16
Mar
14

Super Hexagon is a game about fluency and literacy

So I’ve only recently been able to reach the 60 second mark on Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon.  I’ve had it on my iPhone, PC, and most recently on my Nexus 7 tablet, where I finally felt like I had the most optimal view to complete the game.  My earlier experiences playing the game were underlined by frustration with the game’s interface.  Touch screens provide no haptic feedback, and furthermore I felt that the game itself provided scant feedback on what the player was doing.  I was struggling to find aspects of the game that could assist me in overcoming its challenges.  It is a game that’s been notable for how unforgiving it can be, and has been seen as a sort of twitch-action game.

After putting in a more concerted effort to complete the game, I began to discard my earlier impressions and abandon my strategy of trying to find ways for the game to tell me I’m making the right move.  What I needed to be doing was anticipating what the right move would be.  I had to be reading the screen.  This is not a simple matter of finding a path though.  You probably know what I mean if you’ve played the game, but if you haven’t, just watch the game’s trailer.  Your job is to navigate a small triangle through a series of rings that have openings that can occur on one or more of the game board’s six sides.

The game proceeds very quickly and presents the maze in very disorienting ways.  Path finding is a very time consuming process.  In order to assure correctness, the player would have to follow every possible path to find a clear one.  To put this into computer science terms, each ring added to the screen represents adding 1 to the variable N.  The path finding algorithm that’s most intuitive for players to use would have a complexity of O(2N).  So even if you didn’t have to explore every possible path along the way, the number of decisions you’d have to make would be growing at an exponential rate.  If you were to consistently rely on path finding, you would be relying on luck that you would find the correct path very early in the search.  The difficulty curve is exponential.

If you were going to try and tackle this as a problem in computer science, you’d want to find a way to reduce the complexity of the process to something more like O(N) – which would create a difficulty curve that’s linear and grows at a steady rate.  Or, if at all possible, you’d want to reduce complexity to O(1) which means that the size of N (the number of rings the game throws at you) don’t matter; you can find the path in the same amount of time whether you’re looking at one, ten, or 100 rings.

When you begin to look at the game as a matter of anticipation, you have to be able to quickly identify the pattern that’s on the screen and translate that into precise player responses.  Even if the game board is flashing between colors and spinning around, you can still identify when there’s a pattern that requires you to hold a direction for a pre-determinable amount of time before releasing it.  You rely less on watching the triangle on the screen (which also forces you to focus on the disorienting images around it) and more on just identifying what is on the screen at a moment in time.  What the game is trying to do is to make you fluent in its patterns, and literate in writing the correct response (input/timing).

The screen is "speaking" to you and telling you "write" four, staggered, 30 to 90 degree, left inputs.

You “read” the screen and “speak” with four, staggered, 30 to 90 degree, left inputs.

When you are just beginning to learn to play Super Hexagon, you experience frustration that’s similar to what you might have experienced while learning to read.  You had to sound out each word and you needed someone there to tell you when you were saying it correctly.  Super Hexagon is like that, but it’s a robot that’s teaching you and forces you to start over every time you make a mistake.  Eventually you don’t need to sound out each word though.  You can create shortcuts in your mind between the word you see and the word you speak.  And eventually in Super Hexagon, you’re no longer “finding” the right path, you just know it without having to move the avatar around the game board.  And by reading the screen and immediately recalling the correct response, the complexity of completing the game becomes something closer to O(N) or O(1) – a complexity much friendlier to the speed at which our human brains can translate images into hand-eye coordination.

Super Hexagon is a game that has few, yet very dense, game mechanics that have been composed into an experience that captures and compresses the challenge and reward of becoming fluent and literate in another language.  It’s not a game that’s difficult, it’s a game that’s about the difficulty of this type of human learning.  It’s possible to interpret other games that require this sort of pattern identification and motor memory as doing the same thing, but few other games distill the concept into such a pure form or are as demanding for this level of player precision.  It’s a very strong player experience that would be almost impossible to replicate through another medium.

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