Groundhog Play

…Or the fun to be had in banging your head against a brick wall for hours on end.

Like many of us, I’ve spent a large portion of the year having my arse handed to me by Bloodborne.  I remember one particular night where I made absolutely zero progress.   No new shortcuts, no levelling up, no new items and a big fat zero next to my blood echoes.    For two straight hours I ran up the stairs in Cathedral Ward, pass the Church Servants, under the legs of the giant and through the big wooden door to face Vicar Amelia and every single time she destroyed me.  Sometimes it took her no more than ten seconds.  Other times she prolonged my agony, toying with me for ten or fifteen minutes before sending me back to the lamp empty handed.  As I turned off the PS4 it occurred to me that I had been doing the exact same thing over and over again for the entire evening.   But I didn’t feel frustrated.  I didn’t feel angry.  Weirdly, I kinda enjoyed it.

I wasn’t always like this.  As a kid, the inflatable chair in my bedroom doubled as a handy punch bag for when Dr Doak refused to be in the right place at the right time so I could unlock the invincibility cheat in Goldeneye.  My SNES pad is covered in bite marks; a somewhat over-the-top reaction to Luigi sailing past me at the last corner on Super Mario Kart.   I got so annoyed playing the VHS board game Atmosfear one night that I burst into tears, much to the amusement of my parents.  “It’s only a game!  Stop taking it so seriously!  Now off to bed, you’ve got work in the morning”.

I’m kidding of course; I was no more than 14 years old if that makes it any less embarrassing.  But something did happen to me in my late teens when I realised that your time spent winning only accounts for a tiny fraction of your time playing video games.  If that’s the only bit you’re enjoying then the whole enterprise is a spectacular waste of time.   Now don’t get me wrong, winning is still pretty damn good.  When Vicar Amelia finally fell I played it cool in front of my wife by leaping from the sofa and roaring “GET IN” so loudly I was in danger of waking up the children.  But cumulatively, I think I enjoyed the journey far more than the destination.  The anticipation and the hope that next time, maybe next time, I’d finally do it was what drove me up those stairs so many times.  I doubt my victory cry would have been quite so ferocious had I swanned in and taken her out on the first go.

Getting the balance right between a stiff challenge and an unfair one must be enormously difficult.  I can only imagine the kind of testing that went into ensuring Dark Souls was tough enough that some players would never see past the first boss but fair enough that some players would be able to finish the game with their character wearing nothing but their underpants.  Whatever dark magic it is that From Software manages to weave into their games that makes staring at a loading screen for thirty seconds feel like a well-deserved respite rather than a momentum killer, this is far from the norm in games that take pleasure in telling you how rubbish you are.

Normally, the most important device that keeps you coming back is the instant restart.  It’s pretty safe to say that if you’re playing a game that has a dedicated button for starting again, its rock bloody hard.  I’m currently spending a lot of time with the excellent PS4 platformer N++, which allows your character to commit harakiri at the press of a button.  And that’s just as well.   Last night I was playing a level where I knew within the first two seconds if I’d pressed X at the right time to make the initial jump.  I could handily explode my little stick ninja moments before he was frazzled by the lasers and get quickly get back into the action;  fortunate for someone as ridiculously impatient as myself.  I must have attempted this level well over thirty times but I’m itching to give it another go this evening.  I daresay this would not been the case if I was forced to watch dying animations over and over again.

Trials is another perfect example.   I find these games ludicrously frustrating and yet utterly brilliant at the same time.  I’ve never actually finished one and I’m way off the standard of those emotionless motocross robots you see on the leaderboards, sailing through the levels without a single fail.  As soon as I get to the extreme levels, the sounds leaving my living room sound like a docker struggling to start a lawn mower.  Engine rev, swear, repeat.  And yet, I keep coming back.  I’m not one of these guys who “likes to be punished” (if you get my meaning), but the fact I enjoy being punched in the face by a video game over and over again does make me wonder if I’ve got some masochistic tendencies bubbling under the surface.

I’ve talked about my love of PS2 rhythm action game Frequency elsewhere on this site, and although I’m fairly good at it, it did take its own twisted pleasure in making me feel inadequate.  One of the most twiddly and combo heavy tracks is “Smartbomb”.  Back in the days before online leaderboards (sounds like a million years ago now) I was part of a high score thread on a forum that had become fiercely competitive, particularly because I lived with two of the other competitors at the time.  Getting over 3000 points on Smartbomb and joining the “3000 club'” was a sign that you had made it.  A true badge of honour.   Could I do it?  Could I fuck.  I dread to think how many hours I ploughed into that one song alone.  Sometimes I’d play the introduction for an hour straight. I think I may have done myself some long term damage as that song has become my hold music; if I’m thinking of nothing else it starts to creep into my head.  Thankfully, for my own sanity, I did get there in the end. But the victory felt somewhat anticlimactic.  It was the struggle that I had enjoyed.

I guess I should be grateful I had a feeling of success at all.  Playing Geometry Wars 2  amounts to little more than a series of crushing defeats with the tiniest glimmer of victory.  The lack of a defined goal, other than making the numbers go higher, means that you never really win.  I don’t think I’ve ever finished a go and thought to myself ‘yes, that was the absolute best you could do’.  I’ve always been at fault.  I always could have done better.  Then, to add insult to injury, they put the score of the person that’s higher than you on your friends list in the corner.  Constantly judging, constantly mocking.  Of course, this teasing does nothing but drive you on; right until you exceed their score. YES!  At which point they’re instantly replaced by another smug chump.  The game switches alliances to anyone but you.  It despises you.  But you love it all the same.

This mechanic of a thousand losses to every win is portrayed fantastically in Super Meat Boy.   I am utterly besotted by this game and can’t wait to get reacquainted with the little cube of flesh when he makes his debut on Sony platforms later this year.  At the end of every level, you get to watch every failed attempt all over again.  A hundred Meat Boys set off but only one of them will make it.  You get to relive every stupid mistake, every agonisingly close attempt until just one little guy is left giving you the thumbs up.  Nice work player!  It took you three hours and you killed me repeatedly but you got there in the end!  Shall we do it again?

One of my favourite bands, Hot Chip, once sang “over and over and over and over and over. Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal.  The joy of repetition really is in you”.  They’ve got a point. Games like this will always drag me back.  I am a sucker for the restarting cycle of self-hate; cursing my ineptitude before pressing start for another go.  And like Bill Murray trying to woo Andie MacDowell, I’ll keep going until I get it right.