Monday, March 26, 2018

Who Frustration is Good For

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy went fairly viral so you may already be well familiar with it. If so, feel free to skip down past both pictures; I'm going to spend the intervening paragraphs explaining what the game is and how it works.


Bennett Foddy is a connoisseur of frustration. His first hit game, QWOP, took the simple act of running and made it nearly impossible by wrapping it in a seemingly-straightforward four-button control scheme with each button dedicated to a thigh or calf muscle. He's made a few other games along similar lines, but his latest work, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, takes things to a new level.

The objective of Getting Over It is to scale a mountain. This task is harder than it may sound - Diogenes, the player character, can't directly use his limbs. He can't walk because he's stuck in a cauldron for no clear reason, and his hands are permanently gripping a sledgehammer. The player moves the mouse to position the hammer, limited by Diogenes's reach, to grip onto overhangs and pull Diogenes up, or to push against surfaces to propel Diognenes in the opposite direction.

It's a control scheme that's easy to understand but very hard to master. The player must take care to avoid rocketing themselves in unintended directions - and because they are trying to climb a mountain, gravity is constantly against them. Careless movements can easily send the player all the way back to the game's beginning even after hours of careful progress. This is expected to happen to most players several times. This is actually the point of the game.

"Why did I make this? This horrible hike up an impossible mountain. I could have made something you would have liked. A game that was empowering, that would save your progress and inch you steadily forward. Since success is delicious, that would have been wise. Instead, I must confess, this isn't nice. It tastes of bitterness. It's capricious; it sets setbacks for the ambitious. It lacks lenience; it's bracing and inhumane. But not everyone's the same. I created this game for a certain kind of person. To hurt them."
—Bennett Foddy, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy Trailer

Getting Over It is a reaction to games that are intended to be easy to consume. It's a meditation on the cultural role of experiences that demand nothing of their audience, as well as the sort of person who rejects such experiences. Getting Over It is not designed to be lazily strolled through and forgotten. It blocks the player's path and demands they work to overcome it. It requires the player to invest blood, sweat, and tears - nothing less will do.


Foddy says he "created this game for a certain kind of person, to hurt them." This isn't malicious - it's for people who enjoy being hurt in this very specific way. Foddy himself certainly appears to be one of these people - check out his blog post celebrating eleven distinct varieties of frustration.

Most of us are not this way. But aside from the masochists (and the streamers) I think there's another audience who could get something out of this game. An audience I used to be a part of.

One of my most popular essays is Awesome By Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement. It tells the story of how I realized I'd been abusing RPGs for easy fake achievement. When I came to a challenge I couldn't overcome, I would just grind levels until it wasn't a challenge anymore. I relied on this crutch because I had lost the ability to stick with things that were actually hard. At the first sign of frustration, of difficulty that required actual self-improvement or development of skills, I gave up. My intelligence had allowed me to coast through school, but the "real world" beyond - where it wasn't enough to just show that you were smart, but where you needed to actually accomplish things - terrified me. I didn't see how I was going to be able to find and keep a reasonable job. All that I could see happening was that I'd be outed as a worthless human being.

The solution, I decided, was to practice tackling challenges for the sake of it, to build a habit of perseverance. And while I'd been using one kind of game as a way to avoid exactly that, it occurred to me that other kinds of games actually provided a perfect training ground. After all, the challenge itself was arbitrary, but it had to be low stakes, genuinely difficult, require extended practice, and have very clear success and failure modes.

So I decided to get all the emblems in Sonic Adventure DX. For most people, this would have been a waste of time. Anyone with baseline manual dexterity could pull it off, but why put in the time for something so irrelevant? For me, it was worth doing because I didn't know whether I could do it. I had the dexterity, but I wasn't sure I was tenacious enough to stick with it through repeated failure. I needed to demonstrate that I was psychologically capable of perseverance. So once I'd put in the hours and the practice and earned all the emblems, I felt hope. I saw a way to dig myself out and build myself up. And I started to believe that I could actually do it.

Maybe if Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy had been around back then, I would have played that instead. I see it as a waste of time now, but that says more about me than it does about the game. I don't have to get over it with Bennett Foddy because I already got over it with Sonic the Hedgehog.

Foddy is focused on the frustration - that's what fascinates him. What's far more interesting to me is the ability to rise above frustration. The value of Getting Over It is to prove you can. To prove you can throw yourself at failure, over and over and over again, until you succeed. Because that's how everything worth doing gets done.

