Grotto is a walking sim… but the extent of your walking takes you back and forth between two chambers of a cave, over and over. It’s a choice-driven narrative adventure… where you’re often unsure what the choice is, exactly, that you’re making. It’s a first-person action game… but the actions are throwing bones to hold a seance, smoking a pipe to commune with the dead, and gazing at the stars to form constellations and attempt to divine the future. Boiled down to its essence, Grotto is an FPS: a first-person soothsayer.
You are the soothsayer in question, a hermitic fortune teller who spends their days taking questions from a string of anthropomorphic animal visitors, and attempting to find answers using magical means. At first, these visits seem unrelated. Over time though, it becomes clear that your patrons belong to a nearby tribe in the midst of rising conflict. Each wants your advice for different decisions both minor and major. You will help villagers decide the fate of their own lives and the village as a whole.
What sets Grotto apart from other narrative driven games, though, is how murky the decision-making process is. Each session concludes with a patron asking you to present them a constellation—which you view through a hole in the cave roof and store for later as paintings on a wall—that will, in some way, speak to their condition. Present the scorpion constellation, for example, and it might communicate that they should sting their friends in the back. On the other hand, it might indicate that someone they trust is going to betray them. And that’s just one of many constellations which can all be interpreted in multiple different ways. Like I said, murky.
First-person advice giver
It’s interesting to describe the game this way from the vantage point of having completed it because while playing Grotto, it often feels overly simplistic and repetitive. But that’s because most of its mechanical depth is hidden beneath the incredibly stylised Darkest Dungeon-esque surface. As you play, the verbs at your disposal are simple. Wake up, walk to the next chamber where one of your patrons is waiting, talk to them, walk to the constellation wall and pick one, walk back to your patron, present the constellation, listen to their response. Repeat all those steps once more and it’s probably time to go to bed. Then, you do it all again.
Over time, the mechanics that I mentioned above get added to the mix. Before you select a constellation, you may want to seek the wisdom of the dead. But, functionally, these are a hint system—sometimes reliable, sometimes not—more than mechanics in their own right. So, that leaves picking constellations. You go to the wall. You look at the dozen-plus constellations. You read the mythopoetic descriptions that accompany them. You choose one and hope for the best. This is Grotto at its most complex and yet, it isn’t that complex.
What keeps the game engaging over the course of a playthrough is the depth of the storytelling on display, and how strangely removed you are from your interactions. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where the consequences of my actions were entirely related to me secondhand.
But that’s the approach Grotto takes, and it’s fascinating to hear how villagers following your advice (or misinterpreting it) plays out. Though the process of playing it can occasionally drift into tedium, it’s worth working through the repetition to see the game to its eventual conclusion. In Grotto your choices matter. But they matter in the same way your choices matter in the real world: in ways you can’t see in the moment and may never see at all.