What’s more dangerous, the titular “gunk” or the man that caused it? As our hero, Rani, exclaims – “It’s doing all this damage and it doesn’t even have a brain”, a line which resonated particularly through it’s duality. Everyday, we as human beings observe climate change: the melting ice caps, the endless stream of forest fires, the hottest New Year in British history. And yet, more than a fair share of our species deny the very thing causing these problems, the thing they (even if marginally) cause themselves.
I don’t think The Gunk’s allegorical depiction of worldly matters is that sharply dour though. It’s actually fairly quaint and charming, in many ways stemming from its simplicity. Primarily a 3D platformer, The Gunk’s stripped back mechanics became refreshing in an industry constantly growing at an indescribable speed. All the while, The Gunk looks modern, unquestionably a next gen release with wonderful lighting and use of distinct colour, even in spite of a limited indie development team’s budget.
Entering the atmosphere of an alien planet, seemingly dearth in valuable loot, resources or even life, scavenger duo Rani and Becks quickly face “the gunk”, a gooey, expansive smog, splattered across the desolate landscape, consuming everything from flora to terrain. With tiny signs of energy found on the planet, the team desperate for a score plop down and explore: Becks holds down the fort while our player-protagonist Rani excavates the gunk with her prosthetic arm capable of sucking up black fog like a galactic Henry Hoover. Ridding the surface of the gunk reveals its truly pernicious nature, cleansing the land, facilitating life, and uncovering how the gloop came to be.
Rani and Becks are an affable pair, two characters which deliver almost all of the dialogue, matched with some lovely voice acting. It’s integral they got this right in my opinion, any game with such a small cast must. In the wrong hands, they could’ve easily come off as overly quirky and irritating, but as is, their blooming relationship, tidbits about their past, and even the mundane dialogue lines are a treat. Strains are placed on their relationship through contrasting lifestyles: Rani’s urge to explore and take risks directly conflicts with Becks’ pragmatic desires of safety. As a result, the platonic relationship again ties into this theme of going back to a simpler time, as Rani displays attributes of an adventurous kid while Becks’ eye for risk-aversion presents her as a parental figure.
And like any good (average?) child, Rani knows best, the parent can stick it and we’re doing what we want. And we feel that too, because the world of The Gunk – polluted and downtrodden by both a person of power and the result of their abuse of said power – is still endearing, despite the swathes of lumpy, icky black clouds. It’s partly down to just how fun it is to suck it all up. Rani made do with a prior amputation and now has installed Pumpkin, a robotic super-arm capable of, for no reason other than to service the gameplay, infinite vacuum powers. The Gunk taps into that part of the brain a lot of simulation games also strike a cord with, the part that favours order and tidiness, values a job well done, and generally, for some reason, finds mundanity enjoyable. Sucking up the gunk is nothing more than loosely aiming at it and pulling the trigger. It’s not involved or complex, so explaining why it’s so satisfying feels impossible. Wiping out a cockroach infested room in House Flipper, or plugging in all the cables in PC Building Simulator, it induces a serotonin response I can’t reasonably decode due to how rooted in routine it is, but it absolutely works.
The reward in those games – and The Gunk too – is two fold: the intrinsic bliss of completing something perfectly, and secondly seeing the subsequent immaculacy. In the latter comparison, PC Building Simulator, I’d say the decently modelled rendering of a completed PC isn’t as compelling as admiring a house wiped spick and span, or in The Gunk’s case, viewing a vista of lushious, exotic plants and treets blooms from the muck, tinted with colours which perfectly juxtapose with the sinister gunk. It’s easy to go overboard in this sense; splash the screen with every bright colour known to man like a child throwing paint filled water balloons at a black car. The land of The Gunk, post restoration, is grounded and believable, despite its obviously alien origin. The green flora, rather than looking overexposed for dramatic effect, instead have a deeper richness to them, sitting alongside some muted yellows and red for contrast, but without appearing jarring by sensory overload. Once you’ve sucked up all the gunk in an area, the true beauty once belied by murky smog reveals itself in a wonderful way without appearing gaudy or cheap.
