On Super Hexagon, and How Games Trick You With Choice

I’ve been reading a lot about Super Hexagon, that simplistic and crazy game created by VVVVVV developer Terry Cavanagh, of late. There has been a lot of deep thinking about the game, comparing it to life with its ever-present obstacles, and death, with its inevitable, abrupt, and unexpected end. Jenn Frank’s piece from Unwinnable is particularly great.

Though I can’t say how deeply a game of flashing lights and lines speaks to me about my greater existential experience, I do think there are some interesting things to think about when it comes to games and choice in the framework of Super Hexagon. While many other games have tried to push forward to present players with more choices, more involvement, and more opportunities to integrate what they see of themselves into the game, Super Hexagon does just the opposite.

Super Hexagon is a game that’s solely about choices — not even skill so much as decision-making. And the challenge of the game is to make effective, fast decisions while Super Hexagon works tirelessly to rob you of your ability to do so.

The gameplay of Super Hexagon is about pushing either left or right in order to move a triangle around a fixed central point. Waves of obstacles come crashing toward the center of the screen, and your job is to move the triangle out of the way of these obstacles; if it impacts one, it’s game over. The goal is to survive as long as possible.

It’s not even a game of skill in many respects. Super Hexagon requires you to move out of the way of these obstacles, but so simple is the design that your only skill is getting a handle on how fast the triangle cursor moves when you touch a key. Really, what you’re doing is making decisions: left, or right? Left, or right? Further, Super Hexagon doesn’t even always make one of these decisions “wrong” and the other “correct” — often, you’ll find you can accidentally go right when you meant left, and still wind up safe. It’s more often that the game rewards being definitive in your choice. Hesitation is the real cause of failure in many cases.

So Super Hexagon is a game about decisions, more than choices, and your game resets when a choice doesn’t work out. But while Super Hexagon constantly wants you to make those decisions, and rewards you for making them swiftly and definitively instead of weighing too much information, it’s also constantly lying to you. It’s not a rhythm game, for example, but it looks and sounds like one. If you focus too heavily on the music in the game and try to play according to the rhythm, you’ll soon find that the beat and motion of the game aren’t necessarily the same as the distances and speed you’ll need to survive.

The plane of the game shits and tilts as well, to play with your sense of reality and distance. The flashing colors are meant to confuse you. The constant, randomized spinning forces you to lose track of your own motion by screwing with relative distances and dimensions. The entire game is designed to rob you of your ability to make smart decisions quickly; it is a game that is actively attempting to rob you of your free will.

As humans, we’re built to gather and decode information from the world around us, and use it to decide how to act. Games are coming to take advantage of this idea more and more; we’re even seeing “choice” factor into titles known for being strictly linear experiences, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Developers and players see these choices as an expression of freedom and player control — you making your mark on the game world, or you crafting the experience to your liking.

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