Electron Dance
25Sep/12Off

Rehabilitation

La-Mulana screenshot from Mausoleum of the Giants

In the last few minutes I completed The Adventures of Shuggy and –

Wait, are you still there? Did you click away already? Okay, bye.

You probably won't miss anything.

Drowned

If it takes me half a year to play through Far Cry 2, it means the breadth of my gaming experiences over that period are diminished. I have GTA IV sitting on Steam and I don't even want to touch it. Skyrim is a definite no-no. Dark Souls flirts; I shrug my cold shoulders.

Electron Dance ideas need to come from somewhere; if you play just one long game, you're resigned to writing about it for a long time. “Oh God, HM, do you really think the internet needs any more writing on Mass Effect?

Short-form games seemed to be a way of avoiding this trap. I thought of how much theoretical ground could be covered with diverse five-minute game bites rather than multi-month meals. I shouldn't have to wait for the moon to change phase before playing something else (mentioning no names Sword & Sworcery) and some of these small flings can lead to all sorts of interesting chatter.

But actions have unforeseen consequences. Do the same thing again and again… and you can end up scarring yourself with strange behavioural patterns that are difficult to resolve. 

Gradually, I found it tough to engage anything requiring more than five minutes of time and would be irritable if a game refused to reveal its true colours within seconds. I was intolerant of anything that I could instantly judge as time-wasting. Games could be written off with a single screenshot or the wrong word in the accompanying blurb.

The arrival of freeindiegam.es seemed to add to the pressure of play. Click, boring. Click, boring. Click – shit, need to download an EXE and run? No time for that. Also owVideogames. Also Zero Feedback. Also Oddities. This adds to the existing noise generated by regular sites like indiegames.com and RPS. Everyone on Twitter has suggestions for what you should be trying out and the world is wall to wall game jams.

I’d increased breadth at the expense of depth. I was drowning in the shallow pool of free, short-form games.

Shuggy swings on rope

Experiment

Over the last few months, I've been trying to work back towards long-form play and sat down with some longer titles such as Sword & Sworcery, Lone Survivor and... a couple of platformers.

The platformer was the real test case. If there's one thing short-form games can do for you, it is to kill any interest in playing another fucking platformer game for the rest of your natural-born life. The last serious platformer I played was probably VVVVVV and since then it's been browser games and the like. I wanted to answer this question: was the platformer dead to me?

I bet my time on two recent releases. One was a mostly harmless puzzle-platformer, Smudged Cat Games' The Adventures of Shuggy. It was universally liked although no-one came out and awarded it the gold standard Best Platformer Ever. The other was NIGORO's La-Mulana which is as far as you can get from safe gaming, a game renowned for brutalising its players.

When I started these games, my response in both cases was a predictable so what?

Shuggy was just another puzzle-platformer. Cute character. Pick up diamonds. Use some silly mechanic to get through each stage. Whatever.

La-Mulana just some 90s platformer throwback, another way to lose yourself in nostalgia. Good grief, what a waste of my time. Similar feelings were evoked by other “hard” platformers I had played like L'Abbaye des Morts and You Have To Win The Game.

But I was still was in the middle of an experiment and had to press onwards. What would happen if I broke through my short-form conditioning?

Love

After playing Shuggy for a while, I realised that Rob Fearon was right when he said

…the thing about Shuggy is that it isn’t really any platform game ever, it’s every platform game ever and then some. Compacted down, stripped of cruft and bullshit, level by level. You can’t screenshot that stuff, right? You just can’t.

Shuggy spied this grumpy old man sitting in front of the game and shouted: “Hey you! Lighten up, you might even have some fun!” Shuggy is like someone tickling you gently with a cuddly toy, probably one that looks like this:

Shuggy waits by gallery entrance

Sure, there were a few levels in Shuggy that made me shake the controller with rage, getting killed mere moments from completing a puzzle that's taken minutes to set up. But they were the exception – such challenge being rare and optional.

Shuggy doesn't boast and neither has it been infinitely iterated to wring every single idea out of its ridiculously obese feature set. These ideas have all been seen somewhere else, but it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because your cynical ice cold heart is thawed somewhere along the way.

This game. This game is the Ready Brek glow.

No specific level or narrative trick stands out as a winner. The game is a series of disconnected short puzzles that, more or less, can be approached in any order you see fit or skipped.

So what happened? How did it get me?

Hate

La-Mulana tends to be referenced in the same way as Dark Souls, with respectful observations of its toughness. It's not hard, it's really hard. I didn't know if I'd like it but I wanted a piece of it.

