Adventure Gamers Awards
Its title may sound like a horror story, but there is something appealingly cute and childlike about Ghost Giant. The playful execution of this PlayStation VR exclusive gives players full control over a dollhouse world that looks like it’s been pulled right out of the latest Pixar animated movie. But don’t let its charming aesthetic fool you into thinking this is an adventure targeted solely at kids either, as developer Zoink Games have crafted a narrative that touches on surprisingly adult themes that everyone can relate to, harnessing the game’s delightful art to tug at heartstrings and make even the most grown-up among us giggle with glee here and there. You know you’re in for a treat when, wearing a VR headset, you suddenly forget to act your age and point excitedly at an empty corner of the room, exclaiming to no one in particular, “Did you see that?”
In order to make all this happen, Ghost Giant had to build a believable friendship between the player and its in-game protagonist, a walking, talking young cat named Louis. Even the opening scene puts this intimate connection front and center. After a brief menu screen to calibrate the controls, inky nothingness gives way to a distant figure, sobbing sorrowfully. As the camera moves closer, the urge to reach out and gently comfort him takes over. Using the PlayStation Move controllers to guide a pair of massive, translucent three-fingered appendages, you reach out to the young creature, who stops crying in response to your touch. As the surrounding area finally comes into focus, young Louis recoils in horror at what he sees, running and hiding from the unexpected apparition.
It’s clear that Louis can see you, although the same cannot be said for the other townsfolk. This first interactive scene teaches players the basics of interacting with the world, directing you first to save Louis’s treehouse as it threatens to plunge from its perch, then assist Louis himself by throwing him a life preserver after he topples into the water. Despite his initial (and understandable) fear of the huge, ethereal newcomer, these gestures allow Louis to warm up to you. Who or what (or even why) the ghost giant is – an apparition, out-of-this-world traveler, or simply a figment of Louis’s imagination – is never made clear, but perhaps it doesn’t really matter; you appear during a time of crisis for Louis, and are precisely who and what he needs in that particular moment. There is something refreshingly simple about this idea, and it’s the first of several narrative aspects that make Ghost Giant extremely relatable.
Being an adorable kitten certainly helps your investment in Louis’s plight, but the way he is brought to life is nothing short of amazing, particularly by Kimlinh Tran, the voice actress chosen for the role. Louis is playful and hungers for magical adventures (one memorable scene sees him begging the ghost giant to bring down a cloud from the sky for him to ride on), but there is something sad and lonely about him as well. It is clear quite early on that something has happened to his mother – the story he tells concerned townsfolk when they ask about her keeps changing each time he tells it – and now Louis is in charge of his family’s sunflower farm all alone. Whether bawling uncontrollably, laughing cheerfully, cowering in fright, or awestruck by the possibilities of having a powerful new partner, the young protagonist’s portrayal is always natural and spot-on, and makes it easy to engage heart and soul in this burgeoning friendship.
Ghost Giant is broken into a dozen or so self-contained scenes, each reminiscent of a large-scale shoebox diorama that offers you various tasks to accomplish. Movement is restricted: although you can take a step or two, it’s really more about turning and bending, and environments are designed so compactly that everything is within easy grasp. Together with an inviting and attractive papercraft art style depicting several locations in and around the small town of Sancourt, including Louis’s sunflower farm, the harbor, the town square, and the local graveyard, most areas encourage closer examination and end up feeling very intimate and warm, and within no time one feels wholly at home in this inviting world. There is even some care taken to animate the different conversations and interactions of Sancourt’s citizens, and those willing to lean in close to observe can do so at their leisure.
Generally speaking, each scenario requires you to achieve one overarching goal, necessitating multiple smaller steps along the way. There are some seeds Louis needs for the farm, for example, which are stuck on a boat since the crane has broken down and can’t unload them. It is up to you to repair the crane, which in itself requires several parts to be found and assembled along the way. Some objects are simply hidden within the environment, waiting to be discovered, while others may require some form of interaction to become available. For instance, a group of art lovers block the bridge to the harbor early in the game, and will only allow Louis to pass after the ghost giant has drawn a picture to distract them. Finding materials to double as paints becomes a puzzle in its own right for you to solve first.
