Nov 8, 2010
What have you been up to this week? I've spent most of it staring at a near-vertical assortment of pipes and beams and wishing I was dead. I've also been inventing guttural new expletives that threaten to bring Social Services to the door. God only knows what the neighbours have made of it.
Late to the party I know but yes, I've been playing Trials HD. I have spent significantly more time failing at the game than making progress. And yet, this has been one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I've had in the last five years.
For the purpose of this article it's really not important that I'm stuck in a game - we've all been there. What matters is that, following a six hour marathon trapped in the same desperate cycle of failure, I can only bring myself to turn the console off for five minutes before rebooting for just one more go.
When I fall asleep, I do so with mental attempts to solve in-game problems playing out behind my closed eyes. So strongly has the Tetris-effect taken hold that after a prolonged session, I can no longer view a column of text without it rocking to and fro while my brain calculates the necessary movements to traverse it.
Clearly this calls for a moment of introspection. There are, after all, no shortage of games featuring revolutions in story-telling, impressive visuals and protracted narratives. There's also no time in which to play more than a small percentage of them. So what compels me to spend so much time in abject misery for what appears to be a deficit of pay-off?
The transformation of my gaming habits began with Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, back in 2005. It was ironic becauses since the days of 16-bit hardware, I had happily believed that if I threw myself behind the juggernaut of hardware progression and queued up giddily on day one, gaming nirvana would be assured. RPG vistas would become ever grander, racing environments would get more and more realistic and total immersion would be achieved.
Video: Another trick in the wall.
But it was the side-project confined to the in-game arcade machine of a triple-A launch title that woke something within me which had lain dormant for 15 years. The psychedelic wizardry owed a great deal to advances in hardware of course. But it was the increasingly complex simplicity of the game that reminded me why I started playing games in the first place - that flood of endorphins when you arrive in the zone and nothing else exists.
I've long since reached the point with Geometry Wars where I can break through the brick wall preventing me from progressing. It now takes me half an hour of queuing up to get the hit that slams home. But every day, without fail, I've got to have that fix, to experience that feeling of being switched on and alive while playing a game.
So it's not simply a case of pointing to subjective terms like "difficulty" or "challenge" - although clearly they're an important component of the appeal of these games. The art of frustration gaming taps into a far deeper issue which exists right down at the level of the synapse.
As much as anything, games like Trials HD and Geometry Wars celebrate gaming as an enormous, unashamed waste of time. They poke two fingers up at multi-million dollar development extravaganzas. They shout from the rooftops that we don't need moral lessons, rich-window dressing or epic storylines to justify our hobby. They're a guilty indulgence, a box of chocolates to be scoffed all by yourself.
When your parents berated you for spending too many hours in front of the screen and not enough time in the sunshine, these games were exactly what they had in mind. Which is why to lose yourself in mindless gaming addiction is to feel like a child again.
There's something pleasing about committing so much time to a worthless endeavour. It's an act of satisfaction that's relevant to you and you alone. In the origins of gaming this simplicity was a necessity, given the limitations of the hardware, but it fulfilled a primal craving that will never disappear, no matter how much superficial gloss we paint on template genres.
I once considered this genre of gaming to belong to a darker age - one I thought was thankfully forgotten. I've now taken to collecting examples of it like most people stash porn.
The revival of this approach to game development has been a call to arms for indie developers. Accessible and affordable, they provide the perfect vehicle for a fledgling studio to make its mark on the industry. In this regard, gaming is simply coming full-circle.
However, there's a fine line between success and failure here. Precisely where that line is drawn ultimately comes down to personal opinion. But here are my recommendations for the rules great frustration gaming:
Rule 1 - Keep it simple. The objective needs to be clear and unambiguous with the end, or at least some progress, clearly in sight. If you're going to surprise the player with a fiery death immediately after overcoming an obstacle, make sure there's a clue in there he or she really should have noticed.
Rule 2 - Don't cheat the player. Hypnosis doesn't work when the watch swings into the side of your face. If the controls aren't tighter than a screw, re-work them.
Rule 3 - Provide timely checkpoints.
Rule 4 - Make me laugh at myself. Voluntary submission to self-flagellation requires a certain amount of brevity thrown into the mix. I don't mind feeling stupid, as long as I can feel I'll get smarter with just one more go.
For me, these factors make the difference between a game that frustrates and challenges in equal measure and one that gets switched off, discarded and resented. Once that line has been crossed, only perfection will suffice. Anything less becomes a curse on the player. Only third-party peripheral makers get a kick out of bad frustration gaming.
If you want an example of what happens when things go right check out the World's Hardest Game, a title which has rapidly become the brightest gem in my sordid collection. Reckon the mainstream transformation of gaming has led to a dumbing-down of difficulty? Long for the days when you sat hunched over a PC, sweating and close to tears, for hours on end? Armor Games would like to know if you're sure about that. Really, really sure.
Released in 2008, it's by no means a new game, but it meets the requirements for pure frustration gaming better than many I've played. World's Hardest Game wears its aneurism-inducing credentials like a badge of honour. The objective is simple - guide a red square past the blue circles to a green area, while the developer taunts you between levels.
Success is measured simply in terms of how many deaths you accrue through the game's 30 levels. Looking at the leaderboards, I find myself feeling real compassion for those who have finished the game without incurring a single death. Those who like their games to test their patience as much as their reflexes should really give it a go.
And then, just one more go.