The Puzzle Of A Lifetime

The Puzzle Of A Lifetime

The first time I played Gorogoa, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

I’d heard about Gorogoa for years, but never tried it. Maybe it was because, even though multiple people tried to tell me about it, the game defies linguistic description: A wordless, hand-drawn puzzle game in which people, objects, and places move across time and space; a game requiring you to let go of your perception of reality. It all sounded a little big. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Also I kept forgetting its name.

When I heard it was nearing its release, and would be at PAX West this year, I decided this was my moment to get acquainted with Gorogoa, and I wandered up into the sixth floor of the Seattle convention center, snaking through the vast maze of tiny indie game booths until I found its small demo area. I actually made a complete circuit around the PC before I saw it, so unassuming was the little stand and so packed was the convention floor. Once I started playing, the cacophony of PAX disappeared. I was mesmerised, I didn’t want to stop, and once I was done with the brief demo, I had to know more about it.

Gorogoa, released on December 14 for Windows, iOS, and Switch, was created almost in its entirety by Jason Roberts, a 43-year-old former software engineer. He drew the game’s gorgeous, intricate artwork in pencil. He learned how to animate. He painstakingly put together the puzzles, in which seemingly disparate objects and places across different scenes are made to meld together as if by magic. Roberts has been working on Gorogoa for over seven years. It is his first video game.

“I’ve never been a perfectionist,” Roberts said of the game’s elongated path to the finish line. “It’s not about infinite polish, it’s about me constantly making significant changes.” At various points along the way, Roberts has scrapped large, completed sections of the game. “The changes have rippling effects, because everything fits together so carefully,” he said. Make one tweak, and you have to redesign the whole chapter. With a hand-crafted game like Gorogoa, that means tacking on months or years of development time.

All that wandering has led to something much more than a clever puzzle game. I usually smile when I’m solving puzzles in a game, but during that Gorogoa demo my mouth was slightly open in disbelief, my head shaking no. I couldn’t stop playing it because I felt I was seeing something profound. Everything in Gorogoa is there for a reason; it is a game with a vivid, thought-provoking message about life.

Gorogoa’s hand-drawn artwork began as pencil sketches.
What is Gorogoa?

Here’s how it starts. A tiny panel opens up in the center of your screen. A boy looks out of a window at the skyline of his city. A massive creature emits an otherworldly sound as it flies through the street, its elaborate colourful wings arching over the tops of the buildings. The boy does not know what this creature is. He opens a book and flips through it, eventually landing on an image of people kneeling and making an offering to the creature, as if it were some sort of god. The boy closes the book and walks away from the window.

The tiny panel in the middle of your screen now becomes a two-by-two grid of panels, and this is the space in which you play Gorogoa. Your cursor turns into an omnidirectional arrow when you hover over the original panel, which currently shows the window the boy was staring out of and the city beyond it. You drag the panel, and the unexpected magic happens: Instead of simply moving this panel, your action has removed the window from the scene, splitting it in two. Now there are two panels: A city exterior, and a window leading to nowhere.

Zoom in on the city panel, and you find a door atop a roof. Zoom out from the window to see the boy still inside his house. Drag the door over the boy, and he walks through it, now standing atop a building in the city. This is what plays out, in ever more complex ways, over the course of Gorogoa, a shifting of the layers and juxtapositions of different scenes in order to set off actions between them, and thus solve the puzzles. Along the way, inside those scenes, a story is told.

What is Gorogoa?

In 2012, when he first announced the game, Roberts told Eurogamer that “Gorogoa” was the name of an imaginary monster that he invented when he was a child.

In 2017, as I sit next to him in a massive but crowded San Francisco coffee shop at the only two barstools we could find, Roberts said that in the beginning, there was just the word. “I think I was assembling… to me, it’s an onomatopoeia in a way, of something… I feel this, like, thunder, or something that’s really rumbling from under the ground,” he said. “It feels ancient and powerful, I think.”

The word gorogoa stuck with Roberts, through his childhood in Massachusetts and California and through his four years at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied software engineering.

Roberts worked his way through a string of small software firms, places that allowed him some degree of “creative freedom,” making good money but growing slowly more dissatisfied with the occupation that once excited him. Always, he felt the pull of creative work; always, gorogoa was there, rumbling under the surface. “At times I wanted to be a writer. I thought about trying to make comics,” he said. He took playwriting classes in his spare time, which didn’t pan out. He embarked on what was to be a massive graphic novel project, in which Gorogoa was the name of a prison. “I got eight pages into it,” he said. “I started it without thinking it through, and it was taking me four weeks to do every page.”

Eventually, Roberts decided that if he was going to do a complex art project, it should at least be interactive. “I had been designing games in my head for a long time, and they were always impractical,” he said. “But I like video games because they have machines, and puzzles with moving parts.” Games also let him use his software engineering skills, bringing together all of his talents into a single project. He thought about the games that had fascinated him as an ’80s kid: the groundbreaking computer puzzles by Cliff Johnson like The Fool’s Errand, or puzzle books like Maze, which was filled with dozens of intricate, enigmatic woodcut illustrations that hid all manner of secrets inside them.

