At this year’s GDC, the strangest thing I saw that wasn’t in a VR headset was definitely GoNNER.
GoNNER is a weird and charming 2D platformer by Ditto, a game designer and artist from Sweden. Ditto has released a number of strange prototypes and experimental games over the last several years. His style is varied, but recognizable: he likes pastel colors against dark backgrounds, compact little platformer protagonists, and mechanics which reveal hidden environments slowly over time. GoNNER takes a lot of Ditto’s favorite mechanics and fits them together in a package that’s both familiar and much, much weirder.
For example, GoNNER’s hub-world is a kind of subdued, bone-encrusted hell containing a phonograph and a gigantic dead tree which grows skulls that the player can wear. All the levels are connected by glowing worms– the player leaps into their mouths and shoots out their dripping worm-butts to travel from one level to the other. Every time the player beats a boss room, they land in front of an enormous, doofy-looking whale named Sally who demands that they bring her trinkets. I discovered that crouching and pressing the fire button repeatedly will cause the character to rip their head and backpack off, fling their gun in the air, then run around as a helpless, headless torso.
The various weirdnesses in the game don’t have anything obviously in common with one another, but they definitely come together with a consistent (extremely bizarre) mood. Everything’s spooky-carefree– vaguely unsettling, but still pastel and even a little welcoming.
GoNNER’s protagonist, Ikk, is an intrepid little headless torso-man who can equip multiple different skulls, each of which gives him different powers. He also carries a backpack, which holds his ammo, and a gun. When his health is depleted, he drops all of these and will die if hit again– but picking his equipment back up will let him fight on. This death system allows for genius last-minute saves if the player is good enough to thread their way through a cloud of enemies and pick their stuff back up. It can also result in some pretty funny disasters, particularly if equipment lands in places the player can’t safely go without a gun.
Aside from this unusual death system, GoNNER’s mechanics remind me very strongly of hets, one of Ditto’s previous games. In general, though, GoNNER is much more complicated. hets’s upgrade system saw players collect a single permanent powerup after each level, but GoNNER has multiple guns and skull-bound character ‘classes’. Some class and gun combinations produced very odd effects which seemed as though they would take a lot of time and practice to master, and the guns I saw all had serious situational strengths and weaknesses.
One cool combination was an extremely powerful laser-rifle which, in its normal state, has a very limited use (in GoNNER, guns only shoot straight ahead, not up, down, or at an angle). But using that gun with a special skull that added an additional, acrobatic midair jump allowed the player to spin in a circle at the top of their leap and fire anywhere throughout that circle.
GoNNER’s enemies are tricky, and the linear levels sometimes forced me to tackle a difficult situation in extremely close quarters. I saw two of GoNNER’s finished zones: a cave system filled with abstract, goopy enemies, and a ‘robot world’ filled with aggressive ceiling-mounted cannons and stilt-walking automatons. I’m hoping the rest of the zones are just as bizarre as the first two.
When Ditto first made hets, he told me that he was “just really making a game as a hobby, as a way to create stuff,” and that he had no idea he’d be working on a commercial game so soon. “But now I get paid for it,” he laughed.