[IFComp 2015] GROWBOTICS

GROWBOTICS is a browser-based piece by Cha Holland.

Cover art from GROWBOTICS by Cha Holland

A new generation in construction and creativity is finally here! No matter who you are GROWBOTICS will help you channel your inner artist.
A short exploration of invention, expectation, learning and context.
Minimal use of sound. Internet Explorer and mobile browsers are not fully supported.

You can play it here until the comp ends.

Review after the cut.

GROWBOTICS is a piece about creating. You have just received a new piece of technology, a GROWBOTICS workstation, which combines things and ideas to create new things.

All things, even intangible dreams and ideas, can be broken down into simpler components. At some point you’re left with the elementary ingredients to assemble any creation imaginable. Or that’s the theory, at least. If you believe the hype this machine is capable of anything.

Before interacting with the machine, you are able to customize your setting. Are you in a secret lab? A moonbase? A wizard’s tower? What does the workbench look like – rustic wood with creeping tendrils, granite with musical pipes, tessellated with arcane symbols? The choices you make control later descriptive text and possibly some of the ingredients you have to work with, but don’t seem to have any more impact than that.

The rest of the game is selecting “essences” to combine. First, primary essences such as dreamenergyconnectionliquid, or sound can be combined to create secondary essences like pressure, firevesselindividuality, or acceleration. Then secondary or primary essences can be combined to create final products which are tangible objects. Then… that’s all. You decide if you like your product, or if you want to make something different, but there’s nothing to do with what you created.

GROWBOTICS has an elegant aesthetic and an intriguing interface, but ultimately I felt it needed a little more. One possibility for giving it more significance could have been to frame the creative process within a more developed story. For example, had the player been facing some kind of challenge or problem and had to create something that would solve it, that goal would have been a motivating factor in playing. Perhaps I am stuck in my moonbase and need transportation home, or orcs are attacking my wizard’s tower and I need to defeat or appease them. To make this work without near-infinite time spent on the author’s part, it probably would be necessary to trim down the initial options, or even limit it to one fully-fleshed narrative.

Alternately, to keep the experience as a purely creative one, the medium needs more overarching rules to discover. Exploring a new creative medium – say, encountering clay for the first time – can be engaging and rewarding even if the novice doesn’t have any particular goal of what to make. It is satisfying to figure out, for example, how thin a piece of clay can be before it can’t stand up straight on its own, or how to attach two pieces smoothly. Through this messing about and figuring out the clay’s affordances, the novice may become inspired to create something in particular, or may just enjoy gaining understanding of the material for a while.

In GROWBOTICS, the act of picking combinations was interesting for a while, but I never gained a sense of being able to predict what would result from a combination. I didn’t feel like I was able to get better at using my GROWBOTICS machine as I used it more. Thus, I wasn’t able to come up with goals of my own, either, because I didn’t have a way to try to meet them.

This second path to making the experience more meaningful is, I think, the harder one – it’s more straightforward to tell players what their goals should be than to create something at once open-ended and yet full of discoverable rules. I have friends who actually work full-time on programming creative software, and even though it takes all their time it is still hard. I am not suggesting that a game made for IFComp, probably by an amateur in spare time, should manage to do it perfectly. As it stands, I see GROWBOTICS as a tinker-able work of art with seeds of something more.

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