Gravity Ghost has held critical favor ever since its first reveal in 2013. This indie creation comes from Ivy Games, founded by Erin Robinson. Robinson began her foray into game design using the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) software to create several titles which won awards within that community. She released one of those titles on Steam, Puzzlebots, in 2010 to mostly positive reviews. Hoping to take past success and the overwhelmingly positive buzz for this latest project, Robinson and Ivy released their new game on Steam January 26, 2015. How does it measure up to all this build-up? Pretty well actually.
“Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all others were making ships.” ― Charles Simic
Gravity Ghost tells the story of a family of lighthouse caretakers – specifically focusing on Iona, one of four children. From the very start Iona is in Gravity Ghost mode, and it’s not all-together clear if this is some sort of advanced fantasy realm of escapism for the girl or something much deeper. She seeks to find her spirit animal, the fox. What is not clear is how or why she is in this space. The story is not given to us; if we truly want to discover who or what Iona is and what has happened to her family, we have to work to reveal this information. Our journey of discovery, through gravity fields and planets, is uncovered via flashback moments.
The flashback reveals are part of the game play. Throughout Gravity Ghost’s levels spirit animals can be found – these levels are marked with a paw print. Of course catching one requires understanding the core mechanic, which as you may have guessed, has to do with gravity. It’s not something that the character manipulates exactly; it’s something that players must learn to react to and with, as its behavior is confined to specific principals. Each surface is a planet of varying size with it’s own gravitational pull. Movement at its most basic is focused on a spherical arc around each core. Where things get interesting are when there are multiple planets each with their own gravitational fields, and furthering that complexity comes when these bodies of water, earth, or lava are in motion and reaction to each other.
Figuring out how the character moves, governed by these ideas, and then adding the fact that spirit animals are also moving and reacting to her increases the challenge. Once a spirit animal is located, it must be reunited with a matching set of bones in order to provide a piece of the narrative. Larger spirit animal prizes require simple puzzles, mostly based on gathering things within Iona’s gravitational pull. Once solved, Iona receives memory pieces, which reveal planets within the black hole at the center of Gravity Ghost’s Galaxy. These are the keys to finishing the game.
Players won’t be able to find and reveal these key memories without unlocking new moves and terraforming powers. New constellations with more levels require a certain amount of stars to unlock ― which are needed to be found in order to finish each level. As Iona opens a path to these constellations in the universe her movement sets expand with dash, double jump and other skills that will help her react to gravity. Terraforming planets, like turning a fire planet into water, will reveal stars or flowers. Power gained from flowers is measured by Iona’s hair length; longer lengths (power storage) are require to terraform larger planets.
It’s a surprisingly deep yet simple to use system that ramps up smoothly over what is a fairly short experience. While gravity is at the core of the gameplay, the heart of the game rests within its story. This is story about about tragedy, loss and how people deal with them. It makes sense that developer Robinson’s background is in psychology as this feels like an examination of how humans cope with these issues. One of the things it seems to be showing the players is that everyone wrestles with these emotions in different ways, but that withdrawing can compound the damage. We can often become selfish and self-destructive within our own grief.
There is such a big contrast between the story pieces and the game’s levels, right down to the music and visuals, that it feels jarring at first. Gameplay showcases a flowing graphical style with mostly upbeat electronic music reminiscent of something out of the demo scene of the 80s and 90s. On the other hand, cutscenes are most often punctuated by more somber sounds and music, with a primitive art style that could be either colored chalk or pencils. Ben Prunty’s (FTL) musical score is at its best during contemplative moments. There are moments of almost purely vocal work and their stark, bare conveyance enhances some key moments.
The voice acting is kind of all over the map too, feeling disconnected and even amateurish at times – which is surprising given the background of some of the cast member’s previous works (Borderlands 2, Bastion and Resonance amongst others). Yet somehow it all works. The sentimentality of the story ties everything together. As its final moments neared, with Iona finally catching up to her personal spirit animal, I felt resoundingly sad. Yet, in the very end Gravity Ghost leaves us with hope.
At just three hours long I don’t know if the game’s $15 price can be fully justified, but then again how much does it cost to see a movie of the same length? A few achievements for those into those things will probably extend the gameplay another hour, maybe two. The real replayability will come from the speedrunning community, as clearly this title was built with that in mind after the intial story completion. That idea notwithstanding, this is a game worth playing. I am always happy to see games take on deeper subject matter, and this one does so with some excellent gameplay behind it.
Gravity Ghost was reviewed on PC via Steam. The review copy was provided by Ivy Games.