Game-related ramblings.

Keeping Score: Gonner

This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I think I got Gonner in a bundle at some point, since it came with its digital soundtrack. I’d read good things about it as a sort of quick-play action game, so I was happy to nab it along with some other games. More recently, Gonner appeared in the Humble Fight for Racial Justice Bundle, so if you picked that up you may find you have a copy yourself. Developers Art in Heart announced a sequel a few months ago, predictably titled Gonner 2, so there’s more visually striking action platforming coming soon. A good time, then, to give the original a spin.

Gonner is billed as a “tough as hell procedurally-generated 2D platformer with roguelike elements”, but it doesn’t feel particularly roguelike-ish to me. I know that these days, “roguelike” no longer means something very specific, and instead applies to anything with any form of procedural generation or permadeath, but I still think it’s best used for games that capture the spirit of the original roguelike genre. Games like Spelunky or Red Rogue merge platforming with classic roguelikes in a more holistic way, letting players experiment with different systems which can intertwine in unexpected ways, making amusing chain reactions of cause and effect possible, and enabling unusual strategies.

Gonner doesn’t do that. It has procedurally generated levels, but the layouts don’t change enough to make a big difference when playing. What Gonner reminds me of instead is an arcade game. You know, the kind of game that was very difficult and forced you to start over at the beginning if you ran out of lives, unless you had enough quarters to keep feeding the machine. Gonner is hard, and most players will not get very far until they’ve played a few times and started to learn the ropes. Even so, reaching the end is a stiff challenge, although it’s possible to earn a few chances to continue after dying, before being sent all the way back to the beginning. That’s done by blasting a lot of enemies in quick succession, to build up a combo. Every fifth enemy killed without losing the combo will drop a glyph, Gonner’s form of currency. These can be used to buy new items in the shops that appear between levels, or spent to get another try after dying, without resetting everything.

The combo is also used to chase high scores, again reminiscent of the arcade games of yore. It’s not something I was particularly bothered about, preferring to create more modest combos just to accrue glyphs. In fact, I felt that excessive combo-chasing seemed at odds with the harsh nature of the game. Aggressive play suited to building up big combos would just get me killed. I was trying to get to the end of the game, which often meant picking my fights, rather than trying to shoot everything in a blaze of glory. So it wasn’t until after I’d finally reached the end, triumphant, and I dipped into the daily challenge mode, that I discovered what happens with a maxed out combo: the simple color scheme is replaced with a rainbow explosion of psychedelia as one’s score rockets up. I think there are new, extra tough enemies that appear only when one has achieved a maxed out combo like this too.

That’s not the only thing I learned only after finishing the game, either. Gonner isn’t really concerned with explaining itself, leaving players to discover things on their own. Players take control of Ikk, who appears to be a sentient water drop that can take humanoid form, but I only know its name from the developers’ description of the game on digital storefronts. Ikk isn’t named anywhere in the game. Neither is Ikk’s friend, Sally the space whale. The playable tutorial shows Ikk gallivanting around with Sally and learning the controls, but when the tutorial was over, I suddenly found Ikk alone. There was nothing to do except grab a gun as I headed right, and in short order Ikk was in a cave, and there were angry red demons everywhere. I had no idea what was going on, and it seems that’s the way the developers intended it.

It’s not really necessary to understand what’s going on to enjoy Gonner, but a lot of things about the way it works aren’t clear either. Ikk loses its head and its weapon if hit by an enemy, reverting to an invulnerable droplet form for a short time. Ikk’s health is tied to its head, so if Ikk takes another hit before recovering the missing head, it’s game over (unless Ikk has collected enough glyphs for a respawn). Ikk will need to grab the missing gun too, although it’s possible to jump on enemies heads to damage them in a pinch. This much is easy enough to learn. New weapons are pretty easy to figure out too. But when Ikk starts finding new heads with different abilities, their properties aren’t always clear.

