Review: GNOG19 Dec 2017 0
Released 07 Dec 2017
GNOG traps you inside a giant, fantastical head for its ten levels. The heads each function as a kind of Matryoshka doll, or rather, a pocket dimension: following their own idiosyncratic rules and transforming into different configurations when the right trigger is met. Eventually, after fulfilling enough of these conditions, the monstrous head gives a start and bellows (‘GNOG’ it shouts) as triumphant music plays. One level is candy-themed and tasks the player to fill the store with customers and feed each of them, another depicts a ship stranded in space, badly in need of repairs and direction. Taken altogether as a collection, the heads of GNOG each feel like separate worlds with different personalities and tones.
Each works as a kind of distinct set-piece, begging to be explored at leisure as much as solved intently. GNOG will delight and mystify you with its vibrant, carefully crafted environments and inventive puzzles.
The initial level, ‘FRG-Y,’ is structured as a linear storybook to introduce controls as well as the manner of dream-logic the core gameplay rests upon. Dream-like because while the microcosms presented inside each level are rational and internally consistent, they don’t slavishly replicate the kind of everyday reasoning you would expect. FRG-Y has you playing matchmaker between the titular frog and his winged meals. Playing Dr. Frankenstein and splicing together a new creature in the laboratory level, for example, is more about fulfilling the archetype of mad scientist than adhering to biology. These departures allow the game to surprise and create moments of wonder. They also encourage creative solutions and approaches. FRG-Y additionally demonstrates that each level has a theme to it, and that understanding said theme is key to progressing through it. The stories to be found here are akin to a children’s flip-book: simple, brief and satisfying.
The puzzles themselves are difficult to classify but in general hinge on manipulating the environment, usually by doing the requisite gestures in a predetermined order or combination. The genius of the game lies not in the absolute difficulty of its puzzles but rather the variety of the tiny shocks of realization they provoke. Some puzzles have simple rules but are rigorous and formally difficult to fulfill even once everything is known. By contrast, the quandaries in GNOG are relatively straightforward once the player realizes the nature of the question being posed. ‘Read the room,’ indeed. It is perhaps most accurate to categorize GNOG as a conceptual puzzler, full of situations to understand and problems whose means of solution are readily at hand.
The game’s natural flow is excellent, unlocking new levels at a brisk but not overwhelming pace. There isn’t a difficulty curve, per se, but rather a whole variety of insights and intimations necessary to bridge the occasional impasse. Every puzzle game hinges on the precarious balance between Eureka moments and new challenges, and on this front, GNOG gets it right. When stumped, audiovisual clues will provide a fair and sometimes obvious hint for how to proceed. Each level’s elements are truthfully limited enough to use a panicked technique when stuck: just mess around with everything possible and brute-force the issue.
Thankfully, GNOG is free from convoluted, abstruse adventure-game logic, though it does assume some prior outside knowledge, like how electricity works or the life-cycles of oviparous animals. While the whole game can be finished in a single sitting, it makes more sense to break up play sessions whenever you’re stumped, as even a brief gap of time will usually clear up any roadblocks. In fact, the game is quite brief and easygoing, and should be savored rather than conquered. The joys of GNOG revolve around interactivity and ludic freedom, the sheer presence and coherence of the individual levels, which feel more like rooms or entities proper. It feels a disservice to talk so drily and analytically, attempting to dissect what really is a curious game.
The fluidity of the controls and piquancy of its presentation also work strongly in GNOG’s favor. The audio makes immersion and consequently puzzle-solving easier, and because the musical score is particularly tuneful, headphones are strongly recommended. Each level uses a saturated color scheme limited to some combination of pastels and jewel tones. The soundtrack and effects are synthetic, unique and otherworldly. The game is a natural fit for the touchscreen, making its catalogue of gestures (flip, twist, scroll, tap, rotate) effortless.
There is no pause between motion and action, making playing GNOG feel like toying with a diorama sitting in your lap. The whole experience is breezy and winsome and should be experienced first-hand. Just as with any halfway decent joke, trying to explain the pleasures and twists in GNOG will ruin them a bit in the telling. It’s a tad boilerplate and kitschy to refer to something of rare quality as indescribable, but in this case, the old truism applies handily. I can’t regift the sense of surprise GNOG gives, only sincerely recommend its source.
In creating the game, KO-OP mode drew upon disparate influences, from Polly Pocket to the Memphis Group. What each of these had in common was their sense of freedom. The breadth and diversity of these sources of inspiration belies the unity and distinctiveness of what GNOG is. They’ve crafted tiny, distinct worlds, each possessing little actors and forces combining to create dramas both cartoonish and slightly bizarre. Its billing as a puzzler undersells the singular, delightful nature of sheer play the game provides. Still, it is admittedly brief, sweet and mild and should not be understood as the next puzzle fix, but instead appreciated as a kind of guided sandbox, with preset objectives and goalposts, sure, but plenty of other interactions besides. It loses some points for its brevity but remains utterly witty and original, a welcome addition to the app store. Now if only I could try it in VR!