In most video games, losing is part of the overall learning process. Death, in whatever form — blowing up, smashing into walls, getting shot — is an almost ubiquitous game-ender.
Imagine playing Mario without three lives to help navigate the castle, or attempting to shooting down enemies in Call of Duty if every player were immortal. It wouldn’t quite be the same.
Gravity Ghost, however, is a game in which players cannot fail. Charming, reassuring and peaceful, the game focuses on a girl named Ilona, who has been charged with reuniting spirits and their bodies in the afterlife.
Playing it feels more like a zen experience than a test of skill — and that’s the point.
That wasn’t always the case. Creator Erin Robinson Swink said it was a very different game in its early stages.
“Early builds of the game still included turrets and ships shooting at the player, and dodging bullets was actually sort of fun,” she explained. “But it felt wrong for the experience I wanted to create, i.e. one that was lonely, introspective and melancholy.”
Robinson eventually created a gravity system that not only serves as Gravity Ghost’s defining mechanic, but she also demonstrated the unique way video games can deliver a narrative.
In the final version of the game, Ilona uses the gravitational pull of planets to navigate the depths of space and collects items and spirits as objectives.
Even though players can’t die, the game can still be challenging. Where other puzzle games might punish the failure to solve a challenge, Gravity Ghost is unique in that it encourages players to try and try again.
“I felt that punishing players while they were trying to learn was the wrong thing to do,” she said.
By taking a different approach, Robinson was able to connect players with Ilona’s journey.
Just as Ilona is new to this spiritual afterlife, players are new to the game. Ilona becomes familiar with the gravity as the player does.
Information is drip-fed to the players, and both they and Ilona experience it in tandem.
This, said Robinson, is what distances games from other forms of entertainment.
Games are interactive, and by using very deliberate mechanics to unite both the player and the character in a game, everyone is able to see and experience a new narrative without the familiar three-act structure of the average book or film.
“The more games begin to distance themselves from traditional forms of storytelling, the more we can realize their potential to connect us with a narrative on a much deeper level,” Robinson said.
“We’ve always loved to see ourselves in a story, but I think that games are what let us take that embodiment to the next level,” she continued, citing a review of Gravity Ghost in which the writer talked about a connection between gravity and her turbulent home life.
No matter how bad things were, her feet would always return to solid ground.
“I loved reading that because it meant that people not only believed that games could be these layered, emotionally complex experiences — but that they expected it,” Robinson said. “That’s huge.”
This idea of games avoiding familiar narrative structures has been a central focus of the developer’s work. Robinson has created five games over the past 10 years and founded her own independent studio, which gives her a great deal of creative freedom.
“I can spend a year animating a story, and I can put in a giant space deer in tube socks without having to justify my decisions to someone,” she said.
Robinson is aware, though, that there’s no guarantee that any one idea will pan out. She might invest months in a project before throwing it out in favor of something new.
Like in Gravity Ghost, the important thing is trying again. And the game certainly addresses this idea with bravado.
Rather than something to be punished or lamented, failure can be spun into a necessary part of discovery and exploration. It is an essential part of success, and the player’s creativity and hope can serve as the gravity that keeps her grounded.