Gish: Bosses and Bossiness

The final boss in Gish is an interesting one. As hinted by a couple of prior boss speeches, it’s another ball of tar, similar to Gish himself. The chief differences: first of all, in a concession to readability, it’s white. I’ve never heard of white tar, but you need to be able to tell it apart from Gish. Secondly, it doesn’t have quite the same capabilities as Gish: it doesn’t seem to be able to jump, or to turn sticky and climb up walls. It does have the ability to turn heavy and ram you, and when thrown into the air, can zero in on you with all its crushing weight. Beating the level requires hurling a block up onto a platform (so you can use it to weigh down a switch that opens a trap door into a lava pit), and aiming it while being battered by a white tarball is the most difficult thing about the fight.

Thirdly, despite my use of the neuter pronoun above, the end boss is female. (Don’t ask me what distinguishes male tar from female tar.) This is a twist on the usual kidnapped-girlfriend plot that I only recall seeing once before, in Earthworm Jim. Usually the person who kidnaps the hero’s girlfriend is an implied romantic rival, regardless of his ostensible motives. Here, the relationship archetype is instead that of jealous psycho ex. Her motivation for the abduction was that she wanted the girlfriend out of the picture, mistakenly believing that she was the only thing standing in the way of destined love. But even then, her pre-fight rant implies that she really understands underneath it all that she was never anything to Gish, and never will be: she hollers “What do you mean, you don’t even remember me?” and similar disappointments when Gish hasn’t actually said anything of the sort.

In fact, Gish never says anything at all. All the bosses in the game begin their bossing with boasting and taunting and bombast, and Gish’s reply is always the same: “…..” And then the clever, agile hero overcomes his overconfident foe by exploiting the environment. (It may take dozens of lives to accomplish this, but we don’t count these failures as part of the actual story of the game, do we?) It’s often the mark of the difference between hero and villain, isn’t it? The villain is ego-driven. The hero just wants to get the job done. Even when the hero is given to wisecracks, like Spider-Man, the villain has to step up his boasting to compensate, or else the hero just comes off as something of a jerk. And it’s particularly appropriate here, in a game based around cartoonish grotesques, with a strange hero with strange abilities , but notably awkward in the things that other platformer characters find easy. If Escape from Butcher Bay was a game written to appeal to the school bully, this is a game written for the school weirdo. Getting your way without the need for verbal sparring is part of the fantasy. (Although Spider-Man has a similar sort of appeal — heck, he even shares Gish’s wall-climbing abilities — and, as noted, engages in verbal sparring all the time. Maybe there’s something wrong with my analysis.)

At any rate, it’s finally off the Stack, where it would have been back in 2009 if it had been working properly. I may come back to look for secrets, I may not. Just having it on my Macbook makes it more likely that I will.

Gish: ANBUKaptain’s Lament

So I was finding world 3 difficult once again, and I started thinking that maybe I’d stand a better chance of getting through it if I played on Easy difficulty. Reluctant to start over and lose my progress, I sought online to see what difference it made. My guess was seven lives instead of five. The truth: infinity lives.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. You still get only five lives per game, after which you can continue, but your score starts back at zero. But that hardly matters to a score-ignorer like myself. The big difference is that when you run out of lives and continue, you continue from the beginning of the level, not the beginning of the world as in Medium difficulty. This makes the number of lives per continue unimportant. Suddenly, legitimate incremental progress is possible! You still have to make it through each level within a single life, but with as many do-overs as you need. Even a player who aims to finish on the highest difficulty setting would find this useful as a practice mode. And as a result, I’m already partway into world 5, which may be the last one. (Steam’s description says something about “34+ story levels”, and there are seven levels per world, so. I suppose the vagueness is justified by the presence of “warp zones” off the main track.)

Now here’s the fun part: This is the page where I learned the above. This person really doesn’t like the game at all, and has fairly detailed complaints, although they mostly come down to the same thing: that the game provides insufficient guidance in the use of its frankly unusual mechanics — or, less charitably, “I didn’t figure stuff out, and I’d rather blame the author than myself”. Either way, there was a communication failure there that I think I’ve mostly avoided.

He’s somewhat coy about exactly what he didn’t figure out, and I don’t really understand why, considering that these are anti-spoilers he’s talking about, information that makes the game worse if you don’t have it, as his own experience shows. I will say what he does not: Gish has the ability to throw small blocks. You do this by getting the block on top of Gish (by turning sticky and rolling over it like a katamari), then, when its weight is deforming you, stop being sticky and tense up to resume your shape. There’s one part in world 4 where you have to get three blocks (out of a larger number available) up onto a ledge that Gish can jump to easily, but not while carrying a block: “carrying” means sticking to it, and turning sticky tends to adhere you to the floor and prevent you from jumping. ANBUKaptain apparently got past this by painstakingly building a staircase out of blocks and then somehow hauling blocks up it without pulling it apart — only to then get killed later in the level and start over again. This is clearly the wrong way to do it, not least because it’s less fun.

