From the moment we creatures known as humans open our eyes, we’re taking sensory input from the world. Colors and contrasts, auditory prods, and reaching out to touch the world around us becomes our link to learning about everything. These base senses tend to fade over time, with the awe and wonder that is sound, sight, and touch diminishing in favor of a deeper and decidedly less awe inspiring complexity, rather than a sense of simple exploration and wonder. Imagine if you could see a certain color or hear a bird’s song for the first time again. It’s a feeling that content creators have often tried to capture, reopening our minds to the discovery of the world through our senses.
GNOG’s creators set out to do just that. Each stage is a monster head, known as a Gnoggin. Though these are designed at the outset to be a monster head, they fall into a bizarre sort of reverse pareidolia (the word for seeing faces in everyday objects), where sometimes they look more like an object befitting to the theme of the level, whether it be a spaceship, submarine, or stump. All of this is by design, seeming to highlight those moments when a child is looking around the world and discovering that the bizarre collection of shapes and colors in front of them is indeed a face. The amazing modern design gives a sense of depth through simplicity, and I was consistently impressed with the visual prowess GNOG presented.
Flipping the Gnoggin around reveals a door to a small diorama, like the school projects you wish you did instead of the “potato as a battery” with lame tri-fold display that you brought to the science fair four years in a row. Each diorama revolves around a theme, often indicated by the name of the Gnoggin, and they play like a child’s toy full of lights and sounds. Clicking one object may cause something else to move, or it may generate an audible ping. There’s a tactile response to many things that help with that sense of discovery as you move through each diorama, trying to unlock its secrets, and ultimately causing the Gnoggin to sing an odd song and send you on to the next monster head to repeat again.
The odd songs and evolving musical soundscapes of GNOG are fascinating, though I found interaction with pieces of the diorama to have less of a visceral reaction to the soundscape, instead instilling subtle changes. With a more direct approach to the sound design, it may have had the impact of becoming a virtual toy box, calling me back to play around the same way a small child repeatedly bashes the same button again and again on their favorite toy. While the soundtrack did evolve slowly, it consistently felt like a soundtrack to events rather than having a direct cause and effect correlation to what I was actively doing at any time. I would have loved to see GNOG approach more of a rhythm game territory as the player goes through trial and error to solve the Gnoggin.
Speaking of trial and error, that nature of each Gnoggin in GNOG is what elevates them from simple children’s toys with goofy sounds and bright colors, to more of a puzzle box, an enigma to be figured out rather than just to be played with. It again targets the basal instincts that we have from the moment we are born to try to solve things, the same reason that nary a person can walk past a Rubik’s Cube without picking it up and turning it in our hands at least a few times. The combination of the tactile response of the object, the bright colors on the squares, and our desire to disentangle things drives an almost instinctual compulsion that many cannot resist.
Solving the Puzzle Box
Puzzle boxes and similar puzzle toys have been fascinating humans for centuries, and GNOG brings a virtual collection of puzzle boxes for you to solve. PlayStation VR compatibility really plays with the palpable elements of holding a box in front of you and figuring it out, rather than manipulating an object on a 2D screen, and is the preferred way to experience the sights and sounds of GNOG. It heightens the experience in a way that the two dimensional game just can’t match, though there isn’t nearly as much twisting and turning to look at the different sides of the diorama for things to interact with, leaving most of the puzzles decidedly two dimensional despite being able to rotate and twist the Gnoggin.
GNOG’s problem is that it can’t quite decide whether it wants to imitate the childlike wonder of toys or if it wants to give a deep and meaningful enigma for more mature brains to figure out, and in trying to do both, each element doesn’t play to its fullest. There aren’t enough meaningless interactive bits to just be a fun toy to amuse oneself with, while the puzzles aren’t so difficult or beguiling that solving them becomes like the imperative of a Rubik’s Cube. Once I was done, I was content to be done, and have had little desire to go back and do it again. While I liked what I saw and heard while playing for the couple hours that it took to complete, GNOG failed to hook either my guileless innocence or ripened intrigue to draw me back and incentivize continued play past initial completion.
GNOG is a curious beast; an odd monster, or series of monsters rather. It’s a visual and auditory treat, with bright colors and rich soundscapes highlighting a bizarre game that doesn’t seem to really have much direction or purpose. The puzzles are fun to poke, prod, and figure out, particularly in VR where each puzzle diorama head really has a chance to come to life in front of you, but the sense of wonder GNOG tries to invoke fades too quickly, leaving me with the feeling that this is more a sensory artifice than it is a digital Rubik’s Cube.
GNOG review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.