Jason Rohrer’s new art game: Gravitation

Gravitation by Jason Rohrer

Gravitation is another art game. It’s good. It’s also easier for new players to “get” than Passage, which hopefully will help more people realize how interesting these games are.

Here is the link.

If you’re not familiar with Jason’s previous game, Passage, you can get it here.

If you’re new to this whole Art Game thing, you may want to check out Rod Humble’s The Marriage and the more-difficult Stars over Half Moon Bay.

It’s great that Jason is managing to create such good games in such a short time period. It makes me wonder if I’ve been going the wrong way working 3 years on Braid.

28 thoughts on “Jason Rohrer’s new art game: Gravitation”

  1. I really like what he does with visibility and frame size.

    I think there’s a special value to something that has been labored over for many hours, days and years, but working on quicker stuff is very attractive.

  2. I liked this and didnt like this at the same time, but I think that makes it good anyway ^_^

    as for the whole quick made game vs putting lots of time in, in my experiance sometimes I can make something thats really polished in a weekend, sometimes it takes a year+.

    in all honesty, spending ages making every part of a game shine will always show. but not everyone will appreciate it. you just have to find your own balance and the balance for the game in question, I’ve seen plenty of rapid development games that kick ass because they are so quickly made.

    to summarize: its like comparing an orchestra to a jazz band, they both have soul, they both have style, but they tend to be for different people. just gotta decide what sort of person you are 🙂

  3. I’m having a harder time understanding this game than I did Passage. The play mechanics are a little more gamey, but the theme is somewhat more elusive. Maybe it’s just because I can’t go read a bazillion opinions on it and see whether my own opinions match or not.

    I guess that’s kind of the whole point.

    It’s interesting to play a game with the eye of a critic, but at the same time not trying to review it. Passage and Gravitation definitely conjure the same thoughtfulness and speculation as does browsing a good art exhibit.

  4. It makes me wonder if I’ve been going the wrong way working 3 years on Braid.

    My friend’s term for that is “Cactus Envy”. Dude makes like a game every weekend.

  5. Just as there are different genres of literature, it seems that we are developing different genres of art games now. These short games remind me a little bit of haikus, this japanese short poetry style. Now we have something like “haiku games”. Gravitation really inspired me to try and make my current project a haiku too.

  6. The only way to defeat Cactus Envy is to just realize that everyone has/is looking for their own style, and yours isn’t his.

    That, or kill the prolific sod. But he’s too lovable for that.

  7. Anyone who enjoys Jason’s games and programs is encouraged to look through the source… ideas like storing the game’s music as a TGA image, a sort of reverse visual sequencer output, are adorable and clever.

  8. Well, if that game doesn’t make you want to avoid having children, I don’t know what will. You play ball with the adorable tyke for most of your life–catching it on the ground, jumping up to hit it in the air, thrilling to the way they love you–then you go get one measly little star and they leave. If that ain’t gratitude….

  9. It’s funny. The ‘game’ aspects of this are much more clear than in Passage, but the theme is much more difficult to pin down. I have a feeling there is going to be a lot more debate about what exactly is going in this game then there ever was in Passage.

  10. One nice emergent effect is that if you collect too many stars in a single trip, you will end up with a literal barrier between yourself and the child.

  11. After playing Gravitiation for a while I prefer it to Passage. Its deeper and more personal in my view.

    oh and

    “It makes me wonder if I’ve been going the wrong way working 3 years on Braid.”

    Dude you have made at least 3 other games/ works I know of during that time that are facinating. 8 Dots, EasyWrench, Rasberry. You are hardly lazy 🙂 besides Braid is a long form work and in my opinion brilliant. Not wasted years.

  12. I find the theme of this game far more elusive than Passage. Passage’s theme was like a snowball, rolling larger and larger until it was impossible to not see it. Gravitation has a lot of elements that you need to search for and then give thought to all while moving against the clock and trying for several different objectives at the same time. You definitely need to invest more energy into understanding Gravitation than Passage.

  13. hi, have you ever heard about a (rpgmaker 2003 japanese) indie game called Yume Nikki? is not finished yet so it doesn’t have a “game mechanics”, but is really awesome the feelings that can produce.

