When I looked at my Steam library and noticed I had invested five hours in Super Hexagon, I was taken aback. I mean, it’s a great game, but there isn’t five hours worth of content there, right? Games that had millions of dollars dumped into them could barely hold my attention for a solitary hour, yet this game with a soundtrack produced entirely using a Gameboy had grabbed me for nearly a fifth of a day. How?
The first time I played it, I died within seconds. I stared at my screen in shock, unable to process what exactly had just happened, then I closed the game and said “Well, fuck that.”
A month later, when I booted the game up for a second time, I again died immediately. It was miserable. Looking back on it now, I can’t even begin to imagine how awful I must’ve been to have eaten it on that first slow moving wall, but I did. This time, instead of cursing the name Cavanagh, I steeled my reserves and pushed on, intent on conquering at least the first ten seconds of the game. I had paid $2.50 for this thing, I would get at least that much out of it.
When I looked away, my vision still throbbing to the beat of the song that was no longer playing, two hours had passed. This was three days ago. Since then I’ve found myself drawn back to the game multiple times, but never for the usual reasons I game. I’m not invested in the story, the mood, or the gameplay. There’s no epic tale of geometric dynasties or invading alien hordes to keep me rapt. The gameplay consists of pushing the left mouse button to go left and the right to go right. It makes Super Mario Bros. look like Calculus. No, it’s the feeling that draws me back to the game.
I’ve recently been going through a crisis of sorts, one of those times in your life where you realize that the person you are isn’t entirely the person you want to be. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once, the necessity of success butting up against the ecstasy of self-discovery. These times, when you’re the furthest from the life raft you’ve built that is you, are outright horrifying. It’s in that cold world that would just as soon seen me eaten by carrion animals than succeed that Super Hexagon has become a reassuring beacon in the night. It’s all very existential.
Existentialism, in a very basic way, argues that our existence in the world is a tragic joke. That our birth is the worst thing that ever could have happened to us, stranding us on this bleak rock to suffer through a world that wants nothing more than to end us. Life is short, brutal, and unwelcoming…or so you probably thought when you first learned about it in high school. It’s the reason why so many teenagers cling to the philosophy, the casual nihilism of youth settling in nicely with it for a drink while discussing the Wikipedia entry for No Exit (let’s be honest, that’s all you read when it was assigned your senior year.)
But, much like the gangbanger who never actually saw the last half of Scarface (Man, I hella wanna be like Tony Montana!) most of us missed out on the second part of existentialism, the part that makes it all worthwhile. Liberated from anything actually giving a damn about us, we’ve actually been given one of the greatest gifts of all time: freedom. Sure, life might be beset by constant miseries and unfortunate occurrences, but that’s it. Everything else is defined by us. It’s the whole creed behind Assassin’s Creed writ large: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Tossed in this world alone, you are only what you define yourself as.
It can be an incredibly liberating philosophy if you can escape the crippling anxiety that comes along with it. Knowing that you’re free to do whatever you want, that the sole responsibility for your quality of existence weighs entirely on you, can lead to something called angst, which is the overwhelming fear of failing yourself. It’s something that can define the entire tenor of a person’s existence, something that is endemic to the human condition. Angst is the thing that keeps you up at night after you don’t take a shot on that new job, the thing you call pragmatism when you refuse to ask that cute girl at the bar out. Entire philosophical movements have been designed solely to counteract it.
I was finding that every time I was getting hints of day-to-day angst, I would turn to Super Hexagon, pound out a few dozen rounds, and then go back to my business. The little arrow, born into a world of harsh colors and sounds, was much like me: seemingly without meaning or purpose, but frenzied in his action. We were both dodging walls, mine much less literal but no less devastating, without any idea of either what was coming or what had just passed. To pause, even for a moment, was to expire.
Yet, I continued. If I failed in Super Hexagon, I was nary more than a button tap away from another attempt. Regardless of how poorly I performed, I got better. Sure, I may have been total rubbish at the outset, but if I kept at it, I would eventually win. Shit, sometimes the game seemed actually impossible (the back and forth bit from the Hexagoner difficulty? Not possible.) but that didn’t matter. The game, much like the world, did not have my best interests in mind. It was up to me to succeed…and eventually I did.
When I booted up Super Hexagon, I brought with myself none of that angst or despair that anchored me in the real world. Instead, safe in the mechanics of gaming, I simply plodded forward. A five second death didn’t mean I was a terrible person or that I should close the game, uninstall it, and light my computer on fire; it simply meant I needed to try again. Sometimes it was my fault and sometimes the game was just being a total fucker. It didn’t matter. I just had to hit spacebar and go again. It was the way I dealt with the existential angst of that little triangle that kept me coming back to Super Hexagon.
If the triangle could do it, so could I.