“Each chapter also has its own small story arc, with background flavours involving targeted marketing campaigns, beauty products, brand loyalty, evil products with glossy packaging, etc. Just like the story, these themes inform the artwork and level design, but are never ever crammed down the player’s throat. You’ll notice them only if you read between the lines.”
-Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy
World of Goo is a work of art in the way that The Butter Battle Book is a work of art.
Perhaps it’s too simplistic an assessment, given that the Seussian inspiration that World of Goo sports is immediately evident from the title screen alone:
Where the homage is most pointed, however, is in the narrative that it presents.
When I was six years old, I didn’t get The Butter Battle Book. I mean, I found it funny enough, what with its increasing levels of Yook and Zook technology and the clever way in which Seuss found the most trivial thing possible for the two sides to disagree on (probably not in those terms at age six, but you catch my drift), but I didn’t know what it meant. There is no way for a six-year-old to understand that the story is based on an all-too-real arms race, and that the strange, unsatisfying ending to the story — a Yook and a Zook at the top of the wall that divided their people, waiting each other out for a good time to drop a civilization-ending bomb — was uncomfortably close to the actual political state of affairs at the time.
At least, there was no way to understand it until my mother explained it to me and proceeded to give me nightmares for the next week.
Similarly, my 29-year-old self didn’t really grasp the allegorical nature of World of Goo until, provoked to comment on it, all I could come up with was to mumble something about an “anti-establishment” sort of undercurrent, which, while sort of accurate, is hardly insightful. The truth is, to that point, much of the play time that I’d devoted to World of Goo had been by the side of my own six-year-old daughter, as it’s a game that truly shines as a family-centered experience without being obviously marketed toward kids; the huge fonts and the wry humor of The Mysterious Sign Painter are, as it turns out, awfully appealing to young children, as is the almost Tinkertoy-esque nature of many of the goo structures that are built throughout the game. As such, my understanding of the undercurrent of the game was victim to a sort of willful ignorance as my time was spent focusing on the stuff a six-year-old would like, the stuff a six-year-old would get.
What could I do but play it again?
(there are spoilers ahead. click at your own peril.)
The second time through the game, where you’re not concentrating on winning so much as you are concentrating on paying attention to what it’s trying to say, ranges from clever to downright horrifying. A major part of the gameplay from the second chapter on concentrates on quite literally grinding up a large, female gooball (seen to the right) into a bunch of little gooballs for the sake of “beauty cream”. A giant corporation irreparably changes the entire world for the sake of unwanted advances in technology. Those advances in technology are the undoing of the corporation, but at the expense of the world as a whole. The events that trigger said end-of-the-world are triggered by a single spambot.
The most hopeful bits of the end of the game feature the appearance of gooballs on another planet, perhaps even a moon of the original planet, thus far unsullied by corporate interests. It’s humanity given a chance to start over without repeating the mistakes of its predecessors.
Whether Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel meant for the entire package to consist of a single unifying narrative is unclear. The story, as it is presented, is a bit scattershot and often purposefully ambiguous, as if the creators are waiting for us to assign our own interpretations to the goings-on of the story. Perhaps we are the goo, oblivious to the coming armageddon at the hands of technology that already exists. Perhaps the player is a politician (or at least a pied piper) of sorts, one who guides the people with their best interests in mind but ultimately serving the corporation’s interests over those of the people. Perhaps the sign painter is the media, constantly commenting and wisecracking about the insurmountable goals that must be taken on while simultaneously informing the one who would guide the goo toward those goals.
Whatever the game’s ultimate meaning (and please, if you’ve played the game and you’d like to leave your own interpretations in the comments, I’d be undyingly grateful), there’s no denying that there’s much more to it than the cute and funny bits that are immediately apparent. What you get out of the game’s story is largely up to how much you want to get out of it, and whether you want to see it as allegory or just an imaginative flight of fancy is entirely up to you. The mere presence of that choice, however, only cements World of Goo as one of the most inspired bits of gaming in 2008.
One can’t help but think that Seuss would be proud to see that his style and vision lives on in such a way.