  14. I tried to download Yume Nikki but it won’t work except on Japanese versions of Windows, because of the file names. (Which is a problem of Windows, not of the game… Windows is annoying sometimes).

    I watched a Youtube walkthrough of part of it and it didn’t really look like a game I wanted to play, but it’s often hard to tell from walkthroughs (just like Braid!)

  15. yeah, in fact is very tedious, is like a “japanese videogame version” of William Kurelek’s painting ‘THE MAZE’.

  16. Having my interest in the indie game scene exponentially increased by releases such as Braid, I wanted very much to like this game. I had read several articles about the creator and his unique approach to designing games. I sat down with an open mind and gave it a shot. Then I played it again. Finally, I started for a third time.

    My disappointment quickly turned to anger as I thought about all the respected game designers and reviewers who have given this game glowing reviews, even going as far as to say that this was the only game to make them cry or that this was a revolutionary step in gaming. Certainly, they weren’t talking about the same game I had just played.

    Don’t get me wrong- as someone who studied art in college I see the elementary tricks used to brighten and dull the player’s mood. The sunny day fades to gray, the green grass ices over, the music becomes dreary, blackness envelopes your visual bubble and your character acts more sluggishly. Nothing revolutionary here, but so far so good.

    So in the first couple of moments I find the child. I spend time playing catch and quickly grow tired of the only 3 states this child seems to show- heart, tears and nothing. I spend several minutes with the child, hoping that there will be some kind of development, that I can somehow nurture a relationship. Instead, I am punished with the awkward and monotonous task of bouncing the ball back while nothing happens. My efforts are meaningless.

    So on my second run through, I use the child to grow strong enough to get to the stars above. Certainly there is something sinister in implication of needing to use the child to achieve other goals, but at this point it seems to be my only option. Eventually, my cycle of collecting stars further and further out of reach leads to the inability to play catch with the child and then the disappearance of the child altogether. When the child disappears, I am forced to sit alone while the world closes in and becomes dark.

    I see a very basic and very forced moral at this point, but nothing even close to an emotional tingle. There is no way for me to develop in the game or create an attachment. It appears the only motivation for collecting stars is boredom after playing with a stagnant child who never changes. It is a cliche’ that has been done better in every medium, including games.

    Even worse, the design of the game itself is bad. In an effort to make sure that I wasn’t missing some subtle nuance that would reveal the true brilliance of the game, I had my girlfriend sit down and play it. She quickly lost interest in the child, as I did, and attempted to collect stars. After about 3 minutes, she was cursing furiously as she struggled with the jump mechanism. Shortly thereafter, she stormed off. Any message the game was trying to convey was lost.

    It seems to me that the game would have benefited greatly from a Contra or Metal Slug style of platform that allows the player to jump up through the bottom, taking away from the frustration of trying to work with a poorly modeled jump ability. This is all very basic stuff from a design standpoint.

    I thought about all the RPGs with compelling stories that had moved me. I thought back on even old games like Final Fantasy 6 (3 in the US) that isolated you on a small island after the destruction of the world. The main character believed all of her friends were dead and her only companion was sick and dying. The game gives you the tools to nurture him back to health because if you leave him, he will die. You also have the ability to throw yourself off a cliff and commit suicide. Even this small fraction of the game had much more of an emotional impact than Gravitation.

    In fact, there is more relationship development in Harvest Moon than in this. You are given a clear set of objectives with growing plants and tending to animals on a timed day and if you are able to finish early, you are given the option of pursuing a relationship via a dating sim minigame with one of the town’s villagers. Even the progression of that relationship is far more complicated than simply bouncing a ball back and forth. It is given more weight as you have to actively make time in your day and risk or sacrifice game objectives to do this.

    I don’t think that there is a lack of potential for what Jason Rohrer was going after. There are countless opportunities to use the commonly accepted game language to these ends.

    The original ending to “I Am Legend” was to imply that the monsters the hero had been killing were actually sentient, caring individuals who were actually trying to protect their families. In the end, *you* are the invader. *You* are the monster.

