If you have been playing games long enough, then you have probably had some sort of amusing experience with rag doll physics. You may have pegged a Combine soldier to the wall in Half-Life 2. Or, you may have made a dead body spaz out with a submachine gun in one of the Hitman games. If you have ever wanted for one of those rag-dolled bodies to star as the protagonist in its own game, then Grow Home is the game that you have been waiting for. Grow Home is an experiment from Reflections, an Ubisoft studio, that grew into a full game. It is a peculiar experience that reflects that lineage in a few ways, some of which are good, and some of which are bad. Its defining feature, in particular, doesn't add value to the game, which makes Grow Home a mild disappointment.
In Grow Home, you play as B.U.D., a robot in a physics-based world whose movements are procedurally generated. Rather than moving in canned animations, your arms, legs, and body all react like physics objects. Your job is to get a plant (essentially a giant beanstalk) to grow hundreds of feet into the sky, until it is high enough to harvest its seeds. To accomplish this, you climb on the stalk, using the left and right bumpers of the controller to move your hands left-right-left-right, one hand at a time. There are buds scattered on the stalk, which you can open to grow new branches (called “Star Shoots”). In the meantime, you find power crystals and other useful items (such as flowers that you can use like a parachute) that you can grab in the environment with your sticky hands.
The concept of having procedurally-generated content has merit. Theoretically, it allows the player to have a wider range of actions available, and the game can be more accommodating as a result. Players can be creative and experience emergent gameplay. The drawback to this type of game design is that the gameplay can end up wonky or buggy, or that the player can break the game by stressing it in ways for which it was not designed. With Grow Home, the negatives tend to outweigh the positives. The movement in the game takes a long time to get used to, and even when you get used to it, it never feels good. B.U.D. is literally an animated rag doll, which makes him clumsy and sluggish. B.U.D. walks like he has no bones and his arms are short, which means that the left-right-left-right movement mechanic makes for a lot of slow, tedious climbing. Too often, B.U.D. feels like a tiny aphid inching across a leaf. Those problems are kryptonite for a platformer, which is essentially what Grow Home is.
The mechanics do give the player the freedom to explore 100% of the environment and climb on just about anything, and the game takes advantage of that feature in a lot of places. Grow Home is one of those games where if you can see it, you can reach it. Still, the movement is too slow, tedious, and prone to errors to make fully exploring the environment worthwhile. You may find yourself in a lot of situations where you see an item in the environment but ignore it because you don’t feel like spending the time that it will take to reach it. You may reach for a power crystal and slip off a rock, causing you to plummet a hundred feet and lose ten minutes of progress. The premise of growing a gigantic plant is an interesting one, and the game has some ideas that pay off very well. Unfortunately, its movement mechanics spoil too much of the fun, to the extent that I think that Grow Home would have been a better game if it had been designed with conventional animations and movements. Some freedom may have been sacrificed as a result, but that sacrifice may have been worth it, since exploration in the game is largely a chore.
B.U.D. the procedurally generated robot has been marketed as the biggest selling point for the game, but the more successful aspect of Grow Home is its vertical design. Rather than progressing forward like most platformers, the goal in Grow Home is to always move up. The whole game is one gigantic ascent into the stratosphere, and the inclusion of the entire game into one massive outdoor level is impressive. The beanstalk-growing mechanics are also interesting, since they give you unlimited freedom in which buds you can open and where you can direct the Star Shoots to grow. As a result, no two players’ plants will end up the same. Grow Home doesn’t offer a linear experience as much as it offers an open-ended challenge to create something grand.
Grow Home is, aesthetically, a very pleasing game, albeit one that isn’t technologically impressive. The scenery is bright and colorful, but polygon counts are quite low. The game looks, for the most part, like a high definition PS2 game, which in this case, isn’t bad. The best part about the game’s appearance is its immense view distance, which comes into play when you are over a thousand feet in the air and you decide to look down. Gazing back at the massive branching beanstalk that you have built as you cling to a branch a thousand feet up in the sky is a breathtaking experience. When it comes to its audio, Grow Home takes the minimalist approach, keeping both the music and sound effects to a minimum. What is here is effective, for what it’s worth. B.U.D., in particular, offers an interesting mix of electronic bloops and chirps, as if he were a 56k modem or a fax machine brought to life. These sounds give B.U.D. a surprising amount of personality for a protagonist who has no voiced dialog.
Grow Home is a simple game without a lot of mechanics that can be completed in about three hours, which makes it a little disappointing in the value department. It carries a relatively low price tag of $8, but there are a lot of other indie titles in that price range that offer a higher volume of content. After you complete your primary mission, you can return to the game to gather collectibles, but the often tedious traversal mechanics will probably prevent you from wanting to play the game any longer than you have to. The experience of Grow Home is interesting, but not one that it overwhelmingly positive. The use of procedural animation and rag doll physics for a protagonist may pay off some day down the road once the idea has been refined. In this game, however, it usually just gets in the way of what is otherwise a charming and colorful platformer.