Here’s the curious thing: La-Mulana’s difficulty is not obvious. It’s invisible to the fresh-faced novice.

At the beginning of the game, you start outside some tents and all the talk of difficulty seems to be miles away. Even when I did die, it just seemed a mistake on my part. I started to tire of it, seeing nothing new or different in its construction. And if I had stopped there, I’d never have understood.

What you start to notice after you’ve died a few times, is that the game wears you down, inch by inch, largely through carelessness. When your character eventually dies, it'll mostly be your own fault. There's little insta-death but the game cautions you to take utmost care. Save points are rare and the dangers are many and often not telegraphed with suitable warning. Some of the puzzles are pretty hard to figure out and require hazardous backtracking to solve.

It's a vast, complex platformer which teaches you to take care and not spam to completion through infinite respawns.

La-Mulana screenshot from Endless Corridor

There’s a design ethos buried in here which is only apparent if you engage the long game. On the whole, La-Mulana is not about super-fast reflexes but more about using your noggin. It will surely destroy you if you do not take it seriously.

I've got a piece of paper here upon which I've written down the full history of the "giants", cribbed from the Mausoleum of the Giants. Why? Because there's a possibility it might solve a puzzle. I'm in this game now; I have to keep going.

Sick

Impatience is part and parcel of our information-saturated future, the psychology of data greed undermining the great promise - or perhaps exposing the great lie - of the internet. Time spent with content A is time that you could have invested in content B. Decisions streamline down to the most bigoted of parameters – overblown headlines, sexualized imagery, celebrity gossip, trigger words, TOP TEN NICEST ASSES IN VIDEOGAMES. Did you click? Did you click it?

TL;DR TL;DR stop writing already so boring what is the conclusion

Look, I don't know if I'll ever finish La-Mulana but I understand it and respect it now, which wasn't possible without spending proper time with it. The same goes for Shuggy, which has a quality difficult to put into words; it's more fun in aggregate than all those little individual puzzles imply.

I've figured out I can still play platformers but I probably need to take a holiday from free short-form works and sites like freeindiegam.es for a little while.

I think they've been making me sick.

Audience retention graph for Electron Dance video "Broadcast Prime"

Download my FREE eBook on the collapse of indie game prices an accessible and comprehensive explanation of what has happened to the market.

Sign up for the monthly Electron Dance Newsletter and follow on Twitter!

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (24) Trackbacks (2)
  1. A quick shout out for some links that I couldn’t put into the article but had intended to. Games That Exist has done a couple of pieces on the original & free version of La-Mulana recently, discussing aspects of La-Mulana’s level design: Skimming the Surface and Guidance Gate.

    Also a comment from Electron Dance reader Ketchua, also over on Games That Exist, which spoke to me: “I really need to take a break from this short-form, boundary-challenging stuff. Play some shooters and such.”

    Me too, dude.

  2. Sounds like HM is in need of some MURDERLANDS.

    Interesting piece, anyway. I’ve been contemplating the same root problem – a balance between time spent playing something and any return on writing about it. Fortunately I have a bit more free time than you tend to!

    Incidentally, Superbrothers contains a secret room where you can change the moon phase via a simple puzzle. :)

  3. Shaun, I did use the Moon Grotto to work through the game, but I couldn’t resist the jab. Not everyone does unlock the Grotto (Gregg B comes to mind).

    I really, really wanted to call this piece “Top Ten Nicest Asses in Videogames” to make a stupid point about quick impressions being king. For around an hour, that’s what WordPress thought this post was titled.

  4. @Shaun: I think a lot of people have this problem. Especially writers. When you feel pressured to write about everything you play, and/or have a weekly quota of articles that need to be written, you cannot help but go to an extreme.

    @HM: Even though it was a heat-of-the-moment comment, I did just that. I’ve sunk another 100 or so hours into Team Fortress 2 since then. It’s been more than rewarding (incidentally, I plan on writing about that in the near future). To let yourself go and invest an unruly amount of time into a single game… I had forgotten how good it felt.

  5. I absolutely wouldn’t trade the 1000+ hours or so I’ve spent diving deep into the systems of Left 4 Dead with friends for the same amount of time trawling through any number of other newer, cooler, more exciting or experimental games. Same goes for Dustforce and Devil May Cry. There is value in depth over breadth.