I'm not going to play Getting Over It. I'm not telling you to, either. Maybe, like me, you don't see a point to it. But maybe you do see a point. Maybe you like the idea of conquering it - of being someone who can conquer it - but aren't sure that you are that person. If so - I'm telling you that I think you are that person. I believe you can do it.

Foddy says he made this game to hurt people. I think it can heal people too.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Announcing Pixel Poppers Reviews!

Hey folks!

It's been hard to find time for analytical essays in recent years, but I do write quick reviews of most games I play. Now there's a website where you can see them!

Pixel Poppers Reviews

Right now, it has all the games for which I made Capsule Review videos. I have many more reviews written and will publish one a day until I catch up and then more as I write them. The home page will always show the most recent reviews, and you can also subscribe to the RSS feed to stay up to date. Each review also links to all related content I've created - essays, videos, or even comics with my friend Senpai-chan.

I hope you enjoy it!



Added October 29, 2017: At this point I've gotten through my entire usable backlog and the reviews are taking longer to write, but sticking to a schedule is valuable - so starting November 1, I'm slowing the schedule down to Monday/Wednesday/Friday. I think I can keep up with that for a while.

Monday, September 5, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Shütshimi


Shütshimi
Capsule Review!

You can get Shütshimi at http://shutshimi.com/

Transcript:
Shütshimi is a retro-styled horizontal scrolling shooter whose action comes in ten-second increments. In between, you have a few seconds to pick one of three random modifiers - there are hats, different weapons, upgrades or downgrades, and various silly cosmetic effects. Everything is presented with tongue held firmly in cheek and the jokey descriptions for the modifiers and their unrelated icons make it hard to suss out what your options actually are in the few seconds available. It may have flowed better to simply apply a modifier at random and not bring the gameplay to a grinding halt every ten seconds. The shooting is fast-paced, but since the game can't do anything scoped greater than a few seconds, its bite-sized novelty-over-depth gameplay would probably have been more suited to mobile than to PC and PlayStation.

Monday, August 29, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Dragon's Crown


Dragon's Crown
Capsule Review!

See also the And in the game? comic.

You can get Dragon's Crown at https://www.amazon.com/Dragons-Crown-Playstation-3/dp/B007V9QKH0

Transcript:
Dragon's Crown is a 2.5D brawler with action RPG elements. You can play alone or via couch co-op, but the game is obviously tuned to favor online co-op - there are six different classes with varying specializations and it's valuable to have multiple archetypes present, but there's also a lot of very slow inventory and skill point management that only one local player can do at a time. You can round out your party with AI-controlled members, but they're mediocre and require their own fiddly management between dungeon runs. There isn't much depth to the story, characters, or world, but the art is distinctive and gorgeous. Although the 2D art in a 3D space presents some positioning problems, the combat mechanics are otherwise extremely well-tuned, and the boss fights in particular are varied and engaging. That's good, because you'll be seeing them over and over - there aren't that many dungeons, and you've got to grind through them repeatedly to progress. The experience has much more longevity when played with friends.

Monday, August 22, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: TowerFall Ascension


TowerFall Ascension
Capsule Review!

Why you don't want an online mode in TowerFall

You can get TowerFall Ascension at http://www.towerfall-game.com/

Transcript:
TowerFall Ascension is a fast-paced, very precise 2D arena fighter based on shooting arrows and head-stomping. A few simple moves are combined to create a lot of strategic depth and a high skill ceiling. There are also a ton of modifiers and modes available for varied gameplay, such as giving everyone bomb arrows or even taking arrows away completely, and there's a co-op campaign as well that pits you against a variety of enemy types. The game is perfectly balanced, since all characters play identically, though this also means you can't pick a character to get good at and there aren't varied matchups. It feels good to play and especially to pull off skilled moves, but it's hard to enjoy alone, with single-player serving really only to practice the skills you'll then use in multiplayer, so it's worth noting that there's no online play, though there are good reasons - see Why you don't want an online mode in TowerFall.

Monday, August 15, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Catherine


Catherine
Capsule Review!

You can get Catherine at https://www.amazon.com/Catherine-Playstation-3/dp/B004P7VGF2

Transcript:
Catherine is a game about a man going through a quarter-life crisis and, essentially, choosing between two women who represent commitment and freedom respectively. Gameplay alternates between the player character's nightmares, which are experienced as block-sliding climbing puzzles, and his waking life, experienced as adventure game-like sections with dialog and time-management choices and a pretty cool texting mechanic where you pick the mood of each sentence to send. The story features themes of maturity, fidelity, conformity, the need to move on and the fear of doing so. The game's atmosphere and visual design are great, but a lot of the rest of it feels clumsy. The middle of the story drags with the plot remaining static until you've climbed through enough levels. The implementation of the karma meter means choices matter both too much and too little, since you can't really change how most of the events play out, but you can easily be locked into endings that may have nothing to do with how you were trying to steer the story. Most frustratingly, the game doesn't end up having much of anything to say about the grown-up issues it raises - the endings tend to be wacky deus ex machinas that prevent the characters from having to deal with the consequences of their prior behavior. All in all, it feels like a missed opportunity and I would like to see a better attempt.

