A character named “Ouuuch” gives a speech full of wisdom. “If you speak the word ‘blue’, three people that hear it may think of three totally different things. One will think ‘sky’, the other ‘sea’ and the third one will get sad, just because”, Ouuuch tells me in the dark, wet cave that is my home. In Grotto, I am the Soothsayer, the Startamer, the one that seeks meaning in the night sky and spreads the word to the people, affecting their destiny. It is a position of immense power and great responsibility, as I’ve come to know in the 4-or-so hours that it takes to finish Grotto.
You see, everyday a different anthropomorphic animal comes to my cave to seek counsel. One is called “Ouuuch”, another is “The One I Love”. They are talking about their everyday, mundane problems but also of some more important matters that have to do with the power struggles in their community. During these everyday talks I get to influence their thinking, to decide who among them will rise to power and who will end up banished, exiled or even dead. I can be a wise leader, affectionate and understanding, or just move every person as they were my little pawns.
This is the setup of Grotto, an indie game made by Brainwash Gang, the studio that brought us the excellent The Longest Road on Earth -the two games share only the anthropomorphic animal designs, and even those are wildly different in each case. The gameplay is extremely simple, annoyingly so sometimes. You just wake up in your cave, walk (playing in a first-person perspective) to the next “room”, and find a person to speak to (they do the talking, you mostly just listen). Then, when they ask you to make a decision, you go back to the previous room, the one you woke up in, and you look up at the sky through a hole in the ceiling. You see the stars, and you have to connect them using your mouse or analog stick, to form constellations that represent vague concepts. Then, you go back to the person seeking your wisdom and you give them your chosen star, this way “replying” to their question. What? It sounds weird, you say? Well, you’re damn right it is!
What follows is some excellent dialogue, genuinely strange and weirdly effective. Let me give you some examples. “Will I die?” asks the snake-like person. “Rabbit” is the answer they get, by my choosing of the “rabbit” constellation. “So, I’ll live!” replies the reptile. “Will I find the heart of the mountain?” I am asked by an ox-like creature. I show them the “Hedgehog” constellation. “So, what you mean is I’ll get hurt when I reach the heart of the mountain? But that means I will indeed find it!”
People tend to interpret my answers the way that they want to, even if I’d expect an entirely different response. You don’t actually get to see the fruits of your advice-giving; you just listen to the people’s tales, and you have to imagine a whole world outside your little cave, one that is shaped in part by your influence. The story that takes form is surprisingly well-written and really engaging, so you get immersed quickly and you start caring about the interesting and impeccably designed characters you meet each day. So, you will actually want to help them and you’ll try to give them sound advice, but words limit your capacity to do so. It’s a very potent exploration of communication through language and the barriers that arise when you don’t speak the same one with the ones you converse with. You will want to help them and you will know exactly how to do it, but you’ll be unable to because you can only communicate through abstract, vague concepts, left to everyone’s interpretation. It is a wild concept, incredibly interesting and efficient in its implementation.
The gameplay leaves a lot to be desired, some of the mechanics do not work as intended and are a bit clunky, but the core of the experience shines bright. You’ll talk to dead people (or, as the game likes to call them, “Those That Are No More”), you will reclaim the meaning of words, you will give meaning to shapeless concepts, you will converse with fire and you will make some interesting choices -albeit with not-so-real consequences. A crab can mean “weapon”, ice will be “white” and you will see words shifting in front of you, altering the way others perceive them, but also how they perceive you. It’s a tale that is likely to stick with you after it ends, and one that is accentuated by smart visual design that gives off a mystical, magical feeling, along with the excellent, really fitting soundtrack.
“Songs, traditions and rituals are things that cannot be seen, but they give meaning to other things” you’ll be informed by the village -or “The Place We Live In”- bard-like creature, dressed in sheep-like attire and wearing creepy masks. Grotto talks about words, and does so in a really unique way, excellent in its writing, really atmospheric and incredibly interesting. If you can look past the simplistic gameplay and some not fully realized mechanics, and if you find the core concept alluring, play Grotto. You’ll struggle to find another game like this one.