Solving the riddle of Gorogoa

7 months ago by Steven T. Wright

Developer Jason Roberts discusses the idiosyncratic puzzle game's long incubation.

Every now and then, there’s a game that lingers on the edge of obscurity, a name that only a chosen few whisper about, usually behind closed doors, or on the floors of tradeshows. It’s never an outright secret - instead, it’s buried out there in the open, under the tide of the dozens of games that wash up on the shores of Steam every day. But when games like that finally creak out - like Braid, The Witness, or Nidhogg - and the rest of us finally get a chance to dig in, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about.

Gorogoa is one of those games. A brief but startling puzzler developed by one-man team Jason Roberts, the game’s fundamental mechanic tasks the player with orienting and manipulating slices of hand-drawn art around a four-paneled playfield not unlike a canvas. According to Roberts, the resemblance to a comic book isn’t accidental, but rather an artifact of the game’s winding development cycle.

“I was a software engineer outside the games industry,” says Roberts. “I had lots of creative aspirations - I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to make a comic. I never thought it was a viable career path. But when Braid came out, that was an eye-opener. It was made by such a small team, and it wasn’t some photorealistic 3D rendered thing. It was all about the art and design. I thought I’d take a year or two off. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.”

Roberts laughs at that last line, and it’s hard not to blame him - it’s a definite understatement. By the time he quit his job to pursue his passion full-time around 2012, Roberts had already clocked two-years of work in his off hours, trying to figure out what exactly he was making. Though he wavers on the exact figure, no matter how you slice it, Gorogoa spent nearly a decade in the pipe before finally seeing the light of day. As Roberts recalls, much of that early time wasn’t actual production - rather, he was “just thinking about it.” And while certain audacious games do force the player to reckon with perspective and image in the same vein as Gorogoa, such as the noir-tinged FRAMED from 2014, Gorogoa goes much further, offering a labyrinth of dream logic and association unrivaled in its intricacy, at least for the genre.

"I focused on more bespoke puzzles in a first-person perspective, and that's when the design came together."

“The design of the game goes back to the comic book, certainly. FRAMED goes in one direction - it’s about chronology, I think,” says Roberts. “Left-to-right, top-to-bottom chronology is one of the first things I deviated from when I started making Gorogoa. I loved making the compositions - the collage of windows. Then I realized you could move the panels around, like dominos. But I wanted to make a story, so the domino pips became images in a story.”

However, Gorogoa’s gameplay took longer to nail down. “Originally, I thought it might work as a platformer, like Braid,” Roberts explains. “But then a game called Continuity came out in 2011, and I realized that it kind of did that already. So I focused on more bespoke puzzles in a first-person perspective, and that’s when the design came together.”

When Roberts first revealed the game at Indiecade 2012, along with an accompanying demo, he was blown away by the positive reaction from puzzle enthusiasts and non-gamers alike. Still, over time, he found it difficult to walk the tightrope of what he calls the “hardcore audience” with those enticed more by the game’s striking art than its arsenal of riddles. Designing around this apparent dichotomy contributed much to the game’s lengthy production, with Roberts completely throwing out entire sequences of the game that he felt upset this delicate balance.

“I always wanted to make a really good puzzle game,” he recalls. “It was just the question of where on the spectrum between ‘experience’ and ‘challenge’ it was going to lie. Puzzle games are fairly niche, so something that’s too puzzle-y might be less accessible. I love Braid, but I wasn’t trying to make that kind of mechanically challenging puzzler at all.”

Though Gorogoa might seem more like an arbitrary collection of images at first, over time, it sketches out a hazy story of one boy’s lifelong obsession with five mystical fruits. And though it isn’t the easiest to follow -- thanks in large part to Roberts’ refusal to stick to a coherent timeline -- the game rewards those patient or observant enough to pay attention to its every facet. The game’s lack of text contributes to the sense of mystery, much like the critically-acclaimed hack-and-slasher Hyper Light Drifter. But, in Roberts’ view, this choice had more to do with a frustration with words in general than anything else.

“Part of what inspired the game was these puzzle books that I used to play with when I was a kid,” says Roberts. In particular, he cites Christopher Manson’s Maze, which Interplay later adapted into a computer game. “I wanted to recreate that feeling of endless mystery. But you can’t make an unsolvable game, can you? The way the story is told through the game is meant to evoke memory, sorting fragments of the past. It’s an allegory, certainly, and it’s easy to be obscure. But the mystery is part of the experience, and I don’t want to ruin that. I had tried to write it as a play, and a comic, and I was just sick of words. They were getting in the way. That’s why I didn’t put any in the game.”

While some might attribute the seven-year cycle of a game as short as Gorogoa to sheer perfectionism, Roberts takes a more restrained view. Though he admits to cutting vast sections of the game that no longer met his ever-tightening standards, overall, he says those were years well-spent. The idea that creative works proceed linearly with time might be true for other developers, but Roberts argues that for him, the notion is just as mythical as the dragon-like creature that gives his game its name.

"It's never about making something that's perfect. It's about making something that feels right."

“Before the last year of development, I would have said that the game was totally broken,” he says. “People think that when you work for a long time on a game, that near the end, you’re sitting on a rough version of the final project, and the rest is polishing. That does happen, but for me, it was more like wandering in the wilderness for six years before everything clicked. I’m not a perfectionist, and I don’t think it’s perfect.”

He concludes, “But it’s never about making something that’s perfect. It’s about making something that feels right. And it took seven or eight years to get there.”