Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

GNOG is the kind of marvel PSVR was built for

An hour's tinkering reveals a mad box of delights.

I spent twenty minutes this morning trying to get PSVR set up in the office. It's not complicated, and in truth I have done it successfully several times before. This morning, though, it seemed complicated: a bag of snarled wires and plugs and funny little junction boxes. Some things fit, but some other things sort of fit. Just enough to leave you with a lingering doubt. For a quarter of an hour I was increasingly defeated by circumstance, jiggling wires in their mounts, checking underneath things for on/off switches I had forgotten. The solution, and this is almost always the case, came with a wire I had discarded as being useless fairly early on. It went into a slot I hadn't noticed and connected two things that I had not imagined needing connecting. Tinkering with stuff can be a real pain.

And then I loaded up GNOG and put on the headset. For the next few hours I opened boxes, messed around with dials, clicked on buttons and toggled toggles. You know the bit at the very beginning of Back to the Future, where Marty's turning up all the doohickeys on the massive amp in the doc's office, all the while that audio hum grows and grows in power, in potency? That was me playing GNOG. It's a game of dials and switches, a game made for words like toggle and doohickey. Tinkering with stuff can be such a delight. Who knew?

We all knew, I imagine. There is a special place in the world for words that go from G to N somewhere along the line. Who doesn't feel a nagging affection for gnus? Who can avoid a slight smirk at the collision that occurs early on in ignorant, in ignore. GNOG whacks it all in capitals, of course, and so the pleasure of that meeting of letters is only heightened. And then you play the thing, and - cor. What a way to spend a morning.

Cover image for YouTube videoGNOG Trailer | PS4

There are a gnrowing gnumber of gnames like this. (I will stop now.) A growing number of games where you prod at strange, chunky pieces of tech, and find out which candy-coloured wire goes in which candy-coloured port. GNOG belongs to the lineage of things like Hohokum, I think: the words for the things that you are realising you are meant to do are always just out of range. There is a logic here, but it does not need language. What it needs is for you to reach out and grasp things and manipulate them until they are just so. And then you sit back and enjoy your reward: something opens, something else starts to spin. The music shuffles itself into a rhythm, into a melody. There is a general sense of emergent celebration.

Each level in GNOG, although even the word level will not do, is a sort of face assembled from chunky shapes and bright objects. These faces often have a theme: night-time, music, eating things. They often have a hollow compartment somewhere too, where there are things that can be coaxed to life.

So it's a puzzle game? Sorry, those words will still not do, although they get close to the heart of it. Take the music face, for example. It looks like a portable stereo: are those eyes or speakers? Is that a mouth or a twitchy graphic equaliser? You prod and spin, you tweak and unplug, until the back of the machine flops open and you see a little guy inside, an artiste trying to put some music together. Prod some more. Tweak some more. Soon there is music playing and lights flashing: the whole thing has been brought alive in just the right way. Could you put into words what you did, what logic lead you through this? You possibly could - but that would be missing the point. Onwards. Onwards to the next head.

It's wonderful stuff, leading you through playful trial and error with little more than the spinning of the thumbsticks, with the triggers, one to rotate objects, another to press them. On the telly, it is bright and appealing. In the private cinema of the PSVR headset it is completely intoxicating, almost overwhelming. GNOG is sort of like those Activity Bears you hang in children's cots. It is like being dropped into the cockpit of an alien spaceship, with all those buttons and switches arrayed around you. In this respect, it reminds me of MirrorMoon EP as well as Hohokum. Let's have more of this? Let's have more games for speculative tinkerers.