    Although it would benefit greatly from an artist, I feel it would be fairly straight forward to put the player in a situation where they assume the point of the game is to kill monsters (who would naturally defend themselves) only to finish with a boss fight in an enclosed room where you realize that this boss you just defeated (as well as all the other monsters) were desperately trying to defend crying children who would now perish without anyone to provide for them.

    You could go as far as to allow some of the children to be in the open where the player could kill them without thinking while others are protected behind glass before the player is forced to observe their behavior, their suffering before realizing what terrible atrocities the player had committed. The remainder of the game could be timed to give the player just enough time to feel a real sense of remorse and guilt while the monster children starved to death in their protective prisons.

    Perhaps that isn’t the best way to go about it. All I know is that Gravitation certainly isn’t revolutionary in any sense and I’m offended at the idea that this in any way represents the future of gaming.

  17. @Korey. this is not final fantasy, nor harvest moon. its not trying to be any of that. it does not give you choices for it does not want to. its a point of view and that’s what it is. not trying to please anyone, doesnt care if you like it. its like 70s underground electronic music… ambient for that matter. its not pop, and thats where the innovation is. its revolutionary in the sense that its goal is totally different from what you would expect from a game. You might not like it, I did…

  18. My point isn’t that this should be Final Fantasy or Harvest Moon. My point is that this game not only fails to be groundbreaking in every possible meaning of the word, but it also manages to execute all of this in a manner which is poor at best.

    Let’s be honest here: The child has no emotion, is not really affected by your actions in any meaningful way and you have to be wearing some very, very thick rose tinted glasses to develop any emotional attachment. It would not be out of line to say that the child in Gravitation was far less successful in conveying emotion and establishing a relationship with the player than a Tamagotchi.

    Sheer boredom of having to deal with a “child” that lacks the emotional complexities of a toy key chain is really the only thing that motivates the player to explore the rest of the game and it is only after succumbing to sheer boredom that the moral is discovered.

    But to each their own, right? Sure, I felt more emotional pangs of guilt after locking a Sim in a room and watching him starve to death as punishment for wetting himself in a house that happened to be missing a bathroom but it’s in the eye of the player that we reach this emotional meaning on an individual basis.

    Still, when critics start throwing around words like “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary”, you have to qualify that. You are talking about a form of art that has been celebrated for decades at this point. Gravitation simply fails on every conceivable level to offer a new or noteworthy game experience. If you enjoyed the game, more power to you. Just be respectful of the countless titles that have far more elegantly navigated this well beaten path.

  19. It might be more productive to try and understand what people see in the game, than it is just to bash Gravitation using hyperbolic language because you didn’t like it.

    Those who like the game can point you at a lot of specific reasons they liked it. You don’t like it because … the child is not a complex simulation? I am not sure what you are saying, really, except that you just don’t like the game. But you sure used a lot of words to say that.

    I found that Gravitation did provide a groundbreaking experience. So did a lot of other people. So it doesn’t much matter what you claim is impossible or inconceivable — plenty of people do conceive it, as it is their direct experience.

  20. The hyperbolic language is a bad habit of mine that works its way out when I let myself get worked up about something and I am sorry about that. It seems to be obscuring the point I’m trying to make so if you’ll give me the opportunity, I’ll try this again.

    It isn’t that I dislike Gravitation. If I were a student in a class and looking at this game, I’d be quick to point out how successfully the visual, audio and physical (change in player movement) elements combine to create an undeniable change in mood. Sure, the controls are poor, the game is rough and I would argue that establishing a clear motive to leave the child behind needs a lot of work but considering what the game is (a play for free game that one person put together in their free time), it’s still very much worth a look.

    The problem for me is when you have high profile game critics like Winda Benedetti of MSNBC saying that this was the only game to ever make her cry. While I love that these people are being moved by video games like I have been in the past, to suggest that this game stands apart as a significant milestone in the 40 or so years that video games have been a part of the popular culture is extremely troubling to me.

    As someone who played ASCII character driven games as a child, mastered pixel perfect jumps and wrote down continue codes, I can’t help but feel that the people showering Gravitation with praise are doing so simply because it stands apart from the experience of your average World of Warcraft or Modern Warfare 2 player. To call Gravitation groundbreaking is no small claim and I can’t help but feel like it belittles the accomplishments of many older and less popular titles.

