Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth hypothesized that some children use loved ones—usually parents—as secure bases for exploration. They move out from the caregiver’s orbit to explore and approach new challenges, and they return to be assured of their safety. Ivy Games’ Gravity Ghost works as an astronomical interpretation of Ainsworth’s analysis. The planets and other heavenly bodies of Ghost’s cosmos stand in for the safety its main character’s home life lacks, and their literal gravity affords her the security needed to play and search, knowing that whatever happens, she’ll always orbit back around.
Gravity Ghost stars Iona, a young girl from a family of lighthouse keepers who is on a cosmic journey to find her missing friend, a fox named Voy. She navigates a combination of the afterlife and the cosmos, rife with astronomical symbolism and Día De Los Muertos mysticism. It’s an enchanting and strange vision of the afterlife, illustrated with a painterly style that emphasizes bright colors and expressive beauty. This is a vision of the universe as a majestic mobile, a feeling bolstered by the wistful, often triumphant soundtrack provided by Ben Prunty (FTL: Faster Than Light). It feels good to just linger here.
Iona’s home life, as revealed in cut-scenes over the course of the game, is a different beast entirely. Her family is fractured and wracked by a number of tragedies, including the death of her parents. Iona’s older sister is left taking care of the family, a fact Iona seems to resent. Her sister isn’t the parent Iona wants or thinks she needs, and she can’t reconcile her image of her sister with this reality. Her home has become an unstable and insecure place where she can’t comfortably be herself or trust the person taking care of her, so she drifts further and further away from those who love her.
Her search for the missing fox is spread across a series of puzzles where Iona uses the power of gravity to jump and drift around the astral bodies acting as her anchors. Each stage has a star to collect, along with other goals placed around one or many (usually many) planets and assorted space bits, like animal spirits that need to be guided back to their bodies. The level of control you can exert over Iona once she’s been launched can feel limited. It’s an inexact process, but working to master it and figure out how to send her where she needs to go is a captivating pursuit. Done right, you can make like Bruce Willis in Armageddon and slingshot around the orbit of a central planet. A successful jump is like taking part in a joyous dance as you speed around in harmony with your planetary partners.
That joy permeates the game’s warm and funny writing as well. Iona’s conversations with the animal avatars of constellations are a treat, such as a scene where Iona tries to get an irate Owl Guardian to talk in hoots. “The Owl Guardian does not appreciate your sass,” it responds. I, however, appreciated that levity, as the game dives into dark thematic territory with a story that could have easily become maudlin. The humor keeps Gravity Ghost from taking itself too seriously, making the sadness a bit easier to swallow and ensuring the warmer moments don’t come off too treacly.
There are some aspects that don’t fit in as well, though. Iona gains the ability to terraform planets using elemental powers in her flowing hair. It’s empowering and beautifully rendered, but it doesn’t get much use as an actual solution to the puzzles. And there are some stages that deviate from the gravity-based challenges and suffer from the lack of precision inherent in the controls. The looseness works when you’re careening through the vastness of space and the puzzles are designed to compensate for your missing control, but it becomes frustrating when you’re trying to manipulate the gears of a floating space clock.
Gravity Ghost begins with a quote by Charles Simic: “Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all others were making ships.” Lighthouses, ships, planets, family—they’re all safe places in hostile surroundings. Iona herself becomes a haven for the lost animals she finds, guiding them through the afterlife and giving them a moment of security as she seeks her own. She has lost her safe haven—along with her fox—and Gravity Ghost is her search, an attempt to find a way back to the lighthouse. Like Mary Ainsworth, Gravity Ghost understands the necessity of that goal: It’s the lighthouse’s promise of eventual safety that lets you engage with all the wonder and joy you find on the way.
Developer: Ivy Games
Publisher: Ivy Games
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC