Seven years in the making, Gorogoa is a hand-drawn puzzle game by former software engineer Jason Roberts, who quit his full-time job to dedicate himself to the game's development. Roberts built the game’s engine and drew all its art, by hand, in pencil. He even taught himself animation. Nearly every aspect of the game, aside from the music composed by Eduardo Ortiz Frau, is a product of Roberts' ingenuity and persistence.
For most developers, a long production cycle is a blessing: it means more time to polish and perfect. But Roberts says he would have benefitted from more structure. The game went through several iterations before its final version, and entire completed sequences of the game were left on the cutting room floor as Roberts drew and redrew, to ensure that everything fit together properly.
Roberts spent all his personal money towards production, but the game was not finished. Indie Fund provided another year of funding, but that money ran out too, and still, the game was not finished. It was only when Roberts partnered with Annapurna Interactive (What Remains of Edith Finch) that he buckled down and did what he originally set out to do.
“I needed a bad cop, or some tough love, to finish the game,” said Roberts in an interview with Chris Kohler for Kotaku. “I have that tendency to just… I don’t know. Maybe I would have just kept wandering, design-wise, until I ran out of money.”
One can only imagine the pressure Roberts feels. Can you imagine dedicating the better part of a decade to such a venture, only to have it panned in public?
But Roberts has nothing to fear in this regard; Gorogoa is a wonderful game.
How does one play Gorogoa? That's difficult to explain. The entire game takes place on a 2x2 grid. You receive hand drawn pieces of art—some are designs, some contain depictions of humans, and some convey vivid settings: a study room in the evening, an apartment with a view, a constellation in the sky. Below is a typical game screen. You can individually click and drag these drawings, and also zoom in and out from them.
Your goal, without giving away the story, is to guide a boy on a long journey. The boy makes progress on this journey based on how you to build his path. And you build this path by making the different art panels interact with each other. Sometimes, it's a matter of placing art panels side-by-side.
Other times, you might stack art panels on top of one another. But Gorogoa is rarely this evident. And even when it is, it requires a lot of intellectual work and problem solving to get to that point. The solution may be elegant in its simplicity, but the journey there rarely is.
Below, I'm going to show you a single puzzle in the game, along with its solution. It occurs in the first 15 minutes of Gorogoa, so I'm not ruining much by showing it. But after reading this, you'll definitely know whether Gorogoa is your type of game.
Gorogoa is available on PC, iOS, and Nintendo Switch. I played the game on Switch, both in TV mode and handheld mode (which allows you to use the recommended touch screen).
Spoilers below. Red circles are my own.
Take a look at the picture above. The goal is to get the boy with the bowl through the wall. But as you can see, it's a solid wall. We can see the faint whitish outline of where the door ought to be, but that hardly does us any good.
But take a look at this sign. That looks like a picture of a door. Wouldn't it be nice if we could somehow enlarge and place that door on the wall? Let's try. If you click on the sign, you'll zoom in on the sign, and you'll get this.
Now comes the trippy part. If you click and drag the outer part of the panel, you can actually separate the door from the sign. Then you can zoom back out from the sign, and you get this.
Last step. You click and drag the door on the left to the wall on the right, and voila. The wall and the door become one.
Finally, you can walk through it. And the journey continues.
This is a tiny microcosm of what you do throughout Gorogoa, and this is actually one of the simpler puzzles. Later tasks demand that you apply several puzzle solutions in conjunction with each other. The game always adheres to its own dream logic—every puzzle builds upon the Escher-esque impossibility of the prior puzzle's solution, and nothing feels like a cheat.
Your initial playthrough will probably run about 2-3 hours, depending on how many times you get stuck. Sometimes, you might forget to zoom in or zoom out. And sometimes, the game locks you so that you can't zoom, and then it quietly unlocks you without notifying you. Obviously, this locking/unlocking was done so you couldn't stalemate yourself into an unsolvable scenario. But this does get confusing. Just remember that if you're stuck for more than ten minutes, click everywhere: you might be able to interact with something that you weren't previously able to.
While playing Gorogoa, I strangely found myself thinking of cuckoo clocks—the authentic, hand-carved ones from the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. A real one costs upward of $2,000 and can top out at $10,000. It's ironic: in a modern age, where products are mass produced by machines, consumers are drawn back to artisanal methods of construction. The factory method produces uniform, symmetrical products, free of idiosyncratic flaws. But these days, we've come full circle; it's the quirks and imperfections of handcrafted items that make them so desirable.
And that's how I think of Gorogoa after playing through it three times. I first appreciated its challenge and cleverness. But on subsequent playthroughs, as the novelty has worn off, I appreciate Gorogoa more for its craft. Even when the game depicts thematically dark settings—a war-torn city, a windy graveyard, an endless mountain hike—there's an underlying warmth and humanity that is communicated through the game's art.
The labor and love always show.