The Gunk Is a Puzzle Game with Craft and Heart

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The Gunk Is a Puzzle Game with Craft and Heart

Image and Form Games have built a reputation as rock solid genre swapping devs. Under the Steamworld franchise, they have made card-based RPGs, Metroidvanias, and squad tactics games. All are confident, understanding the power of their genre while streamlining it to their essence. The Gunk is at once new and familiar ground for the studio. It’s a puzzle platformer, with classic step by step design. It’s also the studio’s first venture into 3D, with a budget that shows on screen. Fortunately, The Gunk is simultaneously deft and straightforward. It’s a regular old videogame with craft and heart.

The Gunk has a simple premise, which moves with refined elegance. Poor spacefaring freelancers Rani and Becks track a mysterious energy signal to a seemingly uninhabited alien world. They find pockets of energy… surrounded by a life-choking, shape-shifting goo. Determined to not make this trip a waste of their ever-strained resources, Rani and Becks resolve to solve the mystery of the gunk. Quickly they discover that clearing the gunk uncovers a lush world, dotted with the ancient machinery of a dead civilization.

What follows are the classic verbs of puzzle platformers. Rani will jump across caverns, arrange old machinery to make a path, and fight monsters. Attached to Rani’s missing arm, lost because of the negligence of a foreman in a space mine, is a gigantic vacuum hand. Pumpkin, as Rani calls it, can absorb minerals and plants to craft upgrades, grip onto walls, and suck up the goop. It’s a classic videogame multitool and a perfect accompaniment to Rani’s warm conversation with Becks as she hops across gaps.

All of The Gunk’s puzzles are straightforward. Only one or two stumped me briefly and none of them turned over in my mind like truly great puzzles. However, nearly all of them slot in with the satisfaction of a good jigsaw. The game is always readable. It has the efficiency of a good joke or a well drawn action scene, layered with set up and pay off, ratcheting in complexity but never getting too far out of its core components. It’s just fulfilling to play, the work of a team that knows what they are doing and that has far more craft and confidence than any AAA game I’ve played this year.

It helps a substantial amount that the game is legitimately well written. Platform puzzles are consistently accompanied by Rani’s and Beck’s conversation. It’s the normal fodder of a long running relationship: “when are we eating… what’s the plan going forward… I hope you are staying safe.” It’s grounded in a fundamental chemistry between characters and warm, enduring voice work. Their relationship’s underlying attraction and tension is between Rani’s optimistic curiosity and Beck’s down-to-earth pragmatism. It’s a simple start, but one the game builds a lot out of. It’s not a spoiler to say that Becks’ relentless cynicism and practicality gets in the way of Rani’s reckless wonder. That character tension interacts with the central narrative in predictable but satisfying ways. It’s a game that understands the fabric of romantic relationships, wound up as they are in money and time and careers.

Rani and Becks both constantly refer to a shared past, suggesting a wider world. There’s not that many proper nouns, but there are enough to push at the edges of the game’s vision. It gives what could be a wide allegorical story some specificity. The result is refreshing. It’s a sci-fi game that is content to use its setting as bones for a story about a partnership. I’m delighted to say that there’s not a lot of sequel potential in The Gunk. It’s wonderful to play a game with evocation of a bigger setting, without the need to burden that with lore and tie-ins.

The presentation is equally well crafted. The soundtrack is enveloping and ambient rather than melodic. It relies on strings to create a wondrous sense of space. The game is dedicated to earthly tones-so much so that when a low synth pulsed below the atmosphere, it legitimately surprised me. Visually, the game has a bright, lush claymation look. The Gunk’s budget did not allow for motion capture or an expansive set of animations. In trade, the camera has an actual eye for visual storytelling. When entering new areas or transitioning to a loading screen, the game has actual fixed camera angles, letting Rani get swallowed into threatening or lively environs. The Gunk’s world feels legitimately alien, bringing to mind the mushroom landscapes of Morrowind or the bizarre sets of Star Trek: The Original Series. That strangeness effectively supplements the game’s environmentalism. Even the game’s puzzles rely on a kind of ecology. The interaction between plants and the mysterious energy source are the focus of much of playing the game, building an understanding of how the world’s flora and fauna build a world together.

The Gunk’s environmentalism is in some sense trite. I could certainly do without the red = bad, green = good color coding. However, it is grounded in the actual concerns of a material world. The alien inhabitants of this strange world brought the gunk on because they wanted all their needs to be cared for. Rani and Becks are looking for the energy source to pay their bills and to repair their deteriorating spaceship, which doubles as their house. It’s not subtle or complex, but it has the logic of the real world and isn’t a cheap allegory.

I don’t want to say that The Gunk entirely avoids a kind of imperial videogame logic. Rani is the person who can save this world, not the people who once inhabited it (though she will need their help). The giving, natural world serves mainly to provide tools for traversal, and materials for upgrades. Removing the gunk restores plant and animal life instantaneously, without any of the complex work needed to cultivate sustainable life. But it is a game about how we have to save each other, whose worker-forward environmentalism feels earnest rather than glib or cheap. It’s not as daring or poetic as fellow environmentally focused platformer Even the Ocean, nor as powerful a portrait of work under capitalism as Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. However, its emphasis on character holds its own against those games.

In fact, The Gunk is a game I would like to see more of. It’s content to be good, rather than great. It’s short enough to finish up in an afternoon or two, but fun enough to stretch out over a week. Higher profile, bigger budget indies games are here to stay. This is a perfect example of what the format could offer and a showcase of how a short game with a moderate budget can outdo its far larger contemporaries. If you’ve been playing Halo or Call of Duty and feel burnt out on what games are now, The Gunk is a perfect palette cleanser and an effective gateway to even better games.

The Gunk was developed by Image & Form and published by Thunderful Publishing. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One, and on Game Pass.

Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.