Clever Design: Controlling Gish

I’d like to spend some time today talking about something very clever, and that’s the controls in Chronic Logic’s Gish. If you haven’t played Gish, there is a free demo and it’s also available through Steam and other services. Well worth playing!

Gish is a great example of SMART controls. The eponymous main character, Gish, is a tar-like blob with a face. The player has an entirely of eight keys with which to maneuver Gish through his 2D world; the arrow keys, and then four separate keys that respectively let him expand, become slippery, become heavy, and become sticky.

Now it’s important to note that while Gish moves as you press the arrow keys, he doesn’t exactly walk. Chronic Logic is very good with physics models, and used one to engineer Gish (also providing the game with amazing dynamic lighting and interactive terrain). This means that Gish, the tar blob, is actually an amorphous polygon. As you press left or right, he shifts his weight and tumbles, as is the same if you push up or down. The result is a very natural feeling, if clumsy, movement. Gish can speed across flat surfaces very easily.

The interesting thing comes from the use of his other abilities. Jumping is accomplished by expanding while on a solid surface; but that won’t get you very high. However, you can compress Gish when he lands again and then expand again to rebound and bounce higher. A little practice can make Gish quite the agile beastie. Gish can also fall from a suitable height and make himself heavy to smash in to breakable boxes or flip stuck switches, or kill the occasional enemy, and makes him heavy enough that he’ll sink in water. Making Gish slippery can let him accelerate on the right surfaces or let him slip down small passageways.

Getting sticky is perhaps the most interesting element; it lets Gish stick to walls and the ceiling, as well as to other objects. The ‘stickiness’ isn’t very strong, so you can use it to climb up walls and across ceilings (carefully); once you become adjusted to using it, climbing around is second nature. You can use it to drag items around too, like weighted boxes. But because Gish is all physics controlled, you can do more complex maneuvers like pulling a box on top of yourself, contracting down, then expanding and releasing ‘stickiness’ — this accumulates to send the box FLYING at great speeds, and with a sizable amount of control. You can use this to break bricks that are difficult or dangerous to approach, or to attack enemies from a distance, or even just to move the box to a more useful location.

Because of the simple nature of these controls and the physics of the environment, as a player, there’s an enormous number of tricks you can perform. Sitting on a pendulum, you can become sticky, then shift your weight to get it swinging. Then you can start using ‘heavy’ to increase it’s speed, letting you catapult yourself to new heights at your leisure. Becoming slippery and wedging yourself in a small crevice and then expanding can mean a sudden, explosive jump. And of course, the jumping mechanics make it easy to bounce off any solid surface, not just the floor.

All together, these controls accumulate to making the control of Gish both highly entertaining and a little tricky. Controlling him well is a real feat of precision and timing — something you can use the versus mode of the game to test against a friend in a most entertaining way.

There’s a lot that can be learned from Gish’s successes; foremost that a physics model, used properly, can make your game intensely more interactive — and the trend is towards using them now, which is a good thing. Additionally, allowing your players direct means with which to play with this physics model is also important for taking full advantage of it — we can see this to a lesser extend in Half-Life 2 among other games Not that HL2 didn’t take advantage of their physics engine, but rather it was more of an addition than a focus. And perhaps most importantly; simple, thought out controls can make the difference between a character who’s stiff, and a character that the player can really animate. Most games fail to offer you maneuvers you can really play with. Not all of them need it, but many could use it to great effect.

Mastering the interface of your game, both on the side of input (buttons to press) and output (how the game responds to the buttons) is one of the most effective means of creating a fun experience, even in an otherwise mediocre product.


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