Archive for December, 2012

The Shape of Mastery

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Super Hexagon has a lot of features that would ordinarily frustrate me. Your survival depends on split-millisecond twitch action. When you die, you are sent back to repeat everything from the beginning.

The trick is, the progression in the game isn’t really measured in the levels, it’s measured in your skill as a player. Sure, there are difficulty modes to unlock, but those are just milestones on your development as a player.

This is the same reason why I like roguelikes: your decisions have consequences that you have to live with, but the game is designed around that. As long as you are still alive you can keep going in the event time, gradually gaining the player skill that will let you repeat your feat later. That’s why the randomness in roguelikes works: getting lucky once won’t win you the game, it’s what you do with that luck time and time again that turns you into a player who can beat the game.

The relatively short length of the game helps with this—and, more importantly, the game is designed so that progression in the event time doesn’t matter once that brief experience is over. There are countless larger, longer games that don’t have permadeath but which are far more frustrating, because they require you to negotiate the save-reload cycle to mitigate the fact that there is no soft recovery from failure. Permadeath makes this obvious, and designs the game around it.

Another significant experience is the way that the learning process facilitates all of this, by turning the earlier, mastered patterns from challenges into performances. Once the epiphany of how to navigate a particular pattern has been integrated into your skill set, it becomes second nature and you end up reflexively performing feats that you previously were convinced would be impossible. You are relaxing and executing the maneuvers; it feels like a rehearsed musical performance, but you are reacting to dynamically changing situations.

This a pleasure that is quite different from the pleasure of achievement—that happens at the end of your experience, once you pass into unmastered territory and really start to sweat. In contrast, the feeling of executing a performance of a mastered skill is relaxing.

Combine the two feelings and add the punishing difficulty, and every achievement in the game, every new time record reached, becomes a feeling of incredible achievement.