The genius of Gravity Bone

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Before you read this post I stress that you go download and play Gravity Bone by Brendon Chung. Do it, it should run on any old computer (it uses the Quake 2 engine for crying out loud) and a typical playthrough won’t take you more than half an hour. Use your lunch break or something. So stop reading this now and go play it. Or stop reading this now, play it later, and then come back.

Alright, have you played it?

Good. Because if you were anything like me you enjoyed the hell out of Gravity Bone. And don’t feel like you’re alone, everyone from Destructoid to Rock, Paper, Shotgun to TIGSource has also loved this game. Gravity Bone would be the first indie darling of 2009 if it wasn’t released in 2008. And the praise is well deserved.

It would be easy to say Gravity Bone fits into the recent mold of games like Portal or You Have To Burn The Rope, short-form games that seamlessly integrate a humorous narrative and gameplay into one memorable ride. But that would be selling Gravity Bone completely short. Yes, Gravity Bone on the surface matches well with these other games and other comedic games before it. But in its short two levels, Gravity Bone jams in not only a ton of humor, more than a few memorable game moments, and a semi-cohesive story, but it also creates a comedy that’s inherently ludic in nature. Gravity Bone is humor that only works because it’s a game.

Let’s review. In Gravity Bone, you play some sort of secret spy (maybe a galactic secret spy) who is sent out on two different missions. The first mission goes easy enough, it’s a short tutorial level that teaches you the basics of movement and navigation for the game. The second level seems to continue the tutorial trend. You learn new skills like using items, you have another relatively simple objective (outside the one misstep in the game, the pole-to-pole jumping puzzle) that seems routine enough to complete. It’s the sort of beginning any gamer with a modicum of experience knows by heart now. Games must begin with a slow learning curve, a series of simple levels that teach the basics for any player who may have chosen this as their first major game experience. Gravity Bone is no exception on initial glance, the game even hammers FPS basics such as using the spacebar to jump luring us into a false sense of security.

It’s one of the tropes of games that all of us have resigned ourselves too. So we work our way through the 2nd level of Gravity Bone with nary an incident. As we approach the exit button for the second time in the game, our Pavlovian conditioning has already set in. We ignore the lady smoking a cigarette across the hall, after all the first level in the game has taught us that NPCs don’t interact with the player. We’ve completed the mission objective, do our spy thing, and await another humorous mission debriefing.

And the first fateful gun shot rings out.

There are many forms of humor and perhaps the most classic of these is your standard setup and punchline joke. Gravity Bone is about setup. The little details in the introductory moments of the game are all put in place to set us up, to teach us certain “truths” about the game world that are reversed in those final moments of the game. The punchline is everything after that first gun shot: the shock as lie motionless on the floor, the chase sequence that climaxes as you run across the banquet table shattering the glasses, and of course the ending. As you slowly fall to your death and moments of your heretofore unexplained life flash before your spy’s eyes the game delivers the punchline. The end.

Not to be forgotten is how much love and style has been put into Gravity Bone. The big band music that perfectly fits every scenario, the boxy-papercraft art design that sells the retro spy theme, the humorous little pieces of writing that make up the “tutorial” for the game are all factors in making Gravity Bone a comedic masterpiece in games. But in the end this isn’t Portal where the dialogue of GLaDOS drive our laughs. This isn’t You Have To Burn The Rope where the pitch-perfect credits song is the joke. This isn’t even World of Goo where we laugh at the crazy misshapen creatures and people that populate the world. This isn’t even a game like the Lucasarts SCUMM adventures where the writings of the characters are responsible for the humor. Gravity Bone is hilarious because as a game it lays a trap of expectations on how games are played and pulls the carpet out from under our feet. It uses our collective knowledge of games against us with comedic consequences. You laugh at Gravity Bone while you play it, but I daresay you wouldn’t be laughing nearly as much if you were watching.

To end, I say to all those clamoring for more Gravity Bone to not ruin a very good thing. Gravity Bone is a full and complete game. A full, complete, and short game. But it’s short with a purpose and it only leaves you wanting more because it ends on such a high note. It’s just long enough to tell the joke, whacks us with the punchline, and leaves us. A longer Gravity Bone or a return to it would be incapable of matching the same highs simply because we are now in on the joke. And a joke is never as funny the second time around.