One of the great pleasures of video gaming are the moments of discovery. I’m not necessarily talking just about those surprising or unexpected turns and twists within a game, but discovering a game that has a refreshing or unique tone, mechanic or approach to storytelling. Concrete Genie could accurately be described as a puzzle/platforming/adventure game but placing it on that shelf entirely misses what’s beautiful and memorable about it.
The story premise is simple: you play as Ash, a teenage boy bullied by his peers and marginalized by his busy parents, living in the dark and depressed city of Denska, a once prosperous seaside town nearly destroyed by an oil spill. Oh, and there’s a mysterious, magical substance called “Darkness” that seems to be growing over everything like an out-of-control weed. Ash finds solace and inspiration in drawing, pushing back against the literal and allegorical darkness by imagining fanciful scenes of the town at its zenith and filled with benevolent cartoon monsters.
When the bullies toss Ash’s sketchbook to the winds, the young artist follows a trail of paper to an abandoned lighthouse and encounters the Genie, Luna, who gifts him a magical paintbrush and sets Ash forth to paint the Darkness out of Denska for good. And that’s basically the game: Ash moves through the city, bringing light and incredible glowing art to the world, and calling upon a series of Maurice Sendak-like Genies to help him solve puzzles and overcome obstacles. Sometimes these involve conjuring a Genie that can supply power to a locked door, or guide Ash through a dank underground level, or help him fight the bullies. As he explores, Ash discovers more subjects to paint and the components of new Genies to bring to life.
While Concrete Genie’s story is fairly simple and straightforward, the real pleasures and wonders are the visual style, the painting mechanics and the wildly appealing personalities and unique characters of the Genies. The drab and dying industrial city of Denska is built with just enough telling detail to make it feel fairy tale real and Ash and the human residents are animated with a stop-motion kind of effect that is distinctive, if not always super smooth in practice. The retina-searing colors of the paintings and Genies that Ash create and the light he brings to the darkness are just this side of psychedelic. There is both minimal voice acting and music in the game, but both are well done, especially the spare, chamber-music score. This is not to suggest that Concrete Genie is a silent experience. It has excellent sound design and environmental and magical aural effects.
Concrete Genie’s painting mechanics are simple and although it’s very satisfying to spend long minutes adding light, color movement and artistry to the walls and decrepit scenery, there is a lack of precise control — using the R2 and motion control on the PS4 — that was both slightly frustrating and a bit out of step with the idea of Ash being a brilliant artist. The game’s environmental puzzles are simple, which is fine in the context of the bigger narrative but the story and Ash’s use of his brush take an abrupt turn near the end of the game. Concrete Genie is a short experience and the pacing of the larger story arc felt rushed towards the finale.
As an allegory, bringing light to personal or cultural darkness through art isn’t terribly original but it’s still relatively surprising for any game to have a wider subtext, and besides, Concrete Genie’s deepest pleasures are aesthetic. It’s simply fun and rewarding to paint with light and bring fantasy fairy tale Genies to life. The VR implementation is bare-bones and is of little consequence for those without a headset, but Concrete Genie is a great example of an imaginative interactive experience that simply couldn’t exist outside of gaming. We need more of those.