Concrete Genie review: A colourful exploration of a serious issue

Concrete Genie might be one of my favourite games of the year so far. In an industry that’s obsessed with content, it’s so refreshing to play a game that takes a simple idea and delivers on it beautifully, without trying to be more than what it needs to be. 

And when I say “beautifully”, I’m not kidding. It ought to be—at its core, Concrete Genie is about bringing light and colour back to an abandoned, industrial fishing village by covering the walls with magical graffiti. That sort of premise demands something special from the game’s art direction, and the combination of pseudo-stop motion animation and sketchbook street-art aesthetic gives Concrete Genie a truly unique and utterly gorgeous look.

But more than just something beautiful to look at, Concrete Genie is a game with something to say. It’s an exploration of bullying, both how it impacts its victims and how cycles of bullying perpetuate themselves. “Bullying is bad” isn’t exactly a new or profound idea, but it’s still such an important topic to discuss, and Concrete Genie approaches it with care and consideration.

The game opens with our hero, Ash, sitting on a pier in Denska—the aforementioned abandoned village—scribbling away in his sketchbook. However, Denska is also a known hangout for bullies, and a quiet, arty kid like Ash is a prime target. Sure enough, they manage to corner him and steal his book, before ripping out the pages, scattering them to the winds, and shoving Ash into a cable car destined for the town’s rumoured-to-be-haunted lighthouse.

As it turns out, the rumours were only half right. There is a spirit living in the lighthouse, but she’s not a malevolent one; rather, she’s saddened at the state of Denska, and she sees in Ash the chance to bring some light back to the town. She gives him a magical paintbrush that, when used on any of Denska’s many walls, will cause Ash’s landscape paintings to come alive—painted grass sways in the breeze, painted stars twinkle in the night sky, painted waterfalls roar down the wall. 

On top of the colour they bring to Denska in their own right, these paintings will also light up any nearby lightbulbs that dangle from many of the town’s walls. Light up all the lights in an area of the town, and the strange black ooze—simply known as “Darkness”—that’s encroaching and gumming up machinery will fade away. 

With his new magic paintbrush, Ash can also paint “Genies”, outlandish creatures born straight out of his imagination. (Your imagination plays a big role, too—when painting a Genie, you can customise it using different parts found in the lost pages of Ash’s sketchbook that serve as collectibles). Though they’re confined to the town walls, these Genies are very much alive, and will help Ash make his way through the town and reach all the bulbs he needs to light up.

These Genies are the living embodiment of the escapism and self-expression that Ash’s sketchbook provides, but they’re also more than that—they’re friends. Concrete Genie offers a lot of ways for you to interact with your creations that aren’t strictly necessary, mechanically speaking, but are thematically crucial. You can wave at them, tickle them with your brush, paint a campfire and then all sit around it, watch TV together (if you find the right place on the map), high five one another… the list goes on. The Genies also depend on Ash as a friend, too, and will often request him to paint certain things to help cheer them up. Sometimes, they’ll fall deep into a depressed funk and refuse to move until you come along with the pick me up. It’s all about supporting one another.

At the same time, the bullies are constantly roaming Denska, and will chase down Ash any time they see him. Get caught, and they’ll steal your brush, forcing you to either try and take it back or, more likely, wait for them to get bored and toss it away somewhere, then find it. Though the penalty isn’t harsh from a game design perspective—Concrete Genie isn’t the sort of game that’s interested in testing skill and punishing failure—but the shift in mood is a stark. Without his brush in hand, all of the light Ash has brought back to the Denska disappears, and his paintings fall dark and lifeless until he manages to find the brush again. It’s such a sudden and uncomfortable mood change that even without the threat of a traditional game over, one incident of getting caught was enough to make me want to never let it happen again.

Therein lies the simple yet elegant metaphor at the heart of Concrete Genie: when you’re the victim of bullying, it can feel like your whole world is wrapped in darkness. Even when you’re not in the moment, even when you’re in your happy place, doing whatever fills your life with joy and colour and light, having bullies in your life means they’re always there, around the corner, waiting. That may sound bleak, but that’s what bullying is.

Concrete Genie doesn’t just leave it at that, though; it also looks at how bullies are made. Over the course of Ash’s adventure, you learn a little bit about each of his tormentors and the things they’re dealing with in their own lives. It’s not about excusing what they’re doing, but about understanding where it comes from an empathising with them.

In its latter parts, Concrete Genie builds on that idea of understanding the bullies in some rather fascinating ways. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that there are some rather dramatic shifts in the fundamental design of the game that really drive the point home. It ultimately leads to a conclusion that you’d expect—though it’s no less heartfelt for its predictability—but the way the game plays around with its own mechanics on the journey to get there is remarkable.

That Concrete Genie can achieve all of this in the space of five or six hours is, perhaps, one of its most impressive feats. I played through the whole thing in one sitting, partly because of how enamoured I was with the game, but also because I knew it wasn’t wasting my time. The plot moves from beat to beat as quickly as it needs to in order to make its point, without treading water or injecting extra busywork to artificially inflate the running time. The brevity of the experience is a big part of what makes Concrete Genie as impactful as it is.

Bullying isn’t an unheard of topic for videogames to explore, and the ideas being explored here aren’t new ones. But it’s something that’s still such a widespread issue that it needs to be talked about, and few games manage to tackle the subject of bullying with such care, thought, and beauty as Concrete Genie does. That’s something to be commended.

Essential


The publisher provided a copy of this game to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.