This is GROTTO, and I am the Soothsayer who can read stars. The neighboring tribe of Brutes knows that I live here, and sometimes they come to seek counsel. But do they really want it though? Do all people who come to us for our opinion actually want to hear it?
The constellations were given meaning by the Brutes. When they ask me a question, they want me to choose a constellation and give it to them, as a piece of advice. I go to my wall of stars and I peruse every single constellation. Every single bouquet of meanings that they represent. I analyze them one by one to see which of them stands closest to what I want to tell the Brute. I carry it carefully to them and bless them with the wisdom of stars - and my own.
And they flip it on their head, derive an impossibly crooked sense from it and leave. And they will come back and tell me that everything went wrong because of my stupid advice.
Grotto absolutely blew my mind when I played its demo during one of the Steam Festivals. Now, having played the entirety of it, I must say that this game captures the imperfection of human communication like no other.
Every single day we rely on words to communicate. However, words are treacherous. Every word is, essentially, of two worlds: denotation - a central literal sense, an object or a set of objects it signifies, and connotation - cultural or emotional sense, an endless cosmos of associated meanings. By choosing words you can express your positive or negative attitude to something while not evaluating it directly as good or bad. The person you know never backs down and always goes to the end. Are they strong-willed? Unyielding? Pigheaded?
There is also a world of euphemisms - words or expressions that people came up with so that they wouldn't have to use strongly negative or offensive words and could still talk about things that are considered taboo by downplaying the concepts. Euphemisms are hard to navigate and they can cause surprisingly polar reactions from people. Some of us would rather hear a euphemism to unpack it internally and confront the original concept on our own terms. Others would much prefer there was no veil but the reality because they don't want to be ambushed by the true meaning lurking behind a seemingly mild expression.
The more I study linguistics and other languages, the more I see human verbal communication as a miracle. Personal experience influences language perception so heavily that even the understanding of the simplest concepts can be vastly different between people who grew up together. It seemed to me quite hopeless and lonely when I was a student because what else is there to rely onto when you want to express your thoughts and feelings to somebody else?
Wait, there is something to rely onto apart from language, and that's nonverbal communication. You'd be surprised but nonverbal communication accounts for 2/3 of all communication. It can either back up your verbal means and make your point stronger and more conveyable, or completely destroy it because you just can't keep yourself from smiling or frowning, thus betraying your whole speech. Nonverbal communication is not only body language, gestures and facial expressions, but also the pitch of your voice, loudness, the way you handle stress and intonation. If it's a written text, it's handwriting, layout of your page. You cannot escape it. Nonverbal aspects of verbal communication make it much simpler - and much, much more difficult at the same time because now it's not only what words you choose but how you say them.
Grotto creates quite a curious experiment: what if the main point of the game was precise communication but you could only rely on a number of meanings to get your point across? There are no nonverbal options, you cannot nod or shake your head even on a yes/no question. This is frustrating, especially when people come to you asking whether or not they should wage war and you want to tell them "absolutely not". Instead, you have to go and bring them a constellation that, in your opinion, means "absolutely not" and just hope they interpret it as such, and not the opposite. Again and again Grotto makes you live through the insides of human communication as you take a constellation that would surely cheer somebody up and then watch them become depressed because the stars you brought made them remember something tragic.
"Let's imagine yer say "blue" and there's these three guys. The first one, who lives by the sea, reckons yer talking about water. The second one, who lives on a mountain peak, thinks of the sky. And the third one becomes sad. Just because."
People in Grotto treat the constellations you give them exactly like people in real life often treat each other's opinions. Sometimes I bring them stars and they focus on a single meaning instead of seeing the bigger picture, because that meaning is the one that reinforces their own opinion. They didn't come to me for my point of view, they already know what to do. But they wanted someone to back them up, so in whatever I bring them they will just find speckles - however small - of encouragement even if I meant none. They only take the meanings they want and ignore everything else.
Oh, let me introduce you. This is the First Hunter of the Brutes. The Chief's right hand. He calls me "Stranger", and while for me this word merely means "a person I'm not yet acquainted with", for him it is almost an insult. For the First Hunter there is the tribe, and there are Others. Strangers. Outlanders. And he marks me by this name in quite an offensive way. He, too, came to ask for advice, but does he care for it? First Hunter is one of those people who will do the exact opposite of whatever I say. If I tell him he should wait, he will run into battle. If I tell him that he should make a decision quickly, he would stall. He is convinced that I harbor ill will towards the Brutes even though I did nothing that would make him think so. I'm sure you've met people like the First Hunter in your life at least once. They just don't seem to understand what you're trying to say, your every word seems to provoke them even though you didn't mean to be offensive and you have no ill intentions. It's as if you're at different frequencies or at different levels and you somehow just cannot establish a channel of communication even though you speak the same language. In my language we say "they can't find common tongue", meaning not literally the language - English, Spanish or Japanese - but rather the shared set of values or a similar worldview that would allow people to communicate effectively and without hostility or misunderstanding.
