The first time Gorogoa truly clicks is revelatory. The puzzle game is simple at a glance: you’re presented with a grid of four squares, and you can move cards around on those squares. Each card depicts a scene or an object, with hand-drawn art of everything from sunlit parks to elaborate stained glass windows. In some instances, you can manipulate these cards by zooming in or panning the image around.
But the real magic happens when the cards interact with each other. The big moment for me came when I shifted three cards around, placed in just the right spots and set on just the right image, to create an interconnected scene. When it locked in, a bird on one card flew past a tree branch on another and knocked an apple into a bowl. I felt like the smartest person in the world.
Gorogoa is the kind of game that’s hard to put into words. It’s elegant in its simplicity, at first offering what seems like a very basic challenge, before expanding to reveal something much deeper and more intricate. As you play through the three-hour-long experience, an ambiguous story emerges that ties it all together. There’s a young boy and a colorful dragon, and what seems to be a quest to find five orbs to soothe the monster.
That’s the premise, but the adventure itself is more of a dreamlike adventure than a straightforward narrative. One minute you’re guiding the boy through some crumbling ruins, the next you’re trying to light a lamp with a star. It seems as though there’s an analogy about the various stages of his life, though it never quite spells it out. In contrast to the gameplay, the story and art are very serious with little in the way of humor or whimsy. There are scenes where you explore what looks to be a town damaged by war, and another where the boy makes a long, arduous walk up a steep mountain in oppressive heat.
Although the game doesn’t have an explicit tutorial, it’s easy to see the choices that are available to you. Objects you can manipulate will glow, and there are buttons on each card that zoom in or shift the scene. Sometimes you can separate a card into multiple pieces, and other times you’ll need to place cards on top of each other to make something new. You can play with size and perspective, space and time. Figuring out how to do things isn’t the challenge; it’s figuring out what exactly needs to be done.
Much like last year’s The Witness, the heart of Gorogoa is observation. There’s no explicit goal except seeing how the different cards interact with each other. This might mean noticing that a particular cloud is the same general shape as a set of gears, or that a moth will move around based on its proximity to a cluster of stars. There’s no punishment for getting something wrong. If you see something that might work, there’s no harm in trying, and it’s very rewarding to seeing your hypothesis prove correct. The fact that you’re never actually told what to do just makes these victories even sweeter.
The most impressive thing about Gorogoa, though, is that I never really found myself stuck or frustrated. There were moments where I was unclear of how to proceed, sure, but it never really bothered me. I just continued to play around with ideas until I found the right path, which rarely took long. This is a rare thing for puzzle games, where there’s usually only one solution and one specific path to get there. If you can’t figure them out, you’re left banging your head against a wall until you can brute force a solution. But with its vaguely defined goals and flexible mechanics, Gorogoa sidesteps this frustration. Even as it ramps up the complexity with cards that feature multiple layers to explore, I never found myself stressing out about finding a solution.
Gorogoa isn’t a long game, nor is it a taxing one. It’s more of a smart and intricate toy. Its tone may be serious, but the overarching theme is curiosity. You see something, guess what it might do, and then try it for yourself. There’s a good chance you’ll be right.