Something that struck me powerfully the first time I played Super Hexagon, and which has always hovered at the back of my mind as I play it, is how easily it could have been a different game.
Most games are significantly more complex, and that complexity comes at a price: Game systems interlock, and one cannot change one of those systems without risking the whole house of cards coming down. Super Hexagon is different though, elementary in a fairly literal sense– it is probably one of the smallest games one can make and still have it be considered a game.
Because Super Hexagon is so small and simple and elegant, one can easily conceive of a nearly infinite number of slight variations, and there’s no convincing reason why most of them wouldn’t be just as good. For instance, the starting difficulty level demonstrates that the basic gameplay works with a pentagon or a square, why not a heptagon or octagon? Or, better yet, a circle? One could easily conceive of a game with the same basic gameplay but with arc sections coalescing instead of hexagon walls. Call it Shell, or perhaps Jawbreaker…
Or, instead, why not a single button version? Why not design it so that all of the segments are navigable by a series of starts and stops, and call it Spiral? Or don’t make it single-direction, make it so the player starts out going one direction, the single-button changes the direction the player is moving, and call it… well, I can’t think of a good name for that one, but that’s not important. The salient point here is that because the system is so elementary, so simple, we can change it to our heart’s content and, most likely, still have a pretty good game.
And, in fact, we have an example of basically this exact thing happening in a different design paradigm: Match 3 games.
The above quote is from an article by Jesper Juul exploring the history of this genre, and is an observation strikingly similar to that which I’ve just made regarding Super Hexagon. He goes on to describe a number of common parameters between such Match-3-type games, and indeed between casual games in general:
- Allow short playing sessions
- Mouse control
- Very simple rules
- Moderate innovation
- Multiple levels of success
- Much positive feedback
- Little negative feedback
Sound familiar? Only two parameters mentioned here are absent in Super Hexagon: Mouse control and positive feedback.
First, an exercise: If you’ll care to take a look at the steam forum for Super Hexagon, how far down do you have to look before you find a topic complaining about the lack of mouse support? At the time of this writing, the most recent post on the subject is the third one down. This actually ties into my earlier point: One could create a version of Super Hexagon designed to work well with analog controls and it would play just fine.
Second, and I believe this is very telling, is the lack of overt positive feedback. This is one facet of Super Hexagon, I think, which would actually be extremely dangerous to change. The heart of Super Hexagon is in the purity of its challenge and the accomplishment that comes with completing that challenge: pinning a bunch of tacky and extraneous awards onto that would achieve nothing but undermining the genuine sense of achievement that the game offers.
I find this an extraordinarily interesting parallel to draw because no one would accuse Super Hexagon of being a casual game. Between its abstract graphics, its uncompromising difficulty, and its fairly stringent physical demands it clearly positions itself as a gamer’s game. So, when these Match 3 games and Super Hexagon are appealing to such different audiences, and trying to challenge the player in such different ways, why does this significant similarity in approach emerge, and how does that relate to the elemental nature of these games?
Because the games are so simple, extraneous elements become obvious very quickly. Cut-scenes and other tacked on story elements are ludicrous, arbitrary gating systems become transparent in their obnoxiousness, mini-games are out of the question: The games are about the games themselves, because there’s no room for anything else in the framework.
(It is amusing and perhaps telling to note at this point that these ‘casual games’ are also, historically, the ones which are considered ‘not real games’ by many gamers.)
When you’re engaging the player with such a simple game, if they have to spend so much time interacting fairly directly with the game’s mechanics, you have to smooth out the surface of their interaction as much as possible so that it rarely grates against them. Casual games have traditionally approached this challenge by applying polish until the game’s surface is perfectly glossy and smooth– however, Super Hexagon has approached it by sanding the game’s surface down until it is, once again, perfectly smooth– if, perhaps, somewhat less glossy.
There are an infinite number of tidy tiny little game gems we could make, little Super Hexagons and Tetris’s, beautiful and compelling with no need to rely on the extraneous elements of context and meaning. Will you make it sparkle?
Or perhaps you would prefer a deeper, duller shine, less eye catching, but, like Super Hexagon, full of enigmatic beauty…