Early on, I picked up a few new weapons and some new heads, but wasn’t really sure what I was doing and had a hard time getting anywhere. Controlling Ikk felt weird too, with jumps not going as high as I expected, and the double-jump (which graphically spawns a platform for Ikk to jump off of for a moment) seemed a little sluggish. Only after I’d finished the game did I learn that players can hold up while jumping to jump higher. In my ignorant state, I was honestly a little disappointed with the game at this point, but I decided to go through the tutorial again as a refresher, which had the unforeseen effect of sticking me with the original, basic head and standard rifle once the game proper started. And, suddenly, I was doing much better.

The rifle has good range, accuracy, and rate of fire, and a pretty big clip too, making it a very effective weapon. Coupled with the high health of Ikk’s default head, I found it much easier to get through the early areas, and was soon exploring later stages for the first time. This reignited my interest, and I started spending more time on runs in Gonner. Later, I realized that part of my initial frustration may be due to the additions in the newer “Blueberry Edition” of the game. This was an update that came after Gonner’s original release, adding a bunch of stuff including a whole new world (the game is spread over a few distinct “worlds” with several levels each). The problem is that I really don’t like this new world, which is now the second world in the game. Its underwater theme, full of floating fish and blueberry “bubbles” to bounce off of, is actually pretty cool, but the level designs are frustrating. They all feature a high path full of enemies and disappearing platforms, floating above the lower path which is a featureless well, devoid of enemies or anything else of interest.

I never felt any impetus to take the high path. Those striving for high scores will be forced to do so, if only to keep their combo going, but it’s dangerous and precarious, with Ikk liable to drop his head and weapon into the depths below upon taking a hit. Why bother? There’s no risk at all on the lower path. It’s clearly the smart route to take if one is trying to get to the end of Gonner, but it’s boring to just walk through several levels in a row without anything happening. Fortunatley, the worlds that follow are far more interesting, and once I’d seen them I didn’t mind the dull trek through the underwater world so much.

I also started to find more weapons, heads, and special items to experiment with. Once players find these, they can be selected at the start of new runs, and they can make a big difference in how a run plays. One head grants a triple jump and lets Ikk rotate in midair to aim at enemies above or below, but I found this difficult to control. Others grant different special abilities. I eventually settled on the Fire Head, which makes Ikk immune to explosions, removing any risk of accidentally blasting myself with the rocket launcher. The Flame Head also makes enemies explode when killed, which can lead to some crazy chain reactions when packs of enemies are present. I should have realized that the Flame Head would also make the special item that sets off a ring of explosions around Ikk more useful, but I gravitated towards the so-called “God Box” instead, which grants temporary invincibility. It’s a great panic button for situations where Ikk is about to get hit.

Soon I was reaching the final world, but struggling to get to the very end. Turning to the internet for advice, I learned a secret which I never would have worked out on my own: there’s a way to increase the maximum health provided by Ikk’s head during a run. I don’t like designs that include secret tricks like this. They remind me of the most annoying classic roguelikes — NetHack comes to mind, and IVAN also qualifies — in which success comes more from gaming the system through weird and hard to discover behaviors, rather than employing a logical strategy. There are other examples of this in Gonner too, including some really strange methods for finding certain items and weapons which would be virtually impossible for most players to discover on their own. I don’t like being forced to consult user-made guides in order to learn how to proceed. Given how much of a difference the extra maximum health makes, though, that I’d recommend players do a little googling to learn how to do it. Armed with a little more health, I was able to take my explosives expert Ikk through to the end of the game.

Interestingly, my rocket-toting, maximum explosion Ikk doesn’t seem to be a popular loadout. Most recommendations I saw online were for the laser rifle, which can be very effective due to its long range and penetrating power, or the lightning gun, which has shorter range but can chew through enemies quickly, even if they’re above or below Ikk. This just goes to show that the variety of items in Gonner allows for many different effective strategies. Players can find their own preferred ways to play.

After finishing the main game, I dipped into the daily challenge mode, and was surprised to find that it’s completely different to the main game. I was expecting to play through the main game with a specific world seed and item set, but instead I found myself in a completely different looking cave. The item loadout and seed are indeed shared for all players that day, but none of the main game’s worlds feature. Instead, players trek through a new type of cavern that includes enemies from all areas of the game. As I mentioned above, it was here that I was finally able to max out my combo for the first time, since the level design emphasizes combat over exploration. These runs are fun, and I stuck with them for a while before getting fully distracted by other games. I recommend checking them out, but only after playing the main game a bit to learn how the weapons and items behave.

