Masochists Stole My Picturebook

[Wrote a piece for Eurogamer recently. Subject was masochism. The tame kind. Not the sexy kind. Some elements left unexamined. Attempted to let it go. Took a shower. Hated self. Took another shower. Unclean feeling remains. Article follows…]


“It’s just not a single axis is the thing,” said Adam Saltsman. “There’s definitely this – I feel – completely invented idea that there is a ‘challenge axis’. And the ‘challenge axis’ has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end.

“I actually think that there’s two axes.”

Who is Adam Saltsman, you ask? And what the fiery Dickens is he talking about? He’s only the creator of Canabalt. “So what?” So what!? Hey. Fuck you, pal. You ever played Robot Unicorn Attack? Yeah. Well, just thank your lucky Saltsmans that even exists, okay?

He spoke of difficulty. To define a game as “masochistic” you gotta know what makes a game difficult.

Sometimes you find a game difficult because of the content of the game. Sometimes there are just a load of spikey spikes. Think VVVVVV. Often there is one, sickeningly precise method of avoiding the obstacle in question. But sometimes in games, the spikey spikes are intentionally impassable. Either way you’re like a baby with a pack of brand new, razor sharp colouring pencils. Sure, they’re stationary. And, yeah, they’re colourful all right. But if you leap at them too enthusiastically they’ll mess your life up. Ouch. Hurt baby imagery. Get used to it.

That’s only sometimes. Othertimes you find a game difficult because you are still getting to grips with the control scheme or the user interface. Think Dwarf Fortress. In which case the art materials aren’t so immediately dangerous. They’re just a hundred times harder to use. The pencils are now an advanced graphics tablet with a MacBook and all the appropriate software. But you’re still a baby. And everyone knows babies can’t use advanced graphics tablets.

Both VVVVVV and Dwarf Fortress are difficult. For entirely different reasons. In the article mentioned above I explored the reasons someone might call these games not just difficult, but masochistic. Any sensible person would have interviewed Terry Cavanagh, the creator of VVVVVV. I didn’t. He was pretty busy. I quoted Adam Saltsman. Creator of a one-button game that even you in your pencil-punctured, Mac-illiterate, metaphorical baby form could play.

Justification stations!

The reason I included parts of a conversation with Adam Saltsman was because Saltsman had the above to say about axes of difficulty. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. And his point cleaves  any clean definition of masochistic in two.

Observe Graph Uno.

Oh no. Graphs.

The horizontal axis stands for the Ease of Access. Stay with me here. Graphs are dull, I know. But they aren’t half as dull as trying to think all of this up in your brainmind. So stay with me.

Like I says, the horizontal line stands for Ease of Access – how easy it is for the average player to get used to the controls, the menus, all the input methods. In general, the user interface. An old Infocom adventure game might be further left on this scale than, say, a point-and-click adventure game. Since in Infocom games there are more commands to discover and memorise. In point-and-clicks, you just go buck-mad with mouse-power, clicking all around you until it’s the only thing you ever hear. In your dreams you see your mother tutting. But all you hear is that neutral plastic, that Logitech tick. Anyway, point-and-click is more to the right than command-driven. Argue ergonomics if you like, weirdoes. One is undeniably easier to access than the other.

The vertical axis stands for Ease of Play – in other words, how easy or hard the gameplay features are to the average player. Like the Ease of Access line, this is subject to the natural ability and/or the previously acquired knowledge or skill of the player. I say “and/or” because this isn’t the place for a nature/nurture argument. It isn’t. It isn’t. Isaiditfuckingisntsopleasegoaway.

An example: the section of VVVVVV that begins at “Doing Things The Hard Way” reportedly used to have less spikey spikes when it was in Beta. It now has a few more spikey spikes. Statistically, you are now more likely to die when trying to complete this section than you perhaps would have been if you had played in Beta. So the Beta of Six-Vees-No-Spaces would be higher on the Ease of Play axis than the final release.

