jason roberts

Gorogoa Review — Picture-Book Blues

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s a magic to playing Gorogoa at first. The game opens with no instructions, and there is a square in the middle of the screen where you can manage up to four pictures. By decoupling images, experimenting with picture placement, zooming in on details, and more, you solve puzzles and trigger new animations that advance a story. Developer Jason Roberts’ striking art is complemented by hypnotic audio effects, like crickets chirping and sounds of the beach, and music that quietly arouses wonder.

Yet a question never left my mind as I got deeper into Gorogoa: why should I care?

Gorogoa has the charm of a storybook that doesn’t know how to tell a story. In the animations, there is a boy who walks around with a bowl, but I have no idea why he’s interesting or important, and his lack of emotion leaves one cold. There are mystical symbols and imagery, but I have no idea why they’re significant. At the beginning of the game, there is a creature that inspires the boy to go on his quest for meaning, but I completely forgot about the creature after a few puzzles into the game. Thus I never cared about the very thing that started the journey in the first place. At best, Roberts evokes feelings of exhaustion and perseverance in depictions of the boy as an adult, who remains deep in thought about the mystery driving his life.

Although the puzzles in Gorogoa lead to all kinds of beautiful things in motion, from the rolling wheel of a cart to a moth attracted to a light, the game, like the boy, is prisoner to a sort of repetition. Unlike the case in more dynamic puzzlers like Scribblenauts, the Professor Layton series, and The Talos Principle, you always work on one solution at a time in Gorogoa, and when the answer isn’t obvious, you may have to resort to rearranging the pictures and zooming in on their details to a monotonous extent — all just to move a vague and dispassionate story forward.

Even the cleverest aspects of Gorogoa get stale. For example, watching a scene expand after you merge the imagery of two ostensibly disparate pictures is intoxicating, but this type of step in solving a puzzle becomes an expected mechanic rather than an amusing revelation well before the conclusion of the game. Too much of Gorogoa’s strength lies in illusions coming to life, so when the affair starts to feel like clockwork, the magic is gone.