When an indie film like "Slumdog Millionaire" can win it big at the Oscars, it should come as no surprise that an indie video game can likewise be a real winner.
While still in its infancy,"World of Goo" won two of last year's Independent Game Festival's prestigious awards: the Design Innovation Award and the Technical Excellence Award. Created by Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler with "no money, and a whole lot of love" as they created makeshift offices at a network of free wi-fi coffee shops in San Francisco, the retail version is now available for computers (Windows, Mac, or Linux) and as downloadable Wiiware for the Nintendo Wii.
"World of Goo" lets players experiment with building structures using squirming balls of living goo. The game offers 48 puzzles which are tied together with an elusive storyline about a big corporation misusing these little blobs of goo to make commercial products.
While this allegorical story pokes fun at unrestrained capitalism, our concept of beauty, and Internet privacy, the main focus of the game is solving the refreshingly different and delightfully challenging building puzzles.
In each puzzle, you are presented with a group of wriggling goo balls and an exit drain pipe that is far away. Your objective is to combine some of the goo balls into a structure that will traverse the terrain to enable the remaining goo balls to travel over the structure to reach the pipe.
As the puzzles get harder, you will encounter many goo-destroying obstacles, including hills, cliffs, chasms, pits of doom, goo-popping machinery, and spikes. Each puzzle has a designated number of goo balls that need to make it into the pipe.
Combining the goo balls is as simple as clicking on one and dragging it close to another one. Goo strands will immediately stretch between the balls, and as you move them around, you can see the different ways you can form triangulated bonds.
When you click, the goo balls combine. This simplicity makes it appealing to everyone, kids and adults alike.
The challenge of building comes from the physics rules inherent in this gooey building material. As an elastic and jiggly substance, it creates structures which resemble Jell-O.
If a structure is stressed too much in one direction or another, it will collapse or fall over. Plus, since the unattached balls of goo like to climb on these structures as you build and rest on precarious sections, you have to factor in their weight.
Adding to the fun (and challenge) is that different colored goo balls have special abilities. Some harden when stuck together and then can't be moved; while others can be plucked out of structures to be repositioned.
Some look like water drops and have the ability to stretch out a great distance; while others can be filled with a gas that floats to help hold structures up over chasms. Some can even be ignited by flames, causing chain reactions.
Helping you along the way are cryptic signs that offer hints (and some of the game's quirky sense of humor). There are also little bugs flying around which, if clicked, undo your last move.
Plus you can retry a puzzle as many times as you wish, and even skip it. And for those who really love a challenge, each puzzle can be replayed on a more challenging level, which requires more goo balls to make it through to the exit.
Not only are the puzzles fascinating to explore, but these goo balls have personalities. When touched, they reveal eyes and emit cute gibberish sounds, making them adorable and endearing.
Adding to this game's appeal are striking Dr. Seuss-like visuals and a riveting musical score that varies to enhance each puzzle setting. You'll hear soothing string orchestrations in calm environments and discordant sounds when goo-popping spikes are near.
While young children will initially be able to play (and in the process learn a thing or two about physics), this is a game best played by tweens, teens, and adults who won't get stymied when the puzzles get harder. Plus, the wry humor will be lost on little kids.
A boxed Win/Mac computer version is available at retail or via download at www.playwithgoo.com. The Linux version can be downloaded at www.2Dboy.com. The Wii version is available as a download, and it offers a unique cooperative mode, which can be fun for families.
World of Goo is a tour de force. Its puzzles are simple in concept and pleasingly difficult to solve. With its stark graphics, endearing living building materials, captivating music, and a quirky sense of humor, this is a game worth playing. Start with the free demo and see if you too get hooked.
RATING: 5 stars (out of 5) Best for ages 10-up From 2D Boy/Brighter Minds Media, LLC, www.playwithgoo.com, $20 (Win/Mac/Linux), $15 (Wiiware).
Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for USA Today.com and Gannett News Service, and is also the editor of Computing with Kids (www.ComputingWithKids.com ).