Similarly the Dark World of Super Meat Boy is lower on the axis than the World That Is Not The Dark World, because it is harder. This all appears to work fine when discussing games within themselves. But the Ease of Play axis starts to rumble disapprovingly when you use it to compare games to other games, startled as it is by the terrible, beautiful beast they call SUBJECTIVITY. Is Super Meat Boy harder than VVVVVV? My twisting, bilious inside-gut says yes. Your flabbadocious beer-belly says no. Whatever whatever.

Man. Fuck graphs.

Observe Graph Uno again. For surely now you comprehend. This is why Dwarf Fortress is masochistic. It is the only one of the games discussed that falls into the lower left corner of the graph. Hard and hard. Or, if you prefer, ‘ard an ‘ard. This is because it is mind-crushingly complex. And because inherent inaccessibility actually has an effect on the ease of the gameplay features. If you can’t figure out how to dig a hole, controls-wise, how are you meant to dig a lot of holes, gameplay-wise? Difficulty of access has a gravity. Such a singular concept! And nobody bothered to tell me before. When Adam Saltsman first explained it to me, it was one of those bewildering moments of clarity. Like I’d just noticed the RAF Spitfire that had been following me for the past four days. Periodically hiding behind trees and tittering to itself.

As Dwarf Fortress’ interface becomes easier for the player to use, the gameplay features become easier to implement. Through practice and – let’s face it – a YouTubian education, we can defeat inaccessibility’s gravity. We can achieve escape velocity.

Duh, I suppose. This much is obvious. Practice = less hard. But does Dwarf Fortress become less masochistic? Maybe. But only if we use Graph Uno as a diagram for both difficulty and masochism. And only if you agree with what my previous article says – that masochism is not a static thing but is defined at the moment of an enjoyed failure. I.2.da.E. – a game is only masochistic at the moment a player fails (and likes it).

I’m serious. They offend me.

This maso-moment is at the central point of the graph. Where the big, red wobbly line represents the players experience of Dwarf Fortress. As they learn the UI it becomes easier to play on both axes. And when it smacks the centre – a transcendence. Difficulty and Enjoyment fuse and cocoon. We think, simultaneously, “this is frustrating me!” and “this is entertaining me!” This is the feeling of spiritual ambivalence required for a game to be called masochistic. Because masochism is a completely paradoxical term. The meat of pain and the pastry of pleasure rolled into one healthy and unhealthy snack. An oxymoronic sausage roll of lovehate. So bad. But so good.

All that is one reason why I would describe Dwarfy Hideout as masochistic. Here is another: it cannot be completed in any traditional sense. Adam Saltsman is again to blame for this destructive thought-germ. (“I will say this: you can beat Super Meat Boy. You can’t even beat Canabalt.”) The keeper of dwarves is destined to fail. As is the Canabaltic runner.

I choose you, Graph Dos!

Dwarves like graphs. But only for the axes.

Here the Ease of Access line remains the same. But the vertical axis is now tracking Ease of Completion. Where the bottom of the line is Impossible and the top of the line is Super-duper-fluffy-bunny-easy. Mark you the positions of Canabalt and Robot Unicorn Attack. Compare them with Super Meat Boy and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. And looky here. Dwarf Fortress remains huddled away in his corner.

Actually. You know what? Graph Dos is functionally flawed. The top and bottom do not represent approximate opposites. The opposite of Impossible would be Automatic (something that happens bizarrely often in modern offerings, for cinematic purposes or accessibility’s sake).  Hear ye, hear ye. We, the writers, do solemnly declare Graph Dos negligent. Graph Dos II will take his place in office. The predecessor will hereby be hanged until dead. All observe Graph Dos II and do the law well unto him.

Hail to the King, maybe.

