World of Goo
Reviewed: Two whizz-kid programmers exit EA, decide to create a game to enter the Independent Games Festival, snatch awards for design innovation and technical excellence, and Linux gets a cracking new game as a result.
World of Goo for Linux already makes up 10% of the direct sales of the game - who said Linux users didn't play games? Read on for our full review...
They say the simplest ideas are the best. Strip most games down to their essence and you'll be left with either a dull husk of nothingness or a database. But not World of Goo: It's nigh impossible to pare down any further. Every extraneous idea has been lanced and excised.
It's an uncannily addictive puzzle game with no HUD, no 3D extrusions, and only the barest minimum of exposition laid upon its core of pure physics-based construction. That's not to say there's no window dressing at all; the music is fantastic, and the layered 2D graphics are beautifully stylish.
World of Goo's tiny team has employed artistic mastery to imbue each and every goo ball with a layer of personality and charm; your goo, blessed only with eyes to express itself, has been rendered undeniably cute and incredibly innocent.
Your constructions will naturally sag as more weight is added to them, meaning subtly-smiling helium balloons are quite a necessity.
It's just merrily going about its business. You're grabbing it, stretching it and sticking it, like the evil overlord you truly are. Sure, the plot revolves around you saving the goo from the ravenous stomach of a hungry beast, but those sad little eyes say different.
Brilliantly, World of Goo never explicitly tells you anything about the game itself. It doesn't need to tell you how to play, it leads you - you lead yourself - through its barmy collection of levels. Would Tetris have been quite the same if Mario had kept popping up to suggest a home for that tricky S-piece? No. And World of Goo is no different.
The first time you tease out a bit of oily black goo and a triangular span snap-wobbles into place, the undulating goo balls have fed back most of what you need to know. The large billboard pointing at the 'goal' pipe in the sky fills in the only remaining blank. The physics are core to the game and are brilliantly realised, coupled with stellar collision detection and universally brilliant puzzle design. This is a game that instantly feels like home.
As you start a level, certain clusters of goo might be sleeping. Build your construction close enough to them, though, and they'll wake up and hop on board.
While the nuts and bolts of World of Goo rely on subtle feedback, you're told plenty about the other goings-on in the world. Fantastic animated cut scenes push the plot along, and there are signposts littered about the place - ostensibly gameplay pointers - but these are a mystery in themselves.
They're little messages left by some stranded narrator; sometimes worrying cries for help, sometimes cryptic clues, sometimes completely unrelated nonsense, but always special. So much so that you will relish each and every signpost you find.
You're rewarded with humorous billboards as you climb higher and higher in the World of Goo Corporation.
Each time you traverse one of World of Goo's forced scrolling points, which neatly hide sections of the level to keep the bit you're in all the more bemusing, the chances are that you'll get a further morsel of the parallel story being experienced by your narrator.
As you progress, you might be offered a vague explanation of the reason you're creating a humungous tongue for a hollow frog or suddenly languishing inside a brilliantly realised 8-bit universe, but you probably won't.
A wild ride
For a game that's so compellingly simple, World of Goo doesn't actually last that long. There's no getting around it; you'll probably bang through it in a week. But that's only because it is so face-scrunchingly addictive; the two-man development team has done an incredible job of cramming in graphical variety.
Every one of the 48 levels is unique, every challenge utterly charming. While you're only ever given control of goo balls and helium balloons, a host of other characters crop up along the way, adding personality and sometimes level architecture to the proceedings. You're rewarded with new types of goo gradually and some only appear on a few levels.
Many levels include large-scale physics toys to play with. Here the giant yellow arms will thwart your attempts to move the goo up a conveyor belt until you find some way to move them.
We'd be tempted to say that World of Goo suffers a little from Zelda syndrome - an infection caused by lazy programming where gameplay concepts are introduced gradually, used once or twice, then replaced with something new and never seen again - but it doesn't. Every stage presents a new learning experience.
Using the abilities of individual goo types is paramount. These green fellas, for example, always stretch out as far as they can, meaning you can use them to climb up tubes.
You don't just get toys, you get knowledge as a reward. The difficulty curve is smooth and precise, although it doesn't end at much of a peak, which is a plus for accessibility but a minus if you're looking for a really difficult challenge.
Any extra goo balls you collect along the way are thrown to the World of Goo Corporation, the mysterious entity at the centre of the proceedings. Here 2D Boy has created a strange hybrid of single- and multi-player action, where you compete with others around the world in building the highest tower possible out of the balls available to you.
If you need a higher tower, you're going to have to go back in and earn some more balls. The central hub does away with the usual 'use these special parts creatively' approach, since all you're given is basic black goo-balls with which to build. And it's certainly not easy; building a good tower requires good judgment and a fair bit of luck.
Thankfully there's a function included to immediately dismantle the tower and start again, something you'll need given its propensity to collapse spectacularly.
You should buy World of Goo straight away. And we mean buy it, don't just 'find' it on the internet, since the DRM-free Windows version saw a shocking level of piracy. World of Goo is one of those games that almost exhausts our adjective supply.
Many levels see you building in tight confines; hit the spikes, and goo will die.
It really is a supremely presented, brilliantly assembled gaming creation. We're floored by it. Gabler and Carmel have backpedalled along all the wrong roads that gaming has gone down and brought the fundamentals that made the 8-bit era so great into a world that's lost its way. If you can use a mouse, you really have no excuse not to.
And no, don't have any fears that this version is somehow less capable, less impressive or less refined than its Windows original - we didn't mention any differences between the two in this review because there simply aren't any. Whether you install via the RPM, the Deb or even the plain-old tarball, it works fine on both 32-bit and 64-bit machines, just as software ought to.
Verdict: An absolutely intoxicating masterpiece of gaming ingenuity, beautifully constructed and universally enjoyable by all. You need to own this. 10/10
Interview: the big transition
Ex-Electronics Arts employees Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel - also know collectively as 2D Boy - put World of Goo together mostly from open source components, working in coffee shops and burning through savings to do so. Community collaboration has since seen the game fan-translated into a number of languages and, yes, ported to Linux. We spoke to co-founder Ron Carmel about making the jump.
Linux Format: How has World of Goo been doing on Linux, sales-wise?
Ron Carmel: Doing the port has been a very good investment for us. So far, about 10% of our direct sales (via 2dboy.com) have come from the Linux version.
LXF: You quoted a very high piracy rate on Windows platforms. Have Linux users been more honest?
RC: We have no way to distinguish between operating systems when doing the piracy calculation, but the Linux version did take much longer to make it on to torrent sites than the Windows version. That reinforced my impression that Linux users tend to be more conscientious when it comes to software distribution.
LXF: Did you have the port in mind all the way through development?
RC: The Linux port was done by Maks Verver, a student in the Netherlands. It took him a little over two weeks to complete the port, including a round of beta testing. We were blown away. We had the idea of asking him if he was interested in working on it after we saw the alternative leaderboard that he put up http://hell.student.utwente.nl/~maks/wog, which demonstrated quite a bit of skill and ingenuity.
LXF: Do you plan to keep supporting the platform in the future?
RC: Yes, for any game that has decent sales we will absolutely support Linux. If the game is a flop it might not make financial sense to invest in a Linux port, but in that case Linux users probably won't want it anyway!
First published in Linux Format magazine