Learning Things The Hard Way

There’s a room in VVVVVV, an absolute shit of a room, that tasks your character with getting a shiny collectible trinket on the other side of a small box. It looks a little like this:

After the multiple hours it took to complete this task I grew to be thankful for its existence.

“Really Phil, it took you multiple hours to get to the other side of a small box?”

Yes, it did. Like I said the room is a complete fucking bastard of a twat. As you can see, we still have something of a fractious relationship. You see, in VVVVVV, there is no jump button. Instead you reverse gravity, flying up into the air until you reach the roof, at which point you can revert gravity back and start plummeting to meet the ground. As you can see from the screenshot, this room has no roof. Instead it has this:

Like I said, Bastard. Like I also said, I’m grateful for its existence. Why? Because it reminded me that I don’t just take on ridiculously difficult challenges because there’s an achievement involved. I’m also prepared to do them when there’s absolutely no discernible reward whatsoever.


That might not sound like much but it’s an important distinction. My previous attempt at a high difficulty/low margin-of-error feat of finger dexterity was completing Trine’s last level on very-hard with no-one dying, a task which nabbed a ‘Better Than Developers!‘ trophy. All well and good, and more than a little satisfying on completion, but that satisfaction is tempered by the question, “did I just go through all that for an achievement?” Despite the number I’ve managed to accumulate I guess I’ve still not decided if I’m OK with the whole achievements thing.


Veni, Vidi, Vici, which seems to have become the shorthand name for this challenge room in VVVVVV, reminded me that actually I just like these trial and error based high-difficulty challenges. It’s the reason I took to the Skate series of games and the reason I’m currently enjoying the WiiWare game Bit.Trip Runner. Perhaps it took me so long to come to this realisation because you just don’t see this style very often in games today. As the industry becomes more profitable challenge is left behind in favour of accessibility, because God help us if a publisher’s latest AAA title is beyond some perceived key demographic.


That last sentence probably sounded more vitriolic than intended. More accessible games are a brilliant thing because, for the most part, developers are terrible at difficulty. I’ve been playing Darksiders recently and came close to giving up on it for good after encountering the first proper boss fight. In the tradition of boss fights in games (which incidentally are all terrible and need to just fuck off for good) the key to success was in realising which of my character’s array of offensive and defensive manoeuvres could be combined against the boss’ varying attack patterns. In a way boss design harks back to the worst adventure puzzles and defeating one is reminiscent of figuring out that honey on the cat hair makes a moustache, except if you don’t realise it in 20 seconds a giant demon bat will scorch your bollocks off with fireballs.


Of course that’s just sudden and inexplicable difficulty spikes. When hidden systems in the game can mean the difference between success and failure the frustration levels go through the roof. Take Split/Second, a game which increases the difficulty of rival racers the better you do. The upshot is there’s no way at actually being good at the game, because early success just sets you up for failure towards the end. The general rule of thumb with Split/Second is that, if you’re doing well, the game will be decided at the last corner at which point an opponent will always – always – overtake you. Unless you’re able to destroy the car at that point you will lose and a poor defenseless controller may lose its life against a wall.


What Veni, Vidi, Vici, and VVVVVV as a whole – what all games that can successfully capture that addictive one-more-go feel of defeating a seemingly insurmountable obstacle – understand is that to be enjoyable the difficulty should be transparent. It gives you six screens that you have to learn forwards and back – or more accurately upwards and down – and then link together in one glorious and flawless run. That is the sole source of difficulty. There is nothing added that would suggest to the player that failure is anything other than their own fault. It even removes the annoyances of the era of gaming that it evokes; there aren’t limited lives and the checkpointing is generous. With no penalty for death all that remains is the challenge at hand.


And what a challenge. It’s both a beauty and a bastard. You have to learn each room sequentially, learning just how much to manoeuvre left and right, where the key apex points are to swing to safety and, at times, take seemingly counter intuitive actions to line up for the next screen. After a while your brain understands the route and all that’s left is for muscle memory to kick in and let the fingers learn it. At this point it’s best to let your mind wander while the rest of you gets on with it. While navigating an especially tricky section I drafted this sentence, including this clause here where I mention how I’m mentioning this clause. On reflection it wasn’t a great sentence, but it got me through the top flip down to 5th screen so I’m leaving it in out of respect to my past self.

Each section becomes exponentially harder, as it requires navigation of every preceding screen before you can even practice what’s ahead, but the slightest hint of progression is a joyous occasion that drives you to get even further. In fact, the most soul-destroying moments are when you suddenly lose control of all co-ordination and can’t get past the second screen… dark times. After a couple of hours I was back at the bottom, at which point I killed myself on the right-hand side spikes in a foolish effort to not land on the wrong side. It should have been demoralising, but I was just so happy to be within reach.

Success! Shortly followed by death.

Just be aware that if you try it before you go to sleep you will have that music stuck in your head all night.


2 Responses to “Learning Things The Hard Way”

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