This bad boy now has the vertical axis in the form of a question – ‘Can the game be “completed”?’ Which simplifies the issue somewhat. Pledge allegiance to whatever diagram you want. It doesn’t matter to me. But note well: where is thon Dwarf Fortress? Still burying into the extreme bottom-left. Hunkering down for a harsh winter and scaring away every other title that scurries near. The bottom-left is the masochist’s domain. It is where the Harmers live. Should you go there, be wary.

Weeeeeeeee! Dwarves! They obstruct everything. Defying every convention except the one that holds the ground to be a Good Thing. They are my collective nemesis. And it is mainly because Dwarf Fortress, while being decidedly masochistic, defies one of the central attributes of masochistic games – that they have simple narratives. Super Meat Boy is your basic save-the-princess story. You Probably Won’t Make It doesn’t have a story at all. Even that monarch of masochism I Wanna Be The Guy has a very basic story (there’s this kid, called The Kid. He just wants to be The Guy).

Hard platformers tend to shy away from complicated narrative. Is this because constant death can break the flow of story-telling? If the reverse can be a problem – constant story-telling breaking the flow of gameplay – then it seems possible for difficult patches of play to screw with the progression or timing of a story. Even if it only disrupts the player’s memory or attention to specific details in the plot.

In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time you spend the game alongside Farah (finally, a princess developed past the point of being a weepy chick in a pink dress). Although initially being at odds, the Prince and Farah grow fonder of each other as you progress. Then comes a point in the game where they become separated and you have to find Farah by navigating some darkened doorways, arranged in a circle. You go in one doorway only to come out another, right back where you began. It’s like watching a Benny Hill sketch with only one person. And with the TV on Mute.

To start, you have no idea which doorways to go through and in what order to do so. But it’s clear that there is some combination of entrance and exit that’ll lead you somewhere. Eventually, through a spark of thought or the resigned acknowledgment of Internet’s superior intelligence, you discover that standing in front of certain doorways trigger a subtle watery sound effect. Go through the doorways that “trickle” and you will reach a room of baths, where Farah is waiting for you.

Then Prince and Princess wordlessly have sex.

You always know these two likeable rich-kids are sexually attracted. But the pacing leading up to the, er, climactic event is jarred by the confusion of the preceding puzzle. Unless Ubisoft were trying to make some kind of ‘nice guy’ point about how many hoops you have to jump through to fuck somebody, the unforeseen difficulty of this segment can make the story wobble.

Super-hard games avoid this pitfall by either having no story at all or by giving their player’s character a single, uncomplicated goal. Even Canabalt has a goal (even if it is just a bottomless pit with an overhanging banner that reads “better than last time.”)

Masochistic games are full of contradictions. For all the difficulty ingrained in the environment of masochistic games, the motivations for their characters are among the simplest in gaming.

Chris Breault of Post-Hype has a great essay about narrative and difficulty, focusing on VVVVVV. But he is talking about extended narrative, outside of the story created by the game’s author. He’s talking about narrative that is a part of gameplay itself. Note that this is not the kind of narrative we’re talking about.

Still, you might argue that VVVVVV is a strong balance between story and difficult gameplay. Yet the narrative of All-The-Vs is not complex. Captain Viridian’s shipmates are lost and he must find them.

This is not to say that simple storylines are bad ones. VVVVVV’s story is involved and emotionally engaging to the point where its simplicity is part of the charm. Vermillion’s pining for Violet and the mutual concern for shipmates as demonstrated by the pixelly smiles and frowns of the characters might be simple touches, but they are far more effective at provoking empathy than, say, the Abramsesque tripe that occurs in the complex narrative of Assassin’s Creed. Regardless, VVVVVV’s story remains uncomplicated.

Canabalt – only “masochistic” by the judgement of the imposing, absolutist bastard that is Graph Dos II – has an equally simple narrative: you run away from something. Or perhaps you run to something. Who knows? Nevertheless, you run. You run because shit is going down. And some abstractly dangerous, possibly invasive force, is launching that shit down. Or perhaps you run for other reasons. Perhaps you are simply a devotee of that great thinker Forrest Gump, in which case you run because You. Just. Felt. Like. Running!

