A few hours in
Alright, well. I was right and I wasn’t, which is always an interesting experience. On the one hand, yeah, Golem Creation Kit more or less is that game, which is to say: It’s a somewhat-clever puzzle game that combines hidden object logic and mechanics with real-world intuition, pitting your smarts and quick thinking about escalating difficulties. But then it also… tries to be more that that? Narratively, Golem Creation Kit‘s story is pretty much what you’d expect, except for the several moments that it veers sharply into fourth-wall-breaking ‘THIS IS JUST A GAME’ territory. And then plays that pretty straight. Which is…
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first focus on the decently satisying gameplay experience of Golem Creation Kit, which looks like this:
Sorry, that’s a little mean. But all the same, I want to get this out of the way before we start: Golem Creation Kit is an incredibly unstable game, at time of writing. I’ve had it crash on me easily a dozen times. In fact, three levels in my first save game, the crashing got so bad that I literally couldn’t proceed; I had to delete that whole save and start over. I’m sure this’ll get fixed over time, so check some recent Steam reviews if you’re reading this after July 2017, but in case you’re with me here in real time… Well, just consider this, is what I’m saying. The game underneath the crashes is still what it is, so if you can deal with some bad rebooting, I wouldn’t consider this a deal-breaker. It’s the sort of thing that tempts me to make mean-spirited Early Access jokes, but otherwise not necessarily a permanent blemish.
Anyway. We were talking about Golem Creation Kit, which looks like this:
And also this:
The gist of Golem Creation Kit is this: Every day (for about two weeks in a row) a mob of angry townspeople show up at your tower, and you create a golem to scare them off. It’s easy enough at the start, but every day after the first, more and more townspeople start showing up with immunities. To certain golems. You don’t know these immediately, but you can learn them through failing… or often just intuiting it. Yeah, of course the woodcutter isn’t afraid of a wood golem. Seems logical that the fireman wouldn’t run from a fire golem. The fisherman is too used to storms to really run from a water golem. The old man doesn’t even hear the sound golem. And so on, and so forth.
The trick is that if you confront a villager with a golem they’re immune to, they won’t run. Everyone else might, but they won’t. And it only takes one angry villager to storm your tower and end your day in a loss. Yes, even the hunched-over old deaf man.
As more and more villagers with different immunities show up, it becomes trickier to figure out which golem can get past all of them. Luckily, you learn after a few days that you’re not restricted to the eight golems made from the eight basic materials: Composite golems are a thing. You can’t just mix everything with everything: Each element can be mixed with four of the other elements, for a total of 16 composite golems (if I’m counting that out right). Some of the results here are more obvious than others. For instance, the elements of Fire and Sand combine into a glass golem. Makes sense, right? Rock and Sand together become a diamond golem. Fire and Sound, thunderstorm golem.
And then there’s stuff like Wood and Water, which combine to become a… ship golem. Just a ship, a three-masted sailboat with cannons and everything, and a face. Wood and Cloth together form a kite golem, that lures people away with how much fun it is to fly a kite. Water and Cloth form a golem out of rolled-up towels. And Flesh and Cloth combined get you a Leisure Suit golem. It just… dances.
Of course, it starts turning out that some villagers are immune to those golems as well. You might think this would work along the lines of inherited immunities: If the woodcutter is immune to Wood golems, then maybe everything combined with Wood… But that’s not how it works. Instead, the whole thing seems to be more driven from ‘the fiction’: People resist golems that it makes sense for them to resist. So (again) of course the fisherman is immune to the ship golem. He’s a fisherman, he ain’t afraid of no boat. The fire brigade isn’t too worried about the fire and thunder golems, since they’re used to both. Any children present are a hazard for glass golems, because I guess kids break glass? They do. And when then leisure suit golem walked out I knew that the Elvis-dressed entertainer wasn’t going to be impressed.
On the surface, Golem Creation Kit‘s difficulty lies in identifying the increasingly narrow range of golems that apply to each mob — I think that at the last level it might just be down to one or two. But that’s only one aspect of the challenge. You don’t just have to figure out the right golem for the job, you also have to build it. And this is tough, because…
When you start out in Golem Creation Kit, the world is rich and busy and plentiful. You want some trees? Pluck ’em up by the grove-ful. You want water? Here, take this entire river. You need sand? Grab all the sand you can get, revealing secret buried tombs along the way. A large part of it is intuiting which elements are represented in which items, which isn’t always easy. Trees for wood is simple, but how do you get sound? Maybe from this violin? Or from these birds? Or… It took me a long time to figure out that I could just grab the sound bubbles that popped up here and there. And inversely, what elements are represented in a bed? Or a sunbeam? Or a buried treasure chest? Or a jellyfish? There’s a richness to it, but all the same, it can be difficult to understand just what you need to grab and dunk into your pot.
And everything you dunk into your pot is gone.
The things you grab and golemize are gone. And they stay gone.
Actually, I’m not totally sure that’s correct. I think I’ve seen certain elements show back up after a while, like the aforementioned river. But then I also think that re-using elements I used before was very often a precursor to the game crashing. So maybe that’s not intended behaviour. As far as I can acertain, the intended behaviour is: What you throw into the pot (or the garbage can) is gone forever.
And now we have an interesting dual-tiered difficulty system. On the one hand, you need to get more and more specific with the golems you make. And on the other hand, the easy and clear sources of any element are going to run out before long. Where do you go for fire once you’ve eaten all the blazes? Or water, once the ocean and the rivers are dry? Or sound, once there is a stillness to the normal world?
