The role of someone who could predict the future, or would advise the community on what to do, is a practice that goes back to the dawn of humans – a shaman, an oracle, a fortune teller, an astrologer. It’s common in all religions, across all countries the world over, albeit in slightly different forms.
In Grotto, you play a Soothsayer in a made-up civilization populated by animal-human hybrids. You find your predictions from the stars as the people arrive, asking important life and death questions. Are you ready to read the stars?
The story and setup of Grotto are both quite simple. You play the part of a stranger who lives in a cave or a grotto. You have a small tent and a rock to stand on, staring up at the night sky via a hole in the roof. In another part of the cave, there is a fire. It is here where the locals flock, coming to you for advice. It’s up to you to divine that truth from the stars, utilising icons collected from your wall of drawings, handing them to the villagers as answers are found. Hopefully. .
I say ‘hopefully’ because Grotto is all about stories, what is true and what is false. It’s about a world in which guidance is given, allowing the asker to interpret this how they see fit. Now and again the only voiceover of the game will come from the fire itself, telling you poetic and insightful words about power and life itself. In all, the writing is very good, intriguing, in fact. But it is very unlike anything else you will have ever played.
The local tribe consists of human-animal hybrids, coming to you to seek truth and knowledge. They are an amazing mix of personalities and characters, from a village chief to the hunter. Whoever, it’s up to you to determine the course of action of how their world unfolds. I don’t know how much of a change you make to the narrative timeline, but it feels like you are watching, guiding this epic story of life, all as it plays out from your little cave. The narrative is strange, dark, dreamlike and wonderful.
Gameplay is very simple and the world you inhabit is extremely small. In the first person, you move from one end of the cave to the other, occasionally taking icons or shapes within the stars, looking up at small constellations, creating shapes by connecting a line from star to star with your controller. Sometimes these shapes appear from what you have drawn, but at other times you’ll create at random.
You have a wall full of drawings at the back of your grotto, which shows all the icons or shapes you have collated. You can then take these, passing them on to a tribesperson as an answer to their questions. These are straight answers, but symbolic and open to interpretations. It’s here where you’ll find those folk occasionally pleased with the answers you give them. At other times they will be annoyed or nonplussed. Then you get other tools, all as Grotto progresses; like a bone scrying table, a musical instrument, and a pipe.
The world of Grotto comes across with cel-shaded visuals and it is quite beautiful and beguiling at times, whilst the characters you meet are brilliantly drawn and animated. You do long – after a few hours in – to get out of this cave and stretch your legs but unfortunately that never comes. And complementing the visuals is a strange, rather hypnotic soundtrack, one that makes wonderful use of vocals. The only bit of voice-over is a bit odd though, where a few voices are mixed as one to create a disturbing, distorted tone.
Whilst there are restrictions in terms of the gameplay and location, Grotto is one of those most unique of indie experiences. It’s full of strange world building and weird language, but that does mean it comes across as a great experiment, one looking to utilise communication and diviners.
Think of Grotto as a comment on how worlds and civilisations are controlled and you’ll look at the night sky with an altogether different set of eyes.