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Thursday, March 11, 2021

Review: Gnosia (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S.

Of all the deep dives into human psychology that you can do, I think that games that deal with some application of Game Theory would have to be my favourite. What causes people to work together, or in opposition to one another, and how mutually assured destruction is not only possible but a common outcome of these kinds of games, provides some fascinating insight into the human psyche. Gnosia isn’t the first game of its type to offer up a take on this, but its certainly one of the best.

Think of Gnosia as something of a mix between The Thing – the classic John Carpenter psychological horror – and Danganronpa. You play as a human trapped on a ship with a number of other people (some of them are even aliens). The big problem is that a number of your little community have been infected with a malignant disease – the Gnosia – which causes them to kill their crewmates, and you’re got to figure it out and “freeze” these infected people before they have the chance to kill everyone – which they’ll do at the rate of one per night until no one is left.

Now, I would bet a significant amount of money that Gnosia is explicitly a homage to The Thing. Not only is the mode of “termination” at the conclusion of the votes a specific nod to the film (the crew members are “put on ice”, and The Thing takes place in the frozen pole – get it?), but thematically, as this analysis of The Thing by author Mawr Gorshin shows, there are similarities there, too:

 
“Consider what The Thing can do: taking on any shape or form, it sneaks up on unsuspecting people, attacks them, and replaces them with imitations of them; then those imitations do the same to others, again and again, until–theoretically, at least–the entire Earth has replaced all life with alien imitations. It’s rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, actually.

This spreading of a kind of cancer, if you will, wiping out all life and replacing it with the infection–is this not like what capitalism does?... The alien imitations pretend to be the men’s friends, just as capitalism is made out to be the friend of humanity, according to bourgeois propaganda, liberating us from Bolshevik state tyranny, eliminating poverty, and bringing about economic prosperity.”


This is almost exactly how Gnosia works, and while it’s not explicit and lecturing on these themes (neither was The Thing, of course - it’s an allegory, not a lecture), much of Gnosia’s appeal is that it does throw a wide range of different character archetypes together, and then examine the tensions between them from a socio-economic and cultural perspective. I’m not going to give away too much here, but if you are so inclined to do thematic readings of Gnosia, you’re going to have material to work with for decades.


So, back to the game. The flow of Gnosia is arranged into “loops” where a group of crew members “wake up” and then need to figure out who the Gnosia is/are before they’re all killed. Either way, once the “game” has come to a conclusion, the loop resets and the next group of players shows up. To figure out who is infected, the crew come together to hold little trials, where you can “support” and “doubt” the crewmates. Some may be lying to you (especially if they’re Gnosia). Others may just not like you. Get too assertive or defensive and the suspect's target may be placed on your back. At the end of each “trial debate” the crew holds a vote. The one with the most votes (hopefully you’ve been able to deduce who a Gnosia is) gets iced. You do this over and over again over the course of the game in a series of loops that become more and more complex (more characters, more Gnosia at play), while also trying to figure out the underlying mystery of what’s going on, because right at the start you wake with amnesia and so, on top of everything else, you really don't know what's really going on.

Mechanically it's like a single-player Among Us, or a genre stablemate to Danganronpa that differentiates itself by backgrounding the visual novel stuff to focus on the court cases, but in the end, Gnosia defies comparison to any other game because its most compelling element is also something nothing else has: the cast. You’ll start out meeting just a few characters, but eventually, the roster grows to well over a dozen, and every character that you come across is properly realised, distinctive, eclectic, rich in personality, and highly amusing for their personality traits. Aside from the Valley Girl (I, like, tooootally, don’t like valley girls), I found each and every character in Gnosia to be engrossing and appealing, even if they were a bit (deliberately) cringey or cruel to me at times. And if I'm being honest I even had fun with the Valley Girl in the end, because I’d try and get her iced immediately, whether she was under the suspicion of being a Gnosia or not. Some things are worth risking mutually assured destruction.

Underpinning the trial system is a reasonably complex set of RPG-like stats for your protagonist. At the start of Gnosia you get to set up a character with six attributes – a little like in Dungeons & Dragons, only instead of measuring strength, intelligence, and the other characteristics that make a D & D character a mighty hero, Gnosia’s attributes reflect the necessary personality qualities that it will take to succeed in the court cases and deduce the Gnosia – their charisma, intuition, and so on. Gnosia’s not quite an RPG, but mechanically it’s similar and while min-maxers can effectively “break” the game, for people that play it in the spirit that is intended, it’s a useful way to embellish the somewhat complex rules this death game is asking you to play by.
 

See, there are also a range of “roles” which characters can take on. The Engineer, for example, can investigate one person per day to discover if they’re a Gnosia, while Guardian Angels can protect one person each night from attack. Making effective use of these resources is critical to survival in Gnosia, though it will always feel like the tools are too limited to be effective enough, and often one of the Gnosia will be the one to have these abilities, meaning they’ll end up subverting it to their own ends. That's where the character stats come in and can be used to help figure out who you should trust, which characters will have an issue with you and, ultimately, whether you can survive the Machiavellian machinations of everyone involved. Towards the end of the sequence of loops, a particularly nasty role emerges where, if they survive the politicking and positioning, the entire universe is destroyed (bringing us back to the themes of mutually-assured destruction and films like The Thing), so the stakes do get high in Gnosia. You're going to want to make use of every resource available to you.

Contrast, for example, with Raging Loop, which follows a very similar premise (seriously, even the "court case abilities" parallel one another), but does so through the lens of a horror-themed visual novel, rather than Gnosia’s science fiction free-flowing debate system. The lack of meaningful agency in Raging Loop hurts its delivery of this theme. It’s an exceptional game and story, told exceptionally well (I really like Raging Loop), but the additional weight of having to lead the investigation and debate and make decisions based on that discovery better reinforces Gnosia’s themes.

What did surprise me is the efficiency with which Gnosia goes about its business. Visual novels are known for their lingering narrative explorations and methodical pace. Gnosia packs everything that it needs to say into far fewer words, to the point where I’m not entirely sure “visual novel” is the best fitting descriptor for the game. This game does do everything; characterisation, building the intense sense of paranoia that something is out to get you and you’ve got no idea really who, and the fact that the other characters can – and will – be able to manipulate you – and does so in do few words that this game should be held up as proof that you can do a lot with very few words in video games. There’s a lot to Gnosia – there are 100 or so “loops” to play though – but time positively flies by in this game, which is the marker of a good game if ever there was one.


Finally, I would not be doing the game justice if I didn’t mention the art style. It’s nothing short of gallery-quality, genuine surrealist stuff. From the wacky to the really wacky (there’s a dolphin that walks and talks but wears a mask of water to, you know, breathe), the art is asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting to support the narrative’s oddball, surreal and often dark sense of humour, and it is so effective at that that is almost overpowers everything else about the game. You’ve seen nothing like Gnosia before, and you’ll be so glad that you’ve seen it in motion when you have. It’s beautiful.

Gnosia might not be a new concept – there are so many video games out there that feature death games with deception at the core of them. Last year’s Quantum Suicide even set the scene in space and had a less-than-benevolent AI pulling many of the strings, just like Gnosia does. But Gnosia is something rare: it is really, truly different. The developers wanted to take this common-enough concept and craft something that was truly their own, and not only have you got here a game that you won’t forget in a hurry, it’s also going to have you actively thinking about just how smart it is for some time to come.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

Review: Gnosia (Nintendo Switch)
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