Glancing out the window, the boy sees a dragon-like beast — something that seems like it could only exist in the imaginative scribbles of his sketchbook. An ornate, majestic creature with jade eyes, and fins that resemble coral reefs. It's awe inspiring.
And just like that, it's gone — was it real? The answer, I find out as I play, doesn't matter — as I get lost deep in the magical world of Gorogoa, the boy collects items that recreate the creature, make it tangible. If it did not exist before, it does now.
Gorogoa is a game that is difficult to describe. Perhaps this is appropriate — while playing, no words are said. Jason Roberts, sole creator and illustrator, would probably tell us this is intentional: the title of Gorogoa comes from his inventing a name for a creature that did not exist when he was a child. In an interview with Eurogamer, he said that "since the game contains no language I wanted a title that is not a word in any language (or not meant to be)."
Sheepishly, I will try to describe the game anyway, though you can see it in-action in the video above. I've never played a title like it, but basically you have a grid with four squares in it. Imagine something like an interactive comic book that you can mess around with, where you can zoom into points of interest as well as move panels around. In doing so, you create entirely new scenes that weren't there before.
An example, visible at high-speed in the video: the boy is standing in a closet. On a different panel, there's a structure outside that is the same shape as the closet. You can drag the "outer shell" of the outside panel, put it on top of the boy, and that creates a new panel where the boy is now outside, standing in the structure.
The old panel is now an entirely different scene as well. Think of it as a visual puzzler that channels Inception, because every time you create a new scene, it's like you're going in deeper and deeper. You almost get the feeling it's not actually happening, and you're playing through the intricate tableaus of the boy's imagination — which makes for a wonderful, mind-bending game.
What kind of a person can create something like this? A couple of weeks ago I spoke to Roberts over Skype, where he told me he grew up in a town out in the desert called Idlewild, along with his two hippie parents. Eventually he'd attend Cal out in Berkeley to study computer science. But computer science seems like an odd choice in a line of more traditionally "artistic" aspirations that he grew up considering.
At one point, Roberts wanted to be a playwright, but he got disillusioned because his studies in the classroom did not delve into structure, did not tap into concrete that would build a skillset. He was surrounded with people who had a knack for specific aspects of writing, but the "the non writing part of writing were missing."
"It reminds me a little of Zen in the Art of Archery," he explained to me, "You're given a bow but no arrows, or arrows and no target — if you want to be a writer, you shouldn't be allowed to use words until you've mastered storytelling. Otherwise you get enamoured with the wrong things, like a turn of phrase."
Playwright wasn't the only thing he considered before deciding on game design. Like his father, who wrote novels on his off time, he liked the idea of being a novelist rather young. And, unsurprisingly — given the loveliness of Gorogoa, which he drew — he was also interested in art. But he couldn't imagine making a career out of these things. Still, he'd let himself dabble in pursuits like these nonetheless — for a while, he kept an online comic. "I've had a bad habit of not finishing projects," he laughed.
This tension, the balancing of the artistic/spiritual and the practical, seems to be a common thread when Roberts speaks to me. He's worked as a contractor doing software engineering for the past year, making Gorogoa in his spare time. But all of that experience beforehand, all that not-practical stuff is integral to the creation of Gorogoa — his first game. "There's the notion that the first thing you make — like if you make a book at 26, you've spent 26 years making that book in a way," he told me.
Becoming disillusioned with how writers used words, and learning how comic book artists tell stories with only visuals led Roberts to want to make something with no language at all. Something that could be accessible to anyone, because "a large part of the of the possible audience is outside the English speaking world," Roberts astutely explained.
Gorogoa is not his first attempt at this lofty vision. Prior to Gorogoa he designed a number of projects that he never finished. They got too complicated, bogged down with overly complex ideas. "I like intricacy," he said — and even though Gorogoa is him paring his ideas down to their essence, you still get a sense of what must be a labyrinth-like mind.
The other big reason that Gorogoa lacks language is because it's representative of the more spiritual side of Jason Roberts. As he tells me about this, his measured demeanor fades away; he starts stumbling with his words. "I think of it as a sort of a...uh, sort of think of....the character [of Gorogoa] as someone who is in search of something spiritual. Something divine. Someone looking for religion. Someone who is unhappy with what they've been handed. There's something missing and they're looking something," he explained. At this point I am unsure if Roberts is really talking about his character or himself.
It takes a while to feel as if Roberts loosens up while I talk to him, but when he does, it feels like his mind starts unravelling — like I am only taking a glimpse at something intense, captivating. "I've always been attracted to a hidden order to the world, especially with mundane things, having microcosms," he mused — and this is obvious to anyone that plays Gorogoa, where he shows us all sorts of ordinary objects and scenes that operate under a secret, but magnificent logic.
"I would like to be a spiritual person - but that's something that's an issue of my own nature. I tend to be pragmatic but I still like idea of mystery. I like the idea that the visible world has things beyond its edges. I like the idea of the unknowable. And in religion, you brush up against an invisible world. And this world isn't fully concerned with the human world...violating the layers between imagination and reality...there are no clear boundaries between what is real and what's not real."
He pauses for a second before he almost dismissively said "a lot of these things are nonverbal in my head." I can imagine him gesticulating something that waves off everything he just said, as if nervous that he's just talking nonsense.
If you hadn't heard of Gorogoa before, that's not surprising. Jason Roberts waited until close to Indiecade this year to reveal the game, intending to submit to the show. It makes sense that he'd wait so long before telling anyone about it. This is the sort of game that you might imagine a person holds close to their heart until they think a friend or a lover might understand — at which point you grab them by the hand and start running, intending to take them to a secret place where you can show them something beautiful, intimate. You don't have the words to explain it. Just, here — look. Or in this case, here, play it.
It has to be like that. Because if you do it before then, if you do it before you're sure they might get it, and end up getting a lukewarm reaction to this precious thing of yours? Well, as Jason put it to me, "that would be devastating."