So it might be a fair expectation that “masochistic game = simple story.” Ah. Ahh. But in Dwarf Fortress, the narrative is complex. It twists and fizzles as your dwarves go on errant quests to contaminated water sources, or slowly go insane at the prospect of working without the right materials. It’s like an underground Eastenders. Except it is interesting.

However, this is more akin to that type of narrative which is wedded to gameplay. Not the kind over which the author has full(er) control.

For the sake of big, rowdy argument, let’s say this doesn’t matter. The assumption that “masochistic game = simple story” then asplodes in our face because of the Ascii demon that is Dwarf Fortress – that abusive digital husband of a hundred journo love-hate marriages. It will therefore be necessary to amend our statement, if we consider Lovely Fortress/Dwarf Cuntpain to be a masochistic game (and I do).

Therefore, the amended statement should look like this: “masochistic platformer = simple story.”

There is no reason why this ‘rule’ could not be challenged. There is probably a game out there I don’t know about which already disobeys. In any case it is troubled by the initial problems of definition (What is “masochistic” to you? What is a “complex” narrative to you?) However, there does appear to be a trend, at least within the current indie market, for difficult platformers to intentionally limit the complexity of their tale.

That said, let us be fair. For masochists, a complicated story is frankly unnecessary. They don’t need elaborate neo-noir characters of grey, dubious loyalty. They don’t need convoluted moral maze drug-dealing sub-plots. They don’t need to walk in the garden of forking paths or navigate swirling, entwined social relationships. The only thing a masochist needs is a goal.

And lots of spikey spikes in front of it.


[Addendum: Apology in order. Actually did speak to Terry Cavanagh eventually. Words said. Interview follows… ]


In summary: I think VVVVVV is a masochist game. This interests me. What do you think about that kind of genre?

My opinions on that subject are not going to gel very well with what you’re writing about because I love V and I’m proud as hell of making it but I think my focus as a designer has changed a lot since I made it and I’m not interested in the same things anymore. I’m not so interested in challenge anymore, I guess, as a way to make game design interesting. I think it’s been done to death. I dunno. I’m more interested in the other ways that you can make [a game interesting.]

Is that a reaction to how VVVVVV was received or praised?

I feel like if I was to go back and make, say, another challenging platformer I think that I would just be retreading ground that’s very well-worn at this point. And there are people that do it better to be honest. I’m exploring other avenues right now.

Do you feel VVVVVV was a “masochistic game”?

When I was making it, I didn’t think of it that way at all. In fact, it took like two or three months of development before I even realised that it was hard. It’s kind of weird to say it but when I was making V I was more interested in the kind of permutations of the challenges that you could create for the player to explore. I was more interested in the composition of each scene. Getting from one area to the next should be interesting and very often that meant it was hard. But it’s only one way to make a room be interesting – to make it hard, to make the player sit back and look at it, see how they’re going to approach it.

And in other rooms there is something else to be interested in. There’s a big space outside the ship where it’s just exploring.

Yeah, that came very late in development actually but it was always part of the plan. And by the time it was implemented I was kind of worried that it clashed with what I’d done in other places. But I think it works very well as a contrast.

Would you say there’s a comparison to games like SMB, which are designed to be hard? But you say VVVVVV wasn’t designed with that in mind?

No, it sort of… near the end of development I did make some hard challenges just to be hard. But it was more about exploring the possibilities of what I could do with a small set of verbs. It wasn’t about making challenges that were frustrating or were in any way meant to even challenge the player, I guess. That wasn’t what I was thinking about. That’s not how I was thinking about it.

A lot of people would say it’s a hard game but the frequent checkpoints keep it forgiving.