    At the same time, I wouldn’t trade some of the small, simple games I’ve played for anything either. I played Lim and it made me cry. I couldn’t spend a month playing it, I feel like in a couple of 5 minute games I saw at least most of the entire possibility space there, but it was valuable. I certainly wouldn’t be better off if I had spent that time mastering a combo system that takes a month to learn well.

    There was an article on NPR about the difference between culling and surrender, on the strategies we all have to use when faced with, basically, infinite (and infinitely increasing) culture and our own mortality. I’ve heard people talk about finding deep, deep patterns in the rules of Space Giraffe and it intrigues me. I know people who make convincing arguments about why I’m wrong to write off the Call of Duty games. Douglas Wilson makes great points about why Madden or FIFA are important games. At some point I need to surrender and accept that I’ve got to ignore some of those, and any culling metric I use to decide which ones is going to be at least 99% fabricated.

  6. @ShaunCG: But after you use the Moon Grotto twice, the Golgolithic Spirit starts jumping you outside it, doesn’t it? I used it once to see how it worked, once to change to the Dark Moon, but when I had to stop just before the Dark Moon Trigon battle (the “drag these two things apart” gesture that’s very natural on an iPad is not at all natural on a laptop), I could never get back into the Moon Grotto. I finished that level but I still haven’t bothered to finish a game. Isn’t it kind of odd that you can’t save in the middle of a level on a game designed to be played on a phone?

  7. @Ketchua: I really want to get into Mass Effect FOR REALS but I’ve been hooked on qrth-phyl for two straight weeks now. Determined to make it to 5,000 points.

    @Switchbreak: I’m pleased that no-one misread my description of “depth” as meaning the short-form games were lacking in depth. I did try Merritt Kopas’ Lim on your earlier Twittery recommendation. It’s clever, but didn’t have enough emotional resonance for me (even though I could map it to my own experiences as an outsider). I’m nodding sadly at your talk of culling and surrender. Just because the internet has made “everything available” to us, it doesn’t mean we can actually engage with all of it. We have to accept that we’re not going to see everything. Think of the gamers who have game backlogs they are never going to clear.

    Oh and I am dedicated to throwing myself into Space Giraffe one of these days – ever since I read Kieron Gillen’s RPS piece on it, I wanted to see if I could dig it. (FYI, it’s available as part of the Bundle in a Box for another two days, min price $0.99.)

    @Matt: There are sadly a few bugs (as well as a few iThing-rooted design issues) in S&S and it sounds like you hit one. It’s a shame you haven’t been able to carry on with the game.

  8. I don’t know if that’s a bug? It might be deliberate, since you really shouldn’t need to use the Moon Grotto more than twice. Anyway, it’s not that I haven’t been able to carry on, I just haven’t felt like it — partly because if I stop playing in the final chase scene I have to start over from the beginning.

    I’ll get back to it sometime, although today I already feel like the Scythian in the last chapter — why run a hacking cough simulator when you can have real coughing paroxysms of your own?

  9. @Ketchua: it makes sense. For the most part I don’t think it’s ever actually affected my gaming habits, except on the occasional weekend where I stress about the post schedule for the upcoming week being empty* and have to quickly run away and play something short.

    * I would like to have a margin/buffer of posts. Sadly not many other Arcadians think that way. :)

    @matt w: aw, but the Golgolithic Spirit is a pussycat! Fighting the undead soldiers is just about the easiest thing in the game. In fact I actively looked forward to it, if only for the booming sound effect when they wallop their shields.

    It also took me bloody ages to figure out how to trigger the Dark Moon Trigon puzzle. Definitely not logical on a PC. However, I never had any troubles saving mid-level – as I recall re-launching the game would usually put me back in one of the default locations, but anything I’d actually done would be retained.

    The only bug I ran into was with the guitar-string-waterfall bit. That frustrated me for ages until I relaunched the game (er, three days later) and found that it was just a session-based glitch. D’oh.

    @HM: in terms of the amount of time I sink into games, it sounds like I’m oscillating somewhere between two camps from other comments on this piece. I’ve never come close to 1000+ hours on a TF2 or L4D or similar. 180 hours on Oblivion is probably my record in recent years (Fallout 3 and New Vegas are both approaching that). A lot of other games I sink 40-50 hours in. But really, my preferred duration is around the 8-10 hour mark. It’s a contained, defined experience. I like it in the same way that I like short novels. Of course, I have a soft spot for flash fiction and doorstop trilogies too. In search of lost time? Well, maybe.

