I’ve never liked the word escapism. Guiding my parties through perilous dungeons has lifted me out of black depressions. Impossible bosses have given me laser focus in times of foggy uncertainty. I’ve been inspired in life by characters I relate to. I’ve been inspired in art by their creators. But to call this an escape, I think, is to fall into the trap of portraying negative emotions as somehow more real; to wear cynicism like armor. ‘Escapism’ feels like a slight. It devalues the transformative beauty of creative work. I’ve never viewed art as some disposable addition to life that you indulge in once the bills are paid. As some sort of reward for being a correct and functional member of society. Art, to me, is what gives life color. Color is never secondary.
But there’s always a conflict there, right? A whisper of guilt or uncertainty. The feeling we might be wasting our time. There is for Legendary Gary, at least. A conflict between virtual adventure and meat space responsibilities. A conflict between escapism and improvement. The Steam page reads: “Help Gary become a better person in his real life and a legend in his virtual life.” If this deeply personal and lovingly crafted adventure works for you like it worked for me, Legendary Gary might end up helping you too.
The first time I was given control of Gary and left to make my own decisions, it didn’t really feel like a choice at all. Not because I wasn’t eager to explore the house – I was. And not because Gary’s many branching dialogue choices aren’t significant – they are. But because my ultimate destination felt so inevitable. Gary’s chaotic bedroom blossoms outward from his sacred computer monitor like a village from a water source. His friends and relatives are pastel apparitions, his responsibilities, specters.
We’ve all been Gary at one point. At least, I know I certainly have. Shunning dull and painful realities for somewhere that we can feel, if not safe, at least like we have handle on things. Gary’s PC is the lonely sun that the rest of his reality orbits around. His journey, in part, is about coming to terms with this relationship.
As the first notes of xXSickXx’s infectious pop bubble up from the king’s feast hall, Legendary Gary’s style rushes you full on. It’s somewhere between a Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings punk fanzine and discovering a brand new Adult Swim cartoon stoned at 4am. Or if the 1981 Heavy Metal movie was based on lo-fi indie comics. Psychedelic concept album-style fantasy, stripped of elvish excess and brought to life in vibrant, painstaking detail. There are prettier games than Legendary Gary, but few where each individual brick feels like an extension of the artist’s personality.
Whilst Legendary Gary made me laugh in a few places, it wouldn’t quite be accurate to call it a comedy game. The humor is organic, rising out of recognition of familiar moments, somewhere between goofiness and melancholy. Awkward family talks and shitty jobs, wasted Saturdays and stupid bullshit nothing conversations with friends that mean everything even when nothing of substance gets said. It’s a mumblecore film, basically, but if I had a criticism, it would be that it needs more mumble. Dialogue is always clear in establishing situations and expressing emotions, but more stylistic liberties, in-jokes and odd turns of phrase would have helped it feel more specific to the speaker.
The writing occasionally slips into caricature for the purposes of humor, and this dulls the unmistakable Gary-ness that the unique visuals establish. Again, I appreciated that I always knew the stakes. The game always made it clear how the characters felt. But frequently, the words coming out of their mouths sounded less like those of a person, and more like those of a writer wanting to push the plot forward.
It’s still touching as hell, despite all this. The sense of a singular, highly personal vision is present from start finish. It’s what makes Legendary Gary feel so human. There’s a bevy of clever and intricate details I was in love with. The Greco-Roman flourishes that bring the UI to life. The contrast between Winkali’s driven sprint and Gary’s plodding, aimless gait that seemed to sum up Gary’s past failures and future aspirations perfectly. The sacred patch on Gary’s front lawn that begins as a gardening chore but soon becomes a joy to nurture. The ways the power structures from one world manifest themselves in the other. Nothing feels cut and paste here. Everything is deliberate, careful, and lovingly crafted.
You’ll start combat with just Gary – or Winkali, his avatar – but are soon joined by two others. Ipo can hit multiple foes at once with a sweeping kick attack, and learns a variety of disabling debuffs as the game progresses. Agridge is a maternal healer with a range of helpful buffs.
Combat takes place on a hexagonal grid, occurring in turn-based half steps as you duck and weave through the melee, dodging blows and throwing punches. It’s never truly challenging, but it doesn’t need to be. Combat sequences are less desperate scraps, more of a dynamic board game, requiring foresight and coordination to succeed. Lack of tension can often be a killer with tactics games. Turns can always be rewound, and there’s no penalty for failing here, but the sense of constant progress towards a perfect solution to these pugilistic puzzles keep things from ever feeling dull.
The combat’s biggest flaw is that there’s just not enough of it. As mentioned, you’ll start to gain a good amount of extra abilities as you progress. Just as everything’s filling out into a robust and varied system, the final sequences occur. At the same time, Legendary Gary’s story is so well paced that more fights would have interfered with the flow. This problem isn’t unique to Gary – how do you fit a combat system worth exploring into a bespoke, choreographed experience? I’m not sure it’s the perfect solution, but an extra Arena mode with a series of battles -offering progressively more advanced upgrades – seems like it would be a good fit. Another potential sticking point is the heavy use of xXSickXx’s music. We should probably talk about the music for a bit, as integral as it is.
Personally, I’m now a fan of xXSickXx’s lo-fi, mournfully upbeat synth pop, but I appreciate not everyone will be. The bands tendency towards short, non-traditionally structured songwriting means a lot of repetition in combat. After listening to the album, I feel some Gary specific mixes would have helped to make things flow better. I could do my best Pitchfork writer impression here and impotently try to trap sounds into prose (come at me, literally every music journalist ever), but hey, here’s a Bandcamp link instead. Check it out, and see what you think. It’s an inseparable part of the game, woven into combat like a mixtape, so how you feel about it will go a long way towards how you’ll feel about Legendary Gary as a whole.
Should you buy it?
Games like Legendary Gary remind how inadequate consumer focused-reviews can be sometimes. The game is short. Branching conversations offer some limited replay value. While its combat system is great fun, it’s never expanded on enough to make the game worth recommending purely to experience it. But that stuff really isn’t the point here. It’s another trailer watcher, for me. If you love the music and the art, you’ll love Legendary Gary. It’s creative, subtle, clever, emotional, funny, and just such a successful imagining of one artists highly specific vision for a project that it playing feels like having a conversation with its creator. Its flaws only highlight how human, and how personal, the game truly is.
Available from: Steam