The Lure Of The Hard Game

The Lure Of The Hard Game

As video games are becoming more mainstream, especially with the rise of gaming on iOS devices, they’re getting easier and easier. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s probably necessary – but there is a lure to really difficult games that is being forgotten.

I’ve been hearing about Super Hexagon for about a year now, and finally decided to give it a try. Well it turns out that Super Hexagon is probably the most difficult game you will ever play, especially if you are a casual gamer.

The basic mechanics are as follows. You control a triangle that rotates around a center point. You must swivel the triangle to avoid incoming shapes. To get a sense of it, watch this video. I know, it’s trippy. Insane. Impossible.

Playing Super Hexagon – and being shocked at its difficulty – reminded me of when I first got into video games. Video games for the NES and SNES were hard. Really hard. And in addition to being hard, there were often no save points (except for games like Zelda) so if you lost, you had to replay everything up until that point just to lose again.

Games like T2: The Arcade Game were so difficult that after years of ownership I never even beat the first level. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s gotten past that goddamned truck.

And then there was online gaming, where you could discover a whole new level of difficulty: other players. This wasn’t like playing your friends, this was something else entirely. I was somewhere around 13 or 14 years old, playing the Firearms mod for Half-Life, and getting my ass kicked by strangers online. Strangers who I thought must be cheating. Nobody can be that good, right?

I would frequent the same servers over and over again and see the same players dominating the leaderboards. If they weren’t cheating, then how did they do it? I just assumed it was natural talent. Some people are just born with better reaction times, better accuracy, better multitasking skills.

I ended up downloading the necessary tools to run a Firearms server on my computer. There, in my private training ground, populated with computer-controlled bots, I practiced. I learned all the levels, all the weapons, and I just played. A lot. Over time, when I’d rejoin the public servers, I started to rank better and better. Eventually, I became one of those players that was dominating everyone else.

I remember it clearly. It was one of the first times I both consciously and emotionally understood that I could make myself better at things. That sounds so obvious, but the mythology of natural talent is powerful. And it’s hard to measure your skill at games, sports, or anything else when you’re surrounded with the same friends who are also improving. The public Firearms servers, though, gave me a kind of control by which I could actually measure my improvement.

When you can finally see your improvement and know that it isn’t a fluke, when you finally feel it happening, it’s a really, really good feeling. If you ever try a game like Super Hexagon and wonder: “How could anyone play this? How could anyone get enjoyment out of something so difficult.” That feeling is why.

What makes it even better is that it is largely an internal triumph. How good you are at navigating a triangle past hexagonal shapes at high speed has very little bearing on the world. But it’s not about that. It’s about your own private battle with impossibility. It’s about convincing yourself that something impossible – however meaningless – is actually conquerable. And why? Not because you have to. Nobody will ever obligate you to play Super Hexagon. No one’s life will ever depend on it. It’s likely that no one else will care or even know how good you are at it. You just do it because you want to.

You decide that in your endless frustration and helplessness, you won’t walk away. Again, not because anyone will care or judge you. Not because you’ll lose something tangible. Just because.

It’s rare in life to choose to do something really difficult, with no external pressure or profit, simply because you want to. That’s the lure of the hard game.

Published on October 3, 2013
Cover image: Super Hexagon