Super Hexagon

I first played Super Hexagon on an iPad, chalking up my many defeats to the inaccuracies of its touchscreen controls. If only I had the precision controls of a keyboard, I reasoned, I would do much better. According to Steam, I’ve now played about 10 hours of Super Hexagon on PC, and can confirm that I’m full of shit. Gamers today play on many unique devices. I own Super Hexagon on three different platforms. Outside of the superficial differences of a phone screen versus a monitor, the game is exactly the same, exactly as hard. I have no excuse.

Writing on his blog in October 2012, Terry Cavanagh announced that Super Hexagon would become available “to over 1290 devices.” Outside of the technical difficulties of cross-platform development, Cavanagh wanted to ensure that leaderboards would be available on every version. “If I released the game without leaderboards (on any platform) I would be releasing an inferior version of the game, and I just don’t want to do that.” Cavanagh should be credited for his commitment to quality, but also for creating a game that isn’t attached to any one device. In a period of divergent technology, Super Hexagon remains a game divorced from platform, just at home on the PC and the iPad – a video game, in other words, poised to prove its resilience in the years to come.

It’s not easy to describe what makes Super Hexagon so hard, but the basic concept couldn’t be simpler. Move a small arrow clockwise or counterclockwise to avoid different patterns of obstacles. Harder difficulties have faster and more complicated patterns. That’s really it. The game confuses your efforts with a pulsing playfield that changes colors and rotates arbitrarily.  Games end quickly – lasting one minute is a miracle on the hardest difficulties. Sometimes the screen rotation confuses your sense of left and right, or you didn’t react quickly enough to a new pattern. Sometimes, between everything happening on screen, you’re not entirely sure how you screwed up, only that you did. No doubt Terry Cavanagh spent a long time tweaking the game’s visual elements, adjusting the frequency of screen rotations and the intensity of the color shifts. (You can play the original prototype here.) But the final product is too fine a mixture, and resists close examination. Super Hexagon is an intuitive exercise, not a problem to be solved.

Games are known for their ability to drag out the most mundane activities, to pad out gameplay with interminable tasks.  Super Hexagon is a reminder that games have a unique ability to do the opposite, to make every second totally absorbing. Some people call this flow, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” Prolonged success in Super Hexagon requires smooth, consistent, confident motions, easier said than done when the playfield is spinning wildly and you’re dodging multiple obstacles every second. In short, playing Super Hexagon well requires flow. You can’t think too hard about what you’re doing.

This is a real achievement. We have no shortage of games offering bite-sized gaming experiences. The well-known Cananbalt kicked off a wave of knockoffs; mobile gaming provides more examples, such as Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride. But offering a 30 second experience doesn’t mean those 30 seconds will fly by. The worst games can manage to make half a minute feel twice as long, to make short bursts of time somehow grueling. There is a difference between the challenge and engagement of true flow, and the brainless tapping of buttons that lesser games engender. An especially challenging five-second sequence in Super Hexagon can feel like an unbelievable triumph when you’ve barely managed to stay alive for the past 45.

It is sometimes less remarkable how long you last than how quickly you lose. Even experienced players can fail Super Hexagon within seconds. Surprisingly, this is not discouraging. When a friend messages me on Steam to let me know that he’s (yet again) beaten one of my high scores, I don’t feel cheated – I feel like he’s better than me, but I can reach that point too. Maybe more than the mobile games above, Super Hexagon is better compared to pinball tables: a short-lived experience more nuanced than its two buttons would suggest, that rewards countless replays despite the fact that you usually fail to achieve anything close to a high score.

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