When I first heard about Super Hexagon, or saw screenshots, my reaction was lukewarm. I had tried VVVVVV, I could see that it was mechanically clever and well-designed but to me it was niche – a specialist game for old-school gamey gamers with more patience and better digit control than I have. So Super Hexagon with its simple dodging mechanic and arcade looks went to the top of the list of games best admired from afar.
I did buy it though, when it came onto Steam, mainly in order to support Terry Cavanagh after the various misunderstandings he had faced. When I tried it my first experience was as expected – 3.2 seconds, 2.4 seconds, 4 seconds, 4.3 seconds. If you’ve played the game, you know the story. I was ready to put it down and add it to the pedestal of great games that I am too inept to enjoy. But them something special happened – suddenly I had broken the 10 second barrier. I had achieved something that had seemed unimagineably distant just a few minutes before. Later that night I bought the iPhone version as well.
Super Hexagon achieves a very special trick – it makes challenge, extreme challenge at that, accessible. This is something that far too few modern games achieve and almost none achieve as elegantly as Super Hexagon.
Several recent games approximate accessibility by making failure fun. An example is Crusader Kings II – it is very tough to understand and master the systems and simulation but that difficulty is leavened by the gripping Shakespearean drama that unfolds as your game falls apart. In fact, the game rewards you as much, in narrative terms, for failing as winning.
However, Super Hexagon’s trick is different. A close parallel, although I think Super Hexagon does it even better, is Super Meat Boy. In both games, the fail state is squashed to a bare minimum. Meat Boy regenerates at the beginning of the level literally as he dies. While in Super Hexagon the time between Game Over and Jenn Frank telling me to begin again is fractions of a second – as fast as I can tap.
Like Super Meat Boy, Super Hexagon seeks to eliminate the frustration of failure. However, the second part of Super Hexagon’s trick is quite different from Super Meat Boy. In that game, although the challenge scales up delicately between levels, within a given level the same basic sets of challenges are always met. So the play process is a confrontation with a particular challenge repeatedly until you move on to the next discrete challenge, which builds on those previously acquired skills. In Super Hexagon, although there are broad game modes (only two of which I have so far completed), there are no levels and no set challenges. The patterns come semi-randomly but with escalating complexity and speed.
The effect of this is that the game offers an elastic difficulty curve. On a typical playthrough I am unlikely to beat my current personal best; however, I can probably get perhaps half of the way there with a reasonable degree of regularity. That typical playthrough, whether averaging seven seconds, thirty seconds or well-over 60, is where the magic happens.
At the beginning I’ve got a fair idea of what is going on. I am in my comfort zone. For those first twenty, ten or two seconds I can consolidate what I have learned. The moves worm their way into my muscle memory. I can understand how the shapes fit together and learn to spot the key indicators of what I will be faced with next. Soon I am pushed into my stretched zone. I can do this, but I catch my breath at each successful manoeuvre. I catch glimpses of less familiar patterns as they hurtle towards me, pinning each scrap to the collage of knowledge built up over previous playthroughs. I luck out – dodging an obstacle or correcting an error that should have been fatal. Past the stretched zone, I know that my time is nearly up. Each dodge feels like luck rather than judgment. I don’t have time to read the patterns, I just see a gap in the wall and bolt. I know that I am on borrowed time.
In all likelihood, this is where the playthrough ends – I always hear the phrase “game over again” – and it is between the limits of this typical playthrough that Super Hexagon works its magic. It doesn’t matter how good I am at this game. It doesn’t matter how bad I am. I can pick the game up, hit start and enjoy mastery of the mechanics (briefly), enjoy learning, exploration and discovery (briefly), enjoy surprise, twitch and challenge (briefly), enjoy the lucky break (briefly), enjoy the adrenaline of panic (briefly). Whether I run the gamut in 10 seconds or 100 seconds, the game delivers a complete experience with each playthrough. I am never stuck in my comfort zone. I never face a precipice of difficulty which renders the game meaningless and boring up to that point but impassable thereafter.
The way that the routine play experience scales so exactly to my current ability is brilliant. It ensures that I can always keep learning and that I can consistently engage with the challenge on my own terms. It keeps the game on the narrow path between exclusionary difficulty and the triviality of virtual bubblewrap. It is what makes Super Hexagon such an excellent and perfectly designed game and it is what makes that devastating degree of challenge so totally and utterly accessible.
Super Hexagon has one more trick to pull and it is what happened that first time I broke the ten second barrier. Most playthroughs end with panic. However, on occasions, just as the panic is rising, I lose something. I can’t put my finger on it, but somehow I take my eye off the game and, miraculously, don’t die. Instead, I relax and watch myself playing the game – far better than I ever could consciously. The stored learning and muscle memory of the previous hundred playthroughs discharges and I can go on and on. This is the time when I might be lucky enough to set a new personal best. This is the flow and, ultimately, this is the addiction.
Super Hexagon’s generation of flow is another discussion in its own right. However, what is striking is that the flow state in Super Hexagon comes as the culmination of the engagement and learning process. This is so different from so many games where pseudo-flow is induced by means of compulsion loops, shiny distractions and big bangs as a starting point rather than a culmination: a casual, but ultimately unnourishing, moreishness that keeps the player clicking and covers for shallow or repetitive gameplay – savoury snacks that substitute rather than complement the meal.
Super Hexagon’s ability to make challenge accessible, to provide a complete experience on every playthrough, and to induce flow as a reward, rather than as camouflage, is what makes it such a special game for me. I think it is also what puts it in the company of the arcade classics of yesteryear. I missed out on arcades and am very much of the darkened bedroom era; however, I imagine, when looking at an iconic game like Space Invaders, that the experience of trying out the new cabinet – springing a few coins, dying repeatedly, trying again, becoming obsessed or maybe moving quickly on to the next one – might have involved a similar set of reactions.
From an economic point of view, there must have been a strong motivation to nail accessible challenge when designing arcade games. It is important that a casual player, maybe one not so familiar with arcades, can put in a coin and get a worthwhile experience straight away. At the same time, however, there must be enough meat on the bones, enough genuine challenge, to keep long-term players coming back for more rather than moving on to the game in the next cabinet. Critically, casual play must shade into serious play without either frustration or boredom eclipsing the immersion.
Super Hexagon obviously does not have the same economic considerations: If I had to spend money every time I hit game over, I would be attending Gamers Anonymous by now. However, I think it can be a beacon for how modern games can build on that arcade tradition to straddle the divide between casual, bubblewrap gaming on phones and tablets and the serious engagement of tough and thoughtful PC or console gaming without falling victim to either triviality or exclusivity. I look forward to seeing its influence spread throughout the developer community.
Written for Blogs of the Round Table on challenge at Critical Distance.