  10. Golgolithic Spirit? What the fuck is wrong with me? It’s the Gogolithic Mass, and it’s one of the top ten baddest asses in indie games.

  11. My bad, on the spelling and on my helplessness in the face of the GM. I thought there was one manifestation of the Mass that straight up killinates you if it catches you, and another that just sends you to a winnable fight? I could also be confused about which was which.

    Maybe I got kicked out of the Dark Moon dream world because the time paradox resets when you quit. My current problem is that in the last session, getting sent back to the default location means redoing everything. I know, it’s short.

  12. @Matt, I’m not sure. I’ve heard of strange glitches in the game which don’t sound like features. I’m not sure how much you are being forced to replay, but I don’t remember being that upset about having to redo so much (aside from the Trigon battles from the beginning). I think there are times when the Gogolithic Mass kills you outright, if I remember correctly.

    @Shaun: I see you recently recruited mwm for Arcadian Rhythms!

  13. I don’t typically write often enough to run into this problem as much as the more comprehensive writers out there; in my position, I kind of like the compulsion to play more games that I get from occasionally writing about them. I have so many other interests besides games. Games both long and short format are taking up the smallest section of my hobby pie chart in a long time. Writing about my experiences with games is a fun exercise for me that I hope a few other people find compelling, or entertaining. Needing to play games in order to be able to write about them is like a kind reminder whispering, “Hey, you used to play games all the time. They’re still fun, dummy. Take a break and find something to play.”

    I’m always interested in finding a cool, obscure title, but generally I just play whatever I’m itching for. Right now it’s Super Hexagon in a big bad way. There’s a couple of titles I want to check out, but I’m constantly sucked back to Super Hexagon. I don’t mind really. I learned something about myself playing it, and I’m trusting that the next thing I’m pulled towards will also have something to teach me.

    @Switchbreak — I think don’t just think it’s affinity we gain for games we spend inordinate amounts of time with — I think we gain insight also. Mass Effect, KotOR, Halo, and Splinter Cell are all series that I’ve spent remarkable amounts of time on, and learned a bunch from, much of which was past the 40 hour mark.

    @ShaunCG — I think 8-10 hours is a good time, maybe even a little long for most games. I think for a while we’ve been lamenting that length in single player campaigns, but more often I’m thinking that’s an appropriate time if it’s robust and well paced.

  14. @HM: yes indeed! He has unfortunately fallen foul of how shitty I am at emails, but has managed to persevere and send two articles my way nonetheless. :)

    @Jordan: I completely agree – pacing is hugely significant. Some games, mechanically and narratively, either don’t hold up to sustained play, or are simply more fun and memorable if they know when to stop.

  15. Okay taking a quick break at the Expo here to say something in the comments.

    @Jordan: I don’t want to turn this too much into a thread about games writing (too late, huh?) but I’d say much of my games playing is not orbiting Planet Electron Dance. I don’t like the prospect of running out of ideas when I have to put something up every Tuesday. I am a bit of an ideasmith, I’ve got enough in my notes to keep me going probably until the end of 2013, but some of that is high-risk high-effort stuff (e.g. academic series) which are not easy to slot in if I’m running out of time. Some of the articles I did in 2010 I wouldn’t publish now as the site’s focus has changed. I’m no longer able to knock out articles as rapidly as I did back then because of this.

    @Shaun: Yep, as always, it depends! I’m happy to throw hours of my life into qrth-phyl, but become hideously depressed at the time “squandered” on something like One and One Story – and that was barely half an hour I think. I also fell deeply in love with Torment – although whether I could actually play that now is unknown.

  16. Bit late to the party with this one.

    Great piece HM and one I think we can all relate to. I said recently on the Tap forums in relation to how distracted I’ve become from Dark Souls “I sometimes wish I only liked one type of game, life would be so much simpler.” And it would be. I find with a lot of longer games I tend to lose interest or, like Dark Souls, get distracted from too easily. I’ve changed in recent years from ‘I’ve started it, so I’ll complete it’ to ‘Fuck this, I’m done here’ which has allowed me to move around much more. I started AI War, after 25 hours I ditched it. Started Deus Ex (the original) for the third or fourth time since release (I could never really get into it) and after 25 hours ditched it. Started Morrowind after a month modding it and ditched it after 30+ hours. Started Fallout 3 and after… god, 100+ hours ditched it. I gave them all a good shot but sometimes I wish I’d trusted my instincts just so I could get cracking with something else that I might have followed through and enjoyed more.

