The biggest difference between Super Hexagon and other similar games, fast paced reaction endurance challenges like Flappy Bird and Canabalt and Race the Sun, is that the presentation is inverted. You aren’t running away from or towards anything, but rolling along the inner rim of an endlessly collapsing geometric shape. Everything is caught up in a relentless inwards tide except for you, and all you can do as a player is avoid being swept up for as long as possible. You aren’t going anywhere, just surviving in place, dancing as the winds of chance dictate.
It’s not a rhythm game in the traditional sense. The obstacles don’t time themselves to the beat, and if you try to play to the music directly you’ll soon lose. And yet, the obstacles have their own rhythm and the music has its own rhythm, both stable, and each becomes a metric to measure the other. The music doesn’t tell you when to move, but by measuring it against the movement of the walls you gain a finer sense of the motion of time. There is a rhythm, it’s just your job to find it, rather than mimicking what you are given. Each time you start any level, and each time you die and restart it, the music will start in one of three selected starting points. This serves the obvious purpose of keeping the first few seconds of the track from becoming obnoxious and repetitious as you start a level over and over again, but because it’s only three pre-set points in a several minute long track, it means that there are parts of the music track you tend to hear a lot more often than the rest, three thirty-second chunks right after those selections that become intimately familiar while the rest goes largely unheard. The feeling when you first tread beyond that familiar ground of snippets you’ve heard hundreds of times and start to hear the less familiar parts of the track, that little fragment of exploratory achievement, is one of the most exciting things I have ever felt when playing a video game.
If you spend enough time in the game, things start to happen to you. Like learning to draw or getting a new pair of glasses, you start to be able to see things you couldn’t see before. When you first start playing Super Hexagon, you react to each obstacle in turn, and frantically try to react as it reaches you. When you’ve spent a while playing, you start memorizing the patterns, and see each set of obstacles as they come, navigating your way through half by memory and half by reaction. Sometimes, though, once you’ve spent many hours with the game, you can see everything, you can see all the walls collapsing in around you and understand exactly where you need to be right now to survive. I have close to 60 hours played now and I can see the game this way for maybe 5 seconds at a time in every 15 minutes of play.
It’s strange to feel your brain acted upon, developed, topiaried, in this manner.
Super Hexagon provides the slightly odd sensation of completely occupying part of the brain while leaving the rest free to do whatever it wants. I first played the game in between episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, reaction and spatial understanding completely subsumed by the hexagon while I thought about the journey I’d been on, wondered if the tragedies were avoidable, wondered if I’d done the right thing. Afterwards, I played it while I was making big choices about where my life was going, wondering if I was doing the right thing then and there, wondering if there was something I was missing. Still, sometimes, today, I play it when I’m trying to think of a new idea for something to write about, and wonder what to create next. It so fully occupies part of the brain that the other parts are cut free and left to drift in a way that can either be liberating or distressing, depending on the state of the mind it is happening to. Some people have found that they can play the game better if they’re talking while they play, which is the same process in reverse.
I’ve never seen another game with this property.
It’s not a frustrating game. Or, at least, if you’re the kind of person who finds it frustrating you probably won’t play it for very long. I don’t find it frustrating usually. It doesn’t feel antagonistic. Existing in the Hexagon is by necessity a constant challenge of movement: It’s not an attack, it’s merely a property of the space. In many games, you find yourself suffering through frustrating challenges to get to some nebulously rewarding end-state: But Super Hexagon’s simplicity is a promise that there is no reward, there is only the challenge itself, the hexagon itself, and whether you find that rewarding or not is entirely up to you.
Each level has a personality, and the relationship between them has a clear philosophy. The first level, Hexagon, is a goddamned liar. It’s my least favorite level, shoring up its weakness in terms of speed and challenging patterns by changing its shape into pentagons and squares to mess with the player. In every other level in the game, once you are in a safe spot you are definitely safe until the next wall passes you: Hexagon breaks this contract by changing shape. I imagine it snickering and gloating after beating me this way, the smug cheater, and I dislike it.
Hexagoner, the next level of difficulty, has none of that: The slight implicit threat in the name, and the harshest visuals and music of any of the levels, shows a kind of brutal honesty. Hexagoner doesn’t need tricks, and doesn’t even move much faster than Hexagon, but offers much more challenging and sophisticated patterns to defeat the player. Hexagoner feels like a worthy opponent, if not an exceptionally strong one.
Hexagonest is the strongest of all worlds. It doesn’t engage in the outright trickery of Hexagon, but uses the most confusing colors and movement, spinning rapidly in one direction then the other, snow-blinding inexperienced players. At the same time, its patterns are nearly as complex and challenging as those of Hexagoner, and they move far more quickly. To compensate for this, the player is allowed here to move more quickly as well – which makes things harder, rather than easier, since it makes it very easy to overadjust and blunder out of a safe zone and back into danger.
There’s a through-line here, a message: Simpler is stronger, more focused, more minimal. As the challenge ramps up, so too does the purity of the challenge, discarding trickery and deceit in favor of simple, pure, overwhelming speed and complexity. Playing through each level, descending into the hexagon and finding the next level simpler and harder and more sublime, feels like a spiritual journey. It reminds me of descending through hole after hole in Silent Hill 2, crawling deeper into James’ nightmare world; it reminds me of going deeper in Inception; it reminds me of falling asleep.
In addition to the first three difficulty levels, there are the more challenging “hyper” versions of each level, Hyper Hexagon, Hyper Hexagoner, and Hyper Hexagonest, and once you beat each of these you progress to their final and most challenging versions. The first two of these don’t really merit much attention, being merely faster versions of the originals with few minor changes to the patterns, but Hyper Hexagonest is strange. Though it still spins and pulses, its colorful palette has shifted to a radiant white and grey, difficult to look at for its brightness. It no longer tries to deceive the eye with rapid spins and counter-spins, but more like Hexagoner relies purely on its own challenge. Even as the game moves faster than it ever has before, it seems at the same time to be approaching a kind of serenity, a kind of meditation. And when you defeat Hyper Hexagonest, everything goes still…
The world stops spinning, the music changes into something that sounds like fragments of the Hexagonest music filtered through ocean waves, and all that’s left is a black void and white hexagon and walls, still closing in relentlessly. it still pulses, but weakly, and still spins, occasionally, but at its most challenging, unforgiving, and rapid, the hexagon is also at its most serene, its most meditative.
It’s hard not to think of death, when everything is collapsing in on itself forever, when things grow darker and more still as the progress, when eventual failure is inevitable. The first time you defeat Hyper Hexagonest, when you read the black void and inevitably die, you see the ending sequence: The hexagon spins backwards, spitting out the walls it has consumed, music playing in reverse, back through each level you’ve mastered, a life recollected.
It seems trite, to see everything as a metaphor for death. The only reason we see so so readily is because everything is, in fact, a metaphor for death. Every question of whether something exists or not, comes into existence or leaves existence, every concept of the light or the dark or of remembering or forgetting, all ties back to the fundamental idea of no longer existing and the huge dark space it always occupies at the back of our minds.
These are the thoughts that go through my head when I stare into the hexagon.