It’s funny how the word ‘head’ goes along well with the puzzle/adventure genre in video games: sometimes you’ll find challenges that are ‘head-scratchers’, or maybe there was a clue that just ‘went over your head’. Perhaps you’ll consort your friends or social media to ‘put your heads together’ to solve that difficult final riddle. However, indie game GNOG has a different way of getting in your head.
This charming, musically-inspired puzzler can only be described as “Double Fine-sian.” This shouldn’t come as a shock since it’s that very company that helped developer KO_OP publish the game. GNOG wants you to use your brain to smile, rather than to think long and hard seeking out some obtuse answer. Basically, it wants to get in your head as a delightful short song that you’ll forget by the end of the day.
There are a few things that are important to note when talking about GNOG. First, while it is compatible with PSVR, you can play it just fine with just a PS4. Second, this is a short title. Seasoned players and puzzle-solvers will be able to zip through this in 2-2.5 hours. You can add maybe another hour or two if you seek out all the trophies without a guide.
And finally, this is not a difficult game. Actually, this is a great title to introduce people to puzzle games or even video games as a whole. I can see parents playing this with their children. While some of the environmental clues (which are pretty much all of the clues) can be a little tricky to figure out, the colorful graphics and amazing sound design are delightful enough to draw in any kind of audience.
The mythos of GNOG is a strange one. You start out with a giant rectangular head floating in space. In this tutorial stage, you can move around a cursor to play around with various buttons on the thing’s face.
After interacting with everything that lights up, you have the option to turn the whole thing 180 degrees. From there the head has a hollowed out back which happens to be a child’s room. As this blocky kid sits and daydreams, the entire room breaks apart and you’re taken to your first of a handful of levels.
Really, the tutorial shows everything you need to know in the game. You manipulate the cursor with your normal or Move controller and interact with anything that lights up or jiggles around. The front of each stage is always a face (or faces) and when you rotate the head, the back is always a scene waiting for a solution.
The settings for each of the stages are some of the more imaginative concepts I’ve seen in a long time. These range from distracting an apartment building full of tenants from a mischievous burglar to helping a mother bird feed her new hatchlings.
While these scenarios don’t seem over the top, it’s the presentation that really wins out. For instance, the last example with the bird mom: Here, the face is a giant log and somehow there are eggs inside the head. Worms periodically sprout out from the wood. It’s the players job to eat the squirmy buggers and then control the direction of the mom’s regurgitation to feed the hatchlings. It’s bizarre, a little gross, and completely captivating.
Even within these scenes there are small details that add so much characterization. At one point, there’s a persistent mouse who just wants a little cheese. Seeing his expressions between being denied food and then finally getting to the wedges is extremely satisfying. There’s a number of these reactions and interactions that just layer the charm on top of an already whimsical experience.
The character and head designs are incredibly well done and unique to the game. When the levels themselves blink, grin, and mutter at you it’s something quite special. And the blocky people living inside the heads are just as interesting with different features like animal faces or crazy haircuts.
However, the design wouldn’t be nearly effective as it is without some brilliant choices on color. While there definite moments of bright hues, a lot of the backgrounds and environments are more pastel. Multiple shades of purples, pinks, and some beige infect each level. This is done to make the contrast of interactive items even more apparent. Those items intensely radiate with neon colors that compliment the subtler pastel colors.
The music and sound effects work in tandem with the graphics. When the cursor moves over an area of interest, a bright note will play. All these beeps and boops have a synthesized embellishment to them that just lighten the entire game.
While GNOG is not a rhythm puzzle game, music plays a huge part of the overall experience. Tracks generally start off as calming meditative numbers that grow into complex structures the further you get in each head. As you complete a level, you’re rewarded with a psychedelic symphony where things (that are thematically relevant to the stage) rotate around the floating head while it sings. Yes, they actually sing in this low, keyboard-esque tone that perfectly suits their design.
As stated earlier, getting to that musically charged ending is not that difficult. Puzzles are generally laid out with the idea of playing around in mind. Flipping switches and pulling down knobs never leads to any negative situations and more often than not helps you progress in Rube-Goldberigan ways.
But the game also encourages you to pay attention as there is a logic to all the buttons and levers you will be interacting with. Sometimes there are even sequence based puzzles that require a code. If I have any complaint about the design here, it’s that there was one two many times that a password for a lock was scrawled on walls and other things within the level. I just felt that maybe something different could’ve been used at one of those moments to shake things up a bit.
Speaking of shaking things up, you can actually move the screen with the right analog stick or the Move controller. This was a great way to see even more of the stage and catch small details on the side or bottom of the giant heads. Unfortunately, this was never mixed with puzzle solutions which was a missed opportunity.
It’s when you start moving the stage around or physically interacting with items that the game feels so much different from the PS4 to the PSVR. Virtual reality wins out as the best way to experience GNOG: it’s a very tactile and visually focused game and to have both those things right in front of you is just perfect. And with the VR headphones there to deliver the experience straight into your head with everything else going on, it just feels like this is the way the game is supposed to be played.
That isn’t to say the vanilla version is bad. I actually found it easier to play longer without the headset on and the analog stick controls worked perfectly fine. Flipping the heads with the trigger buttons felt natural as well. The music is also sharp either way you play and you can always use the headphone jack from the DualShock 4.
However, with all of this said, I think the $20 price point for GNOG is appropriate if you own a PSVR. As I said before, the game is short and quite easy, and since there isn’t much replay value (other than chilling out in each of the stages) there are a limited number of things you can do with that 20 bucks.
The only people I wouldn’t recommend this to are those looking for a challenging, more-traditional puzzle game or those who have a distaste for games that can be labelled ‘casual’. But those with a PSVR should take this as a heads-up, this game is a great addition to the still limited PlayStation VR line-up. And it’s also a good title to have in your normal PS4 library as well.
GNOG serves as a great way to spend an afternoon and one of those rare occurrences where you’ll want that earworm (albeit a relaxed, whimsical one) floating around in your brain.