Terrible jokes, great music, memes, and a desktop screen containing the best use of a Samuel Beckett play I have ever seen are some of the most important parts of this existential skateboarding game. With no way to lose, a vague goal of collecting 1000 ‘aesthetics’ shaped like cups which make old Windows sounds when you touch them, and the ability to skate on any surface in any direction with no fear of crashing, this is a short and very relaxing experience where players are free to explore and interact with the world at their own pace. Griptape Backbone is mostly made up of bits and pieces of meaningless nonsense, but this is one case where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts as all these abstract objects and pop culture references do come together to convey a surprisingly powerful message. The ending is particularly good, but the roughly one hour journey to get there is also worthwhile in its own way.
To be honest, I was sold on whatever weird adventure this game had to offer the moment the StevenHarmonGames logo appeared with the old Windows startup tune, though it was the opening tutorial which convinced me that Griptake Backbone was going to be worth playing through to the end. Taking on the form of a first-person FMV segment, this tutorial teaches you to start skating by holding left click, do a trick in the air by right clicking and flicking in a direction, fall faster by holding down right click in the air, and, of course, braking by pressing Tab. Except, you don’t slow down when you press Tab. Instead, the screen fades to black except for a “loading purgatory” message in the corner and a string of increasingly strange tips as you hear your character briefly continue to before then hearing the sounds of an ambulance, muffled voices, and medical equipment. Having clearly failed to brake in time, you arrive in what must be purgatory, a bizarre greyscale world where the only sound is the endless beeping of the unseen medical equipment and where you can do little other than slowly walk towards a skateboard floating within a beam of light. Thankfully, grabbing the skateboard fills the world with vibrant colors and the unpleasant sounds fade away to be replaced by the awesome songs which serve as this game’s mixtape as you skate off into whichever direction you desire.
That entire opening sequence only lasts about a minute, but it is essential for contextualizing the entire rest of the game. The crash at the start serves as an abrupt and surprisingly dark way to effectively draw a sharp contrast between the harsh real world and the relaxing, surreal dreamscape which the rest of the game takes place in. The unseen crash combined with one message in particular on the loading purgatory screen which reads “Tip: It’s all in your head” serves to shed some light on the setting. You might be skating around in a giant box filled with pointless junk, but this giant box is a purgatory on the border between life and death and all that useless junk like a hidden memorial to Harambe and some encouraging words written next to a statue of Sisyphus is useless junk of a very personal nature as each piece serves as a memory of something small which makes life worthwhile and gives life meaning. Griptape Backbone is one of the best video games out there when it comes to the theme of existentialism and if it sounds like I’m giving far too much credit to a game where you can skate up the side of a pagoda while looking at giant meme images in the sky then you either haven’t read the in-game email messages from the developer or you haven’t seen the ending (which you really should do when you get the chance because I’m not going to remotely comment on it within the confines of this article beyond saying that it is worth seeing).
Let’s shove the deeper, philosophical messages to the side and possibly off a cliff for a moment to look at the gameplay. You still don’t have any brakes, there seems to be no difference between the various tricks you can do beyond what they look like, and turning your skateboard to point exactly where you want to go can be surprisingly difficult at times, but that’s all fine because there are no crashes in purgatory either. Try as you might, you can never fall off your skateboard no matter what you do as at worst you’ll be turned to the side or come to a stop. The most likely event when skating straight into a wall is that you’ll simply start skating up it, wrap around to skate on a ceiling, and then skate back down the other side. This is where things become really interesting because those tricks are suddenly useful for a lot more than just jumping over ledges. Like the tutorial says, holding the right mouse button while in the air will make you fall faster, but which direction you fall in is entirely relative to your skateboard. In other words, jumping off of stuff at just the right angle will allow you to go soaring through the air sideways or upside down for long stretches. The controls may not be anywhere near as tight and responsive as they are in something like a Tony Hawk game, but they also don’t have to be because this is a world where you can perform any trick with ease, where there is no fear of crashing, and where you can take as much time as you want.
Griptape Backbone is built to be a relaxing experience first and a skateboarding game second. There are no points to worry about nor are there any objectives beyond collecting 1000 cups and even that objective takes on the form of some giant letters floating in a fixed location which you can come back to check on at your leisure. Collecting 1000 objects sounds like a daunting task, but there are dozens of these aesthetic cups everywhere and it is actually incredibly easy to hit this number simply while exploring what the world has to offer. I initially tried to approach this game systematically, collecting everything in one area before moving on to the next, but I gradually realized that this wasn’t a particularly enjoyable way to approach this game. Instead, I began to simply skate in a new direction after spending some time in each location because seeing what the game’s world had to offer was far more important than trying to collect a bunch of cups.
It’s okay if you accidentally skate off a bridge because that just gives you an opportunity to see what the ocean has to offer and it’s okay if you don’t quite get enough height to collect every cup in a single jump because there are more waiting for you down below and you can always come back to the ones you missed whenever you want to. If you like the current song you can crank up the volume and if you don’t like it that’s fine too because you can switch to a new one with the mouse wheel and you’re unlikely to go through the entire soundtrack by the end of the game. The way you magnetize to any surface in any direction means the physics can get weird and it’s possible, though rare, to get stuck on corners (it only happened to me once), but that’s okay too because you can just press Tab to open up a Desktop screen to reset your position and maybe also poke around at the various icons on the Desktop to see what they have to offer while you’re there. The only time the game puts even the smallest amount of pressure on you is when it comes to saving as you have no way of saving your progress, though that’s largely forgivable when the game itself only lasts for about an hour. The simple act of half-skating, half-gliding around anywhere in this strange, undemanding world with no time pressure, no failure state, and no arbitrary objectives beyond the overarching one really was remarkably relaxing and more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be.
Griptape Backbone is a somewhat sad piece of existentialist art, it’s a relaxing journey, it’s a joyful celebration of all the places, events, dumb jokes, and pop culture references we fill our day-to-day lives and memories with, and above all it’s a game worth playing.