The Specifics of Level Design in World of Goo

World of Goo is a 2D puzzle game that requires the player to build a large variety of structures made up from the characterful goo balls that inhabit that world.  The aim is for the player to create a path out of some of the goo balls enabling the rest of them to safely travel to a pipe situated in every level.  I will be discussing the core specifics of the level design as well as looking at how meaning is added into the game and how a successful play experience is created.

World of Goo boasts a strong surreal world full of character and emotion.  Its smooth dreamlike landscapes, pastel hues and deep darks make for a pleasing aesthetic which compliment the games theme very well.  A strong technique that has been used in many of its levels is something called the savannah paradine.  Savannah paradine is a term that is used to describe the arrangement of the colours on screen and their relation to the setting.  If you imagine a savannah landscape, you have a rich blue sky, lush green on the horizon and a tan brown ground.  It has been biologically proven that humans find this environment the most pleasing and sought after, for example many people travel abroad to hot countries where a similar environment and/or colour base can be naturally found.  Judith Heerwagen, in her article on the Psychosocial Value of Space states “Drawing on habitat selection theory, ecologist Gordon Orians argues that humans are psychologically adapted to and prefer landscape features that characterized the African savannah, the presumed site of human evolution….If the ‘savannah hypothesis’ is true, we would expect to find that humans intrinsically like and find pleasurable environments that contain key features of the savannah that were most likely to have aided our ancestors’ survival and well-being.”  A good game example that displays this theory perfectly is Super Mario Bros.  I believe that World of Goo references Super Mario Bros in terms of the level design, environment and structure, hence, demonstrates the savannah theory well in many of its levels.  However, it does tweak the rules slightly on some occasions- using a light tan sky instead of a blue one.  But it is certainly the lush, rich greens and rounded brown soil platforms that allow it to bend these rules and still work successfully.

The next factor that each World of Goo level possess’ is the interesting use of prospect and refuge.  The prospect is often the view around you and the refuge is an area of safety.  Another quote from Judith Heerwagen’s article states “According to geographer Jay Appleton, people prefer to be in places where they have good visual access to the surrounding environment (high prospect), while also feeling protected and safe (high refuge).”  She later says “People especially liked spaces with vertical and horizontal expansiveness…Many of the preferred settings also had soft, rounded forms and irregular layouts.”  All the levels in World of Goo feature soft rounded environments (with some exceptions of dangerous windmills and spikes) and each have unique and irregular layouts.  In terms of the prospect it is the level itself.  You have to study the level structure carefully by moving the camera around to figure out the journey on how to safely transport the goo balls to the refuge, the pipe.  Each level works in this way and requires a range of different strategies to reach the goal of the pipe.

Each level in the game is vastly different from the last.  Typically the game starts with the usual “tutorial” based levels explaining what the aim of the game is and how to control your goo balls.  For a puzzle game it is vital that no puzzle is alike.  “As players solve puzzles in a game, they learn to adopt the game designer’s way of thinking and so gain an advantage.  To counter this, the designer must think laterally, with increasing obscurity, when setting challenges.” (Computer Games Design Course, 2007: page 110).  This also helps add a method of increasing difficulty throughout the game.  Each puzzle is unique to itself with a set rule of completion.  World of Goo presents a great variety of challenges for the player from bridge building to obstacle courses all using different types of mechanics.  As you progress through the game you are introduced to new species of goo ball. As you find these new goo balls you are presented with a short training level that gives you chance to figure out how they work and what function they can provide.  After the training you are left on your own again to explore and investigate different strategies.  Each type of goo ball features different mechanics that are unique to its type only, for example water based goo that is not flammable, highly flammable fuse goo, floating balloon goo, heavy skeleton goo amongst others.  This helps keep the game fresh and exciting and encourages the player to develop new methods of thinking to complete each level.  “The player should always be encouraged to think of creative ways to use the game mechanics to achieve the goals of a level.” (Computer Games Design Course, 2007: page 111).

Each of the goo balls has successfully been given a cuteness factor, adding a great deal of emotion in to the game play.  As you click on them and drag them around they let out little squeaks of excitement, this adds a whole character to the tiny individual blobs of goo.  This cuteness motivates the player’s protective instinct and encourages you to rescue the goo balls to their refuge of the pipe.  “Cuteness works well… some games attempt to bring out player’s protective feeling.” (Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, 2003: page 124).  It also adds a huge amount of meaning in to the game as it enhances the story line that is told in each chapter.  It emphasises the goo balls helplessness.  It is important to get the player involved in the game to encourage them and give them a reason to play.  Being a puzzle game released on PC and the Nintendo Wii, it has to appeal to its target audience, the casual gamers.  World of Goo’s cuteness factor alongside its overall appearance and mechanics successfully appeals to this player type, especially Nintendo Wii owners as many games for the Wii feature small, round cute characters.

