Electron Dance
12Oct/165

46

thoth-title-screen

On Monday, I tweeted that while Thumper (Drool, 2016) looked and sounded great, I had already decided I wasn’t putting myself through that. I didn’t want the stress.

The next day I put myself through THOTH (Carlsen Games, 2016), a twin-stick arena shooter with an important twist. Normally, shooting is the act of cleaning. Not here. In THOTH, shooting is the act of making your life fucking worse.

THOTH is from the same studio that brought you 140 (Carlsen Games, 2013). It’s minimalist to the point of extreme, devoid of instructions, and more abstract than Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007). It was the trailer that got me on board because of the audio work from Cristian Vogel & SØS Gunver Ryberg... oooh, I want to use words like “creepy” and “disturbing”. THOTH is not here to love you.

You start at level 64 and work downwards. To what, I do not know, because I’ve only played for one session and it was enough to drive me to write. This is level 46.

thoth-46

46

It’s awkward because it’s the third level of four. THOTH is checkpointed every four levels and if f I die here, I’ll be sent back to 48. I die the instant I touch anything bad. There is no tolerance for mistakes. Naturally this is frustrating, but THOTH channels a Souls mentality: you’ve got to know your stuff. I’m not supposed to make progress through happy accidents. Progress is denied to the lucky and the weak.

48 and 47 are not tough. I’ve figured out my approach and as long as I don’t make a silly mistake I’ll end up on 46. A couple of times I’ve got through 46 to what you might call the boss level - the snarling ambient noise changes tack to make it clear you’re on the verge of the next checkpoint - but 46 proves to be hard going.

I’m the white dot. To complete a level, I have to… I don’t know what to call it. I can’t write “take out” every enemy because that is definitely not what you do. Evolve them? Devolve them? Damage them? Kill them so they rise again as the abstract undead? Let’s just say I have to transform every enemy. One hit is not enough to do this, I need to hit them several times before they transform. And I’ll need to do it quickly too, otherwise they will recover from the damage I’ve inflicted.

The two diamonds are THOTH’s staple enemy which you'll see, once in flight, are not actually diamonds but projections of cubes. They drift towards me and are easy to avoid. Once transformed, they resemble rips in the fabric of reality, albeit rips in the fabric of reality which are extremely aggressive and fast. Shooting makes you slower so if you don't stop shooting, pursuing rips will catch up with you and make you extremely dead. Shoot to make things worse.

thoth-64-rip

64: Diamond in natural state and transformed

So, uh, those two dotted lines are not just background detail. Let’s call them electric fences. They will end you like there's no tomorrow. When they’re grey as in the first 46 screenshot, they are safe. But every time you transform an enemy, the fences will flip state. If I transform one of the diamonds, the fences will turn cyan... and also kill you on contact.

thoth-46-fence

46: Live fence

It is actually the fences that tend to be far more instructive about the philosophy of THOTH, just like the skeletons near Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls teach new players an important lesson about that game’s philosophy. See there’s no warning you’re getting close to a live fence. One misstep and you’ll just be dead, dumped back at 48 before you can say Robotron: 2084. Further, movement in THOTH is not fluid and graceful like N++ (Metanet Software, 2015)  - you move at constant speed (faster if not shooting) which is fine when you’re fleeing holes in spacetime, but not great when you’re trying to skirt carefully along the edge of a fence.

Everything feels bulky and too large which means if I loiter near something unhealthy it is pretty likely I’m about to become toast. THOTH is about managing risk and chasing safety. When the fences on 46 are live, the arena is sliced into thirds. I'm not going to live long under those conditions.

How can we improve our odds of survival? My instinct is to transform both diamonds rapidly one after another, which means the fences flip on then off and the space remains open. But it’s the next bit that always kills me.

The circles, you see, are really stressful. Circles constantly expand. I can shoot them to keep them under control; each bullet causes a small collapse, like letting some air out of a balloon. Thus the circles reveal themselves as a plate-spinning challenge: can you keep the circles at a healthy size while being chased by rips in spacetime?

thoth-47-circles

47: Exploding circles

The question I haven’t answered is what happens if I push the circles all the way? What happens if I transform them? In that case, I pray I can finish the level soon because, once transformed, a circle becomes an expanding hole in spacetime which keeps on growing and never stops. Bullets do nothing.

thoth-48-black-hole

48: Transformed circle

On 46, the next move after transforming the diamonds is to transform a circle. Once I do this, the fences go live and I’m trapped in one particular third of the screen. Manoeuvrability is lost and if I can’t line up the second circle easily I am doomed. Remember I am also being chased by the two rips. Although I dance back and forth finding my safe moment before targeting one of the circles, inevitably death is on the menu once the fences switch on. The circles don’t kill me - it’s always the fence or the rips.

The correct approach is to zip up to the top, take out the circles first while the diamonds are moving slowly. Two transforms leaves the fences in a dead state and the arena wide open - it would be safer to deal with the diamonds while the two black holes slowly expand. Probably. Then we can start working on 45.

thoth-46-circles-first-approach

46: Solution

I hope that gave you enough of a taste of the unsettling THOTH. I love THOTH. I’m not sure it loves me back but, you know, that’s okay.

THOTH can be purchased from Steam or the Humble Store.