Overall I liked Gonner. It took some time to get used to it, and I wish I could just skip over that second world that was added in the Blueberry Edition. But the later worlds are compelling, and it offers a nicely tuned challenge. I also love how weird it is. Ikk jumps into the waiting maws of worms at the end of levels, finding himself swallowed and secreted into the next level. Wall and floors seem to curl into view as Ikk approaches. The simple color scheme may not seem exciting compared to the psychedelic explosion upon maxing out a combo, but the monochrome red-pink enemies are nicely animated, and there’s great visual and audio feedback when blasting through a pack of them. Couple that with the excellent music (see below), and Gonner is a very slick game. It ended up being a little more involved than a simple “quick play” game, at least if I was trying to reach the end, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. If you nabbed it as part of the Humble Fight for Racial Justice Bundle, or if you just want to try it out before the sequel arrives, I recommend giving it a go. Gonner is available for PC, Mac and Linux from a variety of storefronts including GOG, Steam, and the Epic Store, as well as for Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

The Score:

Gonner’s score, by Joar “Regular Graphics” Renolen (also known as Foreground Set), is excellent. Subtitled “Press jump to die”, it features 16 tracks spanning nearly 40 minutes. It was released before the Blueberry Edition of Gonner and therefore does not include the music from the new underwater world, but it is nonetheless a generous selection of music that works surprisingly well on its own.

The music is electronic, with programmed beats and synthesized sounds, but it doesn’t adhere to common electronic styles. Piled on top of the steady rhythms that anchor each track are stranger syncopations and melodic flourishes that lend a burbling, organic quality to the sound. As I listen I’m left with the impression of life spreading chaotically across a landscape. At times, the synthesizers imitate the chirps and hoots of birds, or the cries of terrestrial creatures, but the music never reaches a cacophony. Overarching melodies and harmonies are maintained throughout, corralling the sound into something coherent, and the synthesizer riffs that fade in and out above it all remind the listener that this is music and not merely sound. It’s a perfect accompaniment to Gonner’s weird worlds.

And while my description above applies across the whole score, Renolen manages impressive variety across different tracks. The music that accompanies the title screen layers synthesizer drones over a driving beat, setting the mood wonderfully. The music for each world is more relaxed, appropriate for exploring these different environments. The bloops and squelches that patter over the steady bassline in the caves reverberate across the silences in between, evoking vast and threatening caverns, yet the danger fades into the background when the jaunty synth melodies kick in. In the track titled “Descent”, synth patterns with sweeping filters glide over everything, while bubbling percussion represents the packs of blueberry “bubbles” that constantly interfere with Ikk’s descent through that world. In later worlds, the music morphs into an ominous and creepy ambient soundscape, but it retains just enough structure to work as an independent piece of music. Amidst all of this, the music that plays in the swampy world is surprisingly familiar, a relaxed slice of dub that somehow still fits perfectly with the rest of the score due to its flute-like, whimsical melody.

Some personal highlights are the spacious and floaty tracks that play between worlds, when Ikk has a chance to visit Sally. These provide ample space for the gentle synth pulses to echo across the landscape, giving these segments of the game a serene and otherworldly feel. They are, fittingly, breaks from the style heard elsewhere, as Ikk has a chance to relax and spend some time with its friend before jumping back into the fray. Outside of the game, they work quite well on my slowly growing playlist of “space music”.

In short, I highly recommend the soundtrack. If it’s not included with your copy of Gonner, it can be purchased separately for a minimum price of $3.99.

