Indie-cent Exposure #5: Missing Gish

November 25, 2010

My indie gaming column emerges this week looking wistful and sighing a lot as I take a backwards look at 2005’s side-scrolling physics-’em-up, Gish. Here’s the first bit:-

Hello,

We’re going to talk about Super Meat Boy. Could be you don’t already know about Meat Boy, but hush – you’re going to play along, so that tomorrow when your semi-savvy Xbox-owning friend tries to tell you about it, you can grimace and roll your eyes.

“Christ, Xbox, you’re so patronising,” you’ll say, knowing how much he hates to be referred to by his favoured console. “Do you think I know nothing of the indie smash hit of the year? Super Meat Boy turns precision through repetition into an art form, chipping an amalgam of the best platformers down to its pure genius core before coating the result in a gloopy mess of blood, guts and blood. Now justify your existence and make me a cup of tea, will you?”

So, with devs Team Meat currently doing laps of honour with a free DLC pack starring sentient ball of tar Gish, now seems the perfect time to get all retrospective about the game that introduced the world beyond Newgrounds to Edmund McMillen.

Born into a time long before Braid taught the mainstream that independent gaming could be clever; before World of Goo shocked with its ingenuity and style; before a fifteen-quid digital-download-only release stopped prompting anger and confusion; born into 2005, Gish was a game that stood alone.

The brain child of Team Meat’s McMillen and programmer Alex Austin, Gish’s innovation lay in building a platformer around realistic physics. Like Super Meat Boy, it involved reaching the end of a series of tightly constructed levels in pursuit of a ladyfriend.

There was always an element of novelty in Gish’s appeal, and it made me wary in returning to its company. In 2005 convincing commercial physics engines like Havok were yet to become par for the course, and most gamers’ introduction to ragdoll modelling looked something like this:-

But I needn’t have worried. Even now – with physics-based indie puzzlers ten-a-perfectly-replicated-penny – only a handful of games since have embraced the technology like Gish did. Whereas ‘reaching the end’ in Meat Boy invariably involves plenty of running and jumping, its predecessor was about pushing, pulling, squeezing, sliding and climbing. As the protagonist ball of tar you are both manipulator and manipulated, clinging to moving platforms for dear life as often as you’re rolling over enemies and punting them across the screen. Occasionally the sheer number of variables can lead to inescapable situations like blocked tunnels, but for the most part the game’s central mechanics work a treat.

True to McMillen’s form, Gish can be a little unnerving, too. There’s an easy brutality with which our slippery hero conducts himself. Here, the simple primary platformer action of bopping a bad guy on the head becomes a Guillermo del Toro-style nightmare of cruelty and violence. Let me take you through it:-

Step 1: Choose your victim. Preferably one with brittle bones, but any will do.

Step 2: Make like a Half Life headcrab and leap for the head, gripping hard as you land on their soft, fleshy features.

Step 3: Relax, letting the bulk of your weight settle over your doomed enemy’s face like a warm towel.

Step 4: Break your victim’s neck with a quick thrust. CRACK! Watch with delight as it slips from their shoulders and rolls into the dirt.

Simply horrible, horribly satisfying, and there’s no other way of dealing with it. The more time you spend with Gish, the more malice seems to be in his nature; he may be chasing after the love of his life, but those cold, pupil-less yellow eyes reveal nothing at all.

Not so immediately rewarding and manic as Meat Boy, Gish is slow-paced and thoughtful; the closest link between the two games actually comes in McMillen’s fantastic art style, comprised as it is of cartoon gore and an unhealthy fixation with internal organs. It could be this that convinces curious, impatient Meat Boy lovers to stick around long enough to discover the game’s inner strengths.

At some unspecified point during the last couple of years, Gish 2 was cancelled some way into development. It looks like a handful of levels in Super Meat Boy are to be the last we see of Gish for some time, but at a $1 minimum fee it’s well worth returning to the pioneering indie thrills of five years ago.

That’s it for Indie-cent Exposure: Nostalgic Edition. Cheers. See you next week for a peek five years into indie gaming’s future. Bring your own tea leaves (don’t, though).

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