Michael Ryan Skolnik’s workblog
Studies in Games and Performance

Hex and Gone – Closing Thoughts on Super Hexagon

Last post, I wrote about the narrative of Super Hexagon, not that it has one, but the intensely subjective one that it enables. Between now and then, this happened:

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That’s the crescendo, the climax, it’s all denouement or trying to grind the global leaderboards from here. My experience of Super Hexagon, narratively rendered, has changed with me finishing the game per stated goals, unlocking all the achievements, and seeing the ending. The main narrative arc ends, and I’m surely not going to play nearly as much Super Hexagon in spite of the strange fact that it is, in its strange, high-pressure, rapid-fire way, a very relaxing, entrancing, experience to play it moment-to-moment once you hit a certain level with it.

Around the end of January, I grinded a lot of hours on the game to get to the point of being able to beat it. In the three weeks I’ve owned it, I clocked about 26, so averaging over an hour a day of Super Hexagon alone. And working my way through each level, a pattern emerged. Super Hexagon’s levels, to the best of my understanding, are pseudo-random. There are a number of different patterns that are arranged randomly. The first stage of any given level focuses on determining how to navigate a particular pattern, or where the screen spins really quickly to disorient you into making a mistake. Then, it’s a matter of drilling that solution into muscle memory and into time with the rhythm.

It’s a typical narrative arc of obstacle, training, overcoming, repeat six times. How I changed going through it is interesting to me, on reflection.

I wouldn’t say I’ve changed as a person or that Super Hexagon will change my day-to-day behavior, but there were some things that I noticed in a physical, embodied way. While I haven’t played it much in recent weeks, due to grinding Super Hexagon, I play a lot of Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition 2012. While a lot more complicated than Super Hexagon, one fundamental aspect of it is reacting with proper timing. When an opponent jumps at you, you want to delay your anti-air move to minimize the chance of their damaging attack trading with yours (unless you play a character that can combo that sort of trade into something else, which I don’t). My reactions had seemingly sped up, to the point that I was pressing the buttons for my anti-airs too early, causing them to whiff or lead to unfavorable trades. So, twitch reflexes seem to be better, timing seems to need readjusting.

In a psychological sense, I’m also struck by how Super Hexagon manages giving feedback to the player. You crash into so many walls, but it consistently felt like I was getting better at reading the patterns, that that next breakthrough was right around the corner, where I’d hit another milestone or beat my best time by 8 seconds to something of the sort. Even when performing awfully, there was that sense of constant improvement. I wish my PhD was more like that, it would have been way easier to write. It wasn’t about the points or the achievement nearly so much as the sense of achievement; the tasks Super Hexagon demands of its players are not easy, something candidly reflected in the difficulty levels of the 6 stages: Hard, Harder, Hardest, Hardester, Hardestest, Hardestestest. Surmounting the task, assimilating the game’s patterns and logic is its own reward. The euphoria and relief of clearing each stage, the comedown during the closing post-Hyper Hexagonest cinematic, and the rush of the moment-to-moment gameplay itself is something I hadn’t felt playing a video game in a very long time.

While Super Hexagon has gamified elements, high scores, a global leaderboard, achievements, it’s a game experience first. It’s about the present experience of gameplay, not the abstract thought of some future reward. It’s unabashedly that, it is refreshing, and it was the game that I needed at that particular point.

I’m coming to the end of my PhD, and I’ll be putting the Super Hexagon persistence to good use in hammering out the last bits of writing and editing.

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