Grow Home is another release in the “deliberately awkward” genre of video games, a genre by now quite familiar to gamers. QWOP, Enviro-Bear 2000, Octodad, Surgeon Simulator, Goat Simulator—these games exploit the stumbling humor of clunky controls and demonstrate video games’ unique capacity for comedy. Bizarre to watch and amusing to play, these games are crowd-pleasing, sometimes fascinating examples of a medium where “comedy” has long been defined by Monkey Island-esque wordplay and traditional setup-punchline joke writing. Most games seek elegance; comedy asks, “What if this was stupidly hard instead?”
The protagonist of Grow Home is an adorable robot named B.U.D. He is controlled from a conventional third-person perspective: one joystick to move, another to control the camera, one button to jump, two more to climb. Your objective is to help grow a gigantic Jack-and-the-beanstalk “star plant” so that it flowers and releases special seeds, but B.U.D. is not a particularly skilled explorer. He moves with clumsy inertia, controlling less like a traditional video game character and more like a dense marionette. As B.U.D. climbs higher and higher on the star plant, his ungainly motion becomes a greater liability: falling off the star plant at its highest points means plummeting stratospheric distances.
Grow Home is deliberately awkward, but it’s not a comedy, and this is the conflict at the heart of a unique game. A positive RockPaperShotgun review, like many other reviewers, describes B.U.D.’s motion as endearingly childlike: “He’s unwieldy, like a toddler just figuring out a route from the side of the sofa to the bowl of fascinating-looking glass balls in the middle of the room.” In contrast, a negative GameInformer review calls it “more frustrating than funny.” A GameSpot review articulates this ambivalence: “As you try to deal with the quirks of BUD’s unpredictable movement, the result, at first, is a sort of comedic flailing. This was never frustrating for me, but I can see how it might be for others.”
“Sort of comedic” but not comedy. Frustrating but not funny. Grow Home thwarts the understood value proposition of difficult controls: it does not “make up” for awkward controls with humor. It defies the expectations of low-key exploration games: it does not seek ease or elegance. Grow Home attempts to extract some of the wobbly fun of Octodad and some of the scenic vistas of Journey without committing to either genre.
Like many reviewers, I enjoyed Grow Home a great deal. Grow Home requires players to appreciate awkward controls without any payoff and many people clearly do. I think the developers, Ubisoft Reflections, struck a fine balance with B.U.D.’s controls—just a little strange and just a little challenging without compromising the pleasure of navigating the star plant and helping it grow. But it is easy to understand why “awkward on purpose” is for some people just awkward. Gamers often say “it’s not for everybody” about very difficult games—the Bloodbornes and XCOMs of the world—but Grow Home is perhaps a better example of a game some people simply won’t enjoy.
In most games the developers seek to make the interface between the player and the world as seamless as possible. Complex actions are reduced to a few familiar buttons. What if a game is awkward for its own sake? Not to be funny; Grow Home is charming but elicits few laughs. Not to be difficult; Grow Home is a brief, simple game that never allows you to lose much progress. But because there’s a satisfaction in mastering a foreign body, in learning controls that make a familiar controller feel alien, and in exploring B.U.D. and his world all at once. My time with B.U.D. was a little bumpy, but I feel like I understand him more for it.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.