So, why did I discover this capability that he did not? I can state right off that I did not discover it because I was looking for it. It’s just the sort of thing that you notice while noodling around — playing with the game, as opposed to just playing it. But my usual approach is quite goal-oriented, and I can easily imagine myself in ANBUKaptain’s shoes. I suspect the real difference is I replayed the first two worlds so may times, partly as a result of putting the game away for months at a time, partly because I was trying to find all the secret areas, partly because of the crashing. When you play through the same stuff over and over again, your brain starts looking for shortcuts, more efficient ways to do stuff. You become less methodical, more willing to take risks. There’s one bit in world 3 involving a series of hanging platforms over a lava pit; the first time I encountered them, I carefully jumped from one to the next, but eventually I discovered that you don’t even need to jump: get a running start, and you can just barrel over the lot, carried over the gaps by your momentum. I’m willing to bet that ANBUKaptain never made that leap. I probably wouldn’t have in other circumstances.

In fact, there’s one bit where I rather think I did miss the point until later. The world 4 boss chases you back and forth in a hallway whose ceiling sports three large stone blocks with crumbly blocks underneath them, supporting them. There was a similar set-up back in world 2, where I had passed it by jumping up, clinging to the crumbly blocks, and breaking them by tensing up and increasing my weight (and then getting out of the way quickly before I was crushed). The world 4 boss level makes this approach impractical: the ceilings are just a little too high to jump to, and the tiles around the crumbly ones are slippery ones, making it impossible to just climb the wall and move horizontally. I had notions of pushing loose blocks underneath so I could jump from a higher vantage, but my adversary kept pushing them away. At some point in this process, though, I discovered that I could demolish the crumbly tiles by throwing the loose blocks at them — difficult to do with any precision while you’re being chased, but easier than the alternative. And I suddenly understood something I hadn’t before: why there was a loose block sitting under those crumbly tiles back in level 2. I was supposed to have used it the same way.

So, the lesson here is to trust Edmund McMillen. If you’re doing something difficult and tedious, there’s probably a better and faster way. If you find a loose block, it has a purpose. And this suddenly makes me rethink another place where I found a seemingly-purposeless block, sitting on a sliding floor piece that I needed to shift but had difficulty getting a purchase on. I had gotten through that through awkward shuffling and stickiness, but now I suspect there’s a more elegant solution involving Newton’s Third Law.

Gish on Mac

One nice thing about the Steam Play initiative (Valve’s nascent cross-platform support) is that it makes it very easy for me to find out when games I’ve purchased become available for the Mac. This is an important thing to know for those games that don’t work right on my PC. Just the other day, I noticed that several of my indie bundle games had been quietly ported while my attention was elsewhere. My first instinct was to finally try And Yet It Moves, which I haven’t yet been able to get to run on my Windows machine at all, but I can’t get it to run on my Mac either: the download is eternally stuck at 99%, and attempts to run it anyway yield silly errors about the servers being busy. So instead I gave Gish another shot. I might as well; I’ve bought it in a bundle at least one more time since my last attempt, for something like five times total by now.

You may recall that the last time I played this game, it was crashing on me frequently enough that I figured out how to exploit the crashes to aid my progress. Without that help, the game is in a sense easier. I hold myself to lower standards, not seeking every secret or every coin, just trying to get through the levels as fast as possible. The first world breezes by when approached like this. It’s quite freeing; I get to do all the acrobatic stuff that I mentioned back in my first post — which, it turns out, I still remember how to do.

Which is fortunate, because it isn’t at all obvious, and this game has a pretty steep learning curve. In a recent online discussion, someone asked “Did anyone actually like Gish?” — to which the answer is obviously yes, because it won some awards, but it definitely doesn’t give the player the sense of immediate power and ease of movement that most platformers strive for, and that probably turns a lot of people off. Another discussion I recall pointed out how Mario 64 engages the player by making it look like Mario is really enjoying himself, running around and leaping into the air and shouting “Woohoo!”, to the point that it almost seems a shame to put the controller down and deprive him of his thrills. Gish enjoys himself too, opens his mouth wide in a wicked toothy smile when he’s fast and airborne, but it takes a degree of mastery to reach that point.

One thing I keep forgetting: one of the developers on Gish was Edmund McMillen, who went on to create Super Meat Boy. SMB is also too difficult for a lot of people (possibly including me, although I haven’t given up on it yet), but for opposite reasons: moving around in ordinary environments is almost too easy, with the result that you leap into sawblades all the time. At any rate, I give him credit for exploring extremely different points within the possibility space of the platformer genre, even if both of these games are at heart glorified Mario imitations.

