Is it just me, or is Grow Home 100% about fucking?
That’s the question that streaked merrily through my mind while playing through Ubisoft’s latest indie-style offering (hot on the heels of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which is both really good and definitely not about fucking). Initially developed as an internal experiment by Ubisoft Reflections (which also gave us the wonderfully weird and underplayed Driver: San Francisco), Grow Home was released a scant couple weeks after its announcement with little fanfare. I’m a great fan of major studios releasing little oddities in between massive AAA releases, and I’m happy to report Grow Home is one of the oddest such oddities around.
Inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, WALL-E, and the procedural animation that drives it, Grow Home is a brief sojourn to an alien planet and back again. You fill the uncoordinated metal shoes of B.U.D, a cute robot tasked with gathering plant specimens and returning them to his* spaceship to send back home. In the process, B.U.D must nurture a tree and help it grow from the planet’s surface, through the floating rocks in its atmosphere, to reach his ship in orbit. That’s weird and adorable and kind of funny, but doesn’t even remotely hint at how outrageously sexual this game is.
It’s hard to explain why without going through the gameplay loop beat by lurid beat.
B.U.D’s principal goal in Grow Home is to help a huge, gutturally-moaning plant grow to such heights that he can climb it and reach his spaceship. With its towering height, muscular girth, and engorged flower-bulb tip waiting to bloom (which it does only when it reaches its peak altitude), it’s phallic enough already - but that’s before B.U.D even interacts with the damned thing.
To stoke his plant erection, B.U.D must clamber all over the shaft and fire its offshoot branches into the hovering islands of rock from which the plant derives energy. He straddles these buds, steering them as they extend out like a big lumpy proboscis, riding the ever-lengthening tentacles all the way to their green, gooey rock targets. Upon impact, the plant sucks “energy” back in great throbbing waves. Make contact with enough energy rocks, and the main shaft extends proudly towards the sky, penetrating larger rocks until they burst open, or in one case, plunging up through a circular waterfall, an image whose sexual connotations can’t be ignored.
To make matters yet weirder, the spaceship you’re trying to reach with your giant leafy phallus is controlled by a computer called M.O.M - likely an Alien reference but kind of creepy given the rest of the game. Spoilers lurk in the following sentence, but I feel it is important to stress that Grow Home’s ending sees you climbing to the newly-exploded tip of the plant, taking seeds out of it and depositing them into, er, M.O.M. This after you’ve spent the game’s few hours being playfully scolded by M.O.M, warning you to “play nice”. I’m sweating. Are you?
With all this in mind (or despite it, depending on your worldview), Grow Home is a lot of fun. The reason for the game’s existence - its procedurally-animated character movement - is a delight to mess around with, whether drunkenly lurching around tree trunks or climbing sheer cliffs hand-over-hand like the doughy wrestlers from Gang Beasts. Once you find springy leaves and mushrooms and unlock your jetpack, traversal gains much more freedom as well. It’s quiet and serene and frequently funny.
It’s just all so goddamned sexual, though - a game about erections, about penetration, about being the biggest and spreading your seed. I wondered at first whether my reaction was simply a product of my filthy mind, but I know I’m not the only one. I showed the game to a female friend of mine, and again, this may just be her personal reaction, but the imagery - and I haven’t even mentioned the great gushing geysers of liquid yet! - definitely had effects the developers probably didn’t intend (but I wish they did).
Ubisoft Reflections have a fun little game on their hands with Grow Home, and possibly the makings of a successful aphrodisiac business. I wait eagerly.
* B.U.D is sort of genderless, but I’ve called him “he” just because of all the goddamn penises everywhere.