Creativity lies at the heart of what makes us human. Once survival has been taken care of, our minds meander to what we believe is beautiful and we want to express that beauty with others. We had cave paintings during the dawn of time, interpretations of gods on walls all over the world and an entire renaissance filled with art and creative expression. Some engineers out there would want you to believe that art is but a pointless distraction in humankind’s evolution, but I firmly believe that the expression of our imaginations is why we’re sitting where we are today.
Concrete Genie attempts to capture that magic spark of art and imagination. It’s also a game that managed to fill me with a child-like wonder in a world that is often so bereft of joy. Something decidedly passionate within an industry that can often be so dark and frustrating. It’s a very simple game to explain; above all else, Concrete Genie wants you to create.
Happy little trees
You play as Ash, a creative young boy who is also the victim of continuous bullying. His hometown of Denska has been ravaged by environmental disasters, years of neglect and a malicious corruption that has turned everything drab, dreary and miserable. He has memories of the happy times before Denska’s collapse, even if his current reality is literally and figuratively bleak. He eventually ends up inside the town’s mysterious lighthouse where some supernatural powers allow him to bring his art to life on the walls of the town.
Ash receives a huge brush with magic paint and his canvas is the entire dilapidated town in front of him. His art has the power to cleanse this corruption that has been plaguing the town and he vows to bring Denska back to its former glory. The game’s story focuses on this tragic history of Denska and the memories Ash had of the place as well as the gaggle of bullies that give Ash such a hard time.
While the story is fairly straightforward and easy to digest, it still has considerable emotional impact that will keep you entertained and invested throughout the game’s fairly short runtime. You end up learning more about the initially irredeemable bullies and it culminates to a simple but poignant message of compassion which it brings to life in a stunning fashion.
Paint the town red
The game’s goal is simply for you to create. You do this by selecting stencils inside your art book that feature various landscape components that you can freely paint on any blank wall using motion controls or just the right stick. It gives you the tools and all you have to do is create. The first half of the game is extremely serene since all you’re really doing is painting on the walls around the town with some light puzzles mixed into the fray and occasionally you have to distract the bullies that are mulling about the place.
The stencils you’re given come to life with their own animations and behaviours which makes your art alive as well as just being generally gorgeous even if you’re not really that artistically inclined. I don’t have any skill in drawing or painting and even I managed to create some beautiful landscape pieces just by cleverly using the provided stencils. No matter your artistic skill, the game still allows you to create stunning works that you can sit back and be proud of since it’s all so elegantly designed and implemented.
Everything gels together so well to create this genuinely beautiful creative experience.
The town is littered with strips of lights that you need to light up in order to move to the next zone and while you can just put a row of grass at the bottom and call it a day, that’s not how the game is supposed to be played and you wouldn’t want to play it like that either. You want to use the stencils and create unique pieces on all the walls in front of you and the game drip feeds you new designs throughout the whole experience, continuously expanding your potential artworks.
You can also create creatures called Genies that are these adorable little monsters, for lack of a better word, that have some abilities that you can use in order to progress. You can design the Genies to your heart’s content with a bunch of features and body types for you to create your own imaginary friend. They live in the walls along with your art and muck about the place interacting with your landscapes and playing with each other which always brings some warmth to my cold heart.
Beat the devil out of them
The game features some parkour and platforming abilities that are really just there to make you move around town, but even these traversal abilities are done incredibly well and feel so natural to interact with. Soon enough you’ll be scaling the buildings and hopping around the place looking for new walls to put your art on as well as more pages of stencils that you can add to your collection.
Everything gels together so well to create this genuinely beautiful creative experience. So many times while playing the game, I caught myself smiling with a child-like twinkle in my eye as I created these lovely living landscapes that brought the grey town of Denska to life. It’s a feeling that I haven’t felt in years and years since most games out there task me to destroy rather than create.
However, we do get to destroy as well. Around the halfway mark, the game takes a very sudden U-turn and everything changes. After you’ve finished painting the town, you get introduced to some light combat, an awesome way of traversing called Paint Skating and a couple of new powers. While very functional, the mechanics are still really simple and it’s extremely tough to mess anything up.
While this sudden change in tone was drastic and I felt it wasn’t really needed, it’s still done surprisingly well since the artwork you’ve done in the first half gets cleverly integrated into everything you do. Like I said earlier, everything gels together and once the credits roll, you’re left with this beautiful sense of satisfaction. The game puts your creativity above all else and without you, the drab dark walls would not look as beautiful as they do once all is said and done.
The game is pretty short, only clocking in at about 5-6 hours depending on how long you end up painting your masterpieces, but each one of those hours is used to its fullest potential and you can also come back to make even more incredible art. There are also many secrets around the town of Denska and it’s all worth exploring since it’s so much fun to just Paint Skate around looking for pages and memories you can unlock. It’s a game that knows not to overstay its welcome, even though I can see how someone could be underwhelmed by the runtime.
A brush with greatness
Concrete Genie allows you to create such beautiful artworks since the game itself is gorgeous as well. The visuals are stunning with amazing lighting, bring neon colours and a wonderful fairytale aesthetic underlying everything. It’s such a joy to be in this world and your bright works of art light up the town more and more with every piece you put down.
The soundtrack also deserves a ton of praise since its sweeping orchestral score accentuates that feeling of wonder and every stencil you place down has a dynamic instrumental accompanying it. As you’re painting, it feels like you’re also orchestrating a symphony which has never failed to fill me with joy.
And, really, that’s the overarching feeling I felt while playing Concrete Genie. Joy. Pure, unfettered joy as I galavant around a ruined town putting together these increasingly intricate and beautiful artworks even though I can’t even draw a stick figure correctly in real life. It’s a game that is clearly designed with children in mind and if I was a kid, this would have blown my mind even more. However, as a grizzled adult filled with baggage and the knowledge of how cruel this world is, Concrete Genie reminded me of my imagination and compassion. I can’t thank it enough for that.