We Are Spies, We Will Thrill You: Gravity Bone

By Kieron Gillen on January 6th, 2009 at 11:37 am.

I haven't drunk for literally a day. It's amazing.

Poisoned Sponge urged me to play this. I now urge you to do likewise. It’s from Blendogames (aka Brandon Chung), built on the Quake-2 derived KMQuake2 engine and is intellectually a cross between Hitman, No-one Lives Forever and Team Fortress 2, with a big splash of arthouse gibber. It’s also the wittiest game I’ve played since… World of Goo? Yeah, sounds right. And best of all, prominently features music from much-beloved-by-RPS-film Brazil. Get it here and play it – and remember F6 is Q2′s quicksave for the jumpy bits – and a little bit of spoiler-heavy analysis beneath the cut.

Seriously, you’ve played it? Wasn’t that just delightful. And incredibly confident. And even surprisingly polished – a tad buggy around the edges, occasionally – but slickly picks up the lessons of other games and runs with them. The TF2-esque information dumps via the environment were particularly well done. Yeah, first-person platforming, but we’ll forgive that, eh?

And it’s really beautiful and lively and full of individual moments which all too many mainstream games couldn’t match. Particular favourites? The cigarette smoking in the chase sequence. The open-air party with dozens of planes flying around it. The bit where you fall onto the table and everyone’s just staring at you. And, of course, the ending…
I do tend to get on tables like this when drinking too. And people stare. Yes.
And it’s… okay, this is veering into pretentious territory, as I’ve got no idea of the creator’s intent. Theory says that doesn’t matter, but if the reason that the game’s as brief it is something as simple as “Yeah, got bored with it” or “Gonna do future episodes” this may fall apart. But as is…

Well, one of the interesting things about Gravity Bone is that while it’s a short-form game, it doesn’t act like a short-form game. If a game’s going to be this small, you can tell – in that the skills are introduced immediately and you’re kind of left to it. Instead, Gravity Bone takes the mainstream videogame structure of slowly introducing skills. It makes you think it’s going to go on. I mean, if they’re giving you these skills one at a time and gradually broadening what you can do… well, why would they do that if they’re not going to continue? Hell, when you pick up all the equipment that’s available, it fills in slots 1, 2 and 4. What’s in 3? Clearly something’s going to be in 3? That’s what games have taught us.

Except, no, the game just ends with the hero being shot and falling, flashbacking to his doom. It’s kind of plays the opposite gag of You Have To Burn The Rope. That says upfront all that this is all that it’s going to be. This implies it’s going to be something else, but… well, no it’s not. The hero could always be shot before his adventure starts, and the illusion of games arc is always that – just an illusion. Yeah, Gravity Bone does it with enough joy to avoid any sense of cynicism, but the point’s there beneath all the bonhomie.

But putting aside whether I’m onto something there or not, there’s much to admire here. It’s an indie art game whose main effect is to delight you at every turn, displaying an enormous amount of craft in every part. About as Highly Recommended as I Highly Recommend anything.

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88 Comments »

  1. LewieP says:

    Yeah, played this the other day. It really is neat, and the price is right.

    I wonder if the ideas could work stretched over a full length game.

  2. The Archetype says:

    Tryed to give this a go, but it kept crashing whenever I died or loaded a save game, which with the platforming bits made it more trouble than it’s worth. Hope the creator patches it up, as I enjoyed what I was able to get to.

  3. thefanciestofpants says:

    WHAT.

  4. MetalCircus says:

    That was pure brilliance! Far better than World of Goo, but then again watching my mother have sex with a bald trucker would be more entertaining than world of goo. Good find chaps!

  5. thefanciestofpants says:

    In all seriousness though; It was okay I guess. “Photograph the five birds” got a chuckle out of me at least but in the end, yeah. Smacks of pretention.

  6. Okami says:

    ZOMG!! SPOILERZ!!

  7. Joe says:

    Yay! I’ve always loved Brendon’s stuff, right back to Barista 2. It all tends to be very pithy and strange – the old HL1 mods are very much worth going back and looking at.

  8. Thirith says:

    I think we need more games that smack of pretension. Even if they overshoot the goal, 99% of all (non-indie) games have no ambitions to be artistic. Having ambitions of art, even though it gets up some people’s noses, makes games more varied, diverse, interesting and – when it succeeds as a game in addition to its artistic pretentions – worthwhile.

  9. Campaignjunkie says:

    If you liked this, try Barista 2 on his site. There’s a lot that’s different, but there’s also a lot that’s the same. That’s all I’ll say without spoiling it. (Barista 1 is interesting as a Marathon / Doom variant too)… Anyway, I’m finally glad he’s getting all the attention he deserves after all the genius he’s pumped out for the Q2 / HL1 mod scene for years.