And this is the Chief. He calls me Soothsayer and genuinely seeks my advice. He heeds my every constellation and I can rely on his skills of interpretation to understand what it is I am trying to tell him. We have found the common language, and our communication goes smoothly. He trusts me, and he trusts my ability to help him lead the Brutes into their uncertain future. One day I will tell him how he should die. It will be the last question he'll ever ask me.
And this is her. She is quite lost. She asks me a question she knows I have the answer for. I think, she should know the truth. I grab the Mammoth from the wall of stars, I know she'll understand. When I come back, she is gone.
She'll be coming back many times and quite soon. She comes to me partly because everyone else does, and also because she hopes. She hopes that I will give her the stars that will pull her out of obscurity. At the same time she is afraid that I would give her a direction and then it would be up to her.
In Grotto you never leave the cave, and all the knowledge you have on the outside world and the tribe of Brutes is brought to you by the many people who come to ask the stars. This is such an interesting way of world-building: rather then letting you experience the outside and form your own opinion, you have to rely on other people, and people are always biased. You have to think very carefully who to trust and who to disregard; the fact that you have to make progressively more and more important decisions for the tribe while being confined in a cave with zero first-hand experience on matters you're trying to influence, is agonizing. All decisions you make are final, there is no save/load option. I don't know how the narrative branches out and whether there are as many outcomes depending on different decisions as the game makes you think there are, and I honestly don't really care. I almost never replay games, and if these decisions feel important and soul-wrenching in the moment, and make me panic, make me think that it's a matter of life and death that depends only on me, it's good enough, whether or not there are drastically different outcomes or not. If the game makes me think that there are, that's all I want from it.
Even though you are limited to one cave, it has two parts: the sanctuary with the wall of stars and a little cloth of sky above, and the part near the entrance where you give audience to people seeking your counsel. However, when the brazier is lit, you cannot see immediately who it is from the sanctuary, and it is such a simple yet ingenious way to build anticipation and even terror. There are people you're always happy to see. People in whose storylines you're interested the most. And people who you never want to see in your cave ever again.
At a certain point you meet someone who does not speak the language that you and the Brutes speak, and you have to rely on an interpreter. It makes the process of figuring out what people want and what you think will be best for them infinitely more complicated because the only agency you had in a conversation is taken away from you. You can no longer make sense from whatever your interlocutor says by yourself but instead have to rely on the interpreter, and this is incredibly frustrating. You see, you got a lousy interpreter: he doesn't understand half the words himself, neither does he care for the accuracy of the parts he does understand. He brings so much of his personal attitude - and his plain ignorance - to the speech he's trying to translate that it is absolutely impossible to make any kind of informed decision and give a constellation that will make any sense, at least to you. But you have to. Because you're the Soothsayer who speaks to the stars, and this is your responsibility.
I was particularly pleased with the way Grotto is paced. Pacing is something I'm very sensitive to. The game starts small and slow: a handful of Brutes come to you to seek guidance on how they should distribute resources, what they should prioritize, whether or not they should accept merchants from other lands or ban them from entering the tribe grounds. Some of them confide their personal struggles in you and ask for your advice. During these meetings you learn much of how the Tribe functions, what different people are called according to their role in this very tight-knit society, what traditions they have and on what principles they build their existence. Then, the pace picks up, and you're confronted with your first life-or-death decision, and then one more and one more. You're in a cave where hardly anything ever changes, and outside there are these big events unfolding, and who knows how big your part was in all of that. Towards the end of the game I felt my heart beating so fast, and I was so scared of what's to come, of what consequences my decisions led to, that I had to take a couple of breaks because the tension was just difficult for me to bear. The feelings of helplessness as you become lost in the meanings of stars, as nothing you're offering is interpreted right, as cave's safety is taken away from you... And it's basically just a visual novel, there isn't really any gameplay to speak of except dialogue and a handful of other interactions. What I find even more curious in how this story unfolds, is that in a few hours you become really attached to the Brutes. Yes, they are kind of weird. But they are yours to lead.
Thank you for your time.