11

For its initial stages, there’s a lot that’s very datedly wretched about Dragonsphere–it has a SCUMM-esque verb list at the bottom, a slightly clunky interface, glacial movement speeds, and what appears to be an extremely, extremely cliche plot: You’re the King, and you’ve got to kill the evil Sorcerer. Go to. You spend the first few screens in a very generic-looking castle, and only nostalgia and patience kept me past them.

But what hooked me was the absolute lushness of the game. Adventure games have always been praised for their advances in the quality of game narratives, but they also deserve a little more credit for their graphics. Given the genre’s slow pace and its tradition of hidden-picture pixel hunting, it’s only natural that adventure games tend towards pretty backgrounds. The game isn’t very good at mundane areas like the castle, but that might be intentional: When you get to the magical areas of the kingdom, and there are a lot, they’re explosions of color and surrealism. Shapeshifters are rampant in the kingdom–and not at all trusted for their abilities to impersonate anyone–and their land is particularly eerie–the rocks and trees have eyes and ears: They’re people partially shifted.

And so an appreciation of the background led me to press on; a nifty little game began to reveal itself. Let’s talk about death for a minute. There was a while where playing adventure games was an extremely punishing, gory experience. Sierra was infamous for being cruel about it: Not only are there many, many ways to die in the average classic Sierra game, there were just as many ways to get irrevocably stuck. Often these two are intertwined: Forget to pick up a sword in the first room and you won’t be able to kill the monster two hours later.

We must remember that while pointing out the unfairness of classic adventure games IS a legitimate criticism…it’s also a selling point. The audience for the early days of interactive fiction and adventure games were frequent computer users–the average person didn’t own a computer in the 80s and early 90s. These games were being played by science-minded people, academics, programmers–people who *enjoy* an intricate, cerebral challenge. The entire process of playing an adventure game is scientific–it largely boils down to trying objects on other objects until the desired result is achieved. Playing a game for hours only to realize that an early, crucial step was missing and needing to start completely over–that may be failure as I see it, but take it from the perspective that it’s simply an unsuccessful experiment.

Lucasarts didn’t invent the deathless adventure game, but it’s the watchword for the forgiving one: Early works like Maniac Mansion aside, Lucasarts very deliberately avoided unwinnable situations and death. The intent was to make games more accessible, and while their games were no less difficult, their worlds feel so much less hostile than Sierra’s. And so, when confronted with a threat, your character will either run away, or the bad guy will just wave some teeth around and make growly noises, but either way Lucasarts obstacles turn out to be more paper tigers than anything else.

Again, not a problem–actual violence doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max–but games like Dragonsphere manage to split the difference. Sierra’s own King’s Quest VII was released the same year, and both games tie death to a “try again” button. A monster is blocking the path; if you go through, it eats you, a small hint is displayed, and you reappear as if nothing had happened. It’s not uncommon, and a lot of games continue to do that to good effect–Resonance’s staticky rewinds were a particularly striking example–but it’s not the kind of thing you think of a game doing in 1994. Dragonsphere even goes one step further: You begin the game with a ring which immediately transports you to the castle. At first, the game’s stages seem self-contained, but there is an order you’re intended to go through them. The game does not penalize you for trying out different areas before you’re ready. In one notable moment–one of the few one-time areas in the game–if you leave before picking everything up, the game will let you know you notice “something”, and refuse to let you leave until you’ve gotten everything. It’s nice. It’s forgiving.

There’s a twist; the game fucks with player character identity, and somehow manages to do so without the assistance of the Grand Poobah of Twists, Ken Levine! You’re not actually the King; you’re a shapeshifter who’s been enchanted with the King’s form and memories. You’ve been sent to fight the sorcerer as part of a plot by the real King’s brother–using the sorcerer as a way to kill the fake king and take the throne himself. It’s a well-justified twist: There’s enough odd things found here and there that the twist puts in context, and it’s unusual enough that I’m good with it.

What I’m not good with is–well, ultimately, the slow pace and the backtracking just GOT to me. There’s too much in other regions, and it’s too tedious to go from one to the other. There are a few mazes and solving them is too annoying. Ultimately, I got too tired of figuring things out on my own and grabbed a walkthrough; my general rule is if I’m playing from a walkthrough before the halfway mark, and I’m not loving the experience, then it’s time to give up. The art might be gorgeous, but I’d rather look through an art book than play some obscure puzzles.

