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World of Goo is bubbling with ideas. Born from a student project to create a game in just seven days, the original’s single mechanic was the ability to pick up little black goo-balls and place them near one another to form wobbling structures of squishy struts. No goal, no purpose; just a limit to how high you could scroll and the compulsive desire to reach that limit.
From that core idea World of Goo has become much more. In the first chapter you build through rolling hills and out of the mouths of frogs. The second chapter features levels based on beauty pageantry, fame and renewable energy sources. Primarily the work of just two people, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel, WoG feels like they’ve mapped the inside of their brains onto a videogame. Whatever they were thinking about at the time, whatever they care about, it’s all grist for the mill.
At its core, WoG is still a physics-based puzzle game; a game about structural engineering. Each level gives you a limited number of goos, a required number you have to save and an exit – a sucking pipe – to build towards. Completing a level means using the goos to build a structure toward that pipe, while having enough unused goos left over to climb up the structure to safety. Across four chapters and an epilogue the game introduces new obstacles and new types of goos. You’re constantly battling gravity by trying to build a structure that can support its own weight, but you’re also building around, under and over spinning blades or spiked walls or flaming pits. You begin with simple black goos that are locked in place once used, but soon you’re using green goos that can be repeatedly picked up and re-positioned, balloon goos that float upwards, giant, grinning beauty goos that can be smashed apart, and more.
Each chapter is relentless in its wit and imagination, with each addition explained to you by the funny, oblique tips left on each level by the helpful, unseen Sign Painter. The new goos that get introduced are mixed to create levels of ever greater complexity. For example: using balloon goos to raise a powerline of black goos higher at one end, creating a slope and causing a giant beauty goo – that’s a goo with a make-up-laden face – to roll forward and be broken apart into smaller beauty goos that can then be sucked through the pipe. Those themed levels we mentioned earlier, like the beauty pageant? Often realised in very silly ways.
While we desperately want to tell you about how awesome this level is or how great that goo is, we can’t. You’d hate us for it when you played the game and missed out on the joy of discovering them yourself. Most puzzle games have nothing to spoil but the solution, but World of Goo has a rambling, hodgepodge narrative full of delightful moments. As we played, people gathered around our desk to watch. Multiple people have told us they applauded during the occasional cutscenes that play upon finding a solution to certain levels.
Those solutions are never immediately obvious. The majority of levels, even early on, will give you pause. “How the hell do I do this? It’s impossible.” Then you start to build, working out the solution as you go. The levels grow in complexity as the game advances and are always challenging, but they never outstrip your ability to finish them. They never require luck and they never exasperate. The result: you’re constantly made to feel like some sort of mad architectural genius. A mad architectural genius who’s really good at World of Goo.
Take, for example, an early level where you begin on a platform below an outcropping of rock and cogs, blocking your path to the pipe. You have to build left, stretching out over some water, then up past the rock and then back to the right toward the pipe. If you get too close to the rock face, spinning cogs will break apart your structure, causing goos to fall to their mucky demise. At first glance it seems that there’s no way to do it, but somehow it proves simple, the goos always hanging together just a little bit more than you expect them to.
You feel a constant sense that you can do better. In our original preview, we identified the perfect cultural analogy to World of Goo in the movie Schindler’s List. Goos that are used to make part of a structure can’t travel to the exit, thus can’t be saved, thus are left behind forever. There’s always the feeling that by doing things differently you could have saved so many more. The OCD achievements play on that: Obsessive Completion Distinctions are gained for finishing a level while meeting some more stringent criteria. For example, reaching the exit in under nine seconds, or doing it in only 17 moves, or saving 61 goos when only 20 are normally required.
Upon completing the game, you’ll either want to go back to accomplish these harder challenges, or you’ll want to focus your efforts on the World of Goo Corporation. Basically, it’s that original Tower of Goo prototype with a significant addition: an online scoreboard that logs the height of everyone’s tower. Those heights then appear in your game as floating clouds, giving you something to aim for as you build up toward the sky. You can play this level at any time and it changes appearance with each new chapter unlocked, but you’re advised to wait till you’ve completed everything else before getting properly stuck in. All those goos you freed on every other level? They come here, giving you an increasing number with which to build. Just building, without the obstacles and only one type of goo, is fun. This is why the original prototype devoured our every spare moment for weeks. It’s so easy to just start dragging out goos and forming vertices – the whole game is controlled using one button. The little eyeballed blobs cheer and squeal in joy with every placement.
World of Goo isn’t massive, procedural or dynamic, but we want to come back to what we said earlier about its developers seemingly feeding everything in their heads into its creation. The first game that came to mind while playing was Darwinia, whose obvious reverence for other games made it feel like a passion project. World of Goo feels the same. Its every moment seems crafted with care and attention, and it’s clearly a personal labour of love for its makers, who quit their jobs at Electronic Arts and worked primarily in coffee shops in lieu of having office space.
The second game that comes to mind is Portal, which took a very simple concept and developed it into an imaginative, funny, polished three-hour gem. World of Goo worked out at more than twice the length for us, while being no less polished, or funny, or imaginative. Those are big names and may render your expectations unrealistically high, so here’s the negative. World of Goo’s list of flaws: sometimes, when there are a lot of goos, it can be hard to quickly pick the one you want. That’s it.
Oct 13, 2008