It has been a long, winding road to release for the video game Gorogoa. Developer Jason Roberts initially began work on it over five years ago, but it’s finally set to release this year. Part of the problem is that Roberts is basically doing the whole thing himself. Another part is that it is, in his own words, “like playing Myst, but four times simultaneously.”
It’s difficult to describe exactly how Gorogoa works. It’s like a cross between playing with Photoshop layers and classic animation cells. Essentially, it’s a tile-based puzzle game with four separate windows. Those windows can be dragged around, creating new scenery and puzzle scenarios to solve while also functioning as self-contained point-and-click adventure games. It’s… a lot. After playing a little less than an hour at PAX South 2017, my brain hurt.
Which is why Inverse spoke with creator Jason Roberts all about designing the video game, the art style, and why it’s taken so long to come to fruition.
My understanding is that you’re the sole designer on the game?
I have a sound designer and a composer, but I did all the game design and all the art.
What would you say was the most difficult aspect of doing all of that yourself?
The design, technologically in terms of coding, is not all that complicated. The most difficult parts were the art and the game design. They’re difficult in different ways. I like doing art, and sometimes visual design is challenging, but it’s fun. It just takes a long time. Game design is more like a confusing headache for a long time until everything kind of clicks together, and then it feels good.
But trying to design a puzzle game where every piece of each puzzle is also a scene in a story — it took me a long time to figure out how to balance all the constraints. And that’s why over the course of the game I built big chunks of content and then whole chapters that I ended up throwing out because the balance was off. I had a bunch of puzzles made, and the puzzles were kind of cool, but the scenes making up the puzzle didn’t make any sense within the world of the game. They didn’t make sense within the story, so the stories began to feel like a bunch of disconnected imagery, and that’s not satisfying for a player as they get deeper into the game.
You cut out entire chunks of the game?
Maybe I could have sat down and planned parts of the game better, or maybe I needed to build stuff that doesn’t work in order to see that it doesn’t work. The pieces of the puzzle are parts of scenes within the world, and so first I’d come up with a puzzle design, and then I’d have to figure out how to kind of organically justify or integrate the parts of the puzzle into the story. And when you’re telling a story, there’s a principle of a narrative economy where you want to use as few scenes to tell a story as you possibly can. You don’t ever want to have two scenes that serve the same purpose.
But when I’m trying to design a puzzle, I want as many puzzles as I can get, and I want each puzzle to have as many pieces as it possibly can as the game goes on. But more puzzles with more pieces forces more scenes into the story or forces me to try and cram more objects into one scene, and that means the needs of the story and the needs of the puzzle design push against each other. So they’re in conflict and that has to be carefully balanced and resolved for each moment in the game. That formulation, I think, is the big thing that took me a long time.
Early on, I would build a bunch of puzzles without thinking through what it all meant narratively, and I had all these moments and scenes that didn’t work in the story. You know, a story has to have a certain shape, you can’t just keep gluing extra scenes onto it. So at some point, I said, “this whole structure of the chapter was wrongheaded,” even though I’d dumped a ton of time into it and maybe even finished the art. And I would scrap it.
I’ve always felt that — coming from a background in software engineering — if you’re writing code, one of the best feelings you can have is to cut a big chunk of code out because you’ve redesigned so that it’s not necessary. I don’t regret having to throw out content; I wish the process didn’t take so long, but cutting something, even if you put a ton of time into it, is often the right move. People too often get attached to something because parts of it are great or because of the time they put into it, and it stays in, and it’s a mistake.
What drove you to that initial design process if you changed in the middle of things?
Early on, when I made the demo, people responded to the sort of, like, dreamlike, surreal imagery, and so, in a way, that was like being rewarded for putting a lot of strange disconnected images in a game. And I think that is charming in the short run, but that as you get further into a story and you see more and more disconnected images, you begin to suspect that there’s nothing holding it all together. And if I’m designing a puzzle I think, “Well, what do I need for this puzzle?” I need a light bulb, I need a pulley — whatever, and then I would try and design stranger puzzles with stranger parts.
But let’s say I’ve got a puzzle that involves a parade of circus elephants that has to be visually exciting and strange to look at, but then if I haven’t thought about how that scene makes sense in the story I’ve got a big problem. And because people were originally excited for that by the mixture of images, I was lulled into thinking that I could put any kind of imagery into the game, and people would like it. Even if the story as a whole remains mysterious in the end, I think people can sense whether or not everything is coherent under the surface.
