Hard games are enjoying a revival right now. But while Demon's Souls may be notorious for offering a gruelling RPG experience, the most punitive titles are often to be found within the platform genre. And it's indie developers who seem keenest to add liberal dollops of pain to your gaming pleasure.
Super Meat Boy practically makes it the player's business to die. Then die again. Then stop and think for a minute, only to die harder.
Meanwhile, VVVVVV's levels are littered with shiny trinkets which are nigh-impossible to obtain. To some these present a challenge, a big, obnoxious sign saying "No, you can't" which begs to be knocked down. To others trying to collect them is a futile task, generating only additional frustration which is best avoided.
In fact, some of these games are so difficult that playing them could be considered an exercise in masochism. Or could it? This is an awkward question to ask, since players won't always agree on which games are "hard" and which are "easy".
In other words, discussing difficulty is difficult. The creator of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen, prefers to see Super Meat Boy as a challenge.
"I wouldn't call it masochistic, because masochism usually means punishment," he says.
"I wouldn't say the game is punishing, because it's kind of my goal to make it not as punishing as old games were. There was a lot of penalty in old games which caused frustration and discouragement.
"Those were things I tried to avoid with the design of Super Meat Boy. It doesn't go out of its way to hurt the player, or to get the player to want to hurt himself.
"I think it's more that people want to push their limits. I wouldn't necessarily say push their limits of punishment or torture, but I would definitely say that it gets people to want to push the limits of their own personal skill. And with that comes dying a lot."
When mainstream blockbusters are put through testing and players get stuck, the temptation for the designer is to rip out whatever is interrupting the flow of play. But there must be balance. The problem might not be an inherent flaw in the game. Maybe the tester is still learning.
Developers must then decide why something is hard to achieve. It could be that the mechanic is unrefined. It could be that the objective wasn't clear. It could just be that the tester is rubbish at jumping over pits.
The issue of players getting stuck doesn't seem to bother the indie crowd as much. "Most independent developers do make games pretty difficult, because they want their games to be challenging," says McMillen.
"There's something to be said for a game which can challenge you and make you feel good about it."
In these terms, a game is not masochistic when it presents a challenge accompanied by a reward. The result is a purging process which makes the player feel accomplished when they unlock the coveted "You died an awful lot" achievement.
Video: Difficult. But not impossible.
As with so many similar titles, the sense of satisfaction which comes with completing even one level in Super Meat Boy is payback for hours spent fine-tuning your muscle memory.
But what about those games which are so hard they can't be finished? "I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can't beat Canabalt," observes McMillen.
Canabalt, Adam Saltsman's one-button game about leaping from rooftop to rooftop, does in fact have a killscreen built-in. But, Saltsman says, you'd have to run "like, a hundred million miles" to see it.
Surely you'd have to be a masochist to take on that kind of challenge. Setting yourself a gruelling, repetitive and impossible task is definitely masochistic, as is spending so long attempting to complete the task you end up feeling bad.
A masochistic gamer, then, must be someone who is defined by failure. Who cannot win, who knows they cannot win, yet carries on regardless and, most importantly, enjoys failing.
But the argument doesn't hold up. Constant loss is not why most people play Canabalt. It can't be completed in the traditional sense, but it still offers rewards in the form of a high scores list.
In a way the achievement comes from pushing your limits, just as it does when playing Super Meat Boy. Though Canabalt is as simple a video game can get in terms of mechanics, Saltsman argues that the spectrum the titles sit on is complex.
"It's just not a single axis, is the thing... I feel there's this completely invented idea that there is a challenge axis and the challenge axis has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.
"I actually think there are two axes. There's an axis of accessibility and there's an axis of challenge. And inaccessible games will affect the challenge axis. Like, a game that's hard to physically interact with... Is going to increase the challenge of the game, but I think that's just kind of a crappy challenge.
"Whereas something like Super Meat Boy, it's just move and jump. That's how you interact with the game. So I feel that Meat Boy, despite its high challenge level, is highly accessible, in the same way Canabalt is fairly challenging game."
If you find talk of "axes of interaction" hard to follow, try out this exercise. Go back and read the above paragraphs again and again, until you understand perfectly what Saltsman means.
Done? Did you give up after a few tries, or press on and draw yourself a diagram? This should give you some indication of the kind of person you are.
If you pressed on, the question remains as to whether you're a masochist or just a determined learner. The answer depends on how arduous you found the process.
Difficulty in games usually comes in two forms and elicits two responses. Firstly there's: "I don't know what to do!"
Secondly: "I know exactly what to do, but I can't physically do it!"
Platformers like Super Meat Boy and Canabalt generate the latter response. You know how to avoid the spinning blades or sudden drops; it's just a matter of practicing your timing to perfection.
