Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a NordicGameBits.com Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community.
Last week, we thought about how the game Assassin’s Creed 2 has two large scale formal elements – place and action – and how the focus on place makes it harder to fully and satisfactorily realise action.
This week we’ll take a look at how video game analysis of a game focused on action could look. Bear in mind that we’re still looking at all this through the lens of our model for analysis from two weeks back, which in summation can be described thus:
A message is conceived by a developer, who attempts to express this by placing formal elements into a game. This game is then filtered through a discourse and an interpretative act and becomes a perceived message in the mind of the player.
The game that we’ll be looking at this week has a range of formal elements that all support a focus on player action rather that place. That is to say, when you feel immersed in this week’s game, you won’ t feel like you are wandering the streets of Venice, but rather that you are acting, that you are moving.
The game this week is Super Hexagon.
Overall message of Super Hexagon
I’ll start this analysis by positing the theory that Super Hexagon is about flux.
Flux is the state of constant movement that certain world-views and philosophers – classically, this view is ascribed to Heraclitus – believe that life mainly consists of. Many contemporary critics of western society likewise formulate their critique through the lens of a critique of constant movement as an ideal.
It is not really my point to claim, though, that Super Hexagon posits flux as an ideal, anymore than Assassin’s Creed 2 should posit murdering people as an ideal problem-solving strategy. It is an exploration of flux as an idea, and by putting the player in an active role it does so in a viscerally immersive way.
The game consists of the player’s attempts to guide a triangle through various geometrical forms based on hexagons that threaten to close in on and eradicate the triangle. This is achieved by steering the triangle around a circle at the center of the screen to position it in a way that lines up with gaps in the geometric forms.
In the beginning of the game, this can to a certain degree be achieved by waiting until a gap has been spotted, then beginning the movement towards the gap. Not far in, though, you realise that you cannot possibly make it in time if movement has to be started each time. The triangle must constantly be moving, in flux, for you to make it through the gaps.
Several other formal elements point towards this interpretation of the game.
Firstly, the music – which has been the focus of many reviews of the game, but which I personally tend to turn off in favour of an audiobook – is pulsating, vibrating and reminiscent of raves and other party forms characterised by constant movement.
Secondly, the colours of the background and the shapes are constantly changing, again pointing towards flux.
Thirdly, the flux of the geometric shapes is echoed in the cnstant movement of another mathematical visualisation – the miliseconds counting franticaly upwards as the player’s score.
Finally, the naming convention followed in the different difficulty settings – e.g. Hexagon, Hexagoner, Hexagonest – are linguistically whimsical, indicating a movement of the mind to correspond to the agility of body and circumstance the other formal elements point towards.
The game is constantly changing and moving and the player must change and move constantly to keep up. As such it is an experience of flux.
Even the geometric forms that make up the challenges in the game are In flux, with gaps constantly changing place and the forms themselves changing from triangles to squares to hexagons. A possible interpretation of these fluctuating forms could be that even what is in philosophic tradition seen as the most permanent of essences – geometric forms – are subject to movement and change.
There is no real place in Super Hexagon in the way that we talked about last week with Assassin’s Creed 2. Instead, the game seems to take place inside the mind of a person, who attempts to grasp the changing circumstances of her or his existence, and to move in the world that this existence creates and plays out in.
As such, when the player is immersed in Super Hexagon, she or he loses themselves in the movement and the action. While immersion in a digital place can be broken by action as we saw last week, a design that focuses on digital action rather than place can only have immersion pierced by action outside the game – essentially by the player stopping to play the game and doing something else. – as pointed out in this review.
What we can learn as developers from the placement of formal elements in Super Hexagon and the analysis I have presented thus is the following: immersion in digital action makes for a less problematic design goal than immersion in digital place.
This is not to say that on is “better” or “more worthy” than the other, but much rather to say that the stakes are higher, when your design demands that the perceived authenticity of a setting rather that the act of playing the game is essential for immersion. It simply requires much more work.
The above interpretation is very illustrative of how a particular discourse can guide an interpretive act of formal elements. Super Hexagon is above interpreted through the lens of the idea of flux and – very superficially – the philosophical discourse about this idea.
To illustrate the enormous influence of discourse, I would like to point to this interview with the game’s creator Terry Cavanaugh. In it, Cavanaugh makes the assertion that Super Hexagon is an expression of himself and his personality. So far, so good – this gels quite well with the above interpretation. However, as is pointed out in the same interview and elsewhere, Cavanaugh identifies the central part of Super Hexagon – and by extension himself – not as flux, but as difficulty and mastery.
This is echoed in many reviews such as this one, where the main analysis of the game is that it is hard. This places the game in a certain tradition and within a certain discourse echoed in this double–interview with two skilled Super Hexagon players – one of them Cavanaugh himself.
Interpreting Super Hexagon along these discursive lines clearly identifies the conceived and perceived message as the game being essentially performative.
This is echoed in an encounter I had in the wild with this game, at the after-party for the Play Seminar in Copenhagen several years ago. Here the game was projected unto a large screen and hapless players competed in making good runs in front of their peers.
As such, one could interpret Super Hexagon as being about competition. Abstract competition not for any real, external goal, but simply to be the best at the game.
This raises the following interesting and excellent question for our model: if two interpretations of the same game are possible based on the same formal elements, then how do we choose which is the real interpretation?
What does Super Hexagon actually mean? Is it an illustration of flux or is it about competition?
I posit that it is both.
Hopefully, I have argued effectively above for my flux-based interpretation, and it should be clear from the sources that the conceived message of the developer and the perceived message of at least some players contradict this. As I can effectively point to at least one part of our model – the formal elements – and argue my interpretation in contrast to these two, both intepretations have been shown to be possible.
This can be seen as a problem for the model but actually, I believe it illustrates a strength. By isolating different elements of analysis, the model gives us a platform to disagree upon that illuminates the multiplicity of the work rather than reducing us to discuss “what we think” about it. By isolating specific parts of the work, discourse and conceived and perceived messages, we can effectively argue for many different meanings contained in the work, and most works do contain a multiplicity of meaning.
If the message of Super Hexagon simply is that hard games are fun for certain people, then this idea could just as well be expressed in non-artistic terms.
The game – any game – contains a multiplicity of messages that can spring from any part of our model. This shows not only the versatility of digital games as an art form or medium, but of our model as a basis for analysis as well.
The screen shots above are taken by the author. It is not easy to take screen shots of Super Hexagon on an ipad while playing it, so please forgive the dismal scores.