One Solution: Gish

Motored my way through early Edmund McMillen platformer Gish just today. It’s a fun game, and I like the mechanical element of only being able to affect your own fluidity. The main mechanics are that your character can become sticky (for climbing walls and moving blocks), heavy (for triggering switches and gates), slick (for squeezing into tight passages), or use a rather unusual jump that must be built up into a big leap. Combinations of these let you hurl blocks (get sticky, then do a little jump and stop being sticky!), pick up speed on slopes (get heavy and slick), or kill enemies (jump, then become heavy and crush ’em). It’s a neat way to have ample puzzle variety, and this game is full of swings and plummets and sudden careening into spikey or lava-filled doom (especially the later levels!).

It’s a little unpolished around the edges, and it shows. Things like killing yourself by falling onto corners or just behind some scenery are not uncommon (in fact, probably the MOST common, aside from spikes and lava), and abilities like the slickness seem a little under-used (you basically use it in specific, intentional instances) while mechanics like the stickiness are perhaps a little over-used.

In fact, the stickiness is probably worth a deeper dive…

In the land of D&D, there’s something that might be called the teleport problem. It basically goes like this: when your characters can teleport, then you can’t challenge them with a trek across the wilderness or a long-term journey anymore. This ability – the ability to launch themselves anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat – essentially removes one of the main tools that a DM has to challenge their players. When you face this problem as a DM (or it’s lesser kin, flight), you have two options: you can dream up excuses for your characters not to be able to use that ability (making it functionally banned-when-it-would-wreck-stuff), or you can accept that this isn’t a valid avenue of challenge anymore.

In the first scenario, you have a bit of a problem of contradiction – you give someone an ability, and then revoke it when it would be the most useful. You’re training your player there to try and discern the solution you intended – the one you designed for, the one that you wanted to challenge them with. This is what Gish does with its sticky ability. It is introduced. It is useful. It is fun. And then there are *surprise* areas where you just can’t use it. Because you’re not supposed to. Because that’s not the challenge here.

That can be pretty deeply unsatisfying. At best, you’ve designed a fun ability and then beat it back into submission because it was “too good.” So now the player can’t use the ability that they wanted to have fun with because you’ve decided it breaks the game (except where it doesn’t). You could’ve just not given them the ability, or given it to them under different circumstances (like a temporary power-up or somesuch) that made the intention more clear. When this design is at its worst, you’re asking the player to read your mind, to figure out the RIGHT answer, among all the strategies they have. It tests knowledge, not skill. It’s a trivia question with a predetermined solution.

The second solution requires more effort, but usually leads to a more satisfying experience. When you accept that your player can teleport and that you can’t use wilderness travel as an effective challenge anymore, the dynamic in the game changes, and you start hitting them with challenges that are still relevant, challenges that teleporting doesn’t remove (for instance, in D&D, if you own a castle, well, you can teleport out of the approaching orc war party, but your holdings, your land, your people – they all die). You have to be a little more creative, but the payoff is that the player never feels robbed – they can use all of their abilities to creatively meet the challenge.

In Gish, this wouldn’t even be too dramatic of a change – simply removing the “non-stick surfaces” and altering the platforming puzzles that currently make heavy use of them to have fewer walls (or dangerous walls – no reason spikes can’t replace the non-stick!) would do the trick nicely. Sticky is now useful everywhere. No “non-stick” blocks needed. If you wanted to lean into it, you could design platforming puzzles where being sticky is especially harmful or difficult (sticking you to a doomed platform or a collapsing wall), but not impossible, letting a stick-master shine.

Of course, those blocks don’t ruin the game or anything. And the sticky ability is perhaps over-used in the game anyway, so encouraging it to be used MORE might not be a great design goal. But it’s something I’m keeping in mind as I polish off my first truly indie design work – I don’t want to limit abilities I’ve given my players. If I have to introduce “teleport-proof rooms” or “non-stick surfaces,” I probably just need to think a little harder about what I’m asking the player to do, and how they can use all of the options at their disposal and still be challenged.

For my first work here, I think the version of this problem I am facing is the problem of intention – the player can always opt NOT to do what I’d like ’em to do. And I think in this instance, I’ve given them plenty of leeway to do that if they want (though with consequences). But I can’t design for them NOT playing the game, either. Hmm…more thoughts…