If you look at a lot of puzzle video games, and the way that they work, oftentimes, the parts of the game that are parts of the puzzle aren’t so organically part of the world that they’re in. They are conspicuous. A lot of the time, they’re designed to be conspicuous so you can spot them. But I wanted puzzle solutions to feel miraculous, as though you take an ordinary object that is part of a scene, and then the seemingly innocuous object that’s part of a scene connects to something that’s part of another scene, and suddenly something new and magical is created. And to me, that feels more magical — if the first time you look at something as part of a scene, it feels ordinary or doesn’t feel like it exists only in order to connect with something else. Every part or every puzzle should feel like an organic part of the world, and not something from a video game.
So, sort of, everything must have its own internal logic, even if that’s not immediately apparent?
You can see that two different things connect, and it makes sense, but I don’t want it to feel like any part of any scene is only there in order to support a puzzle. It should feel like everything that’s involved in a puzzle is something that would naturally be there. Puzzles in the game are made up of connecting multiple tiles. If you took one of the tiles away from the game — just looked at in isolation, just looked at that scene — there shouldn’t be anything about that scene that feels strange, that feels out of place, because it was put there to connect with something else.
How do you describe Gorogoa’s puzzles to people who haven’t played it?
This has always been a challenge. Sometimes I allude to putting two pictures up on a wall and imagining that the scenes in the two pictures could connect, and the border between them dissolves. Another image I often invoke is, you’re playing two different games — two different windows on your computer — and the images in the two games you’re playing suddenly align such that you can connect the two windows together and characters can cross from one to the other.
I just say, “You’ve got multiple tiles on screen, each tile plays like its own separate point-and-click adventure game until you align the images into adjacent tiles, and then they connect, or you’re exploring a scene and you find a hole that goes through the tile, and then you can stack that on another tile.”
I’ve never been able to get the description down to less than a paragraph. It’s clear pretty quickly, if somebody sees a video of how the game works. I think the difficulty describing it is related to its relative uniqueness. I’ve listened to a lot of other people trying to describe the game to each other. That’s something I always enjoy at shows: Seeing one person playing the game, and then their friend comes up, and the first person tries to explain how the game works. If I had ever heard a great description under those circumstances, I would have stolen it, but it’s always a bit of a fumble until somebody sees the screen.
After playing the demo at PAX South, I actually told the PR rep at the booth that it reminds me of Myst because my brain hurts after playing.
It’s like playing Myst, but four times simultaneously.
Now that we’re so close to release — Spring 2017 — after so many years, how are you feeling about the finished product?
I feel good about it. Each chapter of the game was its own struggle, and there was a lot of complicated constraints to balance for each part of the game. A year ago, I had the game playable from start to finish, but there were times in the game I felt were flawed pacing-wise, but I thought, “Well, I’ve got to release the game now, because I’m out of funds.”
In the intervening year since then, I’ve brought back and reworked stuff, and now I basically feel that — not that the game is perfect in every detail but that structurally every part of it is sound, and all the pieces fit together right. The whole story arc is solid and comes together in the end the way I want it to. It took me a long time and a lot of trial and error to get all that stuff working.
There will always be some graphical issues that bug me that probably nobody else can see with the visuals and animation, but the fact that the thing feels right and has the right structure overall is much more important.
Anything else you wish you could have done?
There are puzzles that I liked as puzzles, but I could never make them work in the story. There are scenes that I put a lot of time into and finished art and animation that wound up getting cut… I wouldn’t put them back in for the reasons I discussed. I’m still sorry I didn’t find a way to put them in, but I’m glad that I didn’t put them in without a good reason.
I don’t know whether I will ever make another game with the same mechanic, because it’s hard; it’s a pain to design. I think I got everything I wanted to narratively, and I don’t really lose sleep because of the puzzles that didn’t get in. So, nothing major I don’t think. No major regrets.
What do you hope people get out of playing the game?
I love to see people be surprised and delighted. I want it to feel miraculous as people are playing it and be very satisfying when they see the pieces fit together. When they reach the end of the story, I want people to feel like it was a satisfying emotional and intellectual experience. The game will always be mysterious because of the extremely strange way that it moves around within space and time, and it’s hard to tell a story visually. But ideally when people reach the ending, it will satisfyingly tie all these strange threads together in a way that achieves dramatic closure.