sure that he's the center of his world, with a long career, training, and memories of other conquests (games) all times, only to find himself a member of the dozens or hundreds the main character, the true hero(ine) of the game, who mows you down with a single shot and no second thought. Gravity Bone puts you in the position of the mindless henchman who follows his programming and doesn't get any continues.

Tommy Preger said...

I love the use of clich├ęs in this game. Car chases, flashbacks, plot twists. We've seen it all before, in hundreds of games and films. In Gravity Bone there's no substance whatsoever to back them up, and yet somehow they still work on some level. The game reveals how shallow this genre really is, while keeping us all on our toes. "Oooh, a plot-twist!", and we get all excited, even though we didn't know what the plot was to begin with. It's Pavlovian, almost.