    @Shaun and mattw: There was a situation where you couldn’t access the grotto because the Grizzled Boor (who held the key) wouldn’t appear because you’d started the game in the Dark Moon cycle. I checked on the Steam forums when it happened to me (afterall I didn’t want to wait a fortnight or month or whatever to finish the damn thing) and astonishingly the developers dropped in and said that this design choice was intentional. I didn’t particularly enjoy S:S&S EP, I found it tedious despite its beautiful visuals, music, atmosphere and charming personality, but hearing that having to wait was by design really ticked me off. As it happens, I did wait (or I changed my Windows clock, I can’t remember, I don’t think I cheated) and managed to finish it, but by then my interest for the game had dropped off to the point where I was indifferent to the story’s resolution (and that chase sequence was horrible). It’s a game I’d love to have loved though.

  17. Oh and Shuggy looks really fun in a platforming-grab-bag sort of way. Thanks for the Games That Exist link on La Mulana as well, I’ll take a look. Not sure I’m cut out for the game but it sounds intriguing nonetheless.

  18. Hey Gregg don’t worry about it, I’ll take the comments when I can.

    I needed an AAA candidate to work on and was gearing up for Mass Effect – but Dishonored’s release was perfectly timed. The brilliant thing about Dishonored is that I know very little about it. I was bored to tears of the constant PR harassment via RPS week after week with a new teaser or infoburst. But it means I’m largely unspoiled. Five hours in, Gregg, and I can report that it’s a slice of awesome. But I really think it’s time I started working through my back catalogue. I started working on Space Giraffe again! These are miraculous times!

    Oh and La-Mulana is off, in a good way. It doesn’t fit the conventions of this style of platformer. Everything is up for grabs which makes it wonderfully interesting.

  19. @Gregg B – I really enjoyed S:S&SEP overall(chase sequence included! Poor dying Scythian!), bar some of the rough edges I mentioned above, but perhaps my review should have noted that at no point did I actually have to wait… I was lucky enough not to run into any such forced delays. Though I suppose when I wrote about the game I wasn’t aware quite how common they were.

  20. @HM: Ooo, glad you’re enjoying it! And five hours eh? Five whole hours with one game? ;-) Today Dishonored, tomorrow SKYRIM.

    I’m working my way through DX:HR at the moment. I’ve had it a while and been wanting to play it for ages so I decided to take the plunge and make a start despite the bad timing with Dishonored. I’m having fun with it so far though, much more than the original, I just hope the boss battles aren’t as bad as people say…

    Are you getting any sort of sustained Thief vibes from Dishonored? I felt them during my time with the demo at the EG expo but wasn’t sure how long that would last.

    @Shaun: I’m not sure how common it is, I suspect a lot of people cheat (I checked my trophies and it says I did cheat although I don’t remember doing so, perhaps apoplexy clouded the moment! I’m sure I didn’t cheat… bah, I can’t remember).

  21. Hey Gregg, Dishonored so far, plenty of Thief vibes. I love crawling across the rooftops in the second mission/first proper mission! The first real Thieves Highway since the seminal Thief 2 “Life of the Party” mission – not like that laughable version in Deadly Shadows.

    Oh I made a point of saying “five hours” because people seem to be breezing through it in ten. I’m really not going to be done in ten. This is also important for another reason – the above article said I was rushing through games too much.

    Gregg, this is the first game I’ve played since Thief that makes me feel Thiefy. Although you’ll have to give up your shadow instincts. There’s no hiding in shadows here or light gems.

  22. Aieee! Amazing. Great to hear you’re taking your time too, it’d be a shame to rush something like Dishonored based on what I’ve seen/heard/played. Then again, I didn’t expect you to rush it either! The light gem thing I was aware of. It’s a shame, I miss that dang thing, but it’s no deal-breaker. After DX:HR I’m quite alright with not knowing whether a guard can really see me, it makes you twice as cautious.

  23. @Gregg B: I started the game in Bright Moon and got the key fine. I may have just forgotten that that was an undead soldier that I could beat. But yeah, I haven’t been feeling the final chase. Probably sometime soon I’ll go back and finish it.

    I found the waiting charming when I realized what would happen, because the ghosts really helped me figure it out. And also because it happened to be only a couple of days until Bright Moon. But drawing it out hasn’t helped. (Also not helping: it seems to be subject to the same thing as LIMBO where if I leave my browser open too long the graphics turn to sludge.)

  24. My mind’s a bit fuzzy on it all now but this was the thread that presented the situation I got myself into: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=2665944