The setting isn’t meant to be taken too realistically; while it’s real to Louis and the other animal residents, as the ghost giant you can interact with buildings and features in ways only apparent to you. Levers raise, lower, and turn buildings to allow for inspection from every angle; and some roofs and walls, while physically there, are either invisible or can be removed to enable you to peer inside. It all adds to the dollhouse feel, only this is a dollhouse in which the inhabitants don’t notice when objects float into the sky as an unseen entity picks them up for inspection, only to be tossed back nonchalantly moments later.
Despite the relaxed pace, the ever-present feeling that something was amiss wouldn’t let me accept the game’s serenity at face value. After some early scenes spent as a makeshift farmer, I found myself surprised at some of the mature places the game went. Without being explicitly stated, themes like depression and mental illness are explored, alongside common childhood dilemmas like an argument with a best friend. The heavier subject matter is treated seriously without being too on-the-nose, always seen from a child’s viewpoint. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when the reality hits that good deeds and well wishes may not be enough to right all the world’s wrongs. The naive certainty that everything will be all right, replaced with the crushing powerlessness one feels when that particular bubble bursts, gives Ghost Giant some decidedly thought-provoking content.
As solemn as some of its undertones are, the game frequently offers a light-hearted sense of whimsy, and even some downright jaw-droppingly beautiful moments in its 3-4 hour runtime. There’s a particularly gorgeous sequence in the latter half that involves finding the proper inspiration to help Louis’s piano teacher, Monsieur Debussy, finish composing his magnum opus. This requires solving several puzzles, like helping a bird who’s been locked up by a cranky building superintendent for the crime of noise pollution. In the closing moments of this particular scenario, Louis finally approaches Maurice, his former best friend whom he abandoned at their school’s music recital. Seeing the two finally mend their fences is touching; hearing the two of them then perform a stirring rendition of “Clair de Lune” together, as their piano floats into a star-filled sky, is an unforgettable and deeply-satisfying experience.
The game’s ending, on the other hand, feels a little like the developers ran out of time, as events escalate toward an emotional zenith for Louis, but very suddenly just sort of deflate, almost skipping the climax in an attempt to get to a finale that provides the characters some closure. It also does a poor job paying off the sense of dread established previously about what is to come, as things abruptly finish in a way that doesn’t feel truly earned. It struck me like a sitcom approaching its credit roll, resolving all outstanding issues as quickly as possible.
The task of assisting Monsieur Debussy is a stand-out musical moment, but it’s just one example of Ghost Giant’s impeccable score. While some scenes are merely accompanied by natural environmental sounds, the emotional moments – from triumph to panic to excited wonder – are underscored beautifully by well-composed instrumental pieces that match the tone perfectly. In terms of vocal performances, Louis represents the high point throughout, but with very few exceptions the supporting voice cast does an equally outstanding job.
Beyond the central objective in each scene, Ghost Giant offers a tad more longevity in the form of hidden collectibles. While these don’t tie into the plot in any way, players with a completionist itch will appreciate the excuse to root around the diorama sets a bit more. The inclusion of basketball hoops that have to be scored on to count toward the collectible total, however, seems puzzling. Issues inherent in accurately aiming and throwing objects in VR are well-documented by now, and here they make the ball-shooting activity a frustrating chore to complete rather than an entertaining addition, even if it is entirely optional.
Like its feline protagonist, Ghost Giant is proof that worthwhile experiences can come in small, unassuming packages. The game doesn’t revolutionize the virtual reality medium, but it throws players into a well-realized, charming world with simple yet satisfying gameplay and a surprisingly emotional tale. After spending just a few hours with him, plucky little Louis may just be my best new virtual friend, in large part due to outstanding characterization. With its modest premise and a runtime that most people will probably complete within a single sitting or two, this game is one nobody with a PlayStation VR headset should miss out on.