One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
The little robot’s steps are clumsy, awkward, as if both the use of his legs and the concept of gravity were new to him. B.U.D. is miles away from the usual video game robots – they’re often metallic warriors and/or cannon fodder – and closer to the likes of WALL-E, if Pixar’s garbage collector was a toddler. And like his precursor, B.U.D. is given a momentous ecological task: he must grow the so-called Star Plant on a faraway planet, and in doing so he has to scale the plant to a height of 2 kilometres – which would be difficult enough for the likes of Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, let alone someone who is barely able to walk in a straight line.
Grow Home‘s world is an unusual one for this series of blog posts: it doesn’t feature the detailed environment of other games I’ve written about, like GTA V or the Assassin’s Creed series. In simple, stylised graphics it depicts a planet, a gigantic plant, a number of floating islands – and lots and lots of sky, which slowly becomes crisscrossed with plant shoots and branches prompted by B.U.D. and the player’s actions. And yet it becomes a tangible, living world as much as any more mainstream game with higher production values. Part of this is the flora and fauna the game presents us with, even it looks more like origami than its counterparts in more graphics-intense titles; part of it is the game systems that interact in fun, interesting ways.
Mostly, though, what makes the game’s world come alive is how the player traverses it – and in this it’s not immediately different from other titles I’ve written about. Rockstar’s worlds, for instance the Los Santos of GTA V, are experienced by walking, flying and in particular driving through them, and the ten minutes it takes to get from downtown LS to the backwaters of Blaine County in a fast, sexy car make it feel more tangible and real. In Assassin’s Creed, you conquer the cities by parkouring up the buildings and looking down over your domain from the top of Notre Dame or Big Ben. In comparison, Grow Home feels both less and more badass: B.U.D., and accordingly the player, is more like a toddler making the world their own at the same time as learning how to walk. B.U.D. stumbles as much as he succeeds, which makes it all the more of an achievement when you succeed in climbing the Star Plant and look down from dizzying heights, remembering the many times you failed to hold on and fell hundreds of metres, only to pick yourself up and try again. GTA and Assassin’s Creed offer power fantasies even in their traversal; moving through their worlds is fun, but it’s not necessarily an immediate challenge, unless you aim to be the fastest, the most daring, or unless you’re fighting several dozen bad guys at the same time. That ten-minute drive I mentioned earlier definitely has an appeal of its own, especially at dawn or dusk, with some quality music blaring from the car stereo, while using a grappling hook to get to the roof of the Houses of Parliament makes you feel like a steampunk Batman. Climbing the Star Plant successfully could be done in mere seconds by the heroes of other games – but for B.U.D. it’s an achievement to get to that shoot a few dozen metres above you or to reach that leaf that you can use as a trampoline to get even higher.
And it’s this that makes Grow Home‘s world memorable and tangible. You learn not to take movement for granted, you realise that speed, grace and agility aren’t owed to you. It’s easy to be a badass and look the part when you’re in a Porsche knock-off, or if you’re a parkour god in a stylish Renaissance hoodie – but it’s a very different achievement to clamber up a plant hundreds of times your own size – slowly, clumsily, precariously – if you’ve never before climbed anything. And that makes the Star Plant more real than dozens of worlds that are arguably more realistic in their depiction. Anyone can make that ten-minute drive – you just keep the right trigger pressed and point the car in the right direction. Zipping to the top of Big Ben? You press one button on your controller. Climbing the Star Plant? It’s basically like learning to walk, and it’s that climb, that plant with its thorns, leaves and shoots, that taught you.