    Also, if you happen to have Opposing Force installed for some strange reason, his Bootleg Squadrog is probably the finest OpFor mod ever made… Though for some reason he hasn’t put that up on his new Blendo site yet.

  10. thefanciestofpants says:

    Theres a big difference between striving for artistic signifigance or originality and pretention though. To me, Gravity bone is pretty clearly getting its grins from a sense of obtuse smugness and a genuinely likeable graphical style.

    Its the obtuseness(is that a word) that irks me. Art doesn’t need to be difficult to decipher to be important. This a mistake thousands upon thousands of artists, writers and directors have made in attempt to make their work seem artisically profound. All it does is make me want to set them on fire.

    If someone wants to bury the actual meaning(or lack of one) in obscurity or layers of ill-concieved metaphor I’ll pass thanks.

  11. MetalCircus says:

    I don’t think it was pretentious. World of Goo is a game that seemed (to me at least) to be an utterly proposterous “thing” that failed to resonate with me on a serious level. This was just a 20 minute game and I absoloutley loved it. I usually have a nose for sniffing out pretentious bullshit. Not to say I don’t like pretension, just dislike when they fail spectacularly at it, ala Gus Van Sants ‘My Own Private Idaho’ was an excercise in ridiculously proposterous arthouse crap that made no sense at all… on the flipside, Apocalypse Now is a fine example of pretension done very, very well. This seemed fine to me. It was fun, made me smile, and was acctually pretty amazingly well polished considering it was made on the Q2 engine.

    When I think of arthouse gaming, my initial reaction is to vomit my lunch because it conjurs images of wannabe hacks, rehashing old, tired, art school bullshit that simply doesn’t fly with me; this, however, is my idea of arthouse. It’s simple, funny, different and fun.

  12. Kieron Gillen says:

    I wonder if people released Super Mario Bros today people would be critiquing Miyamoto for the whole vicious mushroom thing being pretentious.

    KG

  13. l1ddl3monkey says:

    Chung made my favourite ever HL mod (The Puppy Years). Definitely be giving this a look…once I get out of the office.

    Puppy Years had a similar approach to the one described in that it takes you through a whole training and learning scenario where you get to grips with your new skills (super strength, wall climbing, bullet time – which is just awesome in the context of the gunfights that take place in the game – and stealth) and then you use all those skills together in a 5 minute dash for freedom from a rampaging hit squad.

    It worked in that it made me download and play through most of the rest of Chungs output.

  14. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Just so you know, if you’re getting crashes, try running it windowed. I’ve heard that fixes it for a lot of people. And yay for Gravity Bone getting more attention! It really is lovely.

  15. Thirith says:

    Let’s face it, one person’s pretentious arthouse wankery is another person’s affecting, effective work of art. See MetalCircus vs thefanciestofpants in this thread.

    Frankly, I’ve very rarely felt that the word “pretentious” is used as anything other than a stick to beat something you didn’t like with. It’s roughly as useful as saying that something sucks, but it looks and sounds like you’re being objective and critical and not just slagging it off.

  16. Turin Turambar says:

    I liked the yellow flashbacks, without not even one explanation of their meaning.

  17. MetalCircus says:

    See, I can buy that; but there wasn’t much “arthouse” in Gravity Bone surely? It was just a pretty fun game. Maybe the flashbacks could be seen as pretentious or something, I don’t know. Needless to say, my bullshit alarm was safely stowed away for this one.

  18. Medo says:

    It crashed a lot for me too, but I played it through to the end. And I must say, even though it crashed a lot, it was a every enjoyable experience.

  19. thefanciestofpants says:

    @Kieron; There’s nothing pretentious about vicious mushrooms!

    Every one of the Mario games are clearly just intending to be fun. It’s never tried to pretend it’s saying something important or profound and I hope it never does.

    @Thirith: This may sound harsh, but I can’t help but feel that people who buy into particularly obtuse wankery(as you put it) are being tricked as it were into feeling deeply affected.

    I just don’t understand the need to imply profundity without any real message being conveyed. Is there something wrong with somewhat understandable themes, references or ideas?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I want every game/book/painting and film to be delivered with it’s meaning clearly typed in 82-point bold letters across it’s face, I just want a good idea of what the artist is trying to say by the time I’ve finished playing/watching/doing unmentionable things with it.

    We’re clearly drifting waaay away from Gravity bone at this point, it’s only a little bit wanky and I forgive it that and then some.

    Good discussion though.

