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In the end it’s all just math. You can paint over it—the hitboxes, the upgrade paths, the resource economics—with anything. Video games are a glittering perfect code core painted over with Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons or Herbert and Warhammer 40k or whatever is currently popular in the office or the target demographic. The paint is important because it is very difficult for anyone to look directly at the glittering perfect code core.
This is kind of true, and like a lot of things that are kind of true, it is a lot wrong. Because when I frame it as “the coat of paint could be different” the underlying message changes to “the coat of paint doesn’t matter.” It can be easy to agree that the paint does not matter when so many games treat the coat of paint as if it does not matter, or as if it was just a coat of paint and not a painting, or if the coat of paint was not as or more important a thing than the game under it. There are some popular games with the word ‘craft’ in their titles that care a lot about themselves but have not done so great at getting me to care too, so I will talk about the game that did. GrimGrimoire: an RTS about a young witch at the Might As Well Be Harry Potter School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which, while it does not have the strangest paint an RTS has ever had, cares more about its paint, and is more worth caring about, than pretty much any other game like it.
It is a fair and okay question to ask, why this particular coat of paint, why a coat of paint at all, why do we need these metaphors to get to the game and what is the best metaphor for thinking about a game, in the way that abstract useless questions sometimes lead to something very interesting. But it’s also important to consider: the game kind of already exists. And no matter how clever your questions about the premise for its existence might be, the game will not disappear in a puff of logical paradox. GrimGrimoire is a RTS with a Harry Potter aesthetic that is as invested in being a good RTS as it is in being heartbreakingly storybook beautiful. The game cares about both and is really super good at both. It can’t and won’t and doesn’t offer any sort of explanation of why it is trying to be good at both or how much that matters or anything. There will be no answers to questions about elegance in design or formalist theory here. A lesson might be: if a game succeeds in making us care so much about its metaphor we start not caring why it exists, it will probably be fine if we just let it exist. It can just be the Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of the Tower of Babel of video games.
GrimGrimoire doesn’t ever let looking like a 16th century painting stop it from being really good at being an RTS but it takes some amazing design choices in order to be both at once. GrimGrimoire is 2D sprites displayed in profile which is a pretty big leap from the 3d isometric perspective that most RTS games in the footsteps of Those Games By Blizzard With Craft In The Title. It might seem weird or impossible to exactly recreate that game in a perspective that cannot even convey the illusion of depth. But depth is actually not all that important; mainly, it lets you tell which units are hovering above the ground and flying and which are walking on the ground. And here is the biggest secret: 3d isometric is no more 3d than a sheet of paper, and none of that depth is actually important.
It is not important because there are no degrees of depth in an isometric game. Remember: it is all paint. The coat of paint is “this unit is flying” but what the glittering perfect core code really says is“this unit ignores collision with units and terrain” and also “this unit can only attack and be attacked by certain units” (because it is common to say that some units can’t attack things that fly or do extra damage to them or something). So it turns out these are all binary states and can be indicated with totally different metaphors. The solution ends up being simple: GrimGrimoire decides that some units ignore collision with terrain, and they either fly or, if they are as massive as the Chimera and Dragon, physically grip the structure of the level and pull themselves through the repeating halls and staircases. It doesn’t change anything about them except to convey their sheer size and presence, while still clearly indicating the unit doesn’t have to walk down halls and up stairs to get anywhere. GrimGrimoire also separates units into physical and astral bodies, which is the half of flying that normally says “this unit can only attack and be attacked by certain units.” GrimGrimoire just decides that the units that are translucent blue like ghosts will behave interact differently than units that aren’t, and that will factor into the complicated relationship of what units beat what other units.
GrimGrimoire is doing a lot of work to make sure that the game can work just like any other RTS (which means they understand how RTS games are built) but also be as beautiful as a game is likely to be. GrimGrimoire wants to have really beautiful profile character art and for that reason tosses all of the traditional visual design of RTS in the garbage for no other reason than they want you to see units in full profile instead of the squirming little ants of the isometric plane. The profile perspective, much like the narrative sections, is saying, hey look at this! Really look at it. Don’t just treat it like little ants with sprites meant only to visually differentiate them. They’re kind of their own story, but they’re saying: here is the sort of world you’re in, which we can’t show you because we don’t have the budget for animated cutscenes or whatever. And that’s part of the game’s continuous sense of wonder and charm.
