The joy of sandbox
Grow Home is ostensibly a game about growing a plant in order to get home. And also collecting things. None of that is why you keep playing though, that’s not what it’s really about.
More than anything, Grow Home reminds me of Just Cause 2.
Just Cause 2 had explosions and guns and vehicles and crashes and terrorism, but none of that, despite what the devs evidently think, is why I played it for hundreds of hours. What Just Cause 2 and Grow Home share is a sense of the joy of motion. Just moving around in the world is blissfully satisfying. It’s about combining the tools you have to move fluidly through a landscape, first becoming proficient and, later, expert. It’s like learning to walk. And then to run. And then to ride a bike. And then to ride a bike fast and do wheelies and jump over stuff. The freedom of deft motion combined with the joy of dancing like no one’s watching. And we can repeat that learning experience and relive the joy of newfound mobility again and again in games like this.
A game about playing
Bud, the character you play in Grow Home, does move like a child. An over-excited, exuberant, carefree, clumsy child. Animations are procedural and use inverse kinematics, meaning that Bud is always on the verge of falling over in his excitement to change direction and be distracted by something else. It’s almost unbearably adorable and, at first, difficult to control — you’ll do a lot of falling off things early on. Later, you’ll find yourself using Bud’s clumsiness to your advantage, carrying momentum forward into leaps, bounces, rocket-jumps and flights.
Grow Home could easily be the Rugrats-style fantasy of a child playing in the back yard, having incredible adventures imaginatively fueled by their immediate surroundings — a mound becomes a mountain, a puddle is a lake and next-door’s cat is an angry bull — facing dangers and overcoming adversity. But knowing, really, that they’re perfectly safe — a parent is just inside the house, watching with a smile, suggesting courses of action and probably making sandwiches ready for when the hero of the story realises they’re hungry.
Bud is tasked by MOM — an ever-present AI who is a sort of reverse-GLaDOS; witty, but unerringly supportive rather than vindictive — to grow the star Plant upwards. You’re also asked to scan local flora and fauna, if you want to. I spent a good hour trying to get a sheep to a scanner, grabbing it and skydiving down to a lower island, trying to match my speed with that of the falling sheep to prevent it slipping from my grasp. And it was fun because it felt so physical. This is gaming at its least abstract, a simplified, fantastical version of our own world, and our role as the player is to learn how to interact with stuff physically.
The scanners also serve as teleport and respawn locations, allowing you to travel freely between any that you’ve discovered and activated. This makes falling off things less punishing, which is good since you will fall off things. A lot.
It’s really a game about exploration. You begin the game with the ability to climb using left and right triggers (or keys, if you are that way inclined) to grab with Bud’s left and right hands, allowing you to traverse any surface. You’ll start off clumsily but soon become adept. Later you’ll gain access to daisy parachutes, leaf hang-gliders, jet-pack jumps and, if you are very persistent, unrestricted jet-pack flight. Everything about the game is gleeful; from Bud’s clumsy exuberance in motion, which would be frustrating had the devs not made the controls so perfectly exact, to the beautiful low-poly art style, the gently euphoric music and the writing, which never veers into lazy sarcasm but stays warmly witty throughout.
It’s a thoroughly lovely game. And it’s strange that such a game was made by Ubisoft. It feels like an indie game with its simple but artfully executed aesthetic and its efficient expression of a small idea. I think we have to accept that ‘indie’ has an alternate definition relating to a series of design choices alongside being a description of a studio’s economic situation. This is an indie game, despite being made by Ubisoft. And that’s weird. But also cool; if AAA studios learn from indie games then so much the better for us.
I have nothing bad to say about this game, it is completely adorable. It is a short game, usually said to be about 5 hours long. I’ve got 19 hours in it in one playthrough and I’m going to dip back into it now and then when I just want to fly and run and jump for the joy of it. If you play Grow Home, I’d urge you to take your time — relax and enjoy it, don’t rush to complete the tasks — just go look at stuff.
Grow Home is available for Linux on Steam.