Super Hexagon and Learning Curves 1

So, I’ve been drinking a bit, but I bought this new game on a lark and I just couldn’t go to bed without mentioning something about it. Super Hexagon is a tight, challenging game that’s a good way to faff time away while zenning out Tetris-style. But, it’s not so much the game as the challenge curve that I wanted to talk about.

Games like this, that is, games without a significant story-aspect, are free to experiment quite a bit, because they don’t really care about maintaining continuity within a given narrative framework. As such, there are less revealing aspects that might tip their hand a bit in terms of what’s going on. Bejeweled’s levelling system is a great example of this, but interpretation of this relies on a solid grasp of mathematics to compute the curve. I’m not great with numbers right now, but I do know a thing or two about brains.

The challenge curve in Super Hexagon, while challenging, is far from impassable. In fact, it’s one of those games that you’re guaranteed to get better at as you play. This is because the primary problem you’ll have, at first, is interpreting and predicting movement. Once you understand which direction you’re moving in, and how the environment affects you, on an intuitive level, you’ll find that navigating the game becomes much easier. Then, it’s more of an action game.

The interesting thing is that the difficulty curve relies on this gradual learning. It changes directions and perspectives, often creating optical illusions, in order to cause you to slip up. And, believe me, you will. However, your brain will eventually assimilate an understanding of the movements of the board, your “character,” and your fingers into a general framework. Until then, you will die… a lot. The trick is that you will keep coming back. Rather, the designers hope you will.

Many choices have been made around facilitating quick, repetitious game-play. Score screens are short and to the point. Starting a new game is easy and quick. The music changes to signify the beginning of a new level. The levels are varied, semi-random, and, probably, procedurally generated. The music flows into each new level as the background pulses and moves in time with the beat. Aesthetically, it’s a pretty seamless game. It knows what it sets out to do and it pulls it off smashingly.

The stark, minimalist approach to game-design works here, but the question is, can designers fit this guaranteed difficulty curve into narrative game-play? I would say, MAYBE. Games with narratives -should- make use of it to drive the game. Rather, it should interact well with the mechanics of the game and spur the player on-ward. The reason this mechanic works well here is because it all smooths itself over and flows into itself. A narrative-style game would have to come up with a way to justify constant failure, with varying degrees of success, and the possibility of failing at higher levels. One might conjure up images of a Super Hexagon hacking mini-game, but I think it might really pull someone out of the experience… unless it was Deus Ex: Human Rave-olution.

There are plenty of learning curves that the brain goes through, though. Movement in relation to perspective is just one. In terms of using this sort of learning curve, there are many doors to choose from. Driving, for instance, begins as a rather taxing experience, but, as you improve and learn a feel for the road, its patterns and rhythms in relation to your vehicle and its patterns, it becomes easier. Most seasoned drivers get bored or zone out (bad idea, but there it is), text or eat, that sort of thing. So, we know there are everyday activities that incorporate this gradual learning and automation. The trick would be to find a portion of the gaming experience that isn’t generally a part of every day life, but could become intuitive with practice… like switching motions and perspectives in Super Hexagon.

That would earn you a guaranteed learning curve, and, by extension, a guaranteed challenge curve. Maybe a mini-game where you learn how to walk by individually controlling 6 legs would be in order… but only in terms of servicing the over-all game. There’s already an arachno-game out there … and that only really works because it’s its own game. It either all fits together or you’re wasting space. I’m looking at you Dead Island.

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