And yet it was a nice contrast. I’ve been playing a lot of indie adventures later–Wadjet Eye stuff mostly, and while the backgrounds are no less pretty, their games tend to be much more compact, much fewer locations. There used to be a trend towards advertising your game based on how many rooms it had. Painting and scanning backgrounds, Sierra-style, might not be the most expensive thing in the world, but you DO need to pay people to do it, and if you’re doing small teams on a short deadline, well, it’s understandable–and it does avoid Traipsing Syndrome. Still, I miss epic adventure games. There haven’t been that many of those.

10

There’s something super Thurbery about The Yawhg. Hell, you see the name of the game right? We’re very much in Thirteen Clocks territory here. There’s a specific kind of atmosphere all of this has in common. Maybe I just think of the Yawhg’s effects as simply being what happens when a Todal gleeps an entire city. Something incomprehensible and unknowable and mysterious but something hinted at by the awkwardness of the spelling. Whatever a Yawhg is–and we never really find out–it’s really, really fucking bad.

The Yawhg will come in six weeks, the game tells us at the beginning, but while we the players know this, the characters–you choose at least two from a group of four–are going blithely about their lives doing whatever. Each week you pick an activity from a list; you gain points in some fairly broad RPG type stats, you have some skill checks–and after six activities for each character, the Yawhg comes and destroys the city, you get to pick what all of the characters do in the aftermath, and then you get your endings. All told, once you click onto the game’s structure, you can get through a playthrough in about five minutes, give or take.

And so an amount of randomization and causality is employed to give a great deal of variation to the proceedings. Certain events depend on skill checks, and others lead to repercussions down the line. Rat out an alchemist selling illegal potions and you’ll find the alchemist’s body hanging in the woods. Throw a volatile potion in the water supply and a doctor will note that people have been getting very sick lately. The wrong decision can lead to disaster for other people–nothing *truly* bad happens to you (although you can become a vampire or a werewolf), but it certainly happens to the city.

The Yawhg itself happens behind the scenes. Between turns, you get some text foreshadowing The Yawhg; after the sixth, you’re told the Yawhg has come; and then you’re presented with the city in ruins. It never makes it clear whether it’s a natural disaster, some kind of creature, a spell–it doesn’t matter. It’s given the title, but it’s not the focus of the game. And yet the time after the Yawhg comes is the moment that it becomes clear that the previous six turns have simply been backstory. The Yawhg is, ultimately, a one-choice game.

There’s roles for a Leader, a Builder, a Conjurer, a Doctor, even a Town Drunk, a Looter. Your skills, which you’ve been building up, determine your success at the various tasks–give someone with high charisma the Leader job and they’re going to delegate tasks effectively; make someone with a low intelligence score the Doctor and you’ll have a lot of dead patients. Make anyone the Looter and they’ll rob the city.

It is the effectiveness of all of these which determines the city’s eventual fate–put people in useful jobs that they do well and it’ll be rebuilt better than ever, giving characters more-or-less happy endings; fuck up, and you’re staring at a ruin, with many of you dying miserably. Cooperation is kind of the order of the day–everyone needs to be working for the good of the city in a role they excel at in order for the populace to thrive.

There’s an attempted multi-player mode. You have to pick at least two of the four characters–adding a second controller lets you divide characters between yourself and a friend. It’s an odd feature, considering each character has a distinct turn and that actions are mostly a function of selecting from a very simple menu–I suppose it’s handy, although I can’t ever see myself playing this game in a group, but I don’t see why you can’t just pass the controller or have someone driving. Well anyway. Minor complaint.

I do like that the characters are all, gameplay-wise, exactly the same as far as initial stats and any interactions go. They’re more like tokens or pawns than anything else, but there’s two guys and two girls, and they’ve crammed in as many skin tones as they possibly could into four characters. The game goes out of its way to elide gender and sexuality restrictions, as well–in one scenario, you meet your ex Kelly and their new flame Jean, and the game neither shows you a drawing of them nor assigns them pronouns beyond the singular “they”. You read back and forths where people say how fantasy works *can* have limited roles for women because the societies had limited roles for women, but even though The Yawhg is a fairly standard medieval-esque fantasy kingdom, it’s not interested in “realism”. And it is a much, much stronger work for doing so: It makes the game warmer, more comfortable, more inviting. The proceedings develop a much more cosmopolitan and current feel. It’s wonderful to have a game which is aware of traditional oversights in videogame characters and addresses this not by shrilly, narcissistically portraying the Self but by creating a roster of different costumes to put on for a few minutes–I wonder if the fact that the game was written and drawn by Emily Carroll, who seems to be a comic artist who made a videogame rather than a game designer who draws well, has anything to do with it: This is not a Scene Indie by any means.

