Electron Dance
17Feb/15Off

A Glitch in the Parkour Matrix

i know this - what you are doing is wrong

I had a little fun with a game called I Know This (Two's Complement, 2015) thrown together for this year's Global Game Jam. It's a celebration of faux hacker scenes in movies, particularly the hackers got to play in a "3D file system space" (see Jurassic Park, Disclosure) which demonstrated a dramatic (!) lack of HCI understanding by Hollywood directors. Like a lot of jam games, it's a rough experience so it's not necessarily a ton of fun.

One aspect stood out though. In one challenge, you have to hack together a complete sequence of program code before the countdown crunches down to zero. Apparently inspired by the site hackertyper.com, as the player types on the keyboard, legible code appears as if by hacker magic, making the player feel very l33t. But I Know This turns it into a game by demanding the player hit ENTER after each completed line of code; failure to do so causes red gibberish to appear that must be deleted.

i know this - hacker parkour

It feels more fun than it has a right to be, typing like a hacker, but there's a problem. Every time you start typing red error text, the cool factor dies and it becomes a slog to slowly delete the bad characters. The fantasy is too readily skewered by what feels like a pedantic design.

And then I sensed déjà vu.

Games that want to emulate free running or parkour also run up against this kind of wall. A failure in parkour usually means the flow of movement is broken and it doesn't feel cool any more. "You," the game continuously reminds you, "are just as mundane as you thought you were."

mirrors edge - the hole

I'd like to think it would be possible to turn this hacker mini-game into keyboard parkour which works but, if games like Mirror's Edge (DICE, 2008) are anything to go by, it's probably a wish that will go unfulfilled.

mirrors edge - the fall

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  1. The difference between this and Mirror’s Edge and most other games involving flow is that in the latter, the places where you stumble are reasonably easy to foresee (or are at least consistent) such that you can master the level to achieve perfect flow. With I Know This, however, it’s virtually impossible to predict what’s coming, so you either have to go really slowly and try to predict where the line will end from what’s coming, or just hit a syntax error on every line.

    There are plenty of “keyboard parkour” games – in fact, there’s a whole genre, called “typing games”. A great example is Icarus Proudbottom Teaches Typing: http://www.holywowstudios.com/teachestyping/

  2. Hi alphasmart. Yeah I’ve still not got around to Icarus Proudbottom. All I need, it seems, is the right post to hit the right nerve and boom: I’ll be playing it this week, then!

    I accept your point about the flow-breaking to be essentially different – that Mirror’s Edge can at least be mastered. However, I was always coming unstuck and I don’t think that Mirror’s Edge mastery was something possible for me. I played the first couple of Time Attacks relentlessly and I kept hitting a skill ceiling where a triple star score was something I could only obtain via means of luck.

    In this sense, the flow-breaking is similar for me. I only played ME once and the whole playthrough was glitched with falls and mistimed jumps. Unless you’re dedicated to mastering the game, the flow-breaking is going to happen casually and commonly, and you’ll accept it as part of the game. I think that’s normal for most players, that the flow often breaks and it’s never quite the ecstasy the trailers portray. The fear of failure is necessary to make it exciting – but failure is a flow-breaker that totally makes it not fun.

    The mobile game Smash Hit asks you to throw balls to shatter glass panels. When you play the classic arcade mode, you have a finite resource of balls which makes it the game becomes frustrating – you have to work hard to make progress. You can also play a Zen mode where there is no failure, just an infinite number of balls. After a few minutes of that, you crave the purpose imposed by the arbitrary challenge all over again.

  3. On the subject of typing games, I’m quite fond of Gulag Paradise. Multiple endings! Great music! A depressing story! Russian vocabulary! A limited word list so eventually you can get really good at it (take that, flow-breaking)!

  4. One thing in particular in Mirror’s Edge that contributes to the unfunness of losing the flow is that it takes so long (or so it feels) to get up speed again, to feel like you’re starting to get back into the flow. It’s added friction that feels extra punishing when you’ve already messed up.

    The other problem for me with finding the flow on ME is that I almost never could when I first played it. The levels are so poor at guiding the player that I spent a lot of time going around slowly trying to find where I was meant to be going—flowing over obstacles wasn’t really an option.

    I think it’s useful to compare ME’s design with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (the only one in the series I’ve played). When you fall off (as you will often), it’s not unfun. For one thing, it’s quick to get back up to normal speed. But there are other aspects contributing more to the difference: the levels are full of low-value targets (benches to grind, small quarter pipes everywhere, and even ollies and fakies if there’s nothing nearby) that are small amounts of fun in themselves and help you build up speed. And most significantly, there is no constant pressure to (find and) move to a specific goal, but rather a multitude of possible goals throughout the level. When you fall on your face failing to get one of them, instead of having to retrace your steps and try again, you are free to pick another closer goal and have a go at that. This keeps the fun going, as you can keep achieving things after a failure without repetition.

  5. Hi Andy. Sometimes I’m a very conservative gamer and I have avoided things which just don’t seem like “games” to me. So sports sims, for example, I steer clear of. Tony Hawk is something else I’ve totally skipped but I’ve heard good things about it over the years.

    I guess it would be interesting to see if ME2 does any better and make parkour failure more like a dent in flow rather than a complete stop (which happened all the time in ME). But the last ME2 video I watched was all about the character of Faith who was one of the least interesting aspects of the original…

  6. Bit.Trip Runner takes a taskmasterish approach to this. If you mess up you go back to the start of the level–so by the time you’re able to complete a level you have flawless parkourish flow. The difference with Bit.Trip Beat isn’t just that Runner is skinned as a platformer while Beat isn’t parkourish at all–in Beat I do mess up a lot (I also play on easy mode, which gives you a lot more room to mess up) and there I do have that feeling that the flow is breaking and I’m failing the game, in the sense that I’m not living up to the experience it could provide. This is particularly true on the level one boss where if I wasn’t messing up I would be juggling lots of balls in the air at once, but once you do mess up there’s a gap in the stuff you’re supposed to do, not just in the stuff you’re doing. (I mean: imagine you’re juggling four balls flawlessly. Now you drop two. But for a little while longer you just have to juggle two, and the time you would’ve spent juggling the other two you just wait for the two you have to come back to your hands.)

    I haven’t played Mirror’s Edge but have you tried Mirror’s Edge 2D? I remember really enjoying it. Unfortunately my browser is rendering Flash at about 1 fps right now which really won’t do for that game.

  7. But- But- I feel lied to. I thought hacking looked like this: http://youtu.be/rjGbvpr_dB8

    I think that ultimately, you need something pushing back against you, something to overcome, to feel really cool, but the raw sensory feedback of the hacking in I Know This feels great until those damned red characters pop up. The backspacing drove me nuts. It’s like, here’s something that feels good and here’s something that feels horrible, but there’s no way of getting rid of the bit that feels horrible. At least in other games the bits that are pushing back against you are avoidable or can be overcome. Those red characters will always pop up not matter what you do. It’s the equivalent of Faith wanting to sit down every few seconds.

  8. It’s the equivalent of Faith wanting to sit down every few seconds.

    Paging Pippin Barr. Pippin Barr to the white courtesy telephone please.


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