This post is about computer games. If you are not interested in computer games (yes Maria, I’m looking at you), consider continue reading. I’ll try to explain one of the reasons (I think) computer games are cool.

In particular, I want to talk about two indy games I’ve been playing recently: Super Hexagon and the Crypt of the NecroDancer. Both are great games and I could not recommend them enough. They are fairly cheap (currently, Super Hexagon is $2.99, and Crypt of the Necrodancer is $14.99), and you can often find them at a lower price in a sale.

The reason I want to talk about these games is because I am really bad at them. I’m not exaggerating. I got Super Hexagon with a humble bundle at some point. When I tried it, I could not go beyond the first 2-3 seconds. I was so frustrated that I thought the game was broken and after a few attempts I abandoned it. The game is very simple: a hexagon is placed in the center of the screen, and outside it there is a small triangle that you control. You can either move left (counterclockwise) or right (clockwise). There are walls moving towards the hexagon, which you need to evade or lose the game. The first level is available as a demo you can play in your browser, so go on and give it a shot.

My experience with NecroDancer was similar. Although I did not initially gave up, I was having great difficulty beating even the first level. While I’m sure that not everybody is as bad as me, I think it’s fair to say that these games are hard. They are hard by design. Super Hexagon’s levels, for example, are named hard, harder, and hardest.

Let me try to explain how Crypt of the NecroDancer works. In short, it is a turn-based, roguelike, dungeon crawler, rhythm game. For those unfamiliar with these genres, and without getting too much into details, in a dungeon crawler you control a character in a dungeon. Dungeons have unfriendly monsters and desirable treasure. You progress by killing monsters in combat and gathering treasure. Combat is turn-based, i.e., you move in turns, first the character, then the monsters, then the character again, etc. What is a roguelike, as with all genre definitions, can be a matter of debate. In my view, two defining characteristics of roguelikes are that the game environment (e.g., levels, enemies, etc.) are procedurally generated so they are different every time you play the game, and that they include permadeath, i.e., if your character dies in the game you need to start over with a new character (no loading previously saved games).

To illustrate some basic mechanics, I wrote a simple mini-game. It is written in dart, and you can find the source at github.

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Your character (@) and a zombie (z) are placed in a 3x3 grid. You can move your character every turn with the arrow keys. (Sorry, no support for touch screens yet.) The zombie moves every other turn. Both your character and the zombie can attack each other if they are in adjacent squares (diagonal squares are not considered adjacent).

Did you try it out and died in your first attempt? You don’t want to end up in a square which can be attacked the next turn, so positioning is very important. Now, actual roguelike dungeon-crawler games are more complex. You have a larger grid, different weapons with different properties, numerous monsters with different behaviors and different abilities.

In most roguelikes you can take infinite time for your turn to think and plan your next move. NecroDancer differentiates itself because it requires (to be more precise, strongly encourages) you to move at a specific time. You need to move your character to the beat of the music.

For me, even just moving synchronously to the beat was difficult. I ended up needing to bob my head and body to the music just so I can move the character. This was very silly, yet an enormous amount of fun. Moving to the beat is just part of the challenge, however. You need to decide where to move, which is not easy. You need to consider the environment together with nearby monsters, each of which has different abilities and moving patterns. Skeletons move every other turn, Golems move every four turns, while Red Dragons move similarly to skeletons, but also breath fireballs if the player is located horizontally to the Dragon.

Playing the game feels like doing a dance, whose steps you need to calculate between the beats of the music. To succeed you need to remain focused, yet not depend on fully thinking your actions because you do not have enough time. You need to train yourself to react almost unconsciously to the changing environment of the game. Below, is an example from my plays, although you can find much more impressive plays on youtube.

Super hexagon is in many ways similar to NecroDancer, but it’s simpler and operates on a smaller time scale. To beat a level in Super Hexagon you need to survive for 60 seconds without the approaching walls touching the triangle you control. This seems impossible at first, especially for the higher levels, but with some practice you might surprise yourself.

To avoid the walls, you need to identify the wall patterns using your peripheral vision and train yourself to quickly react to them. Below is a video of my best run so far (beating the second level). Again, check youtube for more skilled players, including Terry Cavanagh, the creator of the game.

Beating levels in both of these games gave me a feel of achievement I haven’t felt in a very long time in games. I had to rewire my brain to do something that was initially impossible. Obviously, there is great challenge in designing game that makes this training fun (or even addictive), so that the player continues to play. It’s not clear what the recipe is, but if Super Hexagon and Crypt of the NecroDancer are any indication, main ingredients include the game being fair (if you lose, it’s always your fault), fantastic music, and the ability to quickly start a new game after you lose :).

As a final remark, it’s great that games are hard again!