The indie gaming renaissance has both buoyed the puzzle-platformer genre, and threatened to destroy it through saturation. There are so many of the damned things around nowadays - some with good ideas, many with pixel art - that it’s easy to throw up your hands and look elsewhere for your clever-clogs arcadey game fix. But some puzzle-platformers manage to stand out amidst the clutter, and Gravity Ghost is one such standout.
Though it joins Never Alone in the burgeoning and wondrous “girl with a fox” puzzle-platformer subgenre, Gravity Ghost takes the additional step of making its protagonist deceased. The action takes place entirely in the afterlife, depicted as little planetoids orbiting a black hole, as our heroine Iona Bell rescues animal spirits, helps the surviving members of her lighthouse-keeper family, and piece together what happened to her. There’s metaphor in how the game explores all of this, and in that metaphor is a great deal of delight.
Like the best platformers, Gravity Ghost’s success lies in how it develops variations on its graceful core mechanic. At first glance, it’s a 2D remix of Super Mario Galaxy’s planet-hopping, but Gravity Ghost features additional mechanics that give the action extra depth, beauty, and wonder. At its most basic level, the size of the planetoids you traverse determines their gravity well, and the speed and angle of your jump determines its height. Drifting between planetoids is imprecise and unpredictable, but even when you miss your target, you soar past in a beautiful swooping arc. Combined with the wispy crayon art style, it makes for a gorgeous-looking and -feeling game. You’ll acquire powerups to alter how you interact with gravity or matter - it’s a whimsical, fanciful approach to physics-based gameplay. Some planets are bouncy. Some are made of water, or ice. Some are poppable like balloons. And what’s more: you can terraform them from one material to another. The many levels, linked by a constellation overworld, each offer their own unique challenges - there’s great depth of gameplay here.
And it means something! As you hop about the constellations of the afterlife, you’ll encounter animal spirits, which you can carry around on Iona’s long, cascading hair to reunite them with their skeletons. Bringing body and spirit together, you release the animals into the afterlife with a friendly bit of parting dialogue. Phrases like “You look like a cuddler!”, “You’ll get used to not pooping!” and “I think I found the Hugs Boson!”, delivered through the game’s bright, earnest voice acting, bring joy to my heart. It’s absolutely adorable and charming.
Freeing animals - and meeting the guardian animals at the end of each constellation - also helps restore Iona’s link to the real world, restoring memories and giving her the ability to help her family through indirect control of the elements. The story that slowly unfolds is sad in the classic Disney mould, full of domestic tragedies intruding upon carefree lives. It takes a while for the storylines to become clear, and even then they don’t quite fit together, but the feeling behind them is real, giving the player a strong impetus to see the game to its conclusion.
The ways in which the game mechanics eventually impact the story are like the rest of the game: elegant and meaningful. Gravity Ghost is a prime demonstration of gameplay metaphor used for emotional effect, where everything has dual purposes and interconnects in clever ways. The story presentation may be obtuse, but that seems to be the point - it’s about someone who’s died trying to make sense of and fix what they’ve left behind. The result is a game full of understated melancholy and beauty.
That it’s cute as hell is just gravy.