GRUNND is a point and click mystery game that requires a tremendous amount of suspension of disbelief, but don’t write it off. Given the world-building and the beauty of the surreal experience, GRUNND is well worth a second look or three.
GRUNND places you in control of a nameless, suited “hero” who wakes up at a similarly nameless train station, and from there, it’s up to you to explore dialogue trees and interact with the motley cast of characters inhabiting GRUNND’s dark world, including with creatures that live inside a wall.
The game seems to strive for an ambience of the strange and melancholy, and I’d argue that it succeeds. Strolling down from the train station, you discover that the area in which you find yourself is called Bytown. You walk through the woods after receiving the ominous instruction not to take any shortcuts, and that’s the last normal thing that will happen to you on this journey.
Let’s get something out of the way right now. If you are the kind of gamer that cares for a cohesive plot, concrete story notes, and largely sensical dialogue, GRUNND is absolutely, 100% not for you. Even when you finish the story, you’ll still walk away with almost as many questions as you had when you started, including the question of whether anything actually happened. I don’t say this as a criticism, necessarily, because GRUNND never had any intention of showing you the entire story. GRUNND developer Sektahouse has pointed to Franz Kafka and David Lynch as inspirations for the game, and let me tell you, that’s not an exaggeration. GRUNND alternates between the mundane and the bizarre, and while there may be answers to the questions the story poses, the answers aren’t the point. Rather, GRUNND wants you as the player to make choices and reflect on them, drawing your own conclusions regarding Bytown and its denizens.
Kafka’s work often focused on themes of alienation and the absurd, while Lynch explores his visual language through dreams and related imagery. Sektahouse has not replicated this same visual language, but has given GRUNND that same surreal feeling. The game’s backgrounds are lovingly hand-painted, but the art style manipulates shadow and color to obscure details, meaning that there’s a remove from everything you see. Your mind processes an outline and identifies it as a child, but you have no idea what the child looks like. It delineates spaces with strong black strokes that block in shapes, but again, there’s always a certain remove. In some ways, the art style reminds me of that of LIMBO with some color added to reinforce the title’s surreal vibe.
The soundtrack is similarly deliberately minimal. I imagine the key inspiration for the sound design is “haunting” or possibly even “unnerving.” The voice acting is solid, though the actual language in the dialogue options feels stilted and strange, which again, may actually be a stylistic choice. In terms of gameplay, GRUNND is a point-and-click, with white bubbles appearing to indicate where interaction with an object is possible. GRUNND doesn’t send you on quests, per se, though there are certain stories you need to complete. Neither does it telegraph which choices are significant, which I liked. Some titles tend to broadcast when a choice will be important enough that whatever you decide will set you on one path while foreclosing others. GRUNND is a little more like life in which you often aren’t sure what choices will be life-changing and which options are the best.
There’s a lot to love about GRUNND to be sure, but it does have its issues. Most of these problems are small, but they do mount up. The click-zone for the interaction bubbles isn’t always where it should be, and some buttons will appear and disappear at will. I found disembarking from the boat to be particularly frustrating. The game also experienced odd glitches, more so than I would have expected, so if you decide to give GRUNND a whirl, be prepared to encounter the odd bug.
GRUNND also finishes abruptly. Remember when I said that it leaves you wondering about a large number of things? The ending comes upon you quickly and doesn’t provide any of the closure you might expect. While I certainly understand that not every question needs an answer, GRUNND really could have benefited from a more thoroughly defined narrative structure. Moreover, it takes its commitment to being atmospheric to an extreme. There is a truly astounding amount of wandering around ruminating on the weirdness of it all, and GRUNND’s pacing suffers for it. While short, about only a couple of hours, it unfolds slowly, almost frustratingly so.
GRUNND really is a fascinating experience, but it is one that could do with a bit more polish. None of that is surprising given that Sektahouse is largely a one-man operation, but in places the gameplay really does suffer. While the game doesn’t really require skills to complete, it’s not really one that you can pick up and put down because cobbling together the narrative requires some serious thought. If you’re looking for a game that provides a linear experience and clears up all of the loose ends for you, GRUNND is not going to be the mentally relaxing title for which you’re looking. GRUNND wants you to take advantage of the hero’s peculiar isolation experiences and reflect upon them.
If you’re a fan of the surreal and Kafkaesque, then GRUNND should be on your radar, especially for a very reasonable $14.99 on Steam.
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard
- If anyone comes up with an explanation for the trash collectors, please let me know.
- You get the option of whom to save, but really, I’m not sure it matters all that much. The whole experience is depressing.
- You do get some vaguely metal music in GRUNND, and the effect is incredibly jarring, so be aware.
- I found the father/son sequence to be uncomfortably bizarre.
- One of the other themes in it is that of government and bureaucracy. I haven’t decided what I think about it yet, so I didn’t include it in the main review. However, GRUNND does ask questions about both order and the arbitrary. No, I can’t be much clearer.
- This is not a title that I think I’ll ever replay.
Platforms: GoG, PC, Steam