The Fool’s Errand.

The release and massive success of Braid, the 2008 indie game designed and self-funded by Jonathan Blow, inspired many like-minded creators to attempt to create their own personal game projects, Roberts among them. He began designing an early version of the game, with a different story but similar mechanics, in a notebook, before deciding it was “too complex,” throwing it away and starting over.

Sometime in 2011, he began building today’s version of Gorogoa. As things started to take shape, he quit his job to focus on the game full-time. A few months later, he submitted his demo to the 2012 Indiecade festival, where the magical story of the boy and monster dazzled the judges and won the award for best visual design. He released the demo publicly. Positive press and the word-of-mouth engine started to spin up. You’ve got to play Gorogoa. This game is going to be great. Can’t wait for it to come out.

“I thought it was going to be a quick process,” Roberts said. He’d saved up a bunch of money before leaving his job, and figured he’d have the game out by the end of 2013. Two years later, he had spent all his money, and Gorogoa wasn’t finished. He’d won another prestigious award for visual design, this time from the Independent Games Festival, but he needed funding to continue. That came in the form of Indie Fund, a collective of investors who back promising indie games for a piece of the returns.

Indie Fund gave him another year of runway. He continued to toil away, but blew past his self-imposed deadline, and the money ran out again. In came Gorogoa‘s second saviour: publisher Annapurna Interactive, the offshoot of the film studio that was publishing unique, artistic projects like What Remains of Edith Finch and the sequel to Her Story. “It took me too long,” Roberts said. The state of the indie games market had changed dramatically since the explosive success of Braid. It was much harder to break through. “The fact that Annapurna could bring a dedicated marketing budget felt important.”

While Indie Fund’s budget came with no strings attached, Annapurna acted as what Roberts called an “external source of discipline.”

“I needed a bad cop, or some tough love, to finish the game,” he said. “I have that tendency to just… I don’t know. Maybe I would have just kept wandering, design-wise, until I ran out of money.”

While Roberts created much of Gorogoa at his home in Berkeley, he also worked on the game here at Gamenest, a now-closed co-working space for independent designers in San Francisco.
As you progress through Gorogoa, moving and stacking and unstacking and looking for patterns, the game asks you to perform more and more intricate maneuvers. The second chapter introduces a falling-rock puzzle, in which you have to move panels around as a rock bounces off objects, guiding it to a certain place. The rock will only move from panel to panel if the scenes within those panels are perfectly aligned, which means you have to look for matching patterns everywhere. That massive banner hanging on the outside of a tall building might, if you zoom in very tight on another scene, align with a tiny ribbon, creating a harmonious pattern from two otherwise contrasting scenes.

These moments — finding places and things and elements that seem asymmetrical and jumbled and random, theorizing how they might fit together, then doing it — are the tiny little bits of joy that make up a playthrough of Gorogoa. As you might imagine, pulling this off as a designer is not easy.

“I’m mostly interested in having things connect that are different from each other: different scales, different kinds of things,” Roberts said. But he didn’t want the scenes he was drawing to be too fantastical, too exotic, too full of esoteric mechanical parts. “For a long time, I would think of elaborate puzzles, and they would have elaborate pieces that made them up, and that would cause me to make scenes around those pieces that didn’t really make sense.” As he iterated and rejected his more wild ideas, Roberts put more constraints on himself, attempting to only draw scenes that looked like mundane real-world life. The more “ordinary” the scenes looked, he realised, the more “miraculous” it was when they were found to connect to each other.

Besides simply looking ordinary, Roberts wanted to make sure the scenes fit into the story. For the rock-falling puzzle, he first designed a “pachinko-like” arrangement of platforms and obstacles for the rock to fall down. He then worked that into the story by situating it not only in the appropriate place, but also the appropriate time. The scenes of Gorogoa take place in different time periods, which Roberts said tracks along the history of the 20th century: A brief peace, a lengthy time of war, a period of rebuilding. The platforms are placed as scaffolding on the sides of a building being remodeled post-war, looking “plausibly like a building” and not a puzzle piece.

“Early on, a lot of puzzles were possible to solve by accident,” Roberts said. A tester would be moving the panels around randomly, and happen upon the juxtaposition that set events into motion automatically. “I’m trying much harder to design puzzles that don’t work that way.” After the game’s first two chapters, simply putting pieces together isn’t enough; you must then think about what you’re going to do now that you’ve found one of those hidden connections.

Perhaps Gorogoa would have come out sooner had Roberts not set himself a difficult challenge when he started: In developing this project that blended his talents at visual art, design, and coding, Roberts wanted to use Gorogoa to learn the craft of animation. “There’s some computer assistance in the game — it’s not all hand-drawn, although most of it is. But even if I was using 3D animation, I wanted to do that myself.” Roberts said this was a bit too much of a stretch, even though he accomplished his goal. “The animators, especially with no dialogue, are also the actors,” he said. “To put myself in a position where I’m a writer-director who’s also trying to do all the acting… I wanted to do all the visual stuff myself, and I did it, but I think I will work with animators on future projects.”

