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Written by  :  Nowhere Girl (8580)
Written on  :  Jan 14, 2023
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars

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Summary

The mystical desire

The Good

"Gorogoa" is a game of many layers. Its deeper meaning is perhaps better analysed in a different section, outside of "What did you like?", "What didn't you like". While a game full of such serious, deep symbolic meanings should be considered an ultimate proof of the developers' creativity, this aspect is not really a matter of liking or disliking. It's rather a matter of an attempt to interpret the game, so let me leave this aspect for the final part of my review. However, one thing can be already said about this very aspect: "Gorogoa" is one of games which pretty much lampoon the outdated, but still present idea that video games are Entertainment only. My mom seems to have such a view and I could say that games are more than that: it were first of all adventure games which allowed me to greatly expand my knowledge of English while in late primary school, a lot of games also stimulate logical thinking. However, "Gorogoa" does more than that. Through its innocent, but also, in a way, inostensible beauty it is able to tell a story touching very serious topics, with spirituality definitely being the foremost of these topics.
The game has beautiful graphics which could perhaps best be compared to classic book illustrations. This style is generally consistent throughout the game, but the variety of mostly realistic and fantastic spaces the protagonist crosses on his way allows for some variation: all panels are generally painted in the same way, but they depict very different objects, from mostly realistic urban sceneries, through maps, to stained glass windows. Altogether, it creates a breathtakingly beautiful world full of details. There's always something new to discover, and yet there are several instances of the same imagery repeating, often in a modified version (for example: lighting a lamp three times to attract a moth; the same sculpted figures standing at the protagonist's home over a period of several decades; the scene with the crow and the red apple, later repeated as symbolic embroidery on a pillow...). These images are then combined in a way not found in any other game. This unique gameplay makes it hard to do the game justice - I have seen it categorised as a puzzle game, an adventure game, but perhaps the best approach is another one I have seen - "interactive artwork".
The experimental, non-verbal nature of the game should be appreciated too. It perhaps doesn't go as far as "Luna - the Shadow Dust" (which might very well have drawn some inspiration from "Gorogoa" - nevertheless, for me it just doesn't compare... not a bad game, but far from the sublime beauty of "Gorogoa"), which even has a purely visual menu - "Gorogoa" has some words in the settings menu (in several language versions), but that's all. It shows written material such as books, notes or newspapers several times, but all are written in an imaginary alphabet, the developers also took care to select a title which is not a word in any language.

The Bad

It's a pity that there are big gaps in the protagonist's life. Of course, we only see snippets from it, but let's make it clear: while some other people appear too (probably the protagonist's university colleagues, some faceless people on the tram, people shown in several symbolic images, such as the girl who lights a lamp by putting a star inside...), it is all the same person. We see him at five different points in his life, from childhood to old age... but the first four are very close together. There are some more pictures (the protagonist is easily recognised by his cane, which he already needs at a young age after his accident), not connected to the five "nexus" points corresponding to the five colours, but even they don't bridge the gaps - at some point we can see the protagonist, thirty years old at most, watching stars through a small telescope - and after that, we only see him again as an old man, with a gap of at least another thirty years. I have seen some piece of discarded artwork, which showed the protagonist as a middle-aged man, wearing a beard, but still with dark hair - it's a pity that images such as this one were abandoned, because it just looks strange that at different times, we see the protagonist over a period of about fifteen years - and then such a big gap... It's a significant omission, because the impression the game creates is one of a man consumed by a spiritual obsession, from the day he saw the divine dragon until the end - leaving such a big gap in his biography weakens this impression.
The game isn't very long. However, it should be considered in perspective: after all, it is very visually rich, it must have been a lot of work. And "Gorogoa" is nevertheless a game to be savoured. Now I remember all the solutions to different puzzles, I don't need to wonder about them anymore - but when replaying the game, I continue noticing more and more significant details.

