This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Grow Up.
“Grow Up” is a phrase I seem to hear an awful lot when talking about my job in mixed company, and it is also the name of a sequel to Grow Home, the Ubisoft physics platformer. I say 'physics platformer'; the game itself would probably say, "Hey, there's platforms and you can physic around them if that's your bag, but if you just want to chill, that's cool too." Grow Up, I had to put up with enough of this chillout shit from No Man's Sky; give me a fucking challenge or I'll physics you! "Oh, fine. Find the 150 collectibles." That'll do! I will "chill" after the game has worked my testicles until they're six foot across and the colour of an angry plum, not before, and even then the chilling shall entail beating them back into shape with two fistfuls of ice chips.
The premise of the two Grow Preposition games is that you play a small robot named Bud that can jump and grab things and whose animation is somewhat procedurally generated by the physics engine, which has the usual result that our little robot friend seems to be suffering from the kind of Parkinson's Disease that only affects the bottom half. Bud is supervised by a spaceship computer called Mom, and his objective in both games is to climb back inside Mom's welcoming red orifice by directing one or more swelling organic phalluses towards it.
It's actually rather clever what they've done with the titles. Not the Grow-Go pun in Grow Home, Christ no; that's the play on words equivalent of wearing Comic Sans on a T-shirt. Grow Home was about the childlike desire to return to mother after a long day rolling around in dirt, molesting small animals, and shelter beneath the warm familiar glow she gets when she's been drinking red wine since noon. Grow Up, contrarily, is about having to mature and learn self-reliance when our mother unexpectedly explodes and her pieces are scattered across the back yard. Yeah, I've been there, Grow Up. That was a weird conversation with the gardeners.
Grow Home was centred around cultivating a single giant plant to reach the ultimate goal and exploring exciting new terrain and floating rocks as they became accessible. In Grow Up, the growing of the multiple giant plants is more an incidental part of the quest for more jetpack upgrades. Which does mean Grow Home was quite a bit tighter. Phwoar, it's getting more Freudian by the minute in here, isn't it? Someone start getting the ice chips together!
In Grow Home you can get to the top of your flower tower, look down and there's everything you need to worry about right there, but Grow Up takes place on a Mario Galaxy style tiny planet surrounded by more floating stones than a Keith Richards ketamine party. Points on for freedom of movement and exploration, and points off for figuring out where the fuck I'm going. I look at nondescript floating rock number 731-Gamma and after consulting my extensive paperwork, realise I haven't looked it over yet, but as I'm heading towards it, I get momentarily distracted by a farting wasp, and when I look back, I've forgotten which of the cluster of seventeen identical floating rocks was the one I was heading for. We fall back on using the map and objective markers, and that's when we realise what Ubisoft have done - they've turned it into a Ubisoft game. Which is to say, a sandbox cluttered with repetitive mini-challenges with all the joy of exploration and discovery one gets from spending six hours staring at a plate of overcooked pasta. So all you can do is go back to the map screen every five minutes, stick an objective marker on the icon of a thing you want and make a beeline for the massive glowing indicator, like a greyhound focused squarely on the rusty bumhole of an artificial rabbit.
Well, it's not that bad. You have a jetpack, so it at least kicks shit like The Division into a roadside ditch and bangs its frumpy wife. It's just that the jetpack comes on a bit too strong for my liking. You know how it is; you're out on the town, there's an aging jetpack sitting at the bar wearing too much makeup, saying "Why don't you buy me a drink, sugar? I make climbing completely trivial after only a couple of upgrades. Come on, I'll call my girlfriends, Infinite Glider and Infinite Parachute, and we can have a great big saucy party!" Then it starts trying to put its arm through yours and you have to scrape it off on the side of a moving subway train. The Grow Home jetpack was a coy little thing that could just about simulate a medium to severe bout of vindaloo flatulence, and the parachute and glider were both temporary pickups, but even as the retarded shark of modernity bites the last few mouthfuls from my raft I will still cling stubbornly to my central mast, which states that video games have to be some kind of game, as in a challenge, rather than Ubisoft's current idea of a game, which is five hundred trivial button-pushing instruction-following exercises scattered randomly across a map like cigarette butts on the pavement outside an appeals court.
Grow Home had a nasty habit of gluing half the collectible crystals to the underside of floating continents, so you'd have to carefully monkey bar your way to them, and the climbing controls apparently recently suffered a death in the family and just can't keep their mind on the job. Is my left hand clinging securely, climbing controls? "What? Yeah, whatever, you're fine." Release, plummet. "Oh, you meant clinging to the rock? Sorry, I thought you meant clinging to a sense of purpose in life." But in other words, it was a challenge, and to my mind struggling against the engine is half the fun of a physics game; the mere act of walking Bud across slightly unlevel ground has the inherent skill challenge of trying to get home after a martini tasting. Freely jetpacking and gliding everywhere might make for some lovely screenshots, but when I'm beating every race challenge first try with thirty seconds to spare, then calling them challenges risks action from the Advertising Standards Authority
And incidentally, were race challenges really the only thing you could come up with for sidequests? In sandbox design, that's fucking level zero! That’s the free ink cartridge that comes with the printer and holds about as much as your grandma's bladder on a long car journey. I like the balance between zen fuckabouts freedom and actual skill progress that is struck by Grow Home and I'd say the first half of Grow Up. Grow Up gives you the ability to recreate any special plant you find, like the ones that will launch you high into the sky if you can persuade the physics engine to let you sit on it without breakdancing right the fuck off it again - that's for progress - or you can build a fortress of giant cacti that don't do anything except look vaguely like bellends - that's the fuckabouts part. But the plants become obsolete once you get up to a certain tech level; who needs to get jizzed into the air when my jetpack can do the same, without needing to be excited to orgasm by my frantically jiggling leg?
Perhaps there's a hidden meaning, here. In Grow Home the temporary parachutes and gliders were plants as well, but in Grow Up they're permanent extensions of your cold, emotionless robotic frame. Doesn't take Northrop Frye to find the subtext there. Collaboration between technology and nature is an inherently temporary arrangement? Now we know why we're a robot alone on a spaceship; what remains of the human crew is probably minced up inside the gas tank.
- The boy who never grew up: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Now feel free to blow me out of the water but I slightly suspect there may possibly have been some Freudian themes at work here
- Possibly the best gardening simulator since Hover Bovver