Gish attempted, failed

My first thought on reaching 2004 was to make a try at completing Gish, which I’ve left in world 3 since last December. Alas, the intermittent crashing seems to be even worse than I remembered, sometimes leaving my entire system unresponsive and forcing me to switch it off. I don’t think I’ll be continuing until I have a solution here. Every once in a while, it freezes for several seconds with a speckling of white pixels, then comes back with a notification that OpenGL had to reset the hardware. Perhaps it’s ultimately an OpenGL problem? Most of the other games I’ve been playing lately use DirectX.

Gish: The Benefits of Crashing

I’m into the third world of Gish now, “The 7 Planes of Hehenna”. (And yes, that seems to mean that this world has seven levels.) It’s a lava world, and as usual, touching lava will kill you, which is highly unrealistic: in the real world, you’d be roasted alive long before you got within touching distance of lava, if the fumes didn’t get you first. (There’s a name for lava that doesn’t heat the air around it to hundreds of degrees. It’s called stone.) But I suppose things might be different for living tar. The real world doesn’t offer us many data points for that. At the very least, Gish wouldn’t be affected by the fumes: the water sequences prove that he doesn’t need to breathe.

This is around the point where I stopped playing during my first run, back when the game was new. That’s because it’s the point where it becomes really easy to die. The game gives you five lives to start with, and you can occasionally find more, but if you run out, you have to start over at the beginning of the world. Not, thankfully, the beginning of the whole game — it’s not that imitative of NES-era platformers. But there’s no way to save other than the autosave, which kicks in every time you quit. So if you can’t beat an entire world in five lives straight, you can’t progress.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But, as I said before, this game keeps crashing on me. And when it crashes, it doesn’t autosave. I’ve taken to working around this by quitting whenever I complete a level in order to force an autosave, thereby not losing my progress. But this also means that I’m immune to being kicked back to the beginning of the world. I can lose all my lives, restart the world, crash, and then jump back in at the point of my last autosave.

It’s tantamount to cheating, really. I wasn’t doing it deliberately at first, but now that I know, it’s cheating. In fact, it reminds me a lot of playing old CRPGs and pulling out the floppy disk the moment a character died so that the game couldn’t record it. Which means, I suppose, that cheating like this is in the spirit of the old-school experience that Gish aims to provide.

Gish: Look

Sometimes, the environment in Gish looks downright photorealistic. Which is strange, because it’s not. At all. It’s a tile-based world with lots of regularly-repeated textures, and while it contains moving physics objects (such as blocks suspended from flexible ropes), those objects are largely made from the same size of square tile as everything else in the environment. But sometimes, just sometimes, it gives an impression of looking close to real. I think I can identify a few factors contributing to this.

First, there’s the darkness. This is a dimly-lit game, and this helps to hide the imperfections. Second, there’s the light. Gish features dynamic lighting. Now, “dynamic lighting” usually means “moving shadows”, which may or may not make things look realer. (In Diablo II, for example, I felt the shadows just made things look odd.) But in a dimly-lit game like this, it more often means moving brightly-lit areas, sometimes shadow-striped. Add a moving shadow-casting physics item in the middle of this and you get a convergence of visually convincing stuff, forming an island of concentrated realism.

And that “island” effect is a big contributing factor. When things suddenly look real, it’s partly due to the contrast with the way they normally look. The monsters are grotesque cartoons, visibly hand-drawn. Gish himself looks like an animation cel, with big yellow eyes and a toothy mouth that’s only rendered when it’s open. But sometimes, when the light hits him just right, he gets spots of dynamic reflection that suggest a curved and shiny surface. It’s particularly striking when the light is colored. This is one of the best visual effects in the game.


Gish is a goth/cartoony 2D platformer starring a sentient ball of tar, a hero that stretches and splats and sticks to things. In some respects it’s very traditional, based around Mario-old conventions like the kidnapped-girlfriend plot 1No, Gish’s girlfriend isn’t a ball of tar. She’s a cartoon goth girl. Don’t ask me for details. , the linear sequence of levels grouped into “worlds”, enemies you kill by jumping on their heads, etc. I think the designers chose to adhere to old and even outmoded conventions as much as they did, not out of lack of imagination, but to give the player something familiar to cling to as they pulled the rug from under you on the mechanics and controls. This is a platformer where jumping is difficult to execute.

Oh, sure, there’s a “jump” button, but it doesn’t do much of a jump by itself. To make Gish do a jump worth jumping, you have to hit the button while he’s compressed — the more compressed, the better. And he’s at his most compressed when he’s in the middle of colliding with a hard surface, such as a floor. So standing jumps are a no-go, but sequences of long bounds are doable, once you’ve attained sufficient facility with the controls to carom about with confidence. Momentum is your friend, and hesitation is your biggest enemy.

