In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent, and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
Game designer Terry Cavanagh is a man of rare but beatific little smiles, a friendly, even gentle mien. His popular games are anything but. He's reputed for cruel and sparring challenges in minimalism; I once heard him give a talk in which he said nobody would call his games "beautiful." It's true he makes up for a certain discomfort with visual art through a precise attention to design that gives no quarter. His best games are akin to sharp conversation with a deft mind, no extra language.
In 2010 Cavanagh's VVVVVV, graphically-edged and garish as an ancient computer, gained him widespread acclaim on the indie scene. Players control a tiny man named Captain Viridian in a maze of anti-gravity and perilous spikes that echo the shape of the game's own inscrutable title (it's intended to be pronounced "the letter V six times," but Cavanagh is no imperious stickler).
Screenshot of Cavanagh’s VVVVVV.
Impeccable precision's the watchword, and Viridian's crude pixel happy-face provides a blank look of humor in the face of just how hard the game is—a litany of instantaneous deaths, immediate restarts, and the slow, brutal grind of learning one's way through patience and self-restraint. VVVVVV gets called "masochistic" by nearly every reviewer who loves it.
But to call Cavanagh a "sadist" would be misplaced. It's not that his designs delight in frustrating players, although they are both delightful and frustrating. His lens on games has more in common with the concept of practicing music, which offers a system of skill, repetition and rehearsal. One persists because the interface is so elegant, and because ultimate mastery is so compelling and offers the player the experience of gifted performance.
Similarly, it's pure simplicity and not cruelty that fuels Cavanagh's demanding Super Hexagon, a finalist for this year's Independent Game Festival in the Excellence in Design category. It looks abstract from a distance—sharp bands of deep color and shape that transmute to the throbbing heartbeat of Chipzel's mean but vitally-catchy chiptune synth.
The Trailer for Super Hexagon.
Playing Super Hexagon is simple in concept: rotate a tiny arrow through a maze of shapes without touching the sides; react quickly to changes in those boundaries. The score is determined by how many seconds you can last. It's brutal. "Easy" is quite literally not in the vocabulary—the game has three modes: Hexagon, Hexagoner and Hexagonest, and they're labeled "hard, harder and hardest." I've heard Cavanagh joke that the first two modes are just practice.
The game originated as a prototype, Hexagon, which Cavanagh made in 48 hours for the 2012 Pirate Kart. Pirate Kart invites indies to contribute "awesome/terrible" and otherwise rule-breaking games to a collection designed to challenge what some indies see as the boundaries of convention that overhangs the festival circuit. The original is still available on Cavanagh's website.
The concept got under his skin somehow, and Cavanagh couldn't let it go, attracted to further polish and refine it (he called the compulsion "primal"). Since then, Super Hexagon has stormed the App Store (where it was a runner-up for Apple's 2012 Game of the Year), seen release on Steam and Android (where it's reportedly outselling the iOS version) and become a cultural institution for fans. In addition to its IGF nomination, it gained a not-insignificant honorable mention for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, the festival's top honor.
No matter what Cavanagh may say about his own work, Super Hexagon is definitely beautiful, a choreography of geometric grace. Late in 2012 during Nottingham's public GameCity festival, luminous Super Hexagon dominated an enormous screen in the city center outdoors, and an audience gathered to watch Cavanagh himself strive for the highest score against the only person near to being as good at the game as its creator: Jason Killingsworth, famed for his leaderboard dominance at particularly tough indie games. Before he was a games journalist, Killingsworth focused on music, and is now quite at home in the light and noise of this kind of precision practice.
A player's progress through a session is narrated by a detached but distinctly-soothing woman's voice—that's veteran games journalist Jenn Frank (full disclosure: she's a friend and she is brilliant). Frank herself is in some ways a kindred spirit to Cavanagh; she writes like assault weaponry, symphonic and gruelingly emotive. When it comes to Super Hexagon, Cavanagh has said he was inspired by Frank's hypothesis that all games are fundamentally about death.
Stripped down to its simplest components, life itself offers you two choices: survive or don't. Super Hexagon is vivid with that fundamentalism. It's motivated not by cruelty but in the beauty of a system that inherently doesn't care whether or not you triumph within it.