    There are simply too many rough edges (the player’s limited ability to interact with the child), design points that lack focus (the lack of player motivation when it comes to exploring or completing other tasks undermines the subsequent consequences) and previously explored themes (environmental moods, the emotion of relationships and loss) to call this solid seed of an idea a step forward, unlike any other game before it.

    I like Gravitation but I feel that the amount of publicity sent its way is not in line with the advancements it delivers. There are many other old games with moving qualities if you approach them with the same kind of open mind that makes Gravitation successful.

  21. I have no idea if anyone’s going to read this, but holy crap, I think Korey’s experience is a fascinating. What’s happened here is exactly what is at risk of happening with all games: Gravitation’s interactivity sabotaged its ability to deliver its message.

    First of all: Gravitation is in my top five games of all time. And I’m not interested in a “to each his own” argument: I believe very strongly that this game is a step towards humanity expressing itself better and thereby improving itself. Now I’ll say why, and why I think Korey, through no fault of his own, missed that.

    Korey expected the child to behave like a normal videogame character. This wasn’t impertinent: he was playing a videogame! It’s not about mood or characterization, it’s about a system and a feeling.

    You’re *supposed* to play ball for a couple of seconds, and then realise that that is all the child does. What is *supposed* to then happen is that you get some stars, and you realise the strategically deep mechanic that links your jumping ability and sight (and, eventually, your score) to the amount you play with the child. I realise you probably don’t want to, but you have to trust me on that one! If I were to explain anything more about it, I’d be spoiling it for you, because it is realisations about the jumping mechanics that make the emotional depth of the game.

    Your expectation that the child’s behaviour would eventually change completely was not what the game expected you to expect! And because you called the shots about which parts of the game you were going to see and which parts you didn’t, in your state the game was unable to tell you anything. Hello, Roger Ebert!

    Seeing the “000” in the top right corner is meant to move you to want to raise the number. If you feel like playing the game again, try to get a good score, and you’ll see what people are talking about. The world-breaking part, for me, was what you have to do to raise your score to 100. It’s a strategic realisation as well as an emotional one: that is what makes this game great, its fusion of these two things.

  22. Corollary to that: because I am aware of the emotional meaning of every act in gravitation (and every act has emotional meaning), your description of your experience became, to me, a story. If I were to tell you what happened in that story without playing the game more, you wouldn’t believe me.

  23. After reading your posts (which I enjoyed) I gave Gravitation a very honest second chance. I made it to the very top of the game, I got close to every star I could find and I’ve tried numerous variations of trying to keep the child happy. I’ve made it to the high 80’s as far as a score is concerned and I’m still not seeing anything new.

    At this point, I need it spoiled and spelled out for me.

    I want to believe that there is something significant to be found here but I’m not given much of anything to work with. There’s no clear goal, no motivation other than my own curiosity and no clear sense of success or failure. There is nothing to guide me or let me know if I’m on track to the type of experience the game is trying to offer.

    I’m not alone on this. All of the discussion surrounding Gravitation, positive or negative, seems to cover the same ground I’ve already covered in previous posts. If you really feel that Gravitation is one of the top 5 games and wish to dismiss the notion that it’s a matter of “to each their own”, now is the time to explain your position in detail. I look forward to reading it.

  24. Mkay… let me say that I do not understand Rohrer’s philosophy entirely. I am going to present what I believe to be good ideas about what is going on, but I cannot be certain.

    First some basic symbolism: the maze is your mind, the room at the bottom is your house/family, the stars are creative ideas. I think these are fairly unambiguously intended interpretations.

    In a way, symbolism goes no further than that. But we can treat these three things as *axioms* to our thinking about the game. First I shall apply these axioms to the examination of someone else’s, or your own, playthrough:

    The maze is a maze of thought THEREFORE to spend the whole of the gametime trying to go further and further into the game is to become lost in your own mind.

    The bottom chamber is your family THEREFORE to spend the whole of the gametime down at the bottom is to be a person who has no regard for their own creativity and who dedicates their life to their family (and if you play the game a bit, you’ll find that your child dies unless you do this).

