The creators of GNOG are aware there’s something weird about it. It is a game about heads, and opening heads and going inside of heads, and then more heads, while wearing a headset. So, your head is going inside of heads, until your head is inside a head inside a head inside your head.
“I think it’s got this perfect symmetry, this irony to it,” said Saleem Dabbous of developer KO_OP. He told me they hope to fiddle with the elusive concept for their launch trailer.
Dabbous said the VR version—GNOG will be available for the PlayStation Morpheus—is the ideal way to play. Smooshing your face right into the void in which the game is set makes the presentation feel all the more like getting lost in a set of dollhouses, inching the game closer to the adventure mountain playthings that inspired the creators.
“VR reinvigorates the sense of childlike wonder and play”
When the VR route became an option, the KO_OP crew sat down to discuss how they’d transform their game, yet again, so it didn’t merely seem like a port. They were lucky, said Dabbous, as the modifications mostly revolved around scale and perspective, but the payoff was far greater than they anticipated.
“The moment we actually tried the game with the headset, with the scale adjusted, it was like, ‘Oh shit!’” said Dabbous. “You can lose perspective on a project after a while. After we put it in VR, it always feels fresh and new to me. It reinvigorates the excitement about the art direction, the sense of childlike wonder and play it evokes.”
The name GNOG is short for noggin, which I somehow never clued into before, and shouted in all-caps like one of Marvel’s early monsters, like GOOM and ZZZAX. They are puzzles within and without, tinkering and toying is required to navigate them. You are like a puzzle-solving dentist deducing how to get your mad monster party of patients to say “AHH.”
Some open like clamshells and others winch from a crank like a jack in the box. Often there are latches and doodads and gizmos that require a novel sense of deduction. The GNOGs are like a cross between Hohokum, the playground-minded adventure from Honeyslug, and a ‘90s Mighty Max toy, where plastic slimy skulls opened into deathtrap dungeon dioramas. I owned one shaped like a shark, beaten up, scarred and harpooned, that unfurled into a tiny pirate ship playset.
“We try to imagine ourselves as kids and how we’d approach a toy like that,” said Dabbous on the matter of Mighty Max and Polly Pocket. “All these possibilities inside of them, and you open them up and you’re greeted with a certain set of environments. It gives you just enough that you start to project on to it a whole world, start to make up a narrative about how you play with this toy, how you imbue it with life.”
Dabbous didn’t have too many toys growing up, outside of the ones his uncle brought on visits. Samuel Boucher, who Dabbous said is sort of the visionary on GNOG, has an affinity for woodwork designer toys, even if he may lack the monetary funds for owning them all. GNOG came to be out of that desire for magical toys, when the team decided to just make their own in virtual reality.
In its first incarnation, GNOG was a 2D platformer set in the woods, and the player would encounter each GNOG one by one among the trees. The team found themselves far more attracted to the giant mugs than wandering the forest, and so the whole project was recast around them, big goofy skulls floating in the wonderful void.
Making everything smaller and squishing your face right up against the weird space turns the GNOGs into the very toys they were inspired by. A more satisfying feeling of thumbing about the weird beast faces, searching for hidden switches and visual puzzles. “You have a much more godlike view of them,” said Dabbous, “and they feel more like toys, dioramas or dollhouses. The inspiration for us has always been toys, and they feel the most like toys in VR.”