Indie developer Jason Roberts’ esoteric hand-drawn puzzle game Gorogoa has been an intriguing enigma. It’s been in development for over five years, surfacing every so often with a teaser to show off its novel mechanics, which are based on comic book panels. The wait is over on December 14, when publisher Annapurna Interactive will launch the game on PC and iOS.
Gorogoa has a distinctive aesthetic. At times, it looks like the pages of a children’s book, full of lush, bold colors and delicate pencil shading. The environment is a mix of the familiar and the arcane. Strange symbols and mystical artifacts are scattered throughout alongside everyday objects like kitchen tables or globes.
“As far as the design of the world, I wanted this to be recognizably similar to our world, to conceptually take place in a version of the 20th century, and I didn’t want the world to look too fanciful or strange,” said Roberts in a phone call with GamesBeat. “I wanted it to feel like it had some degree of ordinariness, for this other place. There are urban locations, train platforms, things like that that are—I want them to look visually exciting, while also feeling grounded. And then I also had to come up with a lot of cultural imagery that is related to this world and its history, its religions and things like that, that was recognizable by the type of imagery that it was, or the part that it plays in the culture, but isn’t an exact reproduction of anything from our world.”
Gorogoa presents each scene in frames, and the puzzles involve moving the frames around. It plays with perspective, zooming in and out of certain tableaus and enabling you to manipulate certain items. Some of the puzzles require you to line up moving mechanical parts. Others depend on triggering events in the environment — like a bird landing on a branch and knocking an apple from it into a bowl in the frame below.
“I was interested in the way comics have multiple panels laid out as part of a larger composition,” said Roberts. “They have these borders in between them, and that immediately made me interested in breaking out—I like the structure of those borders compositionally, but I also wanted the scene to break those rules, so things could escape from their frames. Scenes in the story that take place at different points in time communicating with each other, I became really interested in that.”
Roberts’s professional background is in software engineering, but he’s always had creative aspirations. He worked on a comic strip on the side and had started putting together a graphic novel. When Jonathan Blow’s indie classic Braid debuted in 2008, it suddenly seemed possible for a small team to put together and release a game.
Composer Joel Corelitz and sound designer Eduardo Ortiz Frau contributed to Gorogoa, but it was largely a solo effort. Roberts had to teach himself a lot of skills, such as game design and animation. And he ended up throwing out a lot of his early artwork because he was still evolving as an artist at the time and it came out stylistically inconsistent.
Another large challenge was making the puzzles fit together in a cohesive way. Though he already had a clear idea of the kind of game he wanted to make, he had to try different types of narrative structures to make sense of the mechanics.
“That took a lot of trial-and-error,” said Roberts. “This was the first game I’d ever worked on, and figuring out how to balance—to make all the parts of the game meaningful, at least in my own mind, and so that every section of the game fits in thematically, but also making the puzzles in the game work—due to my inexperience I would build stuff out, build parts of the game, and take a long time doing that, before realizing that whole chapters of the game didn’t really make sense, narratively or thematically.”
The nameless protagonist becomes entranced by a colorful mystical figure when he’s a child. He carries his fixation with the creature into adulthood. We see snippets from different times in his life where he’s still doggedly pursuing the mystery from his childhood, trying to make sense of it perhaps.
Roberts says that the puzzles the character solves represent the “process of introspection and investigation of the world and memories.” The game contains various different types of puzzles. One involves rotating gears, suggesting the cyclical nature of ritual, journeying step on step in a sort of pilgrimage.
“It has to do with a character who is looking for some meaning that is outside of the world. Hidden connections and structure,” said Roberts. “Gorogoa, the creature he sees, represents that thing that you’re trying to reach that is invisible or outside the world. Whether that’s a religious motivation, or whether that’s a creative goal. But another important theme in the game is how devotion to something—how our spiritual experience is different when you’re a child versus when you’re an adult. The experience that the child has is much more magical and abstract. It’s aided by mysterious outside forces in the form of the player. The adult version of the character, his life is much more of a struggle, a search for meaning.”
Gorogoa is both the name of the elusive creature and the game. Roberts said he chose it because he liked the sound of it, and also because it’s a word that could exist within the world of the game as well.
“I think I like it as a sound because it sounds like something—it has sort of a rumbling quality, like thunder or an earthquake,” said Roberts. “I felt like it had this kind of mysterious gravity to it. But I consciously didn’t want to name the game with an English word, or a word in any language. I carefully avoided language in the game, any text in any earthly language.”
In a way, the name encapsulates the feeling of entering Roberts’ world — a mystical realm that seems to exist just slightly to the left of reality. It’s composed of recognizable letters and sounds like it could actually exist in a real language. But it’s completely fictitious, as is the protagonist’s journey, even though it’s curiously relatable.