  20. Gnarl says:

    Well that was loverly, thank you. Exploding birds!

  21. MetalCircus says:

    I just played Barista 2, pretty good also, not as good as Gravity Bone though ¬_¬

  22. Thirith says:

    thefanciestofpants: Thing is, I don’t particularly consider “message” something interesting in art. If you can put it in such terms, then why not come out and say it? Themes, yes – that’s something I think is a useful category. But the art that affects me most has more to do with tone, emotional resonance etc. Almost none of that can be put in terms of “what the artist is trying to say” – in itself a concept that I hate with a vengeance. I don’t think that good art is about wrapping up a message in a nice bow. It’s about stimulating and challenging people.

  23. The Hammer says:

    Well, I enjoyed it! I thought the art-style was fun, and whilst I got a bit stuck at the platforming section (It took me about 5 minutes to realize I was meant to jump onto the poles. I mean, seriously? Ugh) it was a pleasantly fluid experience.

    Lovely ending, too. I giggled all the way through it, and the flashbacks were nice! One Godfather-esque moment in there.

  24. LewieP says:

    I read something recently, and I can’t even remember where that said something along the lines of:
    “What makes music art is that it can trigger an emotional response without even having an overt reason. Just the combination of right set of sounds can evoke an emotional reaction in the listener”

    This is similar for games, in particular, this type of game. I don’t even need to know why the different elements of this game made me laugh, think, or be amused, it just did.

    I could probably break down elements of the sounds/visual/gameplay design and come up with some reasoning. But the fact that I enjoyed it, and it is pretty unique is enough for me. I don’t have to think about whether or not it is pretentious because it certainly didn’t feel like it to me.

    And anyone who thinks world of goo is pretentious is dead inside. It is full or charm and genuine wit.

  25. MetalCircus says:

    Hammer: I believe that WAS a godfather moment. I think I could hear Al Pacino there

    I thought the whole “dropping in on a room full of dinner guests” was a touch of class personally!

  26. Hypocee says:

    Thirith: ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union’ – Samuel Goldwyn

  27. thefanciestofpants says:

    @Thirith; I think I’m getting in my own way in terms of what I mean.

    Eliciting an emotional response(due to tone, ambience or other things that couldn’t be clearly pegged as a ‘message’) is certainly Art, and something that games in particular can truly excel at.

    “What the artist is trying to say” for me isn’t just a message, a philosphy or whatever, it can be simply raw emotion, be it fun, excitement, tension, fear or whatever. Aiming to provoke these feelings is great and should absolutely be encouraged. And from my point of view the best games combine both a literal ‘message’ with plenty of emotional resonance.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is I would define pretention(In whatever medium) as pure obscurity. Meaning the only strong emotional reaction I get from the peice is frustration and/or boredom. Not a lack of a literal message.

  28. jay says:

    OMG!!!
    New Brendan Chung game!!!
    I’ve been waiting/hoping for something new from him since Grotto King (awesome minimalist fps).

    Downloading now…

  29. Stuk says:

    I thought it was fun.

  30. Dinger says:

    I don’t care what you, the artist or I are trying to say. What we say doesn’t exist, except as the rear-projection of what we hear.

  31. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Played through this the other day after being directed towards it (and the four preceeding episodes) by TIGSource. It’s lovely stuff, particular highlights being photographing the exploding birds while completely ignoring the drawing boards stacked with blueprints and the pastiche ‘life flashing before your eyes’ segment.

    Also, to be fair to the first-person platforming bit, the collision detection on the platforms is pretty generous.

  32. Tei says:

    Awesome… and using the Quake2 engine (so this is playable in multiplayer? hehe), is half game, half machinima. Soo nice :-)

  33. Hmm.Hmm says:

    I’m sure it’s quite fun and interesting. What content of the game I saw was intriguig, if unclear as to its purpose. But I am not particularly accepting of buggy applications, so I trashed it. I’m sure one could argue that gives me little right to comment, except that I feel that having a game not crash your computer is something I should be able to expect. Then again, I’m relatively new to the Windows side of things, so I’m sure others may be more lenient than I am.

  34. Calabi says:

    Theres more originality in this, than the majority of fps’s.

  35. Calabi says:

    And the ending was epic.

  36. Lambo says:

    This game keeps failing to load, I keep getting a error message saying
    “Couldn’t initialize OpenGL renderer! creation of the window/context set-up failed”
    Any ideas why?

