I’ve only ever hit someone once in my life.
When I was eleven, I spent a summer hanging out with a group of my sister’s friends. I’d wake up most days and wait for her to get a phone call, then tag along to the town centre, where we’d mooch from shop to shop and look longingly at all the cool shit we weren’t old enough to buy. After a few weeks, I begun to spend some time alone with one of them, who wasn’t, but may as well have been called Andy. Andy was a little older than the rest of us, a little colder, but we gravitated to each other due to our equal status as intruders. I was someone’s brother, and he was someone’s boyfriend, in the way you can only be when you’re eleven and twelve.
One day Andy and I went on a trip to London. Andy’s dad was rich, so he took us both up to the Science Museum as a treat. I had a great time, but as the day went on, Andy slipped into his habit of pushing people’s buttons for a quick laugh. Andy was the same as all the people who’d bullied me out of my first school, except he did it from the position of a friend. Started elbowing me just a little too hard, talking about what a loner I was, how I didn’t have any friends and never would, but hell, he still liked me!
I can’t remember what he said that took it too far. I’ve never forgotten the silence on the ride home.
“It’s my fault that you died,” Iona says. “It’s my fault that I died.”
If Gravity Ghost is a tale of anything, it is a tale of guilt. With every animal she shepherds into the afterlife, Iona puts back together the pieces of her life. In isolation, the majority of the scenes are funny and sweet, a portrait of family life, filled with a warmth that overshadows the petty tension that seems so important in the moment. But here they are imbued with an undercurrent of melancholy, building their way up to the final reveal of how Iona, and her fox friend Voy, ended up as cosmic spirits. It was always going to be a tragedy.
Yet the afterlife is not an unpleasant place. Gravity Ghost lets you float across the stars, your hair trailing behind you as you swing around planets and launch yourself forward with the momentum. There are no fatal hazards, no jumping puzzles that can be failed, no platforming that requires twitch precision. The game captures a pure sense of serenity; when you catch yourself in gravity’s tide, letting yourself float for a while, there is nothing more freeing. But only if you let go.
Frustration arises if you fight against that tide. Iona is one little girl caught in a large universe, she can achieve beautiful things, but her ghostly powers are not absolute. Gravity is a powerful force, to be harnessed, to be worked with. Not to be overcome. Gravity Ghost wants you to see the world as it is, with all of its limits and flaws, and be okay with finding your place within it.
And with every task completed, Iona unlocks a little more of her past, and takes another step towards confronting her guilt. Because more than anything, that’s what Gravity Ghost is, a safe space to look inwards and work through your pain, and come out the other side intact. It presents a world that can be so calming, and asks you to let it in. What’s done is done, the world that exists is the only one you’ve got, and the past can no longer hurt you. Through its play, the game makes its message clear: if you can forgive the world, then you can forgive yourself.
By the time Iona enters the black hole, she is far stronger than she was when she started. The powers gained on her journey are all ones of greater freedom, turning Gravity Ghost‘s movement into a tool of self expression, rather than one of increasingly complex puzzle challenges. Each jump is its own little catharsis, Iona’s growing strength not used as an empty progression of power for the game’s level sequence, but as metaphor as she approaches the truth of her own past. Gravity Ghost is the story of a child scared, broken and looking for a friend, maturing into someone with understanding and self acceptance. It is only when she reaches that point internally that she can be reunited with Voy.
Iona runs away from her sister Hickory’s wedding, her grief and anger at her parents’ deaths projected onto Hickory and her new Husband. She takes Voy and rows out to her stash of food, ready to leave for the mainland, but even Voy deserts her. Iona dies alone and desperate, taken unaware by the presence of a female fox. Voy reaches Iona’s family, trying to help, but it is already too late. Grief stricken, Hickory picks up a rifle, and executes him. Voy’s family kill Iona, and Iona’s family kill Voy. A tragedy of misunderstandings and coincidence, all sparked by Iona’s refusal to confront her emotions, and run away.
With her final act, Iona links hands with Voy and all those left behind, leading them out of the dark. Her guilt resolved, Iona moves forward and carries on, healing those wounds as best she can. By confronting the pain she caused, she is able to act from a place of empathy for others. Her maturity comes not from her kindness, but an acceptance of her selfishness as a part of her humanity.
And by seeing it as a part, it no longer has to overwhelm the whole.
Guilt is the most selfish of all emotions. It’s the only one that can’t somehow be harnessed into being part of the solution. I can work with hate, I can work with anger, I can even work with shame. But guilt is a poison that runs cold through the veins, patiently festering until without even realising it, it has left me frozen. I am nothing if not guilty.
Gravity Ghost is a simple fable, a children’s story that deals in circumstance of whimsy, but talks in terms of trauma that is real. I’ve always struggled with guilt, both real and imagined, both big and small. I still haven’t forgiven myself for the one time in my life I hit a bully in retaliation, or the one time I accidentally insulted the lady behind the KFC counter in 2009. I collect a list of marks against myself, searching for reasons I deserve to feel as unhappy as I do. I lean on guilt as a way to rationalise my depression, rather than looking for ways to fight it.
Iona’s story is one of coming of age, but that scared child never goes away. Working through pain is an ongoing process, not a one time deal. Games like Gravity Ghost are important in how they speak without condescension, speaking honestly to adult and child alike, letting you know that no matter how hard it is, it’s okay to forgive yourself.
Because the truth is, we all need fables sometimes.