Friday, November 7, 2008


I'm very impressed if you're aware of EITHER "Elefunk" OR "World of Goo," and to expect you to know about both would be quite a stretch. So here's a quick primer:


World of Goo

In Elefunk, you use bridge supports to strengthen the path of your elephant(s), so that they don't tumble into oblivion. If you took a middle school technology class, Elefunk will probably mark the first time in life you've been able to put that knowledge to work. I will be expecting my egg-drop simulator shortly, video game industry.

World of Goo also involves structures, except that you build them yourself from pulsing, sentient black globs. Somehow, this process is adorable. The principles of creating a sturdy structure still apply here, but all the pieces are being made as you go. It's construction without silly extras like rulers or right-angles.

At face value, these games have a lot in common:

-Both games are (to use one of those terrible "genre" things) puzzle games
-Both are games of "pure physics." They are physics emulations with objectives built in.
-As a result of this approach, the "solutions" in these games are free-form, there's no one "right" answer. If your "Elefunk"elephant makes it across the chasm, you win, even if the bridge looks like it's made of toothpicks. Similarly, so long as you get enough Goo into the pipe on each "World of Goo" level, you advance, no matter if your final structure is built on the fallen ruins of your first attempt.

Yet these games are very different. "Elefunk" is a game of math. It uses time-tested bridge supports that you connect in different ways. "World of Goo" is more fluid. It's messy and uncertain. Unless you've got a very steady hand and a lot of patience, you won't be making anything that's perfectly square. Instead you'll constantly be adjusting for tiny variations in your own work.

My high school art teacher would call these ideas "geometric" and "organic."

This dichotomy seems to exist everywhere in human thinking. I am a geek, so the first example that comes to mind is computer operating systems:

Windows has a very geometric feel with its constant Start Menu bar. The Mac OS is organic and flowing, changing the menu bar based on the current program. (Macs reinforce this idea with every stitch of their hardware, going out of their way to avoid right angles.)

But nowhere is this division more clear than in teaching. Those of us who got English degrees (or degrees in another humanity) have all heard the argument that we're being taught a theory, when we should be getting a skill (usually from people in business school, who now work in the next cubicle). This is the same logic at work, the organic (theory) and the geometric (skill).

It comes up again in martial arts, where there's often a debate about doing controlled (geometric) drills instead of more "real world" (organic) sparring drills. (Oddly, the "organic" approach is considered "practical" in this context.)

But the important part of the dichotomy is realizing that it's us making the distinction. The real world is one of organics, but understanding it often requires a geometric approach. Thinking is a process of systematizing, breaking the world down into pieces that can be understood. We learn the theory so that we can apply it to the practical. We practice controlled kicks and punches against a pad so we don't flail around against live target.

"Elefunk" and "World of Goo" are two halves of the same seed.

*Few things are more humbling than spending 5 solid minutes building a bridge only to have it collapse under its own weight. RIP, little elephant.**

**Not a political statement.

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