World of Goo: Conclusion

After you reach the ending of World of Goo, there are two avenues for pursuing perfection. First, each level has an “OCD” 1“Obsessive completion distinction”, according to the game. challenge associated with it — usually of the form “rescue N goo balls”, but sometimes it’s “finish in N moves” or some other variant. I managed to pass a few of the easier such challenges in the smaller levels without meaning to, but I don’t intend to make a serious effort at it. It reeks of frustration.

The other optional challenge is one I’ve mentioned before: freeform goo-tower building at the remains of the World of Goo Corporation campus. This, I spent a considerable amount of time at, both after finishing the game and during the process, mainly while progress was slow. There are in-game suggestions that there’s something to see if you build high enough, but the end cutscene seems to suggest otherwise, that no matter how high you build, you’ll still be striving at the end. At any rate, I found this challenge fairly compelling, and spent a lot of time on it when I finished the game proper.

The next day, while at work, I noticed a unexpected variant on a familiar mental phenomenon. It’s not unusual for the quick but intensive training provided by a game to cause people to see patterns from the game in real life, especially if the patterns are strong, simple patterns that one has never had a reason to notice before. Many people have reported this happening to them with Tetris, and I’ve spoken before about experiencing it with Puzzle Quest. But this was a little freakier: I started seeing the slow wobble of a large goo structure in the unmoving windows on my desktop. (Source code looked particularly unstable, because of the slanting indentations.) I don’t recall experiencing anything quite like this with any other game. Seeing patterns where they actually exist is one thing, but this was seeing illusory motion just because my mind is primed to see it, like a long, slow afterimage.

At any rate, it’s a pretty neat game. Although many of the puzzles are basically variations on building a bridge or tower, it does a good job of always approaching it in a new way. Sometimes it’s the terrain that makes it different, sometimes it’s the available goo types. New goos with different properties keep on getting introduced until very near the close of the game. There’s inflatable balloon goo that can be attached to your structure to help it resist gravity, water-droplet goo that only attaches to one vertex and hangs down (potentially forming long descending chains, if that’s what you need), highly flammable matchstick-goo — come to think of it, all it needs is an earth goo to complete the elemental tetrad. I suppose that niche is taken by the stone blocks in world 4.

The stone blocks are not goo, in that they don’t move of their own accord and you can’t attach them to a goo structure, but they have two attributes found almost exclusively in goo otherwise: you can pick them up with your mouse and reposition them, and they have eyes. Little cartoony ones. Eyes of this sort are the lazy approach to anthropomophizing: I’ve seen them applied to things as unlikely as Tetris blocks and Pong paddles, game elements that really don’t need to be anthropomorphized. And it always seems to be accompanied by incoherent chirps and squeals from the creatures made anthropomorphic. So, yeah, I’m far from a fan of this aesthetic. But then, I look at this game and I ask myself what it would be like without the eyes and the squeals, and I have to admit it would be pretty dry — it would be a lot like Bridge Builder, in fact. Perhaps 2D Boy has actually figured out how to do this style right. It remains to be seen if the secret can be articulated clearly enough to recapture it in another work.

1 “Obsessive completion distinction”, according to the game.

Puzzle Quest: Pattern Recognition

This morning, as I looked at my desktop and its excessive clutter of icons, my eyes were immediately drawn to places where I could form rows of three similar icons by swapping adjacent ones. This is a familiar phenomenon. You play a game, it trains your brain. It can feel like the game is taking over your mind, but I’d explain it in more benign terms: Visual pattern recognition is something we humans are highly optimized for, and a game as fundamentally abstract as this gives your brain patterns that it can spot in all sorts of places. It doesn’t know at first that it’s only supposed to look for the pattern in the context of the game, but it usually figures this out after a while.

It isn’t even really a phenomenon limited to videogames. I experienced similar things when I was learning to play Go: I’d walk into a cinema, say, and see what seats were taken, and automatically decide where the next person should be seated to increase defensive strength most efficiently. There may be something about grids in particular that encourage this kind of thought. Grids are ubiquitous in both games and in our artificial modern environment, but they aren’t seen in nature. So I can imagine that the brain’s pattern recognition subroutines, having evolved to deal with natural things, would tend to see all grids as anomalies and thus as likely manifestations of the same thing. But this is pure speculation.

Anyway, having just come off a stint of The Typing of the Dead, this all seems like more evidence of the medium’s underutilized potential as a training tool. If we’re going to be teaching our brains to do tricks, they might as well be useful tricks, no?