But the former kind of difficulty breeds an altogether more trying type of masochism. It's not another platformer which comes to mind here, but a game called Dwarf Fortress.
For those who aren't familiar, Dwarf Fortress is a management game which puts the player in charge of a band of seven dwarves, out to establish a new colony. The simulation is immeasurably detailed. Goblins besiege your settlement, your dwarves go mad from lack of alcohol and wildlife is a constant threat.
The whole thing is presented in ASCII. The indecipherable menu system alone probably causes many players to give up minutes into their first game.
"I don't consider Dwarf Fortress to be strictly "masochistic", in the way I'd describe a platformer," says its creator, Tarn Adams.
"But they are similar in that they include elements of user torture. In the case of DF, it's not a good thing, but rather an interface flaw. In the case of, say, a hard platformer, it's a fine thing for people who like it.
"I think it is the user interface, more than the content, that would get somebody to call Dwarf Fortress a masochistic game... Because it troubles you at every turn, even as you try to do easy things."
Adams doesn't believe everyone should copy his model. "I don't think that's a good goal for [designers]. I like games with depth, but depth doesn't imply inaccessibility. In the end, though, developers have to prioritise their time, and we've all got different things we hope to get out of the process."
Like Canabalt, Dwarf Fortress is designed so that there is no endgame. It just continues until the player gets fed up and quits playing, or their fortress is ruined. So does this lack of completion make it masochistic?
"Nah," says Adams. "There are plenty of simulation-style games, such as Life, that don't have an ending, but which you wouldn't label masochistic by themselves. You can set impossible goals for yourself in many games, but then it's less the game being masochistic by design and more the player being a masochist.
"The more the game induces or blatantly railroads the player down difficult paths, the more masochistic the game becomes, I think. Provided it crosses a certain threshold of addiction and replayability."
According to Adams, setting difficult goals doesn't automatically make a game masochistic.
"There's more to it than that. Take I Wanna Be The Guy, for example. There's an extreme, unavoidable, repetitive element to the failures. A game that induces a player to try something over and over again, while giving just a little bit of progress in return, is a good example of a masochistic game.
"Dwarf Fortress lashes you repeatedly with the interface while you struggle to extract pleasure despite all the pain, without the same kind of repetitive element."
Adams says that the satisfaction to be had while playing Dwarf Fortress comes "despite the torments", rather than overcoming repetitive failures. "Perhaps in this sense the repetitive, linear game can be said to be properly masochistic, whereas Dwarf Fortress is just torturing you while you are trying to have a good time."
It is true that in Dwarf Fortress you can set your own goals - deciding what to mine, what to build and what to trade with outsiders - but the only possible future for your fortress is an often frightening, more often amusing, but always tragic one.
It may then be fair to say, then, that the game attracts a certain type of player. Masochists. Madmen and madwomen. What other way is there to describe a person whose idea of a good time is to erect an underground fort via the use of a torturous GUI, only to see it crumble in the face of any one of tmany potential catastrophes? It is fitting that one of the possible downfalls of a dwarven outpost is that the inhabitants go berserk.
When you suggest this to the playerbase, the response is a jubilant scream, a terrifying rally of bloodied, grinning faces laughing into their pus-filled rags while holding aloft a banner made of dismembered torsos. It's adorned with the community motto: "Losing is fun!"
"Given that it's the dwarves who are suffering when you fail, perhaps it's more sadistic than masochistic," Adams laughs. "I wouldn't see it that way though, since the demise of a fortress can be enjoyable in many ways.
"I'm not sure it's masochistic, undertaking a process in which you know something you work hard on over time is going to fall apart. The game is easy enough once you learn it that this might not be an expectation anyway.
"For me, a fortress loss can bounce between being hilarious, being bittersweet and causing panic. And it can have a longer term feel to it, like an embrace of fate or entropy. As the game's development progresses it should also feel like becoming part of history or leaving a legacy."
Video: Meat your maker.
"It'll be necessary to encourage losing in full, rather than reloading saves, to allow the player to experience the full breadth of the game."
In conclusion, then. When a game incorporates excessive or extreme loss into the core gameplay, and not only remains enjoyable but becomes more enjoyable as a result, it becomes masochistic.
Developers have begun to realise this and are now creating game features which subtly reward death. It's why, with Super Meat Boy, you get a video replay when you finally complete a level, showing hundreds of your death-splatters and failed attempts.
This is a reward for overcoming the odds. It's also a means of making you associate all those bloodstains and failures with a sense of victory.
Maybe there are no such things as masochist games, just masochistic gamers. Regardless of mechanics, Meat Boy and Captain Viridian are undeniably masochistic characters. Despite thousands of deaths they each sport a constant grin, crazed and joyous, enthusiastic and unsettling.
Look closely. It's a grin you might wear yourself.