    There is a richer and more important way to use the axioms above though. The emotional punch/insight of the game comes from making strategic connections, like I said. There are many dozens of such connections. I have a highscore of 123, and every single one of those points required another tiny modification to the way I react to things – every single one of them told me something new about Rohrer’s statement. Am I saying that he consciously put every one of these insights in, assembling a dazzlingly concise master statement/impression? Actually, I suspect not; I think he took these axioms as we do, and then tried to combine them with strategically interesting level design.

    I shall now list some of the connections that come to mind, and what I think are some reasonable interpretations of them

    1. The maximally fast way into the main body of the maze is the passage up the right; the only way to get through this is to be maximally “happy”. (symbol: Rohrer’s best inspiration comes from recognizing peaks in his familial love)

    2. If you make too many blocks fall down to the bottom, you can make it difficult to impossible to reach your child (symbol: filling your life with too many projects can suffocate your relationship with the people you love)

    3. The amount of points a block gives you degrade in value if they are kept around too long (symbol: inspiration for a project can be lost. Combine this with the fact that different blocks descend to different distances from the fire and we have the idea that different projects can have varying levels of potential to begin with, even though they all seem equally brilliant to begin with [they give a score of 9])

    4. In order to yield the most points from a block, you must bring the blocks down one at a time (symbol: you should only work on one project at a time. This is a particularly interesting one – it stands out, in that it helps you get a *lot* more points than you could without it. It provokes in me a very important question: did Rohrer design the game around the making of this statement, or did it emerge from the axioms and the level design?

    5. (4.) has a very crucial exception: just after your child has disappeared, it is a good idea to stockpile blocks (symbol: creativity provides solace in grief. This is the breakthrough that is required to make it to 100 points. It is very poignant. We are treated to the image of this sprite jumping around his empty house, no-one to play ball with. His first project after the death of his child yields many points, but the rest get less and less value – it is clear he is pushing these things out solely so that he can occupy himself.)

    Is “creativity helps us through bereavement” an original thing to say? Not really. But there are so many of these details that embroider it, that I won’t mention for fear of boring you. And because this realization comes from within the player, and it comes from looking at something they have been seeing all the time but had to mull over… well, it is an awe-inspiringly structured thing that gives a… feeling. It gives a feeling. An important… intricate…. pervasive… oh, I don’t know, how on earth can I put it into words?

    It made me cry. Gravitation is the second greatest game of all time (Braid is the greatest).

    Uh, I don’t know if you read this or if, like my previous post, you liked it, but if you did and you did then you can read my proper reviews by clicking on my name. Happy trails!

  25. I have to apologize- I had meant to reply to this much sooner. I appreciate the depth in which you explained your interpretation of the game- enough so that I went back through and played through several more times, but it still fell flat for me.

    Games are a very difficult medium when you try to compare experiences, and that is part of what makes those experiences so compelling. The player is presented with choices and tools to interact with the virtual world around them which creates an experience that unique to the player.

    In almost all games (there is certainly room for a game where any lack of action, in addition to action, will change the direction of a constantly progressing story) it is entirely possible for the player to ruin the intended experience. Conversely, it is also possible for players to create moving experiences where none were intended.

    Gravitation has a strong message at it’s core, as well as several mechanisms in place to help deliver that message to the player. Still, I hold the opinion that the only strength this game holds is an overwhelming ambiguity which gives the player room to fill in the blanks as they see fit. Your interpretation is perfectly valid, but there’s nothing in this game to say that other far less favorable interpretations aren’t equally valid.

    That is what bothers me. The experience is more about what you put into the game than where the game takes you. Look through responses to this game in various forums and you’ll find that there is no shortage of people who did not walk away with the intended message. At that point, many games are capable of having profound, unintended messages to the right player under the right circumstances.

    If we are going to applaud a game for doing what no other does, it should do so without question- not just for a group of people who looked at it from the right angle, at the right time of day and with the right shade of glasses. The game that we applaud for this achievement should not have to hide behind arbitrary interpretation.

  26. I have a feeling this game will hit hardest for those who have lived that experience of trying to balance work and family -particularly parents. Rohrer creates from his own experience, and as author Steven Wingate has written, in autobiography we touch each other at the point of mutual vulnerability – which may explain why it makes some people cry and leaves others cold. I wonder…

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