The hero at the core of the independent game “Gravity Ghost” is in fact an adolescent: 12-year-old Iona. Even more unusual, she’s dead — an apparition who haunts the solar system, looking for lost souls to save.
Far from a ghost story, this title created by Erin Robinson takes a fanciful eye to the afterlife, turning the high-flying spirit into something of an outer space superhero.
She treats the cosmos as a giant intergalactic plaything, toying with planets as if they were bouncy balls and turning globes into gelatinous, fish-tank-like orbs.
Underlying it all is the sadness that comes with knowing a young life was lost. How Iona died and why she’s on an intergalactic quest becomes the title’s central mystery, lending an air of emotional complexity to a game that explores the wonders of a girl in flight, complete with rainbow-colored stardust contrails.
It’s heartache, but one with a charm offensive.
Robinson, a 28-year-old self-taught game designer, knew the line she was trying to walk with the game’s tone would be a difficult one. Even as Iona soars toward seemingly unreachable stars — her hair whirling around a planet with a luminescent glow — there’s the nagging sense that some sort of tragedy befell her.
While at work on the game, Robinson says she thought of “Cleopatra,” the 1963 historical epic starring Elizabeth Taylor.
“You’re so dazzled by the spectacle of it that you kind of forget Cleopatra’s story is a tragedy,” Robinson says. “Then it hits you; she’s not getting out of this and her plan is not going to work. I wanted this to be a totally immersive thing where you kind of realize that it’s not going toward something good.”
The look is hand-drawn — parts of “Gravity Ghost” appear stenciled with colored pencils — and yet there is a sense of opulence to the game, due out Monday for home computers. Letting Iona zip and spring around planets and asteroids in one of the game’s many bite-sized levels, completed with a simple left or right tap of the keyboard, feels like coloring in space.
It’s no surprise that a coworker who spied the game stopped to ask, “Is that Alice?” Although Robinson wasn’t thinking of Lewis Carroll’s creation when making the game, she doesn’t shirk at the reference, noting that the apron-outfitted Iona has a similar style. There’s also the fact that the game comes with a rather loose view of surrealism, as Iona will occasionally encounter a larger-than-life critter that may break into song.
There’s a strong sense of character throughout. Story is doled out in short snippets after completing a series of star-collecting levels, a “reward,” Robinson says. They’re little scenes of Iona’s rather difficult pre-death life and are meant to feel like memories.
Iona, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, is clearly independent — a handy trait for a ghost that’s forced to travel solo through the galaxy — and she’s eager to escape the hardships of her blue-collar reality. Her parents are gone, and her closest friend is a feral fox. Like, well, Alice, she wants to create her own world.
“I wouldn’t say this is common knowledge, but back in the day the lighthouse keeper’s family was completely isolated from other people and they had this enormous responsibility,” Robinson says. “Their lives were difficult. They had to grow their own foods, teach their kids and they couldn’t travel for health. It was such a hard way to live for such an important job. I just thought it was a fertile idea.”
The Phoenix-based Robinson spent her formative years outside of Toronto, which she says influenced the game’s mix of the nautical and the starry. “Gravity Ghost” was entirely self-funded, although Robinson says the budget is hard to quantify as it’s tied up in three years of living expenses. Her income has been supplemented with game design courses, including an intensive, create-a-game-in-three-weeks class she taught at Columbia College in Chicago.
Teaching no doubt played a role in “Gravity Ghost,” as Robinson is passionate about reaching new gamers. There’s challenge in the game, as finding the right orbital track can take some practice, but it’s also approachable. There’s no way to fail, and Robinson eschews some typical game design tactics. The character can’t die, per se; she’s already dead.
So confident is Robinson in the game’s accessibility that anyone who purchases a $14.99 download will be given a code to gift the game to a friend.
“I tried really hard to make this a game anyone can play,” she says. “I’m hoping people will share it with someone in their life who doesn’t play many video games. This is freeing. It’s float-ey. It’s not punishing. I wanted to bring people into video games for the first time.”
Robinson worked to eliminate any potential player frustrations. Thus, there’s nothing in the game that can hurt Iona.
“She’s a ghost,” Robinson says. “What does she have to be afraid of?”
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