The Bottom Line

The "mystical desire" from the title is, simply speaking, a desire to have a mystical experience. A desire mostly taboo in today's world, not spoken about, for where could it even be talked about? In a heavily secularised culture? In organised religiosity, too often reduced to an image of a vengeful God only wanting to spy on you? People who experience the mystical desire hardly have places to talk about it, they have to grope their way in the dark.
I have mentioned "other people" shown in the game, but there is indeed always something which sets the protagonist apart from them, and in a game so full of symbolism it's probably not accidental. People on the tram look like faceless shadows. In a commemorative photograph, probably from his studies, the protagonist stands out as being the only one not looking at the camera, unable to lift his head from a book he's just reading. It's not like no community of faith exists around him - the fragment with the map seems as if the protagonist goes on pilgrimages to shrines devoted to a particular... avatar of the deity; I find this Hindu term to be the most appropriate here. But nevertheless, he is always alone on his quest. A loose parallel with "Life of Pi" could be drawn: in Martel's novel, Pi's (trans)religiosity stands in sharp contrast to the general religious indifference of his family. (Another aspect which unites the boy from "Gorogoa" with Pi Patel is his very young age at the beginning - he seems no more than about twelve years old, and yet he already experiences the mystical desire.) That said, however, Pi's religiosity never comes even close to the autodestructive dimension spirituality has in "Gorogoa".
And how many levels of spiritual experience exist in "Gorogoa"! Getting a glimpse of the divine dragon and unio mystica are very different things. Like in a diptych by Angelus Silesius - unfortunately, I don't know an English translation - about levels of approaching God... Fünf Staffeln sind in Gott: Knecht, Freund, Sohn, Braut, Gemahl. / Wer weiter kommt, verwird, und weiß nichts mehr von Zahl.
A personal detour which will soon lead me back to the game: myself, I have come to realise the mystical desire through my psychedelic fascination, something I have experienced (at that time, obviously, in a purely theoretic form) since the time when I was about as old as the protagonist of "Gorogoa" at the beginning of the game. Many people describe their psychedelic experiences in spiritual terms, as a state of mystical rapture. No, despite my somewhat critical stance towards formalised religiosity, I would never attempt to say that in today's world, the mystical desire can only be cultivated and visible in the psychedelic community. But I feel like it has become one of few groups which still take such an idea seriously. And this, in turn, led me to consider the notion of psychedelic motifs in "Gorogoa".
"Psychedelic?", one might ask, "In a game which doesn't even touch the subject of 'drug-assisted spirituality' as such?". Certainly, the game also has little to do with styles usually associated with "psychedelia". In music, it is associated with long, meandering improvisations and strange sound effects (example: the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"). In visual arts, with a medley of colours, Oriental ornaments, Day-Glo paints, swollen letters like in 1960s music posters... There's no such thing in "Gorogoa", its visual style is generally calm and composed, balancing its abundance of views with a realism comparable, as I already note, perhaps to book illustrations. And yet, on a deeper level, the game contains a number of characteristics which can be considered psychedelic, or at least regarded through a psychedelic interpretative lens.
A common feature of psychedelic experiences which I call "surplus of meaning": the sense that everything is infused with a deep meaning. ("- Acid lowers your powers of discrimination until everything seems important. - No. Acid raises your powers of integration until everything is important".) Something similar can be found in what I already mentioned: the abundance of symbolic images in "Gorogoa". Some of them draw from what is already conventionally recognised as connected to the sacred (best example: the stained glass window), but the developers were able to create a game pretty much filled with images which - at least after the player gets used to the game's atmosphere - are easily "read" as spiritual and symbolic in their character, but their exact meanings remain up to our interpretation.
Psychedelic drugs have been compared to optical tools such as microscopes and telescopes. Similarly, "Gorogoa" uses close-ups to such an extent that they open up whole new worlds: for example, from a view of a room with a decorative faience plate standing on a dresser, to details of a palace painted in one of the four symbolic scenes depicted on the plate.
So it's not really a matter of resembling "psychedelic art" - which "Gorogoa" doesn't - but, much more, a matter of deeper structures. The world shown in "Gorogoa" is, too, filled with this "surplus of meaning".
Because of this symbolic depth, I don't like calling "Gorogoa" words like "clever". Such words are much too weak and don't do the game justice. It is much more than that, a spiritual game which shows how limiting is the idea of games being something one only does "For Fun". But such unfair stereotypes didn't come from nowhere, denying games seriousness and the status of "Real Art" has been around long before. It's just that, when juxtaposed with a game such as "Gorogoa", it becomes even more blatant how unfair this stereotype really is...

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