Electron Dance
26Sep/13Off

Blood on the Boards

Last month I tried out a preview version of Boson X (Mu & Heyo, 2013) and gave it around 20 minutes but no more. This wasn’t because it was bad but because it wasn't my thing, a brutal slice of twitchplay that hangs out in the same bar that Super Hexagon (Terry Cavanagh, 2012) frequents. Got inhuman reflexes? Like intolerant gameplay? Love to grind your skills to success? Boson X is just the ticket for you.

geon-success

Four decades into my life I don’t have the stamina to take on these challenges any more. Nor reflexes... but I never know whether that’s down to a poisonous mixture of disinterest and playing when fatigued. In an article about Twine a few weeks ago I mentioned “I am quite rubbish at it”.

Soon after posting that article I discovered David T. Marchand, who comments here on Electron Dance, had made it onto the leaderboards posted on the game's home page.

Then I played Boson X night after night, determined to get on there as well.     

The game's premise is inspired by particle physics. Physicists have a shopping list of hypothetical particles they’d like to prove exist and, obviously, the way to do this is to take some seriously non-hypothetical particles, accelerate them to great speeds and smash them together. If the particle car crash is energetic enough, we might see some of these hypotheticals briefly emerge from the resulting puddle of quarks and gluons. A particle theorised in 1964, the Higgs Boson, was exposed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN only last year. The six stages of Boson X take the names of particles that currently remain hypothetical: the geon, the acceleron, the radion (also known as the graviscalar, for extra sciencey points), the graviton and the X and Y bosons.

acceleron

If you still haven’t watched the analysis video I put up a couple of days ago, here’s how Boson X works. The player’s avatar runs through a tunnel (particle accelerator) and picks up speed by sprinting across blue platforms. Once the player has achieved “100%” of the speed required to reveal the “hypothetical particle” in a collision – the level has been beaten. This unlocks further levels.

The challenge is to negotiate gaps in the tunnel while travelling at high speed but the game throws in a smattering of additional obstacles to keep the things fresh: red platforms give way and are dangerous to stand on; spinning electric surges will fry you; walls will stop you dead. Each level also starts out at a different speed with X Boson being the fastest. The real twist, though, is that each spurt of acceleration destroys muscle memory and you're forced to constantly recalibrate your relationship with the controls. Once I'd reached a high speed during a run, I would die quickly in subsequent attempts because my brain was locked into thinking I was still running at high speeds and mistimed every jump. Boson X is also procedurally generated so, although there are recognisable set pieces that turn up, it’s a game of anticipation, reading signs and holding one's nerve.

It is a game that seems incredibly frustrating if you don't dig this sort of vicious Groundhog Day experience, which is why I initially quit the game after a few, half-hearted attempts. I worked my way up to Graviton but, when I saw the speed of that level and some of the new obstacles I had to endure... it was time to put the game down. I was comfortable with never knowing how the two Boson levels worked.

yboson

Reaching 100% on any given level can be difficult but if you want to be on the leaderboards you need to aspire to speeds that would get you arrested during a Formula One Grand Prix. When I saw DAVID T MARCHAND all over the boards something happened to me, something that wasn’t rivalry or even competition. I didn’t want to win, I wanted to establish parity. I wanted to show I could do it too.

My plan was to do well on the first level, Geon, because that seemed the path of least resistance. It starts out slow and doesn’t sport any complications. However, progress was not as rapid as expected and the leaderboards required me to get to 300%. I decided to mix it up a little and try my hand at the other levels.

And thus I became just a little obsessed.

I stopped playing Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) for over a week to gorge on Boson X masochism. Gradually, I came to know the game, figuring out tactics for tricky situations and learning the set pieces in each level. Every night, replay, replay, replay. I eventually battered through Graviton, a level that I'd considered laughably impossible, although the X Boson level redefined "laughably impossible" all over again. That final level was too much for the bandwidth of my brain, crazy speed blurring splintered structures into an incomprehensible gauntlet of heart-pounding terror.

xboson

Now I’ve been through all six levels I wonder if the game is fair. Games that demand discipline and perfect performance from players often make naysayers sound like shrill losers lacking the l33t skills. You know, just like the boring twerps who don't dig Dark Souls (From Software, 2010), just like myself who still hasn't played Dark Souls. Let's put my shabby credentials to one side, and discuss some of the design decisions I’m unsure about:

  • When you hit 100%, the view stretches and it feels like you’re “catapulted” forward. Whether you are or not is a moot point: it screws up your coordination and I estimate that half the time I reach 100% I die instantly. This visual trick nurtures an interesting tension in the game as you approach 100% but it feels so unfair sometimes if you couldn’t avoid hitting 100% in a “dangerous situation” where complex jumps were required.
  • The Y Boson level has the unsafe red platforms alternating between red and the colour of background. In other words, they are invisible half the time. The scores for this level are the lowest across the leaderboards, suggesting this is an abusive design step too far. I don’t enjoy this level at all; it felt like something “I had to do”.
  • Players are sometimes required to jump several times sideways in rapid succession, following a sequence of panels around the tunnel. At low speeds this is do-able but at higher speeds... let me be blunt: this was a skill that eluded me. The controls for rapid sideways leaps never felt tight and I would often overshoot, jumping one panel too many, or lose the battle and not make it around fast enough.
  • It’s difficult enough tuning jumps to the current speed, but I found I was never quite sure when it was safe to jump or land. There’s no shadow indicating your position so knowing exactly where your feet are… is tricky. I played more defensively as a result, trying not to push the limits, but as the higher speeds are so dangerous you really want to maximise what you get out of each blue panel you pass over.

