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Gore-Free Indie Game Gives a Child's View into the Afterlife

'Gravity Ghost' is a healing, relaxing indie video game that won't let you die.

If the video games Journey and Super Mario Galaxy had a baby, it might look something like Gravity Ghost. Available on PC and soon on PS4, the video game has players exploring a fractured galaxy and saving any survivors, all while meeting the challenges of seven supernatural stewards. Unlike many other video games, there's no real way to lose, which makes Gravity Ghost that much more appealing to casual players in search of a meditative experience as opposed to a traditionally competitive one.

Gravity Ghost is the brainchild of indie game developer Erin Robinson Swink, who founded Ivy Games in 2010 to supply what she calls "handcrafted video games" in a culture dominated by first-person shooters, neverending missions, and massive amounts of blood and guts. By contrast, the developer's latest physics-based game features hand-painted graphics, and the concept is informed in part by her background in experimental psychology and interest in the intersection between neuroscience and video games. (She used to work as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab.)

"I think my background in psych gives me ideas on how to make a game feel rewarding, outside the usual 'hurt the thing until it dies' sort of game," Robinson Swink says.

Courtesy Ivy Games

In addition to supplying the regular endorphin release a person experiences when he or she successfully completes a task, Gravity Ghost also draws on the innate human ability to create order from non-linear information, without the standard introduction to characters or storylines. It's like a puzzle that naturally falls into place the more a player becomes involved in the game.

It took Robinson Swink three years of full-time work to complete Gravity Ghost, with the help of a lead programmer, a project manager, and a soundtrack by Ben Prunty of FTL: Faster than Light. For inspiration, Robinson Swink says she watched a lot of melancholic sci-fi movies set in space.

"Space exploration, as an aesthetic, is almost perfect for inducing loneliness," she explains. "Even though the setting is often staggeringly beautiful, we can't help but feel the disconnection from our home on Earth."

Courtesy Ivy Games

Likewise, Gravity Ghost explores another, more profound psychological component involving fear of death and tragedy. Despite the colorful universe as a setting, there's often a lingering sense of loneliness tied to the protagonist, a little girl named Iona. "Tragedies aren't a genre that fits well with the traditional 'power fantasy' you find in a video game," Robinson Swink observes.

For a while, the player gets lost in Iona's adventures, which contextualize her within an infinite universe. Iona's loneliness sometimes subsides, but it's always there, and the whole thing was part of the developer’s original goal. She wanted to guide players through an unconventional narrative that ends with the protagonist's truth. The truth isn't a happy one, but it's realistic, and playing the game can be healing.

"There's no way for you to die. There's no killing. All you do is jump and use the gravity. If you miss a jump, you just orbit around and try again. When Iona collects something, it stays on the screen instead of disappearing into a menu. Animal spirits ride in her long hair. Planet fragments follow behind her like little ducklings. She changes color to terraform planets. It's meant to be playful—it's a 12-year-old's view into the afterlife," Robinson Swink says, adding, "Our protagonist herself is unusual—there aren't many games where you play as the ghost of a child."

Learn more on the Gravity Ghost website.

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