Notes

  • THOTH supports co-op but I can imagine that leading to lots of recrimination. “You shoot jack fuck when I’m sitting on a goddamn fence!” Maybe players have to coordinate efforts around safety as opposed to what offensive move to make - “Safe!” rather than “Take out the big guy!”.
  • If your co-op partner is killed, they transform into a quivering, pulsating rip in spacetime that will hunt you down…
  • An important tactical point is that your bullets no longer land blows on transformed enemies, passing across them as if they were not there.
  • I acknowledge that THOTH can feel frustrating at times, particularly if you think you need precision. Some will no doubt get precision out of their controller, but for most players precision is a not-gonna-happen.
  • I ended up with a sore thumb again. Bloody twin-stick shooters.

thoth-space

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Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. THOTH made its way into my library thanks to my experiment with a Humble Monthly subscription. I’ve not played it yet but this article has piqued my interest.

    I also love that Dark Souls has worked its way into your analysis of design philosophy. It happens to us all!

  2. Hah! Yeah I wanted to say THOTH reflects old style progression values to make sure your progress is earned but realised Souls is the shorthand everyone knows. Souls didn’t invent the philosophy, just honed it, but its such a convenient hook. No one gets confused!

  3. Also the fences were such a goddamn pain – which is how I realised I had been playing it wrong, like a normal shooter. You have to play perfect, there’s no margin for error.

  4. 48 and 47 are not tough. I’ve figured out my approach and as long as I don’t make a silly mistake I’ll end up on 46.

    This seems like an important aspect of game design fucking the player over–I use that in a neutral sense, as a thing a game might want to do, if it likes to do that sort of thing sure make me suffer for your art why not–anyway, ahem, one aspect of “punishment” or “sadism” or “hate for me why why why what did I ever do to you” is when, between a checkpoint and a difficult challenge, there’s something that the player has probably mastered but that also takes care and time to go through. Which is often conspicuous by its absence; so roguelikes use random generation precisely so a player who has to return to the earlier stages won’t be playing the exact same thing, while VVVVVV (Terry Cavanaugh, some year) puts checkpoints between just about every significant challenge so the player is always working on the most challenging thing. And this frequent checkpointing is probably considered best practice game design.

    So when a game makes you replay things you know how to do but will mess up if you’re not careful, something is probably going on. An extreme example of this is GIRP (Bennett Foddy, 2011), which has quite a bit of stuff that you can gradually master and improve at, and at the very end a bit that can be done fairly mechanically with concentration… followed by something that is basically a quantum leap in difficulty, and a single failure at any of these things takes you straight back to the beginning. Which indicates either that the point is to use the earlier stages to obtain a greater degree of mastery over the interface and physics, or that Foddy is trolling us as usual. And in NightSky (Nifflas, 2011ish again?) a death or reset sends the player back to the first of three screens in a level, partly to enforce a slow meditative pace, and also partly to highlight a rising-falling rhythm where the most challenging part is usually on the second screen and the third screen is a reward (often only requiring holding right). And then this creates a lot of frustration on the higher-challenge “alternative” mode, I think because that is put in there is a discourtesy to players who insist on playing something difficult–if that’s what you want, Nifflas isn’t going to make your life easy.* In Bit.Trip Runner this makes you master and internalize the rhythm of the stage you’re working on. Then in Closure I think this is not done well; by the nature of the game there aren’t going to be any internal checkpoints, but it requires experimentation since the central mechanic conceals information, while the lack of an auto-save and the slow pace of the animation means that a failed experiment often requires a replay of some fiddly bits. (I may just be bitter about the time I was killed by the PC’s idle animation.)

    *(This is total speculation, but it does seem to me that both NightSky and Knytt Underground have checkpoint systems that make the experience smooth for normal gameplay; but they also have challenge modes/areas where the difficulty jumps while the checkpoints don’t get any more accommodating. And those are completely optional–a totally different difficulty setting in NightSky, some hidden areas in Knytt Underground–so that the challenge and consequent aggravation is something that you’ve taken on voluntarily. Given that the whole plot of Knytt Underground is about how the purpose of playing the game is to experience the game rather than to achieve any underlying goal or catharsis, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see the particular aggravation of the challenge areas as Nifflas saying, “OK, you want an extremely challenging part? Fine. But you’re going to be letting yourself in for some frustration.”)

    Anyway as you talked about in The Dishonest Player and La Mulana, this can be done to enforce a cautious gamestyle. Or… to ratchet up tension, maybe? To ensure that the player doesn’t just luck their way past an obstacle? There are other uses, surely.

  5. Hi Matt. I always worry when these forced replays turn up in games. When sections are continuous, players see it as checkpointing and that may or may not be okay. THOTH’s issue, for want of a better word, is the checkpoint can send you back three levels and that’s unusual for a modern game particularly a 2d shooter. Further, the game is brutally uncommunicative so how the checkpoints work initially are a complete mystery and you’re upset that you don’t know how far to go before you’re safe. If you’re safe at all! I’m not sure what could be done to remedy this without disturbing its cold design.

    It has been interesting to see over the years a gradual paring back of super checkpointing – rise where you failed – to more aggravating options. There’s definitely an art to it but it is an acceptance that most games are about a level of aggravation.

    Trolling the player, however, is quite a different thing! It’s part is a joke played at your expense and, played well, you can’t help but laugh along.


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