You learn to appreciate the small things, that’s what do you. Did you know how much cloth there is in a bed? Or how much acoustic potential in a guitar? And I’m pretty sure books burn really well. There’s a neat layered-ness to Golem Creation Kit‘s world: If you pick up a house, all you grab at first is the facade. And then maybe the back half, too. But the fruits, the beds, the paintings — those all stick around independently. And as the game nears its end, you’ll start appreciating that they did.
What also helps with this is judicious use of your Magic Words, which slowly unlock over the first eight days or so. These words all have neat one-time effects to help you build the golem you want. For instance, one of them increases your strongest element, at the cost of halving everything else. Another drains your strongest element into everything else. One transmutes one random element into a different one, and another transmutes sets of elements into each other — all Fire becomes Wood as all Wood becomes Fire, that sort of thing. At first, these words are convenience toys, something to limit just how much you need to grab out of the world. Near the end, they’re basically necessary to keep going.
Mechanically, this is more or less the whole of what Golem Creation Kit is. There’s one more small system, a sort of treasure hunt where you can find ‘traveler’s logs’ hidden in places, but otherwise it’s golem-building and ingredient-grabbing. This combination of systems, I quite like. It’s not always as fluid and flexible as it needs to be (controls-wise), and then there’s the crashing… but the basic puzzle-challenge system is intact. It’s sharply limited by how long it can be before becoming unwinnable, from both angles, but then Golem Creation Kit solves that by being aware of its own nature and not outstaying its welcome.
Speaking of being aware of its own nature…
Narratively, for the most part, the story of Golem Creation Kit is… I struggle to really even call it a story. It’s a series of vignettes, ‘life in the tower with Fil and Qork’, where each day begins with a little comedy bit and ends in a resolution of that bit. A third actor is also introduced early on, the mysterious Lady in the Mirror, whose role seems to be to give the story a little more gravitas when needed: Sure, Qork can be serious, but his role is generally to be irreverent.
The story as she unfolds is basically what you’d expect: Master Bonz is away. Master Bonz has been away for a while. Fil and Qork defend the tower against the angry mob and practicing magic, and hoping that today will be the day he comes back. No, today. No… Obviously he’s not actually coming back: It’s the Gilligan’s Island corollary, if Master Bonz came back and the mob attacks stopped, the game would end.
Then, halfway into the game, you get a chance to ask the mirror a few questions, and one of those questions is ‘why are these people so insistent in attacking the tower’. As a player, of course, you know the answer: ‘because there wouldn’t be a game otherwise’. But you might be interested in the lore reason behind it. So you ask the mirror…
…who proceeds to get spooky angry, and starts talking to you, The Player. She basically says something along the lines of, ‘listen up, fucko, you and I both know what the deal is here, but Fil doesn’t. So stop making him ask this question or I’ll mess you up.’
After the next day, you get to ask more questions. And if you’re insistent on asking about this attack thing again, the mirror yells at you again. Then the game fake-crashes.
And then you boot it back up, and…
After this, a second narrative thread starts running under the more lighthearted first, one that’s more… I want to say ‘fourth-wall-breaky’. The game starts taking really seriously the idea ‘the game world is actually real and you, the player, are influencing things from beyond somehow’. It’s still fairly light until one of the endings, when… You know what, I shouldn’t spoil everything. Let’s just say it’s weird.
It’s… The thing is that I’m a sucker for this sort of meta-game story. I loved what Undertale did with the idea, and more recently I had a lot of fun with OneShot, which takes this concept and ramps it off your task manager. But in Golem Creation Kit it doesn’t really work. It feels gratuitous, for lack of a better word. It doesn’t feel like this story was built from the ground up with this idea in mind, because initially it doesn’t point to or hint at anything of the sort. It’s only after the ‘reveal’, and particularly near the end, that the game tries to recontextualize a lot of what I accepted as genre convention. And again, I generally love that kind of stuff. But in Golem Creation Kit it feel unearned, or perhaps ungrounded. It doesn’t impact the core mechanical functionality, and in doing so it doesn’t make the game worse. But it doesn’t add to it, either. It’s smoke and mirrors, an allusion to a deeper story that hinges on you not realizing or not caring that everything before the initial reveal wasn’t in service of setting that up.
Then again, after finishing the game once, the New Game+ mode — which doesn’t actually let you keep your upgrades, ingredients, or words of power — starts playing with the concept a little more directly. So maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe Golem Creation Kit should be played twice, or thrice or more, to really get at the clever genre-indicting storytelling underneath. I might even try getting there someday.
As a silly puzzle game about destroying the environment to build golems, Golem Creation Kit is pretty much what it says on the tin. It has a cool visual aesthetic, a generally funny tone, quality writing style that gets a lot of mileage and unique character voices out of a mirror, a bird, and a silhouette kid, and an interesting bifurcated approach to difficulty that can result in an incredibly challenging final level. If that sort of game sounds like your jam, it runs for about five bucks on Steam. It aims for the moon with its It’s Just A Game story, but I’m willing to be kind and say at at the least it doesn’t detract from the game at large too much. The ending can be a bit baffling, but otherwise… I know some people really dislike this thread of storytelling, so if that’s your case, Golem Creation Kit might annoy more than it entertains.
Jarenth is currently wondering if there’s enough real wood in his IKEA table to effect any sort of golem servant. Remind him that his chairs are technically wooden too on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?