Super Hexagon is a brilliant game which is predicated on the relationship between persistence and mastery. It also might just be a maze having a grand mal seizure.
It’s been cast by some as a profound metaphor for the process of living life. I think there are problems with this reading and also that it’s far more interesting when viewed as both a riff on the idea of practice and a joke at the expense of our poor squishy brains.
Come Into My Lair
Like the most potent seducers, Super Hexagon’s weapon of choice is taunting. It says, “The only reason you can’t beat me is because you’re not trying hard enough.”
The most galling thing about this is that it is absolutely true: no game has ever epitomised the modern deprecation of talent more than this; it goes to bed reading Malcolm Gladwell. You don’t have to be good “at this sort of thing” (I’m definitely not – you should see me playing…any game…ever), you just have to put the time in. It knows that, you know that, and it knows that you know.
It got under my skin because I knew I could beat it, eventually. All barriers to practice (it’s a single player mobile game; it has instant restart; it has clearly demarcated goals; it’s rarely “unfair”) have been smashed. You just have to do it: there is no excuse once the compulsion has you.
“I like to think the first two modes are just practice,” jokes Terry Cavanagh in Leigh Alexander’s article on Gamasutra.
Super Hexagon places memorisation in the background through a witty deployment of random pattern sequencing. It denies the pig-nosing-at-a-food-button stupidity of rhythm action games and instead focuses squarely on skill acquisition. Yes, you learn the patterns but that’s trivial: you are practising the art of practice.
I think it’s a specific kind of practice, though. Alexander mentions Jason Killingsworth’s assertion that this is like “the practice and performance of music” but – and this is the barrier I find myself confronting with a lot of difficult games – at the end of music practice, music comes out.
Music is a form that everyone, from a four-day-old baby to a 99-year-old great-grandmother, can appreciate. Even the most boring form of musicianship – playing other people’s music – puts sound into the air.
Gaming skill is not something that has a broad audience (outside the arenas of esports and Twitch streaming): it’s normally something you acquire for personal satisfaction alone. It can feel slightly solipsistic at best; at worst, you are not producing anything.
The only possible rewards are those that the game gives you. Well, maybe that and some minor bragging rights.
So, is there more to it?
I’ve read Jenn Frank’s extraordinary piece Allow Natural Death many times now.
It reminded me a lot of some of the work I heard read aloud at Gamecity’s “Reads Like a Seven”. We live at a time where writing about games can genuinely emotive, powerfully relevant and even elegiac: it makes me proud to play a part in making games.
I empathise strongly with the ache of small details, the frustration at the outside world’s failure and refusal to accurately represent the tragic. Her writing made me remember stupidly kicking and punching the walls of a hospital bathroom as hard as I could, failing to make a mark. I’m also jealous, because I’ve never felt brave enough to write with such deep, deep honesty.
I feel all of those things, but I couldn’t have responded more differently to Super Hexagon. Here is Jenn Frank’s take:
The first time I met Terry I made him stand there and listen to my ideas about that game, about how his game is about living life. I talked about stopping and waiting and then moving, about pivoting your cursor until you find your window of opportunity. I told him about luck and not-luck and memory and decisiveness.
“It sounds very nice when you put it that way,” Terry told me pleasantly.
I don’t feel that Super Hexagon has more to say about the process of life than other games. I stop, wait, move and pivot in every platformer, in every FPS.
If the “window of opportunity” is the gap in each pattern, and you are pivoting to try and find it, you are already dead. In life, you get more than microseconds to think about opportunities, even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way; in Super Hexagon, the decision should have already been made. Hell, there is no decision.
There’s almost no luck in the game (possibly none – I really want to ask Terry if there is the possibility for unwinnable situations…I suspect there are a couple), so I don’t feel like it has much for us on the nature of luck, intention and determinism. Unless “luck and not-luck” is about this miniscule sliver of possible luck…in which case, sure, but that’s not a major thing I’d highlight. If I’m looking for a modern game to talk about luck and not-luck, I’m looking at FTL.
Unless your memories are comprised of discrete, identical repeating samples – mine are weird, fuzzy, diverse, non-specific and profoundly unreliable – I also don’t feel like the game is particularly eloquent on the nature of memory. Maybe this is about the kind of robo-memory that learns lines or music? If so, it doesn’t fit either: the non-linearity of the game defeats this.
Formally, it’s more like an architectural Burroughs cut-up poem than it is a treatise on the passage of life.
“I can’t speak of what an abstract game can do in terms of talking about subjects like death and love, but I think games can absolutely be personal, can be about the person who made it,” he adds. “This game… this is me.” (Terry Cavanagh)
Finally, the process of playing Super Hexagon correctly is (as Kieron Gillen pointed out) about flow. Flow is about exterminating contemplation: that’s why athletes are so boring in interviews. It couldn’t be further from how I think life should be lived: finding concurrent meaning in what you are doing is vital, to me at least. Taking time to step back and feel all the connections: that’s what I live for.
So, what do I think Super Hexagon is about? I think it’s a system that Terry made because he felt like it.
So, by implication, I think it’s about the relationship between the personal and the abstract. I think it’s about how those two unlikely bedfellows can only unify through submission, subjugation and the tiny chisel action of each repetitive failure. The system can only be defeated by moulding yourself to it. It’s also about apophenia.
Humans delight in picking patterns from random sequences and then attributing meaning to them. Evolutionary psychologists believe that being pattern fanatics is great for our survival: maybe once a couple of proto-humans have drunk from the hypothetical stagnant pool and died soon after, we should avoid it? It’s better for us to jump to conclusions when big obvious threats are involved.
Apophenia is the inflamed appendix of survival; strong emotion is our early warning system. They’re quite a double-act.
The joke, though, is that there are literal patterns to be spotted throughout the game. In fact, the game relies on the understanding and assimilation of very real patterns. To the uninitiated, it appears like a swirl of randomness. I think it’s mocking us: it’s, as the internet is fond of endlessly trumpeting, a trap.
The flashbacks, tunnels of light, changes of perspective, heartbeats and finality of the ending do suggest death, as Frank points out. However, I think this is effective because it’s a tonal shift from the preceding sections, the fearsomely dry greyness of Hyper Hexagonest.
Super Hexagon’s ambiguity allows it to facilitate a wealth of personal aesthetic responses, and maybe, like the literal patterns, the evidence is there for many of them. Both my reading and Jenn Frank’s can happily sit alongside each other. I think that’s how good art works.
I would suggest, though, that Super Hexagon thinks we’re both wasting our time, because what we should be doing is practising. “Tap to continue” it says at the end, right after giving us back the cursor. Even death is no excuse.
Simply thinking about this game can plunge you into another pseudo-random spiral: some players describe how, after looking at it for a long time, you start to see the geometry as a three-dimensional tunnel rather than a flat shmup-esque pathway. I feel like this when writing about it: I start making a point and then a new context flashes by and I eventually hit a wall.
Super Hexagon taught me agonising lessons about the nature of practice, not least when I fell 00:07 seconds short of my ultimate goal, then had to grind for a further three days to beat the final level. It made me think about the futility and joy of directionless skill, the meaning of games themselves.
It was hard work: now it’s over, I can go back to living my life.