Gingiva by Myformerselves (John Clowder), the long-awaited follow-up to cult classic Middens, is big, weird, and amazing. The art is hand-drawn, painted, or collaged and gives the game the look and feel of a piece of fine art. Any single screenshot or character portrait could be hung upon a wall and marveled at. The music is beautiful and haunting. The writing often feels like proverbs or poetry. The developer is extremely erudite and thoughtful, and every bit of Gingiva drips with meaning and symbolism.
The dialogue is elegantly written and in-character for every being. A lot of the conversations consist of someone dropping bits of wisdom or opinion, and a lot of this can be seen as a mouthpiece for the developer. Certain themes crop up repeatedly, such as the way we treat the Earth and the way we treat ourselves. Even the insights casually delivered by minor characters are fascinating. For example, the mini-essay one character delivers about how cars are basically the worst things ever to have happened to the planet and the species is chillingly convincing.
Work is a major theme of Gingiva, but not from a capitalist or socialist perspective. Gingiva explores whether our work defines us as beings. Are we what we do? And if so, what the hell are we doing, anyway? Who does our work serve? Are we, in essence, someone else’s servants?
The main character, a cranal key-headed automaton, is an assembly line worker who has displeased her master. Too many faulty products have gotten through, and she has to be punished. In her cell, she dreams that she is another being, one who is free. This is the first of several characters besides Gingiva you control.
From here on out, describing the plot is nearly impossible (well, it would take a long time and I’d sound insane). Suffice to say that Gingiva escapes her confinement and sets off on a walkabout of sorts, trying to find herself while traversing a strange dimension. She learns about life outside the factory along with us, guided by a wise, disembodied mouth.
Besides exploration and dialogue, combat will take up a large part of your play time.You can spend time talking to every being you encounter and exploring every meticulously designed area, but you may spend just as much time fighting. Combat takes the form of traditional RPG-style turn-based battles. There are no random encounters, and you can see your enemies on the screen before they attack, but combat is generally unavoidable (unlike in Middens). Terms like “vim” and “verve” are used in place of “health” and “magic”, but once you get used to those embellishments, the mechanics of fighting are quite familiar to anyone who has played an RPG.
One thing you should know is that between battles, you can hit the Z key to give your head-key a little twist. This will restore some of your vim and verve.
Gingiva is a big game. It’s a hefty download (over 400MB, due to the art and music) and it’s a lengthy and replayable experience. There are multiple pathways to take and several different endings. The game was originally conceived as part of the Kickstarter-funded Moments of Silence, but the project grew so large that the developer split Gingiva off into its own game. According to him, Gingiva is the smaller of the two experiences.
You can download Gingiva for Windows. A Mac version may be forthcoming.
Important: If the game gives you an error when you try to launch it, install the “batang” font from the Fonts folder included with the download.