‘They’ are two members of Art in Heart, creators of the game, and half of Raw Fury, a new publisher made up of industry veterans. I was playing the game in a rented loft near the heart of GDC in San Francisco and I thought then – and maintain now – that it was the best pure action game I saw at the show.
Gonner is the brainchild of designer/programmer/artist Ditto, creator of Planeter and Hets. It began life as a sequel to the latter, in fact, and you should go and play that game right now. You can download it for free from itch.io but can also choose to pay what you want and after playing for a few minutes that become an hour or two, you might well feel inclined to throw a few dollars in Ditto’s direction.
Hets and Gonner have an artstyle and a basic playstyle in common. They’re side-scrolling platform-shooters with randomised levels and the most wonderful sense of momentum. That’s the key to the joys of Gonner – movement and momentum. Visually, its rough lines and smudges are a world away from Bayonetta and Devil May Cry, but the combat has more similarities to those acrobatic third-person beauties than it does to any 2d platformer I’ve ever played.
Here’s how it works. The game begins when you die. There’s a little bit beforehand and you’re alive then but when you’re plunged into the underworld, you get to pick a head and a weapon for the first time. There’s a tree, you see, down there in the hellplace, and all these little heads are sprouting from the branches. You pick one, which provides your character with a skill, and then you pick up a gun and head back to the overworld where the baddies are waiting.
Quite why any of this is happening I couldn’t say. Maybe Ditto could tell you, if you were to ask him. I neglected to ask him, even though he was sitting right next to me while I played, because I was too busy trying to master the head that I have come to refer to as the “spinning-style-shot skull”. It’s the best head because it completely changes the way the game plays, transforming it from a tight shooter in which the gun is the most important tool into a licensed action game based on every Cirque du Soleil show I’ve never seen.
The heads, as a whole, are brilliant. They fall off the first time you get hit, which leads to these brilliant moments of tension as you sit on the floor, decapitated. You have one chance to retrieve the bonce – getting walloped while headless kills you – and can wait on the floor, playing dead, until there’s a clear path to it. Then you’ll dash, jump, dodge and scurry as you try to pick it up. You need to collect your gun as well because when you take a hit, both weapon and head fly into the air and the springy physics can cause them to tumble into awkward spots.
In case it’s not clear, this is a brilliant mechanic. Gonner essentially puts you in control of a character who can only take a single hit but then makes sure the fun and the challenge both continue when you’ve taken that hit. There’s a limit to how many times you can lose your head – though you can collect hearts to gain new chances – but being able to run around like Mike the Headless Chicken makes even the cruelest blow a prelude to some last ditch farce.
Once I had my spinning-style-shot skull in place, I danced along the lines between farce and ferocious skill. Gonner is amusing, with just enough weight in its physics and just enough pudginess in enemies and hero alike to earn a smile and a chuckle, but acts of incredible skill are possible. That, in my case, they were punctuated by absolute catastrophe is all part of the game’s appeal.
The spinny head is my favourite pick-up in gaming because it turns an already glorious double-jump into a disruption of the game’s own physics. When you jump for the second time in mid-air, this head causes you to rotate. You can control the spin, tipping yourself left or right to speed, slow or redirect the rotation, and there are no consequences to landed on your head or flat on your face.
But in turning your body as you somersault through the air, you also redirect your guns. That means you can rain death from above, targeting enemies as you soar through the air above them, spinning wildly and attempting to fix your sights on their scalp. You can leap forward, head over heels, taking out enemies above and below in a single fluid movement.
You’ll fail, over and over again, and if you’re anything like me you won’t be able to hold in the laughter when the kickback from your shotgun combines with your body’s rotation to send you flying off a ledge in completely the wrong direction or straight into the maw of a boss monster.
There are other heads of course. Lesser heads. They make you tougher or prevent you from dropping all of your stuff when you take a hit. Stuff like that. None of them let you spin around in mid-air like a beautiful ballistic ballerina though, so fuck ’em.
To go with the choice of heads, there’s a choice of guns. The shotgun is clearly the best because everytime you pull the trigger, it propels you backwards while the shells tears through every bat and beast in sight. I like the laser as well because it looks like it’s painting the caverns with big splashes of colour.
Gonner has all of the brilliant acrobatic excitement of an ultra-stylish action game, the kind that you play just to show off your skills, and it combines that with the instant restarts, speed and generous nature of a Hotline Miami. There’s no down-time here, even though you’re so often losing your head and falling to pieces. Gonner does not waste any of your time.
And there’s a giant landwhale and you can, with a little ingenuity, find a way to climb into that whale’s blubbery belly, which is full of ghosts and a head that is made of poo. You can wear that head and it will make the game very hard because having a poo for a head is not a good thing.
I don’t know how many types of monster or area Gonner will contain – I saw one boss arena and hundreds of random caverns as I repeatedly replayed the first stage. There’s a second world, with robots rather than demonic bats and the like, but I didn’t spend a great deal of time there.
If I could, I’d be playing Gonner now. I’d play it in between everything else that I do in a day, even though I’d always be risking losing half an hour, two or three minutes at a time.
Gonner will be out sometime this year.