Gumboy: The Hell

Gumboy‘s final level, titled “The Hell”, takes place in a system of caves with lava-drips and hovering, fire-breathing Thai demon heads (which, curiously, breathe their fire from their noses, not their mouths). I think Gumboy died more times in this level than in the rest of the game combined, but fortunately, there’s an abundance of save points. The save points are mostly situated in places where you can’t go backward, or at the very least have no reason to do so, and thus the level is effectively chopped up into a number of mini-levels.

As a whole, it’s something of a recapitulation of all the special tokens and powers you’ve become familiar with over the course of the game — tokens that let Gumboy jump, make him smaller, make him stick to walls, turn him light as a balloon. There’s even a new token that turns him temporarily fireproof, something that would have had no practical use outside of The Hell. One fairly common token from before is notably missing: the one that turns him into “water”.

Eventually, you come to an empty chamber with no way out. As you roll across a particular trigger spot, a number of those demon heads suddenly appear and start firing at you. Again, I stress that there’s no way out. You can dodge the blasts — there’s a nice curved bit on one wall that you can use to get over the fireballs that move horizontally — but this just prolongs matters, because they’re going to blast again, and there’s no way out. I mean, okay, there is after a while. It’s a survival challenge: after you’ve spent a certain amount of time in there without dying, the heads disappear and are replaced with the final exit portal, which takes you back to the sunny arboreal spaces of the tutorial levels, where the game’s first non-interactive cutscene plays. Your reward for passing through The Hell: you meet Gumgirl! I laughed out loud at this, which is something few games indeed have made me do.

Still, while you’re in that chamber, there is (as usual for this game) no indication of the rules. You’re expected to just catch on. And yeah, that did in fact work. But for a while, I contemplated the possibility that this was it. An ending without triumph, where your temerity in entering The Hell is rewarded with an impossible challenge. There’s no mechanical reason why this couldn’t be the case; it’s not like it had to let you finish in order to unlock the next level, because the level-selection UI made it clear that there wasn’t one. The main thing that made me think this wasn’t the case was the thought that news of the resulting player outrage would surely have reached my ears.

It’s the most intense action sequence in a pretty tranquil game, and you know something? It’s still pretty tranquil. It’s still far from a twitch game. The heads move and fire in a regular pattern, a cycle that lasts a matter of seconds. Once you’ve found a sequence of moves that lets you live through such a cycle, all you have to do is repeat it without mistakes for enough iterations to convince the game that you can repeat it indefinitely. And that’s something best accomplished with meditative calm.

Gumboy: Love and Frustration

Can I just say how much I love this game? It seems like I’ve had to force myself, against my will, to make time for a lot of the games I’ve been sampling lately, even if the game is enjoyable once I’m playing it. Not so here. I’m so eager to play, I’m finding the time to get in a level or two in the morning before departing for work. I think the last time this happened was with DROD.

I think my reaction has a lot to do with the way that it just lets you play the game, without interrupting it with cutscenes or dialogue. I think of my recent experiences with Killer 7. There, a lot of the dialogue, particularly Iwazaru’s, was padded out with contentless verbiage: you’d press a button to talk to Iwazaru, and he’d say “Master!” (pause) “We’re in a tight spot!” (pause) “A very tight spot indeed! (pause)” and then he’d maybe say something important or maybe just babble nonsense at you. But I dared not skip any of it. So I suspect that when I went for a couple of days without playing, it was at least in part because a portion of my mind recoiled at the prospect of talking to Iwazaru any more.

I don’t think Gumboy will appeal to everyone the way it does to me. Some will be put off by the cutesy factor — I personally find it understated enough, and diluted with enough weird, that it doesn’t bother me. Some will dislike the gameplay. The more difficult levels produce a golf-like frustration, where you know where you have to go but can’t manage it because you can’t put just the right amount of spin on the ball or whatever. There’s a vicious cycle there: frustration breeds impatience, and impatience makes you drive Gumboy around too fast and fail even harder. This is why it’s so important that the game is so fundamentally calm.

But it’s also worth noting that the frustration and impatience produced by Gumboy‘s difficulty is of a different kind than that produced by Iwazaru’s longwindedness. The one is imposed on you by the author. The other is a consequence of the player’s actions, and therefore can be overcome. Some of the pleasure of the game comes from exactly that: the relief of overcoming frustration. This is why I prefer Gumboy‘s brand of frustration to Iwazaru’s, even though the former can actually block your progress in a game and the latter can’t.

Gumboy: Not the face!

Gumboy isn’t always a rubber ball. Certain tokens, when collected, change him. Some change his substance, turning him into what the game calls “air” or “water”, although this seems to mainly just affect his density, not his resistance to deformation. (Possibly the “air” form is more vulnerable to death by puncture, like the balloon it effectively is, but I’m not entirely convinced of this.) Others change his shape, turning him into a square or a five-pointed star, which affects how he rolls (or, on a slope, resists rolling).

There’s at least one other way to change Gumboy’s shape, and it’s a little disturbing.

I said that there were no enemies, but this turns out to be not quite true. There are caterpillars. At least, they’re first seen in a level titled “caterpillars”. They’re a little too small for me to identify them clearly myself, and their behavior is uncaterpillarlike in some ways, such as the way they can jump a little. They’re capable of moving around under their own power, but tend to be basically subject to gravity anyway, sliding down slopes and getting caught in depressions. Gumboy’s repulsor field affects them, which is a good thing, because you need to get them out of the way. The caterpillars appear in a series of levels where you have to shepherd a number of glass spheres around, or possibly soap bubbles — whatever they are, they’re fragile, liable to break (and respawn at their starting locations) whenever they hit a surface too hard. They’re also killed by the caterpillar’s bite.

And caterpillars do bite. You notice this the first time you hear Gumboy’s little squeals of pain on rolling over them. What I didn’t notice at first is that they were actually eating him, from the chin up. By the time I caught on, he was downright gibbous.

Now, healing Gumboy is easy. Hitting a checkpoint seems to take care of it, as do the shape-change icons, and possibly even teleporters. I can imagine situations where being partly or even mostly eaten is even an advantage, letting you squeeze through smaller space. Nonetheless, the thought of bugs eating my face is disturbing enough that I cannot allow it. Are the caterpillars even capable of eating him completely? I don’t know, and I’m not about to find out. I’ve seen characters in videogames killed in a great many ways, including excessively gruesome ones, but this prospect is just worse somehow. I guess it shows that the decision to make him into a character rather than an inanimate object really has allowed me to identify with him.

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.