What Roberts did outsource, from the beginning, was the sound and music. Shortly after the game’s debut demo, he enlisted sound designer Eduardo Ortiz Frau, whose other work includes Edith Finch, David O’Reilly’s game Everything, and The Stanley Parable.

“I sat down to play it, and immediately I just fell in love with the whole thing,” Frau said. “The game is amazing, like a work of art… It reminded me of two things. One is Earnest & Celestine, which is a French animation film. The other is The Illusionist, a European animation film.” In both those films, he said, the sound design is “all real sounds,” natural noises drawn from real life. He wanted Gorogoa to sound like this: “minimal and open and natural,” with sounds pushed to the background, to create distance between the player and the character, as if we’re peering at the action through a distant window.

The game’s original composer, who worked on it for years, was Journey‘s Austin Wintory. But late in the process, as he often did, Roberts decided he wanted to go in a different direction, and hired composer Joel Corelitz (The Unfinished Swan).

“I was sent a link to the demo when they were looking for a composer,” Corelitz said. “My strongest impression was the meditative space I felt myself in as I played the game. It was a mental space that was different than anything I’ve played before. Also, while the subject matter has a gravitas to it, it also has this really great ability to put a smile on your face any time you solve a puzzle.”

What Roberts was after, Corelitz recalled, was an answer to the question: Was it possible to create music for Gorogoa that fit together the way the puzzles did, separate compositions that could blend into a harmonious whole?

“The first thing I thought of was… a website called In B Flat. It’s a grid of 20 YouTube videos, you can play one of them, you can play all 20 of them — any amount from one to 20 and they all work together, no matter when you start them and when you end them.” He sent the website to Roberts, and they began crafting a musical soundscape for Gorogoa that would work similarly. “The composite score that you hear as a player is the product of whatever the four tiles are that are on the screen,” he said. “The only way to hear the score is to play the game. The game itself is the presentation engine for the score, and it’s not something that you can listen to the same way every time.”

Much has changed in the world of video games since Roberts began designing Gorogoa. He began with what was then a not-unreasonable assumption: a game must have challenge. But in the years that followed, he began to question that. “A lot of games that push the boundary of what a video game is came along later and influenced my thinking,” he said, citing the revolutionary challenge-free, story-focused games Dear Esther and Gone Home. “I feel like I’m at the point in video games as a medium where you have to justify… why there are mechanics at all. Why I didn’t want to just tell a story.”

The ultimate puzzle that Roberts had to solve as he built Gorogoa was: What kind of story was best told using puzzles? He bristled at the idea of the classic point-and-click adventure game, with its random use-the-accordion-with-the-cactus puzzles that not only felt disconnected with the world, but with the story the game was telling. He wanted gameplay that was appropriate to the story, something that felt like a cohesive whole. What was the message?

What is Gorogoa?

Roberts asked himself the most basic question: “What do I like about puzzles? I think it has to do with the idea that there is hidden structure or meaning in the world,” he said. “That if you can look at an ordinary piece of the world and rearrange the parts of it in just the right way, you would discover some hidden structure. And if you look out in the world and you don’t see that meaning there, that means that there has to be some challenge to finding it, to explain why you haven’t found it yet.”

Perhaps we all want, on some level, to believe that the world has meaning, that there is a reason things happen. We may not believe this to be true, but wouldn’t it be a lot better if it were? The idea that the universe is part of some grand plan is seductive, because it beats the hell out of the alternative, which is that life is a huge cosmic accident.

Some people search for patterns in the randomness — comparing the lives of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy as if they were proof that the universe operates on a hundred-year cycle, or trying to interpret the poems of Nostradamus as predictions of modern-day life, or, if you are actor Kirk Cameron, insisting that the banana and the human hand were designed to fit each other like a nut and a bolt.

And some people just enjoy puzzles. A puzzle is a seemingly random grouping of clues that, if manipulated in just the right way, reveal an order and a meaning. It’s a fantasy, but those a-ha moments give us that pleasing solution we were looking for, a tiny vestige of what it might feel like to truly discover a secret of the universe. “That fantasy, of the world itself being a puzzle, is connected to the search for hidden meaning,” Roberts said. “That also drives religion, I think. That’s why religion is a theme in the game, and that’s how I think it’s connected to these puzzles.”

The story that unfolds during Gorogoa is a search for meaning over the course of a life, beginning with the boy spying the mysterious creature out of his window and embarking on what turns out to be a lifelong quest to understand it. “I think of the character as a mystic,” Roberts said. “He’s devoted to something outside the world, and trying to find it.”

Beyond that, it’s tempting to read a degree of autobiography into Gorogoa‘s story, knowing that Roberts tried for years and years to find a creative project he was happy enough with to carry to completion, who embarked on this journey thinking it would take a year, then two, then seven, who finds himself in the position of being a veteran game designer about to release his first game.

“I think a lot of projects start with one little idea in a corner of something. You expand outward, and you sort of wander around until you hit a top-level idea that sort of unifies everything,” Roberts said. “You’re just trying to figure out what you’re making.”

“If you don’t know where your destination is, you don’t know how long you have to wander.”

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