I guess that is pretty weird already, but here is something weirder: the story of GrimGrimoire, which is told with the visual novel standard of character portraits over text, has no direct interaction at all with the RTS elements, to the point the characters might have spent ten minutes developing characters and telling ghost stories and they are having a magic lesson and suddenly OH NO YOU MUST SUMMON A DRAGON FOR SOME REASON and then back to the story. Especially since nothing resembling any of the main characters ever appears in the RTS sections, they might as well be from completely different games. Later on the sections are have much better excuses but GrimGrimoire does find it difficult to establishing of a cast of characters all named after some form of alcohol (the protagonist: Lillet Blan, with her friend Margarita Surprise and teacher Gammel Dore etc) while still giving out enough RTS puzzle levels. There could be anything between those levels and the game would still be the same.
But it isn’t just anything. It’s a story about a girl who’s very smart and very brave and how clever she has to be to save the friends she loves, and at tricking the adults around her and defying their rules and expectations. I think that actually as a single player RTS is a really good at being a complex interlocking puzzle with tons of room for personal experimentation and lots of things to manage it is kind of a perfect way to convey the sense of a clever young woman applying her express the main character’s intelligence and skill and maybe the only thing that is consistent from both the RTS and story sections it is that Lillet Blan gets everything done by being clever and smart, which sometimes is done by ordering around units and sometimes is done by concocting a plan to trick a literal devil.
And it is so important that it is a girl who is being clever and brave and kind and she is a billion times better than Harry Potter. There is so much YA fiction for shy bookish kids to hold on to, but so few with girls being kind and brave and most of all smart—smarter than adults who, it turns out, are all too human, flawed, and who act too much like they know what’s best, even when their motives are not pure and the children can see right through them. Behind all of this design is the kind of story that I needed, as a young person, so very, very badly: to know I was clever enough and that adults didn’t know best. It’s the lesson the adults in your life won’t or can’t teach you, and only stories like these can hold children and tell them: ‘you’re right, you do know better.’
One of the nice things about the metaphor you paint over the game parts with is that once it’s there it’s totally easy to justify why it’s there retroactively. Here I am making a case to defend it when it really could be every kind of different and the game would still exist and I would still have had a good time playing it. But I probably wouldn’t still be thinking about it or writing about it, because really it’s this particular paint, rather than the design under it that I love. I love that it looks like a painting, that the fairies are cute and have sweet and prideful voices, and the dragons thunder and roar across the whole level so you know the instant one is born, and there’s this sweeping orchestral soundtrack for the devils and unicorns and elves to march to. It is so charming and when I play and replay this game I am feeling like I am now playing a game that I like better than reading Harry Potter and I’m feeling like the most important thing that is happening is that I am being charmed because the world is so sweeping and magical and full of wonder. It sweeps me along from the battles to the story because that, if nothing else, is everywhere.
When I was very young and playing games I solved them without really thinking about them very carefully. Solving problems is so innate you can do it without ever thinking too deeply about the construction of the puzzle, why it was made, to what effect, etc. A lot of my early games writing was about just what was underneath that coat of paint and while I was thinking very carefully about the stuff under it I did not think a whole lot about the surface. A lot of that was because I already “sort of got” writing and storytelling and was interested in the mechanics because I did not know them very well. This also helped me kind of get over the idea that writing or narrative had to be central to making a game that was interesting to me. But now that I’ve done that, I’m starting to think that maybe after all what I’m more interested is the presentation. And I’m starting to think that maybe I’m mostly interested in what’s under the presentation insofar as it conveys the presentation, and the coat of paint is the part I’m most interested in, because even though it could be something completely different, it isn’t. It is the thing that it is.