I bought Super Hexagon a few weeks ago, completely on a whim. People had been raving about it all over the place, calling it everything but the Second Coming, so I figured it would be worth the cup-of-coffee price point of $2.50. It wouldn’t run right away, the victim of the same issue that plagued Stealth Bastard Deluxe and Wanderlust: Rebirth, so it sat unlaunched until just the other day. I knew absolutely nothing about the game going in (other than it was supposedly a metaphor for death, which I’m still trying to figure out) but needed a break from doing dailies in WoW, so I booted it up.
Two hours later, my eyes dilated and my vision warbling, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just taken a hit the gaming equivalent of ecstasy. I wanted to spray-paint my cat neon green, put a funny hat on her, and stroke her fur for hours on end. I had only cleared ‘hard’ difficulty, coming close to clearing ‘harder’, but it had left me buzzing. Super Hexagon, if you’re not familiar, is exceedingly simple: you move a cursor back and forth while avoiding walls in a setup that looks similar to the arcade classic Tempest. The goal is to last 60 seconds, which is a lot longer than it sounds when you’re slamming into walls like a drunk kid trying to get back to his dorm room on a Friday night.
It’s a brutal game at first, relentlessly pummeling you with sub-double digit times with little to no explanation or assistance. Even Super Meat Boy had a tutorial level, Dark Souls an opportunity to come to grips with the game before snuffing your life out, but Super Hexagon just slaps your hand away from the mouse and says ‘No, not for you.’ There’s the menu and then there’s the endless rotating walls of doom, bass thumping and lights flashing. Then death within seconds, your experience a fearful blip of noise and color. With time you find yourself crawling, bitterly, into the teens and early 20s. Then, magically, there’s a blissful 45 second run, a shimmering beacon that drives you on through the night. You can do it.
Then you do. It’s a great moment, when you beat the Hexagon level. Like a baby learning to walk, you’ve had your falls and your stumbles, you’ve leaned on chairs and dressers for support, you’ve had the days where you contemplated a life lived forever from a stroller, but then you finally make it. It’s sublime. You can look back from the top of the mountain, over the path you traveled, and say to yourself: I did that.
Satisfied with my accomplishment, I logged back into WoW and set about doing my Shieldwall dailies, the same 5 quests I’ve done every day for the last week. Absentmindedly I tapped away at my buttons. Flame shock, lava blast, elemental blast, lightning bolt, lightning bolt. There may or may not have been a hearty yawn as I bounded from objective marker to objective marker, clicking on various golden gears. The high of Super Hexagon was fading quickly, replaced by the dull thrumming of WoW, that incessant rumble of doing the same thing over and over again, of repetition and obligation. It was an awful sound, one that I only became aware of after the high pitched whine of Terry Cavanagh’s existential epic. I had grown so accustomed to it that I scarcely had heard it until now. What was causing it? Why was I only hearing it now? What could I do to stop it? More importantly, what was it?
It was the sound of mediocrity.
Video games have something called a difficulty curve. Most games arc up slowly, introducing new mechanics and concepts over time, holding the player’s hand and guiding them through the experience. Games have, as of late, become exceptionally aggressive in this, the “corridor shooter” a prime example of the idea. There’s little to no buildup, just a uniform experience from beginning to end that’s designed to be more like a movie than a challenge. It’s a far cry from the early days of arcade games which were designed to start hard and end even harder, desperate to steal your tokens.
Gamers who grew up with these games developed a thick skin. Contra wasn’t seen as unfair or lacking in solid design, it was seen as a challenge that needed to be surmounted. Real gluttons for punishment got their kicks wherever they could, be it from Battletoads or the ferocious she-devil that was The Little Mermaid (hands up if you had a sister who rented this game and demanded you beat it for her.) These games were designed to be played in short bursts, with as little time as possible between GAME OVER and LEVEL ONE – BEGIN. There wasn’t time to rev the challenge engine, it had to keep running the whole time, a side effect of the arcade days.
