Erin Robinson’s new game Gravity Ghost dances on the fine edge of a line between two supposedly opposed ideologies. Or, maybe it orbits that edge. Spinning about its thematic core like its titular ghost flowing between the planetary bodies, Gravity Ghost brings the player to both an island off the shores of Michigan and the stars above it, drifting between a relaxing exercise in orbital physics and a sharp sentimental jab to the gut performed mostly through backstory. Though faith in its ultimate story about love and family may demand a willingness to accept the game’s sentiments at face value (cynics need not apply), Gravity Ghost nevertheless pulls apart the typical challenge-reward cycle for a physics-based puzzle game, flinging itself mightily toward finding that space between science and love.
Gravity Ghost introduces itself with some dreamy surreal circumstances and some simple, relaxing puzzles. Learning to guide Iona through the planets quickly becomes an exercise in light satellite operation as numerous planetoids shift in size and elemental type, shaping both the player’s velocity and direction and the effects when they collide with different surfaces. The result is an exercise in give and take, with players surrendering typical rewards usually demanded by puzzlers and instead being invited to sometimes just have faith and let go.
The lack of failure is not without a lack of challenge—or incentive. Your goal here is to reunite with your foxy friend Voy, and to do so, you’ll need to collect stars to travel to new constellations he might have bounced off to. Voy isn’t the only animal spirit in need of a rescue, however. Bears, ferrets, mice and other ghosts need to be reunited with their skeletons, and through these challenges, you’re offered glimpses into Iona’s memories of who she was when she was human.
Those circumstances become the uniting aesthetic that bring Gravity Ghost’s play in line with its thinking. In life, Iona was a child far out of balance, spinning between happy moments with unconventional friends and trouble with her own family. It’s a series of events that create an edge between harsh reality and our own wants and needs. Wise old Eddie understands the balance between the two, framing it coyly as “Sacred Geometry,” a visual that repeats itself in the shapes Iona discovers in space that grant her more powers.
In space, these two concepts live harmoniously. Robinson’s orbital design isn’t quite accurate to what NASA’s working with, but she and her programming team have built a system that turns the “slingshot-around-Jupiter” scenario from most science fiction scripts into a casual, colorful maneuver that inspires fun and experimentation instead of a strict fealty to reality. Most of the aesthetics in the core gameplay live as reinterpretations of gravitational physics, ranging from fiery planets whose hot air pushes Iona away during a low orbit spin, or gas giants that she bounces off repeatedly. Working those ideas together, space becomes a place where Iona gets to learn what she never was able to on Earth, both as she learns to help animals, and as she struggles to repair a mysterious black hole with the aid of seven animal guardians.
As Earth and Space begin to come together though, Gravity Ghost’s biggest challenge becomes continuing to lift its infinite contradiction and ensure the player stays invested in both the character drama and the orbital gameplay. Iona’s past being presented through cutscenes may be a large stumbling block. They’re meant to reward linking animals’ spirits back to their bones, but these are not particularly difficult challenges compared to some of the more mind-teasingly difficult ones. Delivering drama through backstory also suffers from the challenge as it does in any other medium—-when forward narrative motion lays explicitly in the past, the narrative becomes an exercise in reflection, not propulsion driven by conflict, and the player can’t reflect on what they didn’t already know.
To its credit, the story takes an extremely brave step and holds Iona (though not the player) accountable for her actions that drive conflict in her family. It’d be interesting to read the player’s arrival as a kind of conscience that helps Iona redeem herself for her past mistakes, but even with that thought in mind some of the game’s most crucial moments and meditations come at slightly different points for Iona compared to the player. Its marriage of how Iona bridges the science of space and her love for her family will work for many, but it’s not quite a perfect landing.
Voice actors Ashly Burch, Sarah Elmaleh and Logan Cunningham all pull a lot of weight voicing multiple characters both on earth and in the depths of space, and it does create a nice Wizard of Oz effect linking Iona’s two worlds together. Some bugs were present when playing Gravity Ghost on a lower-powered Windows Surface Device, and it’s advisable players ensure they’re on the correct resolution when starting the game.
The quest to bind together stories of science and love isn’t always an easy one to take on, but ultimately Gravity Ghost gets the job done. Drifting through space and learning the subtleties of planetary movement is fun and relaxing, and the story’s charm works well enough to suggest larger meaning to a ghost’s journey through the cosmos.
Bryant Francis is a games writer based out of Los Angeles who’s written for Gamasutra and The Jace Hall Show. See more of his work at website or find him on Twitter @RBryant2012.