Surprise & Delight & Goo

Damn this game is good.

In these analysis bits, I like to tease out one bit of a game and try to describe how it felt and why it felt that way. Here, the thing I noticed was laughter – delightful, giddy joy, a sort of keen reverence for the very clever things this game made me jump through. It’s a different kind of fun than I often look for in games, and I rarely experience, but damn. This game is good.

I’m an exploration-kind-of-player, typically – I want to know the characters and know the world and know the environment and try all the options. I’m dedicated to the RANDOM button on Super Smash Bros, for example: I want to get a breadth of game experience. This is also the origin of my completionist tendencies: FIND ALL THE THINGS.

World of Goo engaged this part of me with constant novelty. It’s a puzzle game, so it never “opens up” (that’s not the point), but from a simple base of connecting gooballs, it expands and expands and KEEPS EXPANDING. I was discovering new elements of gameplay up to the last moment. In the design of the goo balls, in the encouragement to doink around with them for a while, in the level design, in the story and the world, this game nailed it. The side of me that loves to keep pushing boundaries kept having new boundaries to push, and I adore the fact that each new boundary was relevant – it was a new gameplay mechanic, a new strategy, even a new bit of the story (which is a bit excuse plot-y, but man, in a game about building towers of goo, you don’t expect Hamlet, and this shot well beyond the acceptable territory into hilariously novel).

I think the bit I want to let percolate more here is the fact that I found myself delighted by constant, delightful surprises – new, fun things to do. Nothing ever got staid, the challenge never so exacting that there was One True Way to play. I overcame one challenge (even if a little sloppily) and then I had a new, different challenge to look forward to.

I think this can be hard in game design – especially when designing a puzzle-like system. You find a few mechanics that work and you beat it into the ground in any way you can think of. You introduce new challenges, but you don’t introduce new ways of solving that challenge. Levels in D&D work in a similar way: to give you new toys to play with. It’s more than an awesome carrot, it keeps the exploration of the mechanics from ever being comfortable for long. The pace in World of Goo is one that I’d have been hesitant to use before, and the game doesn’t concern itself with extensive use of some of its novel tricks (skull goo is useful exactly twice, but “light this goo structure on fire” seems to have been a big turning point!). I think that works in its favor, to be honest – it has enough new tricks that once you get the basic idea of one of ’em, it can show you the next one.

This also gives me some insight into my “Gishue” (hehehe) – if Gish would’ve had a more Metroidvania or level structure, where you gained new abilities, rather than starting with everything, I may have been less annoyed at not using some of ’em.

World of Goo is a fabulous thing – amazing, really. It’s up there with Aquaria as a high water mark for this little experiment.

Lessons Learned

  • Introduce new mechanics fast – as soon as competence is proven with an old one. Don’t be afraid to dole them out one-by-one: a steady drip is more key than a feast/famine cycle.
  • Even an indie game is a team effort. Without the visuals and music and sound design the mechanics couldn’t sustain the interest. These things don’t need to be complex, they just need to be effective.
  • Levels are an exploration fun-drip; puzzle-solving is a challenge fun-drip.
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