When you’re not roleplaying a glorified Dyson, you’re hopping and skipping across rocks and precipices, unearthing runes and artefacts of the old world existing before being overtaken by the gunk. As I’ve said, it’s very simple, so much so it’s hard to believe a game released in 2021 would have the moxie to ride with such primitive, lacking mechanics, but it does, and it’s kind of a relief. The platforming is never the focus, despite making up the majority of the gameplay, and it certainly suffices, even if it doesn’t innovate. The tried and tested jumping challenges work well, even if sprinting was designed with a weird quirk to halt momentum as soon as you start jumping. In conjunction with platforming, you’ll use Pumpkin’s vacuum function for puzzle solving, sucking in bulbs capable of growing grand trees and blowing up debris like plant-based dynamite. Again, there was never anything mechanically or design wise which felt innovative in the actual puzzle solving, but the quaintness and ease to which most areas can be moved through worked in the games overall favour, keeping good pace with the narrative and facilitating brisk moments of awe as you drop the foggy veil draped over the infected environment.
Let’s talk about the story, a cautionary tale of climate change which won’t blow the minds of those clued into the subject, won’t change the minds of those willfully ignorant of the subject, but charmed the pants off of me regardless. Beginning subtly, Rani and Becks’ desire/need for loot leads them to an uncharted planet, showing miniscule signs of energy. “Energy” in this case seems to represent the ultimate reward, amorphous and undefined yet evidently in utmost demand. Humankind’s search for energy has led us to where we are today, and planet of The Gunk seems to represent the end goal of earth if we allow ourselves to ride the train we’re currently on. The peoples of the planet don’t even show up until half way through the game, earlier if you allow gradioise statues to fall under the definition of “showing up”, but living and breathing, even after a few hours, they’re scarcely seen. The environmental storytelling in The Gunk is as important as the dialogue between our two main characters, executed well in part down to the planet’s eye-catching design, highlighting the wonder of nature tarnished by the misled ambition of the alien race. The memorials to a certain member of said race are found spread throughout the valleys, and as the story progresses, he becomes something of a symbol of excess human growth. Smartly, the monoliths and statues dedicated to the icon stop at a certain point, indicating how the gunk overwhelmed the entire nation before they could even realise it was a problem.
For a good 80% of the game’s length, the narrative is well paced and utilises a softer, more subdued tone. The allegories to humanity’s rapid growth – and potential, disastrous decline – is clear, and the final 20% is where the game makes the point with perhaps too heavy a hand, drawing parallels to the real world far too blatantly. It doesn’t help that the game’s ending hinges off the acts of humans saving the planet themselves. In one sense, this could be seen as a message that we, as humans, can still act in the real world, but in terms of the game’s story it feels a bit trite to have human saviours in a situation we ourselves haven’t actually solved. The Gunk plays and has the aura of a game that can be enjoyed by anyone, and perhaps the ending signifies that too, not wanting to take a darker route whereby humanity can’t save the planet due to their failings on earth – a plot point which probably would have made more of an impact, but runs against the otherwise uplifting themes of the game.
Towards the latter half of the game also it’s apparent the mechanics weren’t evolving at all really. In one regard, to drive a point home, I liked the simplicity of The Gunk, allowing the player to breeze through challenges and enjoy the visuals and narrative, but it’s undeniable how barebones some of the systems are. There’s an upgrade system whereby you take resources collected on your journey and use them to boost things like your “gun” function (essentially a weak, slow stun move), your sprint, how much and how quickly you can inhale gunk etc. It’s all very routine, and doesn’t quite feel integrated with the game. For one, you need to return to your homebase to upgrade, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been done on the fly in a menu since there’s no other reason to return back to ship. Additionally, resources come to you, rather than you finding them. Secret areas aren’t very common, and most upgrades can be acquired through regular play, so in that sense, the whole system feels redundant.
Ultimately, recommending this game comes down to whether you can make a few conceits. The Gunk is a lovely, short adventure on an alien planet exploring the very earthly concept of climate change. It isn’t abstract or complex, descriptors which also apply to the gameplay itself, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. If you’re someone yearning for a more heady approach to the topic, The Gunk won’t fulfil that, nor will it satisfy those looking for a robust 3D platformer rivalling the fluidity of Mario or the scavenging of Banjo. What it will (hopefully) do however is charm the pants off you with a stunningly rendered environment encasing a terse yet poignant narrative, all through the musings of an endearing couple with gameplay so breezy you might forget you’re even playing it.