yboson-success

It's important to observe that I didn’t complete Y Boson because I got better at it, I completed it because I played enough times until I got a “lucky run” where there were no horrible jumps. And it makes me wonder how much of the leaderboard scores are generated through skill… and how much is luck and persistence, sheer bloody-minded determination. Are the top ten players consistently hitting high scores or am I just seeing some lucky runs?

Every leaderboard conceals this story. It might seem there’s no reason to distinguish between the lucky and the skilful because if someone is willing to throw away the hours just to get a prestigious score, then perhaps they’ve earned it. But that interpretation ignores that the leaderboard is also a signal, a demonstration of the possible: if the leaderboards are filled to the rafters with lucky scores then we get the false impression that those scores are genuinely “achievable”. Not even high scores are a meritocracy. This effect can be mitigated if these are old skool high score tables where the same players can appear multiple times but, while such tables are useful for statistical impressions, it's dull having to scroll through seven pages of DAVID T MARCHAND. What is the truth of Boson X? How much blood has been shed on those boards?

In addition, global leaderboards are always a race against time. With each day not only did my Boson X skills improve but the top ten scores for each level edged upward. When I took on my mission to rendezvous with David amongst the high scores, I needed to score around 300% to get on the top ten scores of Geon. Today, I need 600%.

high-scores

Every time I got closer to making an appearance on the boards, I was told my princess was in another castle. I began to lose heart, thinking it was impossible. I’d missed my moment. Squandered it. I'm not a fan of global leaderboards because they always reach this stalemate of untouchable scores that belong to a game's savants. David was soon forced off the boards as new scores wormed their way into the top tens.

My faith began to falter. What was I trying to achieve? Was there any point any more? The idea of an unexpected perfect run seemed remote as the statistical evidence of a week's worth of play seemed to point to one conclusion: I was hitting my skill ceiling and praying for luck to put things in place for me. The rot took hold. The goalposts kept on moving, so I made my own. I aimed to complete the game.

It took some doing, but I cracked the X Boson level eventually. And then it was over. I slid the shortcut across the desktop into a section for games I consider completed. I don't play it any more.

When I look at the leaderboards now I see a graveyard. Names on tombstones. Epitaphs earned through blood. I'll never be amongst them and it doesn't matter, I shouldn't care.

But I do.

collision-pattern

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I feel for you, man. Those leaderboard positions tend to escape me too, even when I’ve been drawn into competition with a particular list of pixellated names.

    I gather you’re at the EG Expo on Saturday only? That’s a shame as I could only get tickets for Friday and Sunday. If you’re about in London on Friday evening, do let me know if you fancy meeting for a pint – both AJ and I will be around, and possibly Potter too.

  2. I never got around to tell you what I immediately thought the day you brought up that you wanted to get on those leaderboards: it’s much easier to never get to them, than to get there and desperately watch your name be pushed off the boards day after day.

  3. @Shaun: I’m normally immune to leaderboards – I had a bit of fun with Fotonica and Waves because I could “play against friends” there. But somehow I got caught in the Web. I wanted to prove I could do it, that not competing was merely a choice and not due to a lack of skills. Getting on in years and all that…

    Afraid I down for Sat and arranged something for Sun night. My domestic arrangements won’t stand for another night off… Skipping Gymnastics with the little harbour mistress on Saturday for the expo.