Looking back at my previous statement, there are two types of meaningful play that a game can cover.  Salen and Zimmerman state “Meaningful play occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game.  Creating meaningful play is the goal of successful game design… Discernability means that a player can perceive the immediate outcome of an action.  Integration means that the outcome of an action is woven into the game system as a whole.” (Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, 2004: page 34 and 37).  World of Goo uses realistic physics on the goo balls so it enables the player to predict the outcome of their actions- build a tall goo-tower without adequate balance and it will fall over.  To use my example, the falling tower is often seen as a negative outcome but some levels require this action for a successful completion.

Humour also plays a large factor in each level, mainly in the form of sign posts displaying the mad ramblings of a character named the Sign Painter.  In each level there will be at least one sign post located somewhere providing you with subtle hints and riddles.  A lot of mystery is added to the game because of the way the Sign Painter communicates with us, this encourages the player to continue playing in hope of finding out who the sign painter is, what he looks like, what is he doing here and why he is taunting you with these insane rambles.  The way the signs are used adds even more meaning to the game.  Signs are usually used to represent something other than itself.  “People use signs to designate objects or ideas.  Because a sign represents something other than itself, we take the representation as the meaning of the sign.” (Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, 2004: page 42).  It is only when the sign is interpreted that a meaning is given.  In the case of the sign posts in World of Goo, you are presented with small riddles on the signs, if read carefully they can offer hints and tips towards a successful strategy of completion for the current level.  “Meaning results when a sign is interpreted: A sign stands for something to somebody in some respect or capacity.  The meaning of a sign emerges from relationships between elements of a system.” (Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, 2004: page 47).

Sound is also an important factor of a game.  It helps to add atmosphere, character and believability.  If it is not done correctly you can turn what is meant to convey one emotion into the complete opposite.  The audio score for World of Goo manages the progression of story well and creates a large amount of atmosphere emphasising the task at hand.  The music on certain levels adds a sense of urgency with a fast paced, stomping rhythm. Slower and more emotional based tracks feature on the more thought inducing levels.   The balance has to be correct and this game has got it nailed.  It is pointless having a strong, jumpy, fast paced sound track with a complex level that requires a great deal of thinking and planning to work out a solution, that is where the slow and more relaxed tracks take part.  As well as a thinking aid it compliments the storyline that runs throughout the game really well and suits the tasks at hand as well as the overall visual style of the game.

The developers of World of Goo, 2D Boy, have paid close attention to the overall look and feel of the game while also making sure that realistic mechanics along with obscure yet possible strategies were implemented.  It is this that has made it so successful in the Independent game world.  Even though looks are not everything in a game, they do certainly help.  With close links to the savannah paradine theory, their level design does please the eyes. The colours have been managed carefully and create a believable yet surreal world.  In terms of mechanics, a realistic feeling has been created as well as the introduction to different types of goo balls enabling a twist on gameplay.  The different goo ball types enable the player to conquer levels that would otherwise be impossible to do, it encourages new methods of thinking and helps avoid repetitive gameplay.  The goo balls have enormous character and tweak at your heartstrings with their big eyes, round form and adorable squeaks.  The player’s protective instinct is drawn out and motivates you to continue play as well as adding meaning and depth to the game.  The sign posts compliment this adding yet another twist to each level and encouraging progression.  The journey through each level is like a short story in itself.  The character of the world, the goo and the sign painter are joined together and provide a truly successful level design for a game of this genre.  It is an enjoyable experience from start to finish and leaves you wanting more.

Bibliography

1.    Psychosocial Value of Space by Judith Heerwagen, Whole Building Design Journal, http://www.wbdg.org/resources/psychspace_value.php

2.    Computer Games Design Course by Jim Thompson, Barnaby Berbank-Green and Nic Cusworth, published by Thames & Hudson, 2007, Pages 110-111.

3.    Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams On Game Design by Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams, published by New Riders, 2003, Pages 124.

4.    Rules Of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, published by Massachusetts Institute Of Technology, 2004, Pages 34, 37, 42 and 47.

Additional Resources

  • World Of Goo website – http://www.worldofgoo.com/
  • 2D Boy website – http://2dboy.com/