May 11, 2011 3:32 PM | Michael Rose
We all have authority figures. Some of us have as few as possible. Bosses, teachers, parents and elected officials are enough for us. But some people - people like me - choose to have even more. Most prominently, some of us choose to believe in an unknown force, commonly known as God, which guides us both directly and indirectly through life.
It's a belief that keeps me living purposefully, that makes sense of the world, and that gives me hope for the future. But sometimes I wonder if this belief places me squarely in the midst of a cruel game, wherein I am merely a pawn, used for the sadistic purposes of a cruel God.
The Accidental, Thoughtless God
We start World of Goo with a strong sense of power. We have complete control over the goo balls that live in the world. They grunt and squeak thankfully as we connect and divide them, building structure after structure. They are excited to see what's next, through that pipe that hangs overhead at the end of each level. They are at the whim of whoever comes along to control them. They trust in us.
We seek to progress as a civilization. According to the omnipresent Sign Painter, it is the best and only choice for the goo balls. When society is improved and made more efficient, only good can result, right? He encourages us to keep making progress. As is typical of the videogame format, we unlock stages and worlds one after another. The signs in the levels are full of helpful hints and tips. We begin to view the Sign Painter as the infallible source. We go to him first, and simply ask, "What now?"
Early on, the Sign Painter warns us that some must be "left behind." But no one prepares us for our complicity in destroying goo-based life. Not only do we build with the goo balls; we stretch them, explode them, burn them, drown them, and crush them. These are not the ways we lose the game. They are how we win the game. The goo balls are nonrenewable fuel sources--useful for powering the factory in the distance, among other things--so they are the cost of success. The game urges us to continue, assuring us that things will be better in the end.
In any other physics puzzler, we wouldn't think twice; but in World of Goo, the goo balls have eyes, and the Sign Painter makes us painfully aware of their suffering. When we face the "Genetic Sorting Machine," which separates the goo balls by their beauty, the Sign Painter quips, "Pretty ones over there, Ugly ones over here. Personally I think everyone is beautiful. Mostly me."
The Double-Edged Sword of Progress
Still, in each new level, the things we do with the goo balls become more sadistic and painfully ironic. The closer the goo-balls get to their goals, the more imminent their own death. They stretch desperately toward a flame, only to set themselves ablaze. They dutifully swim toward a pipe, only to be ground into pieces. With the advent of celebrity in the world of goo, and the "Genetic Sorting Machine," the majority of the population are mistreated and despised simply because their skin isn't the right color. They are destroyed and used to fulfill the needs of the privileged--represented prominently on the level-select screen by "Little Miss World of Goo."
Progress never slows in a video game except because of failure, and things eventually progress to the creation of the Information Superhighway, where no life forms are present. There are only vague symbols, abstract pieces of data; and the assumption that life must be out there, somewhere. We fling these symbols around, like the goo balls, hoping they will somehow benefit those who live in this world. As always, we trust the system, because we have no other choice.
When we finally meet MOM, the apparent leader of this age, we discover that all of our progress has been meaningless at best. We trusted that the images stood for something--we didn't consider that we were moving pointless spam. So we start a revolution. We end up spamming the system. And with that, we return to a time before the direct influence of the system to the point that it breaks itself. We and the goo balls are left to our own devices. We are left to guide the goo balls on our own.
On Their Own... Almost
In the "Epilogue," the Sign Painter insists that the goo balls will never be able to achieve their goal of total autonomy. It's now our job to help them maintain self-reliance and peaceful coexistence. Thanks to us, they travel to unexplored and unspoiled lands, against all odds and in spite of the Sign Painter's cynicism.
Does any authority know better than his subjects? World of Goo demonstrates the danger of a malevolent authority, and the benefit of an outside force that works for our goodwill. We are the villains for the majority of the game. We refuse to leave the goo-balls to their own devices, out of boredom and curiosity. But once the world has come to an end, we become a redemptive force.
I thought a lot about my own faith while playing the game, and where my own belief in God fit in. Was he a Sign Painter, who had merely given up on his creation? Was he MOM, a domineering creation of the system, existing only to keep the status quo? Or was he something like me, blindly following the markers set for him with only progress on his mind, cruelly manipulating me in spite of a general desire to do the right thing?
World of Goo didn't singlehandedly cause me to question my faith - it merely dramatized the inevitable challenges to such a faith and forced me to reckon with them. The God I have known and believed was neither passive, domineering nor blindly manipulative. He isn't playing the game; he created it. That's part of the reason I had so misunderstood him before. I understand World of Goo's authorities because they were created within the same context that I inhabit. God, on the other hand, is mysterious, creating reality within an entirely different context. I'm not sure exactly what He's up to.
Much of the game is spent waking up goo-balls by putting them in contact with ones that are awake. In gameplay terms, sleeping goo is useless. By the end of World of Goo, however, I started to wonder if it was better to let them sleep forever. Still, they deserved a world somewhere far away from this damaged world in which I found them.
I did everything I could to get them out of there, and then left them alone to sleep to their hearts content. Imagine my surprise when, in the last image of the game, I found them on their own--in their own, unstained world of goo--and they awoke.