Jason Roberts devoted years to hand-illustrating the fantastic world of Gorogoa, a puzzle game that has no dialogue or directions. Instead players experiment with up to four square frames of art, looking for connections as the main character — a boy who glimpses a colossal dragon prowling his city — seeks to placate this otherworldly beast. Early in the game, you have to connect a tree in a picture frame to one in a garden so an apple drops into a blue bowl. Later, ribbons from a trunk in one room match the banners on a castle, and ladders against the walls of an overgrown courtyard morph into railroad tracks.
“Any given scene in the game is not a single drawing, but many layers of separate drawings,” Roberts told Hyperallergic. “The motivation was mostly that I love drawing in pencil, and wanted part of the production process to be away from the keyboard and mouse. Also doing the artwork by hand unavoidably gives it a personal style.”
All of the art was first sketched with pencil on paper, and then colored and shaded in Photoshop. The non-sequential timeline of Gorogoa, in which you shift from the boy gathering five colorful orbs for the dragon, to him as an older man seeking to understand this youthful vision, is like a storybook that’s been cut into pieces. Roberts cites illustrator and puzzle designer Christopher Manson, known for his detailed woodcuts, as an inspiration, along with the work of Edward Gorey, Gustave Doré, and M.C. Escher. As Roberts discussed with Kotaku, Gorogoa took him over seven years to create, and he landed on an interactive art project after experimenting with a graphic novel and playwriting.
Gorogoa was released in December for PC and iOS, and will soon be available for PS4. A dedicated player could complete Gorogoa in a couple of hours, but it rewards a second play-through. The meaning of its narrative is ambiguous — it’s unclear if the dragon is bringing destruction or magic — yet its themes of attempting to reclaim childhood wonder, and come back from loss, resonate. There’s a point where it seems the quest of collecting spheres for the creature is accomplished, only to have it devastatingly fall apart. Meanwhile war, ruins, and a cemetery haunt its scenes.
Even when the puzzles get harder, such as at one stage where you have to wander through old photographs and use everything from a stained glass window to a wagon wheel to rotate portals and staircases that layer over the images, it’s never frustrating. This is thanks to the thoughtful detail on the lush illustrations. For instance, if you zoom in on the wing of a moth that you freed from a bell jar, then a whole level of sacred geometry is revealed. In another instance, the wax imprint of a tree on a candle is a gateway to a forest decorated with candlelit shrines, while an empty lantern is illuminated with the light of a star. The solutions feel like a return to the flexible imagination of childhood.
The mechanics of Gorogoa are straightforward — zooming in and out on illustrations and then moving around tiles to four panes. Still as the game elegantly folds back and forth in time, spanning thousands of Roberts’s drawings, it has a complexity in its meticulous design. Days after I reached its bittersweet ending, which gives resolution to the character without unraveling all of the world’s meanings, I found myself thinking about how frames can obscure as much as they reveal.