And if you never saw the final level? Tough shit. Keep at it and get better. You had to earn that pitiful ending sequence and no matter how awful it was, it was sweet as pie because you earned it. Your blistered fingers had worked grooves into the controller trying to make that one damn jump over and over, again and again late into the night. If you’ve ever legitimately gotten to level 4 of Battletoads, you know what I’m talking about. That rush that drives athletes and actors to spend years honing their craft, that moment where all of your work comes together in a blinding moment of triumph.
Since then, we’ve been afforded a lot of luxuries as gamers. With arcades almost completely gone, developers can be safe in the knowledge that once you’ve bought the game, you’re in for the long haul. Leisurely introductions and tutorial sequences have become the norm, with games like Dragon Quest VII taking hours to get to the first outright challenge. The harsh climb of 80s and 90s video games was replaced with a brisk jaunt uphill, the nearly vertical switchbacks of games like Castlevania III gone seemingly forever.
This is not to say that these halcyon days of punishing difficulty and endlessly tapping the continue button were good days for gaming. Stories had to be crafted around the idea that nobody actually completed them. Ever beaten Ninja Gaiden? Real crap ending, but when you’re only expecting 5% of your player base to actually see it, who cares? Developers and programmers actually want people to experience their delicately crafted storylines these days, which means you have to ensure that people actually can beat your game without investing months of practice.
Nowhere is this more apparent than World of Warcraft. For the vast majority of players, it’s about as demanding as breathing. Quests are designed to be waltzed through, little more than scenery on your quest to maximum level. Daily quests, the lion’s share of what we all do in the game (let’s be honest,) is just leveling writ large, over and over again. Failure simply isn’t an option. It’s not about skill, it’s about time investment. Even ‘achievements’ are often just a matter of doing something in a slightly different, yet equally easy, way. It’s the same thing you’ve been doing since your first moments in Durotar or Elwynn. The curve has become a plateau.
Don’t get me wrong, there are examples of the satisfaction that comes with real challenge in WoW. Ask anybody who’s been part of a real raid team about killing this or that boss and you’ll hear epic tales of weeks of incremental progress leading up to a chorus of cheers as the boss fell. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of players, this is not WoW. Even for the hardcore raiders, the actual experience of building and improving in the face of some terrible creature makes up a very small part of their playtime. The rest? That terrible buzz of clicking the same 3 buttons over and over.
Other MMOs have managed to pull off actually difficult questing content, so the droning gameplay isn’t endemic to the genre. Look at Star Wars: The Old Republic. For the first few months after release, there were a handful of incredibly difficult class quests, tasks that forced you to learn how to play your class. Smugglers had one, “The Lightspring,” that took me hours of contemplation and trial and error to defeat, but when it was finally over I felt like Han fucking Solo himself. The final quest for the Jedi Knight story, which I didn’t get a chance to experience, was supposedly incredibly difficult but amazingly satisfying to actually finish. Of course, within a few months they had been nerfed into oblivion, dropping into the background noise of the rest of the game.
I know there are more opportunities than ever before to experience the joy of overcoming real challenge in WoW. There are the Challenge Mode Dungeons, the Brawler’s Guild, and there’s more old raid content than ever to go back and solo, but that’s only a small part of the game. The vast majority of WoW, the daily quests and the endless heroic dungeons to get that last piece of gear, is gaming on cruise control. That’s not to say even WoW hasn’t gotten it right before. The Netherwing dailies from The Burning Crusade are the first example to spring to my mind, putting you pitched races that required significant amounts of practice and precision to win. Besting your opponent after failing for hours felt good, precisely because you had put so much time into it.
So here’s my idea: make every task a little bit more like Super Hexagon, from the most mundane daily quest to the largest raid boss. Instead of simply fighting over spawns, make every battle a pitched one where success dangles on a razor’s edge…at least at first. Then, as players improve, they can tear through the battles confident in their experience, looking back over their climb with pride. Make victory mean something again, even if it’s just finishing your daily quests for the Dominance Offensive.