Monday, August 8, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Broforce

Broforce
Capsule Review!

You can get Broforce at http://www.broforcegame.com/

Transcript:
Broforce is an over-the-top 2D pixel art shoot 'em up that affectionately parodies action movies and the war on terror. It's very chaotic, with terrain that can be destroyed by gunfire and explosives lying around that can result in screen-clearing chains of explosions at the drop of a hat. A single stray bullet can kill you, which is mostly okay as this just means you switch to the next randomly-selected bro, which adds enjoyably to the chaos since the bros are fun and varied and it's entertaining to figure out how to be effective with each bro's particular power set. The problem is that you have limited lives, and it can be frustrating to have to replay a level because of the game's unpredictable destruction or because you got stuck with a very limited bro who just wasn't useful for the situation. Regardless, the game is best enjoyed with a friend so you can laugh at the chaos and silliness together.

Monday, July 18, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Clicker Heroes


Clicker Heroes
Capsule Review!

You can get Clicker Heroes at https://www.clickerheroes.com/

Transcript:
An idle game in which your stable of heroes kill monsters for gold. As I assume is true of most idle games, its structure is based on a series of concentric gameplay loops. First you're clicking monsters to kill them and collect gold, which you use to hire and upgrade heroes. The heroes make the monster loop faster, so after a while you stop focusing on individual monsters and instead use the constant flow of gold to manage your heroes, occasionally using their powers (which are on cooldowns of varying length) to make a lot of progress quickly. But despite being in the title, the heroes are just one of several loops - eventually you start "ascending", sacrificing your heroes to start over but collecting "hero souls" which you use to upgrade "ancients" that give you passive bonuses that make the hero loop faster. Then you start "transcending", sacrificing your ancients to start over but collecting "ancient souls" which you use to upgrade "outsiders" that give you passive bonuses that make the ancient loop faster. There are a couple of other mechanics, such as relics that are essentially another facet of the ancient loop and mercenaries which grant rewards on timers. And somewhat evilly, there are "guilds" that present a lightweight social obligation factor through daily "raids" that must be collaborated on to make any real progress. It can be satisfying, in a mindless way, to check in on your increasingly-huge numbers for a few minutes here and there. But ultimately, the game is a treadmill, doling out progression on longer and longer schedules. As such, the only way to win is not to play.

Monday, July 11, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Race The Sun


Race The Sun
Capsule Review!

You can get Race The Sun at http://flippfly.com/racethesun/

Transcript:
Race The Sun is an endless runner with a compelling atmosphere. Deaths are slightly too spectacular and flow-disrupting, but the mission-based unlock system means they are also the only way to get access to new mechanics - despite the game's continual navel-gazing about the inevitability of failure, failure is the only way to progress. As a result, the pacing feels slow and oddly forced - rather than honing skill on a well-tuned challenge, it feels like running laps in an incomplete game in order to earn the next piece. For example, the first few runs are guaranteed to be cut short by running out of time when the sun sets, because you have to unlock the pickups that extend your time by raising the sun - after unlocking them, I never again lost due to running out of time. Some runs later, I crashed because I went through what was obviously a gateway - but I hadn't yet unlocked the gateway mechanic. If the game didn't force you to spend so much time on an incomplete version of itself and if it were a little harder to die, the core gameplay and aesthetics would be great at creating flow.

Monday, July 4, 2016

CAPSULE REVIEW: Lumines


Lumines
Capsule Review!

You can get Lumines at http://store.steampowered.com/app/11900/ or on the PlayStation, XBox, or iOS stores.

Transcript:
Lumines is a falling-block puzzle game where you must group like-colored blocks into rectangles to clear them away. Every so often you switch to a new song and corresponding visual skin, and the speed of the song determines the speed at which blocks are cleared away. Slower songs make it easier to rack up large combos, but also leave more time for the board to overfill and end the game. The puzzle gameplay is fairly straightforward and can actually be solved deterministically - once you know how to play, you can do so indefinitely until the blocks fall too fast for your reflexes to keep up. At that point, all that's really left is the atmosphere created by the songs and skins, which vary in different Lumines games and may or may not be to your liking.