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5 Comments

  1. Gregg B

    I struggled with GoNNER when I played it closer to release! Found it incredibly difficult. I wonder if I was missing a trick? I don’t recall the 5x combo giving me glyphs (perhaps I just never scored that high or I’m being forgetful), but I do recall certain head/weapon combos being death sentences! I did enjoy my limited time with it though, and I agree that it feels more like an arcade game than a roguelite. I found this interesting:

    “I don’t like designs that include secret tricks like this. They remind me of the most annoying classic roguelikes β€” NetHack comes to mind, and IVAN also qualifies β€” in which success comes more from gaming the system through weird and hard to discover behaviors, rather than employing a logical strategy.”

    I too am not a fan of this approach and wondered what real roguelikes would you say avoid this?

    • So with the combo system, every fifth kill drops a glyph, as long as you don’t wait too long between kills and let the combo expire. Glyphs are then used to buy things in shops, or buy a continue upon death. I doubt you were missing a trick though. Gonner is pretty hard! I spent a lot of time early with the shotgun, but when running the tutorial again gave me the rifle, I found I did much better with that. The high health of the default head helped too. Later I got better at using special items other than the ammo bag too, since enemies drop ammo regularly. You need to find them first, usually by buying them in shops.

      As for roguelikes that don’t rely on gaming the system with weird tricks, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is a great example of a very fair roguelike. The design team work to eliminate anything that creates unnecessary busywork for players, and try to focus on just the interesting strategy and tactics. Brogue is another good example, it’s more stripped down but it makes every decision matter and make sense. And while there are some overpowered strategies in Caves of Qud — like psychically dominating shopkeepers to get all their wares for free — such tactics are hardly necessary and it’s still great fun to play in a straightforward way. I’ve written about all of those on this blog, but there are plenty of other roguelikes I haven’t spent much time with, or even played at all, so I’m sure there are other great examples out there too! I’ve heard good things about Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, if a freeform zombie apocalypse sounds interesting to you. I’m also interested to check out Cogmind, which looks a lot like a roguelike concept I dreamt up once; I’m glad something like it was actually made instead of staying in my head.

      • Gregg B

        Ah, that’s perfect, thanks! I’ve not got stuck into many roguelikes but the big ones on my ‘To Play’ list are DCSS, Brogue, Caves of Qud and indeed Cogmind. I bought Caves of Qud a while back in fact.

        Currently I’ve got Haque (itch bundle) installed which I intend to crack open at some point soon. I’ve played a fair bit of Wazhack over the years (which is based on Nethack), a teeny bit of POWDER on DS, a bit of Dungeons of Dredmor, some Sproggiwood and… quite a few hours on ‘Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate’ on the Vita. That last one was really promising but then I just got so tired of repeating the initial areas which weren’t that interesting, and I felt like there were A LOT of esoteric quirks to learn, many of which you forget about if you don’t keep playing. At least with something like Wazhack, the fun begins the moment you drop into the dungeon.

        The itch bundle has a few more that I’m quite interested in as well including Roguelight, Plunge, MidBoss and Cinco Paus (I should check out more of smestorp/Brough’s stuff, like 868-Hack and Zaga-33–and Corrypt, which I know you’ve written about in the past.)

        • Sounds like you’ve got a nice set of roguelikes there! I actually haven’t really dug into a proper roguelike in a while, except for Caves of Qud. I played POWDER many years ago (and wrote about it), and enjoyed Dredmor for a while, until I got frustrated with its slow pacing and the fact that my build worked fine for everything except the final boss who killed me instantly. I also wrote about Dredmor in the early days of the blog. I’ve also been meaning to check out Sproggiwood, since it’s by the same developers as Caves of Qud, but sounds like a lighter game that might be better suited for short sessions. And I’m in the same boat with Brandon Brough’s games. I’ve still only played Corrypt (which I did indeed write about here) and have been meaning to get to the others, particularly 868-Hack.

          Glad to hear there are some interesting roguelikes in the Itch bundle. I’m still picking things out of the bundle randomly for the Scratching That Itch series, but I’m also actually choosing games to play in parallel (like Gonner), so I have to decide at what point I’ll pull something from the bundle on purpose to play it.

          • Gregg B

            I forgot to respond, but all I wanted to add was you’re my go-to guy for roguelikes, Walter, so I’ll be checking out your articles! πŸ™‚

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