Shame and Empathy in the World of Goo

“By the end, the similarities between the World of Goo and our world are clear. We are all products of a culture that uses and manipulates its people.”

Written by Richard Clark / Published on March 5, 2012

They are only goo! Just keep telling yourself that, as you pick them up, split them apart, dump them into a grinder, and light them on fire. It’s a puzzle game, so naturally you’re supposed to be manipulating and using the elements provided to achieve some further goal. It’s supposed to be simple, trivial, and meaningless.

World of Goo isn’t content with plain fun. These goo-balls aren’t human, but they might as well be: they stare at you, they cry out, they burst into flames and crumple pathetically to the ground. Given your larger objective, each of these anthropomorphic blobs is used for the needs of the moment. They must create a bridge, blow up an obstacle, create a rope that leads downward, or be used as fuel.

It should be easy enough to get over this, right? Instead, the game encourages the player every step of the way to empathize with these little guys. Each blob type has its’ own unique personality, exhibited through its various squeaks, the way it approaches challenge, and the way it cries out when touched. Each type of blob has its own strength, its own reason for existence. Each blob, we can presume, has a hope: to find a purpose, to be accepted by its peers, to live a peaceful and fulfilling existence. But fulfillment and acceptance are contingent on their usefulness. By the end of the game, you find yourself cheering them on, even as you destroy them and use them for your own ends.

This is a particular type of disturbance that I like to call the “suckerpunch”. It lures you in by making you think the game is a trivial and simple way to pass the time. Then: suddenly something about the game hits you right in the gut. Games are particularly good at this sort of thing because the player is inherently complicit in them. We don’t merely feel surprise and sympathy, but a kind of mitigated shame and empathy as well.

This is more a story of civilization than it is a collection of goo balls. What starts off as seemingly harmless bridge-making and tower building slowly progresses and changes into more and more sinister activities. They are lured into the “World of Goo Corporation” when their sense of exploration is indulged. Unfortunately, what awaits them is a series of challenges that result in them being ground up into energy drinks, fuel, and general product. The remaining few are mere excess, rejected and discarded.

As the game continues things get more and more personal. Goo balls are separated into beautiful and otherwise. The useful, beautiful goo is literally chewed up and spit out by the system, leaving the normal goo-balls unaware and discontent. Each new chapter brings the hope of progress – somewhere on the horizon lies an invention or idea that promises to change the world for the better. There is a promise of relief and hope for World of Goo’s citizens. They sacrifice themselves by working, by giving up their life, and by climbing over one another’s backs for the sake of a greater cause. They don’t mind being used. They do what they’re told, and they play the game by the rules.

By the end, the similarities between the World of Goo and our world are clear. We are all products of a culture that uses and manipulates its people. We happily accept this in hopes of one day being one of those that may gain the upper hand. I may not be a sedentary ball of goo, but I am naturally dormant all the same. Obsessed with entertainment and product, I seek to change the world by merely shifting my habits from one product to another. But these tactics do not lead to real change.

And that’s how it works, just like that. I invest in products, in progress, and forget myself and those around me. I buy what I need from the grocery store, I rent a movie, I buy a videogame, I go to my single-bedroom apartment, and I fall deeply into myself. I can invest myself in fictional people with fictional crises as much as I want, but for as long as I abandon the social life for the sedentary life, they aren’t people of all. They are only goo.

About the Author:

Richard Clark is director of editorial development for CT Pastors and Preaching Today, a co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, and has written for Unwinnable and Kill Screen. He can be followed on twitter @TheRichardClark.