  37. Thirith says:

    thefanciestofpants: So I guess what I’m trying to say is I would define pretention(In whatever medium) as pure obscurity. Meaning the only strong emotional reaction I get from the peice is frustration and/or boredom. Not a lack of a literal message.
    I think I understand better now what you mean. Personally, I think that obscurity (for want of a better word) can be a legitimate stylistic means, but it shouldn’t be what the Germans call “Selbstzweck”, i.e. an end in itself. Does that make sense?

  38. CakeAddict says:

    I loved the chase and the end/
    I thought it ended at the elevator when you got shot, but the real ending caught me by surprise, loved the flashbacks.

    I’m kinda missing games in the style of this these days, been awhile I played anything remotely like this.

  39. steve says:

    Great weird little thing. The first-person insta-death jumping puzzle is completely inexcusable however.

  40. Heliocentric says:

    jumping puzzle? where… Don’t fall to your death is a puzzle now?

    Back in my day you had to jump on platforms in the right order while flying bull tried to push you off them.

  41. Tei says:

    For these that have problems. Try changing your desktop resolution and color deep. Or google for “Kmq2″ engine solutions/problems. I am sure the guys on that engine will love to get some feedback to make that engine better. http://kmq2.quakedev.com/

  42. eyemessiah says:

    thefanciestofpants: @Thirith: This may sound harsh, but I can’t help but feel that people who buy into particularly obtuse wankery(as you put it) are being tricked as it were into feeling deeply affected.

    Wow! That is harsh. Have you heard of the oft-used-in-forums term ‘badwrongfun’. Its an ironic term for what you call something that other people are enjoying, when you think they shouldn’t, because you don’t like it.

    At some stage you just have to accept that you can’t reconcile your own subjective preferences with those of every other discerning entity in the universe. Its not terribly easy – I still find my heckles raised sometimes by people enjoying something that I thought was complete rubbish, but honestly, worrying that there is some kind of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ conspiracy going on where people are being tricked into enjoying things they shouldn’t really enjoy is a waste of energy (imho).

    Different things push different people’s buttons and art can’t cater to everyone all at once. Just because you aren’t moved by the profoundly obscure doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with it, and it certainly doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with those that are.

    What I’m saying is: Give wanking a chance!

    Maybe that’s not what I’m saying.

    That game was fucking stunning though! Aquarela do Brasil is one of my favourite pieces of music of all time too. I wondered if the chase sequence was a death-dream from when you got shot at the elevator. It sort of reminded a teensy bit of the excellent and also spyish Spider and Web.

  43. Pags says:

    Man! What a game.

    I don’t want to get into an argument about pretension, but the definition of the word is an inflated sense of self-importance; and while that definition could certainly be applied to, say, WoG (I would argue it doesn’t, but that’s a different discussion altogether), the very nature of the game ie. the length shows clearly that it’s anything but an exercise in vanity.

    Some people confuse the word pretentious as meaning obfuscation of a meaning, and while that can certainly play a part in pretension, it doesn’t necessarily define it. Besides, Gravity Bone doesn’t attempt to baffle the player as to it’s point; it’s obvious without being painfully so (though that may be a matter of opinion) and hints very clearly as to the preconceptions it’s reacting against.

    Also very clever, I thought, was the way it reacted against those preconceptions not once, but twice. Twice you were shot! The first time, I thought that was the end of the game. The second time, I thought I would survive again as I had been set up by the first time. Then it ended. Man! So clever. So, so clever.

  44. Pags says:

    I could technically edit my first post but I just want to say again: Man! And the Godfather reference. Man!

  45. eyemessiah says:

    Yes, I almost forgot about the jumping puzzle because I didn’t fall once. If I had fallen I probably would have uninstalled the game in a howling rage.

    Also, KG; you don’t get to cozy up to Brazil now, since you didn’t recognise Jonathan Pryce in the RA promo movie thing! And no, you will never be allowed to forget your terrible mistake.

  46. Vandelay says:

    On the topic of pretentiousness, I generally consider that a lot of the time people use the word when they simply don’t understand something, whilst most of the other times it is used is simply when someone doesn’t like it. Just because something doesn’t affect you or make you think doesn’t make it pretentious, as others might be.

    As for Gravity Bone, I can’t really see why anyone would consider it pretentious. It was just good old fashioned fun. It had me smiling most of the way through, particularly the second level. I loved the chase, and it was more exciting then a lot of games can manage when attempting similar moments (a special mention to the bits in the train tunnels and falling into the middle of the party.) The death at the end was fantastically executed too.

  47. PleasingFungus says:

    That was very, very strange.

    Enjoyed it, though.

  48. FunkyLlama says:

    A look inside the config file would seem to confirm your interpretation, Kieron.

  49. Azazel says:

    Music from Brazil?! Brilliance. /goes clicks

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