New Heads and Stalled Growth in ‘GoNNER’

GoNNER is crazy and imaginative but lacks the balance to properly encourage personal growth.

Written by M. Joshua Cauller

Put on your favorite head. Grab your gunbone. And don’t forget your shark fin before you jump down the snake.

You heard me right.

GoNNER drops you into an odd-cute hell — where you’re a cutesy gun-toting destroyer of after-lives. Mario-hop onto adorable hellspawn. Blast away semi-defenseless porcupine minions. And unleash berzerker-gunbone blasts thanks to your raging shark fin, all while mounting-up a sick combo that stays floating as you hop into the level-ending tube snake — which poops you into the next zone.

You start naked: nothing more than a torso with legs — that can only jump and double-jump. Then you start putting things on. First, a head: which defines your life force and the power of your jumping ability. Second, your gun-bone: from a short-range chain lightning gun-bone, to an accelerating rocket ball launcher. Then you need an accessory: a fat circle that gives you a third-jump, or a heart that replenishes ammo (like I said, I prefer the berzerker-blast shark fin).

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Nobody would guess that you’re actually just a pair of legs with no natural head — until you get hit by an enemy: your gear goes flying (head especially)! Suddenly you’re in full scramble to identify your body, get back on your feet, grab your gear, and stay alive. Otherwise another hit sends you permadeath-ing back to the start — Death’s dressing room.

It’s here in Death’s dressing room, naked, that the game speaks to me.

I find myself back here often, choosing what head I want to put on — what identity and skill set I want to wear. This all feels far too familiar. While video games are known to offer customization, swappable heads speak so much more to the issues of identity that I personally struggle with.

I’ve worn countless “heads” in my life — mostly sticking with the one I’m most comfortable with: “Christian video game trailer-maker.” Bring up faith or games and I’m there — even if I’m so tired that I can barely lift my head. Other “heads” feel infinitely more awkward to me — like “father” doesn’t come naturally to me at all. And “real-world friend” isn’t something half as easy as “online friend.” Most “heads” feel disproportionately difficult — except for the easy head.

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GoNNER definitely has what feels like an easy head: the Frankenstein head that lets you hold onto your gear when hit. Instead of the gear-dropping scramble, I just jump up and keep blasting. It’s almost too easy. Since the game lets me pick which head I want, I lean on this Frankenstein head (with the shotgun-bone and shark fin combo) — I lean hard.

This combination keeps coming back to me like a gently-smothering mother that you don’t want to actually go away. Each time I die, I’m given a chance to cash-in my purple rune currency to potentially annul the permadeath and get a new shot at the zone I died on — as long as I have enough of the grape-colored goods. Respawn there or respawn at the beginning of the game, the default next screen is the same mini-dressing room: with the exact loadout I want, pressed and ready to go. Without thinking, the easy combo is back on my armless torso, ready to shred adorable demons.

Of course I’m going to use the easiest combination available in a brutal-hard game of jumping, shooting, and dying. Tensions run high! Each level comes with added stress of simulated darkness: walls and floors only reveal themselves when I’m close. And each enemy is more than capable of ending my life — something amplified by the magnetic danger of combo-chasing. This all creates a singular goal of survival.

Survival instinct is the only thing motivating me to try a different head.

I hate how self-preservation is often the only thing to get me to try new things. In GoNNER’s case I try new noggins at the pre-boss stores because I want to stay alive —  and find out what’s at the end of this cute-hell rainbow.

So, sure. I will try the weird head shaped like a revolver coming out of its face. It shoots an extra bullet from my snout and gives me one more unit of health than the empty-health of now-depleted “Frankie” (good, old fat-head). But I’ll only try this alternate head if I’ve exhausted all of my other options.

GoNNER’s “clunks” and “pops” arise from perfect Mario stomps. The nearly-musical collisions create a satisfying rhythm that pulls me deeper into the world. The oddities and explorables keep me diving down into curiosity: hopping, shooting, and running for my snake goals. But GoNNER rarely forces me out of my comfort zone. My favorite head is so often available that I stick to old habits rather than adapt and grow.