Yeah, it’s very important to approach it that way. If you’re going to ask the player to do a challenge hundreds of times then it’s really awful to ask them repeat anything y’know… My idea behind the layout of V is that there should be checkpoints after every screen challenge, so you should never have to do anything you’ve already beaten. That’s done.

This is why in say Sonic 4 there’s a rising water challenge with no checkpoints followed by a difficult boss whereas in VVVVVV there’s a rising spikes challenge with lots of checkpoints.

I think there’s like thirty checkpoints in that level [laughs].

A subject that comes up when you talk about masochism in games is accessibility. VVVVVV is very accessible – basically three buttons. Do you think that an inaccessible game (Dwarf Fortress for instance) could be described as a masochistic game?

I’d have to think about that. It’s a good point. But you also need to separate accessibility from complexity, I guess. I can’t really say much about Dwarf Fortress just because I’ve never gotten into it. But there are other games which are similar in ways, like Space Chem. Space Chem is incredibly complex but very accessible and I guess that would introduce a third axis into that equation.

Do you reckon Space Chem is a masochistic game in that way?

I think we’d have to define the difference between just being difficult and being masochistic. Masochism would kind of imply that you somehow get off on making the player go through explicitly difficult challenges, right?

Well, that could be a sadist’s game, from the point of view of a developer.

Oh, of course! [laughs nervously]

A lot of people had that experience with VVVVVV, of getting frustrated but going back to it time and time again for some compelling reason.

It definitely introduces a difference to Space Chem, which doesn’t ask you to redo the same challenge until you get it right. It more just keeps telling you to work out the solution.

I have a message to pass on. It’s rude, so I apologise. It’s quite sweary but it is a sentiment that comes up quite often when I discuss VVVVVV with anyone.

Is it something about how awful it is?

No, it’s not that. It’s more about the difficulty of it. It reads: “If you get the chance, see if you can slam a door on Terry fucking Cavanagh’s fingers. Tell him I told you to do it and that I said “Piss fuck fuck fucking Veni Vidi Vici fuck piss.” Do you have a response?

Your friend needs to remember that that part of the game is optional and he’s doing it to himself. Nobody needs that trinket! [Laughs] I’m actually surprised at how much I point this out but the collectibles in that game are actually called “Shiny Trinkets” – I mean, how unsubtle can you get! There’s a menu option that allows you to unlock every single challenge in the game and it’s intentional. The idea is you challenge yourself, if you want to, y’know? Nobody has to do Veni Vidi Vici. It’s a ridiculous challenge, it’s muscle memory. I’m shocked at the amount of people who jump right into it to get Shiny Trinkets.


Filed under Kiss my shiny metal graphs

2 responses to “Masochists Stole My Picturebook

  1. Tom o'bedlam

    Absolutely cracking article. You’re a bit good at this analysis business.

    I’m really pleased Terry hasn’t filed assault charges yet though

  2. I know it’s taking issue with the basic assumptions that undergird your argument (always an easy way to go “nuh-uh!”) but I’m not sure I agree with this: “masochism is not a static thing but is defined at the moment of an enjoyed failure. I.2.da.E. – a game is only masochistic at the moment a player fails (and likes it).”

    What if we understand the initial act of starting up the game as giving consent to play the role of ‘bottom’ in a masochistic player-game relationship? In simply initiating the game we expect pleasure and acknowledge that it might be delivered through punishment. The status of failure and punishment as masochistic is then no longer dependent on whether the moment is enjoyed in isolation, as the whole experience of playing is pleasurable (else we would play a different game). We are then always ‘liking it.’ You might be understating the role of player choice to initiate the experience in the first place in the expectation of pleasure/pain. Then masochism would be a static thing because the only way the experience would not be masochistic would be if the game were not played (in the absense of an expectation of pleasure).

    The exception of course is in the case of games journos, who don’t always have the privilege of choice. But this is remedied by nothing that they are masochists in any case, because they’re games journos.

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