It takes a while to become that confident, because, aside from the jump, Gish’s core abilities are not standard platformer fare. The core controls allow you to make Gish stickier than normal (useful for climbing walls), slicker and less viscous (useful for sliding down narrow chutes), or heavier and more resistant to deformation (useful for breaking things or sinking in water). These can be combined arbitrarily: sometimes, for example, the easiest way to shift a pile of loose blocks is to trickle into their midst through slickness and then tense up to resume ball-shape and force the blocks apart. It’s all very physics.

I may not be playing it much, though, because it’s still crashing for me. Not as badly as it was before, but I’m typically getting in about 10-15 minutes of gameplay before it exits to the desktop without so much as an error message. This is, however, long enough to make permanent progress, so I really could just keep playing, as long as I exit the game every once in a while to force it to save. (There is no manual save option.)

1 No, Gish’s girlfriend isn’t a ball of tar. She’s a cartoon goth girl. Don’t ask me for details.

New Failures

Games on Steam that I’ve tried and failed to play in the last 24 hours:

Majesty 2: Sequel to a game that I quite liked. Steam had it on sale for $10, so I picked it up. Before I was done with the tutorial, it triggered the spontaneous-shut-off problem that I first observed in Team Fortress 2. This has happened in a few other graphically-intensive games lately.

Audiosurf: Included in that Steam indie sale pack that I’ve played most of by now. (Mr. Robot was in the same pack.) Launching it with Steam already running brings up a featureless white window that either goes away after a fraction of a second or freezes up and has to be killed through the task manager. Launching it without Steam already running somehow lets it get far enough to put a bunch of text in that window, then crash with the error “Questviewer.exe has encountered an error and must close”.

Gish: Part of the same sale package as Audiosurf, although I already had a registered copy from pre-Steam days. After twice temporarily feezing up with a dusting of random pixels and then coming back with a video driver error saying that the hardware had to be reset, it finally turned off the machine like Majesty 2. This from a 2D game.

I’m really going to have to get a new video card. I’m willing to put it off for a while, though. There are still plenty of games that don’t need it.

World of Goo

And while we’re on well-regarded indie puzzle games, I might as well pull this one out. 2D Boy’s World of Goo has gotten enough good press that I didn’t hesitate to purchase it off Steam a few weeks ago when it was on sale, but didn’t have the time to start it. That’s happening a lot lately. Every weekend, Steam puts a large and temporary discount on one or more games, and it’s going to be the ruin of my attempts to reduce the Stack.

My first impression of the game is that it’s Bridge Builder crossed with Gish. Which is unfortunate, because those are both obscure enough titles that I’m going to have to explain them now. Bridge Builder (and its sequel Pontifex) is exactly what it sounds like: a heavily physics-based game in which you have to design river-spanning bridges that don’t collapse under their own weight under various physical and budgetary constraints. Gish, which is on the Stack still, is a gothy 2D platformer about a sentient blob of tar. Coincidentally (and somewhat oddly), these two games were made by the same team. Or perhaps it’s not coincidence: I’ve detected what may be shout-outs to Bridge Builder in WoG‘s first world, suggesting that 2D Boy is a fan of theirs, or at least aware of them.

But to this a third influence must be added: Lemmings, with its chirruping doomed wee creatures that need your help to escape. The goal in each level of WoG is to help the roaming goo balls to reach an outflow pipe, usually by building a bridge to it out of their living bodies, which are most easily connected in triangular grids. Some species of goo can be detached and reused, others are effectively killed the moment you join them to your expanding structure. All survivors are sent to a special area with a competitive metagoal: build as tall a tower as you can, while clouds representing the tower-heights of other players on the net loom tauntingly overhead.

Even though I’m still in the lower ranks hieght-wise, I’m finding it gratifying to look at the details on those clouds and snicker at how much less efficient they are than mine — “He has twice as many pieces as me, and he’s only just a little way above me!” I only wish I could see their structures, rather than just their stats, because I’m curious about how other people are building their structures. (I suppose I should try Google. People must be posting screenshots.) My own best efforts are Eiffel-Tower-like: I start by making as large and as regular a triangle as I can, then when it’s thick enough, I start mining out the middle bits that aren’t needed for support any more, and put them up top. The broadness of the base, even when it’s reduced to a pair of legs, tends to minimize the structure’s wobble.

And yet it still wobbles. Wobbling is pretty much the point of goo; the whole game is built around what’s been called “jell-o physics”. For this reason, screenshots really don’t communicate the gameplay very well. You can look a picture of a nice slim tower and not realize that it’s swaying back and forth with an arc larger than the screen.