Grow Home took me by surprise--not least because it was announced only a few weeks ago. Grow Home, that announcement said, started as an internal experiment, and stars a charming little robot named BUD, who has to wobble and climb his way up a giant beanstalk and across a series of floating islands. With only this scrap of information, I went into Grow Home not knowing what to think. I came out with several distinctly different, hard to synthesize impressions.
To assess Grow Home in a vacuum is to trip over the compliments that spill forth. The game's colorful island, cute creatures, and the planet's ambient sounds are immediately charming. You explore this world as BUD, a robot on a quest to retrieve seeds for a plant that can re-oxygenate his home world. To do this, BUD climbs the giant "Star Plant" stalk, occasionally taking control of its quick-growing branches and driving them head first into the glowing islands in the sky. The Star Plant sucks out the green glow, and then grows a little bigger. It's all very cute (and a little, uh, phallic).
Grow Home is a strikingly beautiful game, especially in motion. Everything hums with bright, colorful life. Through its use of cel-shading, low-polygon models, and subtle environmental animation, Grow Home builds a gorgeous, minimalistic style. And then, as the stalk and its branches sprout up through the sky, Grow Home sets that minimalism against overwhelming scale. Beauty is everywhere: You can let your sight linger on the butterflies, or you can look upwards, to the towering Star Plant reaching into the upper atmosphere.
While the environments shine, BUD is the real star attraction. His bobbing head, wide smile, and eager chirps make him lovable, but it's the way he moves through the world that makes controlling him such a joy. BUD's animation is procedural: instead of having the frames of his movement handcrafted by an animator, the developers programmed a system for BUD's limbs to animate according to the player's input. You direct BUD around the world with the left analog stick, using the left and right triggers to control his hands, which can grip anything they touch.
As you try to deal with the quirks of BUD's unpredictable movement, the result, at first, is a sort of comedic flailing. This was never frustrating for me, but I can see how it might be for others. Maybe you misjudge the amount of momentum BUD will have as he lands on one of the "branches" of the massive stalk, and wind up flinging him thousands of feet down to his demise. Or you might think you've got a firm grip on the cliff face, only to find that you've actually grabbed onto a loose boulder. Whoops. You can supplement your control of BUD with some environmental tools: springy plants give you a way to boost BUD's jumping power, while flowers and leaves work as parachutes and hang gliders. But these often lead to other stumbles. Pro tip: if you crash into anything while floating around with that leaf, you lose hold of it and go into a headfirst dive. Whoops, again.
This is all reminiscent of games like Octodad and Sumotori Dreams, both of which leverage uncontrollable bodies for the sake of humor. But unlike these games, there comes a point in Grow Home where you attain a sense of control that feels both elegant and exuberant. BUD's body never becomes Ezio Auditore's--it always bounces and leans in unpredictable ways. But Grow Home isn't a game about laughing at atypical bodies. Instead, it's a game that lets you become familiar with limbs that don't quite work like your own do, and it teaches you to take joy in using tools to augment your natural abilities.
I invoked the name of Ezio because the second way I experienced Grow Home was in the context of Ubisoft's recent offerings. For Ubisoft, 2014 was a year of too safe (and often too broken) output. Watch Dogs and Assassin's Creed: Unity were technical disappointments, and, worse, failed to mix up the increasingly tired open-world formula common to Ubi's tent-pole releases. The Crew tried to apply that formula to a whole new genre, and in doing so missed a chance to do something really special. And while Far Cry 4 was well received, the common refrain was "It's more Far Cry 3." It's easy to imagine how Grow Home's vision of climbing-and-collecting might fit into the familiar open-world Ubisoft blueprint. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a version of this new climbing model eventually finds its way into an Assassin's Creed sequel. But Grow Home never falls into the design traps that show up in other recent Ubisoft titles. Yes, you do search for collectible crystals, but these aren't carelessly scattered by the hundreds across the environment. They're placed carefully, to encourage exploration and to challenge you to understand how BUD moves. And yes, these crystals unlock new abilities (such as a jetpack!), but these upgrades aren't doled out along a carefully scheduled arc to maximize your attachment to the game.
If you prefer the sensory overload of those aforementioned games, you might find yourself disappointed with Grow Home's lack of density. Sometimes you spend a few minutes plotting a course across the sky to a hovering island in the distance, only to find it empty but for a hidden crystal and a small collection of plants. Grow Home does not provide you a screen filled with side objectives and a constant stream of narrative reinforcement: It is happy to let you take your time, to meander, to move at your own pace for the few hours it takes to finish it. And while you might see its "short" length as a negative, it's Grow Home's brevity that lets it shine.
No game exists in a vacuum, and sometimes it's hard to confront the contexts that color our experiences, especially when they make us second guess ourselves. Is Grow Home a charming game that's worth your time? Yes. Do I believe this because Grow Home contrasts so sharply with Ubisoft's recent output? Also yes. Yet no matter how prone to cynicism you may be, you shouldn’t let this surprising gem go unnoticed.