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.
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.
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?
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.