No pain, no game • Page 2

Are hardcore gamers really just masochists?

But the argument doesn't hold up. Constant loss is not why most people play Canabalt. It can't be completed in the traditional sense, but it still offers rewards in the form of a high scores list.

In a way the achievement comes from pushing your limits, just as it does when playing Super Meat Boy. Though Canabalt is as simple a video game can get in terms of mechanics, Saltsman argues that the spectrum the titles sit on is complex.

"It's just not a single axis, is the thing... I feel there's this completely invented idea that there is a challenge axis and the challenge axis has masochistic, hardcore games on one end and it has accessible games on the other end. "I actually think there are two axes. There's an axis of accessibility and there's an axis of challenge. And inaccessible games will affect the challenge axis. Like, a game that's hard to physically interact with... Is going to increase the challenge of the game, but I think that's just kind of a crappy challenge.

"Whereas something like Super Meat Boy, it's just move and jump. That's how you interact with the game. So I feel that Meat Boy, despite its high challenge level, is highly accessible, in the same way Canabalt is fairly challenging game."

If you find talk of "axes of interaction" hard to follow, try out this exercise. Go back and read the above paragraphs again and again, until you understand perfectly what Saltsman means.

Nobody said it was eeeeeeasay, etc.

Done? Did you give up after a few tries, or press on and draw yourself a diagram? This should give you some indication of the kind of person you are.

If you pressed on, the question remains as to whether you're a masochist or just a determined learner. The answer depends on how arduous you found the process.

Difficulty in games usually comes in two forms and elicits two responses. Firstly there's: "I don't know what to do!"

Secondly: "I know exactly what to do, but I can't physically do it!"

Platformers like Super Meat Boy and Canabalt generate the latter response. You know how to avoid the spinning blades or sudden drops; it's just a matter of practicing your timing to perfection.

But the former kind of difficulty breeds an altogether more trying type of masochism. It's not another platformer which comes to mind here, but a game called Dwarf Fortress.

For those who aren't familiar, Dwarf Fortress is a management game which puts the player in charge of a band of seven dwarves, out to establish a new colony. The simulation is immeasurably detailed. Goblins besiege your settlement, your dwarves go mad from lack of alcohol and wildlife is a constant threat.

The whole thing is presented in ASCII. The indecipherable menu system alone probably causes many players to give up minutes into their first game.

No. We don't know what it means either.

"I don't consider Dwarf Fortress to be strictly "masochistic", in the way I'd describe a platformer," says its creator, Tarn Adams.

"But they are similar in that they include elements of user torture. In the case of DF, it's not a good thing, but rather an interface flaw. In the case of, say, a hard platformer, it's a fine thing for people who like it.

"I think it is the user interface, more than the content, that would get somebody to call Dwarf Fortress a masochistic game... Because it troubles you at every turn, even as you try to do easy things."

Adams doesn't believe everyone should copy his model. "I don't think that's a good goal for [designers]. I like games with depth, but depth doesn't imply inaccessibility. In the end, though, developers have to prioritise their time, and we've all got different things we hope to get out of the process."

Like Canabalt, Dwarf Fortress is designed so that there is no endgame. It just continues until the player gets fed up and quits playing, or their fortress is ruined. So does this lack of completion make it masochistic?

"Nah," says Adams. "There are plenty of simulation-style games, such as Life, that don't have an ending, but which you wouldn't label masochistic by themselves. You can set impossible goals for yourself in many games, but then it's less the game being masochistic by design and more the player being a masochist.

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Brendan Caldwell

Brendan Caldwell



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