There's a pretty popular type of fanfiction that we can loosely think of as 'falling into a', where a regular modern-day person falls into a fictional TV/book/game universe, and the misunderstandings are hilarious, the jinks thereof are high (see also 'A girl drops into Middle-earth' and 'modern girl in Thedas'). It's popular because a lot of us play games for some escapism, so the idea of being able to escape into games literally can be quite an attractive one (especially if one or more of the characters are just so dreamy). And Legendary Gary made me think of those, except not. Gary plays games to escape from his unfulfilling life living in his mother's basement, and is confronted by his life all over again.
Gary has stalled a bit, in a way that is pleasantly, frighteningly familiar. He and his best friend never moved from their hometown, he lives in the same house he grew up in, and he's been dating the same girl for most of his life. None of these things are wrong or bad, of course, but all together they mean that nothing has ever changed for Gary and so neither has he. It's all reached a crisis point after the death of his father, and now he, and everyone around him, is getting dissatisfied. Gary's mother has given all the money they had to a Christian doomsday cult and is convinced the world is about to end, his girlfriend Megan is thinking of leaving to join the marines, and his best friend Dave is becoming depressed. Not the stuff of legend, but your problems are important when they're your own, which is what makes Legendary Gary so good.
During the day you navigate Gary through life: special tasks set for him by his boss at his job at a supermarket, difficult conversations with his friends and family, and tending to the flowerbed outside, all of which can be varingly emotionally touching, upsetting, or calmingly routine, especially because the writing is so realistic. Every evening Gary plays a fantasy game called Legend of the Spear, and you quickly realise that the two run in parallel. Characters and locations have dominant colours and behaviours that are reflected by the dominant colours and behaviours in the game. Gary's mother, for example, is turquoise, grey and white, and keeps talking about how everything will be fine because God will fix it and everything happens by his design.
In Legend of the Spear she's represented by Agridge, who has the same colouring and insists that nothing happens without the King's choice, and they just have to find the King and he'll fix everything. Gary is Winkali, the protagonist: strong, sure of himself, noble and unselfish (i.e not Gary's current state). Figuring out which characters are which, and why, is both satisfying and relatable. Gary is sometimes selfish, but he's not trying to be; his mother is frustratingly vague, but she loves him; Dave makes jokes about fucking Gary's mum, and is, unsurprisingly, paralysingly afraid of responsibility. Gary's coworkers are tired and sad, and his manager is mean. Your emotions will twinge in unexpected places.
The two halves of the game (both hand-drawn in a lovely and detailed but still slightly cartoony way, appropriate to Gary's stereotypical slacker lifestyle) become increasingly tangled, and Legendary Gary, a game that's a game within a game, is very smart about it. Answers to puzzles posed by in-game characters are found in Gary's real life. Seedling flowers that are awarded for success in Legend of the Spear appear in Gary's garden, and if they bloom Winkali and his companions get more powers in combat back in the game.
The combat is turn based, with everyone on the grid moving simultaneously for each turn. You can get a preview of what everyone will do that turn, and try out different actions –attack, move, block – based on how that will affect the round and whether, say, your enemies are about to pause to regain stamina or launch a fireball across the board. Because you can rewind your last round or try the whole fight again, it's not so much combat as it is a puzzle dressed up as a fight, like if all the pieces in a game of chess were dressed as weird fantasy monsters. For the most part it's fun, and not too taxing, though some of the very end-game fights become a frustrating exercise in trial and error.
As the game begins to sync up with Gary's life more and more, he must make decisions that impact he and his friends' lives. He has to get people fired at work, decide what to do about his relationship with Megan, and help his nephew decide how to approach an estranged father. These all add up to giving Gary points of Motivation, and he must have enough of it to answer one final question that Legend of the Spear poses to him.
Legendary Gary is a small game with a small team. A one person team, with the only thing that the dev Evan Rogers (who previously worked on What Remains of Edith Finch and The Last of Us) didn't create for the game himself being the soundtrack – which you can listen to a lot of here. And as the work of one person it's impressive. It's weird and cool and utterly, genuinely unique, in lots of ways, and even more impressive for how accomplished the different aspects of it are, from the art to the dialogue. You can see why the very end of the story might seem unsatisfying, but it's really about Gary realising what's important. Because the game doesn't change Gary's life anywhere near as much as Gary's life changes the game. We can't always escape.
Developer: Evan Ro
Publisher: Evan Rogers
Available on: PC
Release Date: February 20, 2018