Gumboy: Crazy Adventures

Recent years have seen the rise of the indie game, and Gumboy: Crazy Adventures is indier than many. It’s a very beautiful game, with a richly-textured environment that looks like it’s made of pieces cut out of expensive paper, embroidered fabric, and dried leaves. It’s also a very tranquil game, with no enemies, no dangers other than static environmental hazards (and many levels don’t even have that). It doesn’t even have background music to give it dramatic oomph, instead letting the gentle ambient sound of wind and water set the mood. Apparently it’s been compared a lot to Gish, which makes sense: they’re both quirky 2D physics platformers where the chief challenge is in navigating the environment. But they couldn’t be more different in tone.

The protagonist, Gumboy, is essentially a rubber ball, and moves by rolling. He has a face, but most of the time, he’s rolling too fast for you to see it. I kind of wonder why they designers decided to make this ball into a character, rather than just a ball that you roll around, but I suppose it gives them an excuse to make him mutter endearingly from time to time. Your controls are limited to rolling left and right, rolling left and right faster, and sometimes jumping, although that requires a special powerup. (Usually jumping in this game means rolling up a slope fast enough that you go flying off the end.) But rolling means accelerating, and sometimes you have to accelerate just the right amount to hit an aperture without overshooting — for example, landing on a tree branch. Trying to do this in a confined space complicates things, and most surfaces are sloped and curved. Getting from point A to point B involves a lot of trial and error, but the game generally doesn’t punish you for your mistakes, or at least doesn’t add more punishment beyond natural frustration, which it tends to defuse with its lush and peaceful ambience.

The most striking thing, especially in contrast to big-budget titles, is the absence of explanation and context. There’s no opening cutscene explaining the story and who Gumboy is and why he’s having crazy adventures, no real statement of your goals beyond an arrow pointing at the next important location. There’s a series of levels in which the player has to hit a point to release a quantity of luminous dust, then another to surround Gumboy with a reddish field that repels the dust, then use this to herd a sufficient quantity of the stuff back to the start of the level, where it sticks to the exit portal and activates it. The player has to figure this out by observation and interaction, and the game has to be clear enough in its presentation to make this possible. The first time I tried playing it, I thought for sure that there must be some documentation that I didn’t have, but no. None is necessary. This makes the game a very pure example of the sort of thing that ludologists like to write about: the game as a means of experiencing the pleasure of learning mechanics through interacting with them.

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