    @DavTMar yeah I think there is a different kind of pain there…

  4. Not to worry HM – another time.

  5. Some random thoughts about this and the previous video:

    Graviton is (and/or will always be) my favorite level. Maybe because it’s the first one through which I got to see my name on the Boson X website, maybe because it features two very cool aha moments: when I saw a little glimpse of blue that required me to jump left instead of right in an otherwise all-right pattern, and when I realized the dark vertical platforms in a certain patter were there to mark the direction in which I’d find the blue stuff.
    Don’t you feel some kind of relief that your scores became high enough that they would have been on the leaderboard if you had achieved them earlier? Or is it all “don’t care about the numbers, the thing was having my name there?”
    The T is for Tadeo.
    I think the catapult effect at 100% is kinda cool. Yes, it killed me a lot, but it also prevents the game from being dull and adds a tiny moment of strategy. Besides, that’s just the thing with these types of games: anything the game does to mark your progress can be used by the player to justify (sometimes fairly) their failure. Super Hexagon is much less intrusive, yet this still happens: hearing the woman say “line” or “triangle,” and most of all, anticipating that sweet “hexagon,” will always complicate the game on a psychological level. It’s awful when it happens, but after the fact you can’t really describe it without it sounding kind of rad.
    The comparison to drug addiction feels inevitable. It occurred to me while playing, and some Let’s Plays discussed it too. Boson X forces you to crave “the blue stuff.” Surprisingly, no Breaking Bad reference has been made that I’m aware of.
    I don’t share your hate for invisible platforms on Y Boson. They sure make the scores go down, but since the leaderboards are about relative position, no one’s rank is affected. The opposite, and the same, happens with Geon: it’s an easy level, but getting to the top 10 is more or less equally hard as getting to the X Boson one, because the best percentages are too damn high.
    Fuck the lightning bolts, I can’t tell how many times they killed me.
    The secret to rapid sideways leaps is that no mortal can perform them with full consciousness of each jump. You basically have to smash the key as fast as you can, and start doing it progressively slower as you realize you’re about to overshoot.
    In Y Boson’s cool tunnel pattern, if your speed is high enough (let’s say at least 30%), you can run all the way through a semi-invisible platform without jumping once and you’ll eventually land on a safe place. The game’s trailer made me aware of that, and it feels totally awesome so I recommend trying it.
    Since your jumping height never changes, only the length of it, calculating when to strike and when to release (in order to maximize on-ground time) is a matter of visual memory rather than timing. After the initial leap and before gravity caches up (or is it centrifugal force in this context?), the Professor will float at a specific height that doesn’t change regardless of speed/percentage. Generally you can release the key when your knees overlap the closest edge of the platform you want to land in.
    It’d be cool if players had two scores: one for the best percentage they got, one for the best leaderboard position.
    Fuck the lightning bolts.

  6. David,

    Graviton is a level I feel I could do much better on if I could just survive the 100% zooooop more often. It’s strange to think it was my wall when I first played. But now, like you, I think I have some special place in my heart for it.

    I still feel I wanted a screenshot for this post that showed ELECTRON DANCE on the leaderboards. That would have been awesome. So, yeah, it doesn’t seem to matter as much. On Geon – I actually reached around position 20 on the leaderboards and felt VICTORY WILL SOON BE MINE. It was not to be.

    I did notice that Boson X is sending you signals ahead of time. I only really got the hang of a couple (e.g. the approach of the ramp section on acceleron) but I’m sure there were more I hadn’t picked out. Like the electrical surges, the lightning bolts. Every one of those on the X Boson level was a goddamn dice roll.

    I was always too scared on the red platforms to just try to ride them out with high speed, but half of the game is lots of trial and error, figuring out what works. Those “fast shining platforms” killed me every time until I figured out how they worked and how to approach them: they are actually one of the few elements of the game that are simple to deal with.

    I did improve my timings with landing and takeoff as I went along, but it was always so dangerous trying to target the ends of a blue platform.

    I don’t want to get into “addiction” so much. Games like this, short length/rapid replay/lifetime to master are always pretty addictive, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Richard G was relating to me the meditative aspects of play today – amidst a discussion Bissel’s piece on GTA V – and a state of such extreme flow is not easy to come by with all the distractions around us nowadays.

    And sorry, while we’re getting all serious and sweary down here, I really fucking hate Y Boson. It looks and sounds cool though. I love the graphical tweaks made to each level and the palettes (before and after 100%) are all well-chosen.

  7. Oh, I wasn’t talking about the addictivness of the game. I was saying that, for some reason, energy always gets called “the blue stuff,” and you’re always desperate to get it, and you always get it on small fixes that never feel enough, so it seems inevitable to make the joke or use the language of addiction. Merely on a representation level.

    The other thing I think, and I’m not entirely sure of it but it seems right enough and unintuitive enough to be worth the mention, is that the time you spend on blue platforms isn’t that important. That is, if the game measured your time then yes, you’d want to get as much energy as fast as possible. But that’s not the case, because time doesn’t matter here, and you’ll generally die around the time you surpass your comfort speed.

    Many times I’d miss a certain blue platform and then after a minute I’d die at 145% (e.g.) and think “if I hadn’t missed that, my score on that run would’ve been at least 160%.” But that’s actually not true. The only thing that would’ve happened is, I would’ve reached 145% much faster, and the speed of it would probably have killed me all the same.

    Also, anyone else jumps with the down arrow? It increased my score quite a bit.

    Also, you’re always a winner in my heart.

  8. “the time you spend on blue platforms isn’t that important”

    I’m not so sure. I tended to feel that the longer the game, the more my nerves would shred and the more I’d be prone to making mistakes, so ramping up the blue quickly felt like I wasn’t wasting game time, game effort. It was kind of maddening that you picked up so little energy once you were flying through a level! That is, the effort required to get the second 50% is much more than the first 50%.

    I never used the down arrow. Just the once, but that was it.

    Thanks for your winner photo. I almost thought of producing something like that myself for this article =)

  9. That actually sounds about right. And it is undeniable that just playing longer, even without the psychological component, and even at a fixed speed, increases your chances of failing.

    Here’s the same image without the scaling that made it look a little weird.

  10. I’ve not encountered Boson X yet (still waiting on my Doctorate) but I would like to say I finally played Fotonica, which may be analogous to riding a bike with training wheels alongside your father’s mid-life crisis Harley Davidson.

    Stay tuned for my thoughts on Boson X in December 2014.