Glittermitten Grove - Review
Jim Crawford might be a genius. Crawford designed Frog Fractions, the 2012 browser game that became something of an internet sensation. If you haven't yet played it and unraveled its secrets, the browser game continues to be absolutely brilliant and available for free. Crawford, seeing an opportunity in the sudden popularity of his incredibly bizarre parody of educational games, launched a Kickstarter campaign that successfully raised $72,000 to fund Frog Fractions 2. That would be the end of the story with most normal developers; they'd go on to create and release their game, hopefully securing enough funding along the way to make another game. Not so with Jim Crawford. The path to Frog Fractions 2 was a game unto itself with clues and hints hidden throughout several other games, websites, and even a secret letter hidden within a library. This augmented reality game (ARG) lasted for years and led its loyal followers to the game that contained Frog Fractions 2: Glittermitten Grove.
At first glance, Glittermitten Grove seems to be a game about building a fairy village. Its saccharine veneer carefully put together to repel most game-savvy customers browsing through Steam. However, that is not to say that Glittermitten Grove isn't a competent game on its own. Players must care for their forest, growing trees and bushes to support a slowly growing fairy population. To best tend the forest, players manage the seasonal growth of their tree branches, ensuring trees get enough light to grow food and provide wood. Surprisingly, the city building becomes pretty engrossing and enjoyable. The low pressure, relaxing environment and things become relaxing after a while. However, at a certain point players are bound to discover the entrance to Glittermitten Grove's great secret. Either through a portal in the sky or a hidden door deep under the earth, players will be thrust into TXT World.
TXT World shifts everything players might have thought about Glittermitten Grove. For all intents and purposes, discovering TXT World reveals the true face of Jim Crawford's sequel to Frog Fractions; a deliberate subversion of player expectations. Even in the name, TXT World undermines the very concept of a sequel (as far as I can tell Frog Fractions 2 isn't a title that ever appears inside of Glittermitten Grove or its component games). Where Frog Fractions employed a linear structure, TXT World embraces an open world heavily inspired by the Atari 2600 game Adventure. Players encounter a random retro mishmash of mini-games hidden throughout the world as they explore and solve puzzles. Some of the mini-games are great, while some only manage to be tolerable.
TXT World truly shines when it embraces chaos and invites players to uncover something new with every screen, be that a mechanic, item, or secret. The novelty of discovering insane mysteries presents a thematic parallel to Frog Fractions and its completely unpredictable narrative trajectory. Cracks begin to show in TXT World's foundations when that fun chaos solidifies into a mundane world to retread.
While I admire the throwback to the dawn of adventure games, I would be dishonest if I didn't also mention just how frustrating TXT World can become. Crawford's team employed excellent, clever uses of established mechanics to solve or create puzzles. Despite the effort on display, a fair selection of puzzles feel incredibly obtuse or intentionally glitchy. Succumbing to environmental hazards or enemies instantly respawns the player at the beginning of the current screen in an attempt to ease fatiguing sections of gameplay; it isn't enough.
The biggest source of irritation in TXT World lies in its open world. While Frog Fractions hops from one game genre to another on a dime and never looks back, TXT World becomes the hub for brief sojourns to other mini-game worlds. Those brief snippets of different game genres reinvigorate curiosity and wonder for a time before returning the player to TXT World, a place that steadily becomes less interesting. The lack of direction amid the disorienting, retro landscape of TXT World itself ensnares players, forcing them to wander old areas in the hope of stumbling across the next thing that will allow progress. Many players will hit a point where they feel like they've been bashing their heads against a wall with no solution in sight.
That frustration makes it hard to enjoy the creative slew of mini-games that often come out of nowhere. A humorous take on Flappy Bird starring a toaster or a reimagining of Aliens as a roommate drama/stealth game present some fantastic gameplay opportunities, but enjoying them becomes difficult after an hour of aimless rambling over well-trodden ground. It also doesn't help that some of those mini-games essentially trap the player until they are completed - sometimes in unconventional ways. For example, the Flappy Toaster mini-game didn't allow me to escape until I crashed the toaster through a specific spot in the ground. My exasperation manifested on more than one occasion in the form of turning the game off to do something that didn't make me feel like I was having a migraine.
Glittermitten Grove feels like a giant inside joke that I'm not entirely in on. I missed out on the multi-year augmented reality game, so maybe that's why the components of TXT World felt foreign and strange to me. It's more esoteric and random than Frog Fractions, but I'm not sure if that ultimately benefits or hurts the experience. While I'd certainly recommend Glittermitten Grove to those who enjoy the stranger side of the gaming world, I'm not sure that is has the wide appeal or replayability enjoyed by Frog Fractions. It feels odd to say, but Glittermitten Grove, a smokescreen game about building a fairy kingdom, felt more like the game that I'd have rather seen fleshed out than the blighted chaos of TXT World. For all the criticism, there's really nothing else like Glittermitten Grove in the gaming world, and that originality counts for something in a gaming landscape criticized by many for its conformity.
Is It Fun?:
Create a thriving fairy kingdom and also go insane
It's everything. Just... everything.
It certainly has sound!
It's a bit of an incomprehensible mess, but in a good way
It's hard to say
Send it to your friends on a lark and watch them react
Glittermitten Grove is now available for PC
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 01/24/17