Knowingly or not, media products often reflect the unconscious biases of the societies that spawn them, helping to etch and entrench ideas of cultural identity. Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism explored the ways in which Western cultures have divided the world along lines of otherness, portraying themselves as heroic and rational as a contrast against a mysterious and emotional East. Although healthy debate has raged in the 40 years since that text and art has made immense strides towards a spirit of global unity, some media continues to rely on the shorthand established by the colonialist mindset to convey ideas and atmosphere. Golem, the latest project from Toronto-based developer Longbow Games (known for the Hegemony series of RTS games), is one such product, couching competent puzzles and platforming within the language of difference.
Rather than aiming for verisimilitude, Golem takes place in an imagined setting, seeming to blend Indian and Africa influences into a composite whole. Rejecting the familiarity of Classical edifices, Baroque lines, or Gothic arches, the game wears otherness as a badge of honour, deriving architectural design from naturalism and pre-modern India. Emphasising the age of the world, the inner walls of the tower at the heart of the title are inscribed with simple images to convey unremembered stories, bringing to mind both prehistoric cave paintings and the artworks of Ancient Egypt. The intention appears to be to imbue the playspaces with a sense of historicity—making them feel impossibly old—yet the design also acts as a cue for mystery and the unknowableness of the architects by drawing upon signs and symbols long established as alien to the Western mind. Despite the transparent nature of the visual make-up, the aesthetic achieves its goals. Players are transported to and immersed within Longbow’s world courtesy of cohesiveness, which is aided by the audio.
Silence often reigns in the untrammeled depths and soaring heights of the tower, with the ambience and music accentuating the strangeness of this place. Rarely does the soundtrack swell, but, when it does, the dominant tones are those of ethereal woodwind instruments as opposed to the more familiar strings and keys, again seeking to locate Golem somewhere beyond the realms of the comfortable. Furthermore, the protagonist makes nary a sound throughout her journey. Noises are instead reserved for the groans of long-dormant machinery and the padding footfalls of the eponymous creature. By thus drawing attention away from the player’s avatar, the backdrop takes primacy. The vast scale and entrancing design of the environments make this choice a sensible one, but the decision to carry the world-focused approach into gameplay is less wise.
The evocative worldbuilding rife throughout Golem is performed in service of mechanics that feel more suited to touchscreens than traditional interfaces. Eschewing the direct control of Super Mario Bros., LittleBigPlanet, Black the Fall, and countless other platformers, the title utilises point-and-click gameplay, requiring users to direct the protagonist by interacting with objects and the background. While the system works—particularly in the level of fine control it allows over the golem’s increasing suite of skills—it furthers the distance between player and character. Because the attention is focused on the surroundings, the protagonist fades into obscurity; she becomes less a means of exploring the world than an obstacle to progression, with this feeling amplified in the multi-planed levels.
Although a 2D platformer at its core, Golem includes several stages wherein the player navigates faux-3D space. The illusion is created through the incorporation of gateways and moving platforms that can be used to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. While the method allows the developer to extend its scope in ways rarely seen in platformers, it is imperfectly executed. In more complex levels, the alignment of the planes can be unclear, making navigation a frustrating experience. Consequently, the difficulty of puzzles is artificially heightened as the game descends into ill-defined orientation. These issues aside, the challenges are wonderfully designed to take advantage of both the skills and limitations of each form of the golem. As the game progresses and magical wellsprings are found, the creature evolves from the initial bipedal follower to a semi-autonomous gorilla and beyond, altering the ways it interacts with the world with each new shape. Novel challenges result, ensuring that the experience never becomes stale. However, one small disappointment does stem from the fact that the golem is incapable of reverting to earlier incarnations. Therefore, each level is designed around a core idea and a single solution. These obstacles are diverse enough to maintain interest throughout, as they range from basic navigation challenges to playing with the course of refracted light. While the lack of agency remains discomforting, Longbow’s decision to exclude it in favour of a curated narrative thread is justified.
Golem’s story is told without words, leaving it open to interpretation. A young girl who seeks to gather water instead finds and awakens a mysterious orb, which unlocks a tower that has always dominated the skyline of her village. These early moments of clarity are almost the only ones in the game, as the journey becomes more important than the girl. Nonetheless, the history of ages is carved upon the ancient walls for those individuals with the wherewithal to care. Through the adventures of the girl and her new pet rock, the past unfolds, but the tale remains nebulous. As such, players will only receive as much story as they are willing to read into. While that fact will likely turn away some of those users seeking a thrilling story, the success of Dark Souls and Inside, which similarly obscure meaning, reveals that an audience exists for this kind of environmental storytelling.
That sentiment applies to Golem as a whole. Far from attempting to elicit mass market appeal, the game targets a niche and shows itself to be a project from a developer stretching beyond what it knows best. Longbow Games’s heritage in RTS titles emerges in the point-and-click gameplay, yet, in most other respects, Golem is a departure. While the team’s attempt to create something complex and novel is admirable, its ambition occasionally outstrips its execution. Meanwhile, although the game’s reliance on colonialist tropes is slightly troublesome, it will be overlooked by most players who have much else to occupy their minds across this evocating, engaging, and challenging adventure.