(For the record: The game’s billed as a collaboration between Carroll and programmer/designer Damian Sommer, with Ryan Roth’s sound design and Halina Heron’s music, but while all of the parts are wonderful and add up to a greater whole, the game is all about its art and writing.)

Funny though: It’s a visual novel, or more accurately an interactive comic. It’s a genre I normally hate. Fuck’s sake: I’m a 30-year-old man. There is no comfortable way for me to play a videogame which focuses on romance, young Japanese girls, or romancing young Japanese girls. It’s creepy as shit. I can’t be blamed for avoiding the genre entirely. And if I miss out on good games like Long Live the Queen, I’m okay with it. After all, I know what reaction I’d get if my roommates ever saw me playing a game which could best be described as, “There’s a bunch of different girls, each with their own unique disability, and you get to pick which one you get to fall in love with.”

Fuck’s sake: I’d call the cops on me for that one.

6

It’s not that I want to pick on Eric Wolpaw–I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t genuinely enjoy the man’s work–but he’s at least partially responsible for some of the most obnoxious memes to hit gaming culture. I’m a little afraid to talk about cake in front of gamers because, just as how I had a friend who would chirp Monty Python references at me, I know there is a very, very good chance that said gamer will scream THE CAKE IS A LIE, at which point–

No, let’s not go for violence.

The problem with Eric Wolpaw, really, is that he was a part of Old Man Murray, and the problem with Old Man Murray is that it was responsible for “The Death of Adventure Games“, which has legitimately gone down as a fine and funny piece of game-related writing. The article, responding to a claim that the adventure game is “dead”, frames itself almost as a Hercule Poirot-esque summation of the evidence. It is, at its core, an atomistic examination of a puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3, in such a way as to highlight how illogical and absurd the puzzle is. The article ends with the conclusion that the genre has committed suicide.

If I can tell you how many times people have quoted and summarized that article to me–or, worse, how many people have described that particular puzzle to me, as if they’d made the observation themselves!

It’s hard to blame Wolpaw for this, though; after all, the article is hilarious and astute, just as Portal’s script is very sharp, and it’s not your fault if you make some thing so iconic that fans quote you so much you abandon your career and run away to Africa. The GK3 puzzle–the cat mustache puzzle, as it’s often called–and The Longest Journey’s, uh, rubber ducky subway key puzzle are often seen as two of the nails in the coffin of adventure gaming.

Middle school was Sierra and Lucasarts, college was a lot of indie shit–Reality on the Norm, Ben Jordan, Chzo Mythos stuff–and then, I don’t know, I just…overdosed on it. The puzzles were *part* of it–but although adventure games almost always feature SOMETHING incomprehensibly illogical in them, we were now getting second- and third-generation adventure games from people who’d played the genre for their whole lives and had some ideas about how to avoid some of the more cmmon pitfalls, and puzzles in general were getting better. (Certainly avoiding death and unwinnable situations were two trends which helped matters.)

A lot of it might simply be it’s just a case of too much. After a while, even good adventure game stories–stories are, after all, one of the main reasons to play an adventure–get repetitive, as do good adventure game puzzles. I find I want a more direct control of characters–rather than directing a character, as you do when pointing-and-clicking, I’d rather have the character as an avatar as you do in a platformer.

But one of my concerns recently has been the level of violence in games–after all, it’s really hard to justify Bioshock Infinite, a game in you play a violent man whose presence has placed a city on lockdown, after we all watched news reports about a violent man whose presence placed Boston on lockdown. I think it’s ludicrous when people suggest that to kill a man in a videogame may be as bad as killing in real life, or comes from the same impulses–and yet, that said, I just want to do some other shit for a while.

The relationship that adventure games have had with violence is a strange one–after all, many games–particularly Sierra’s–are loaded with dozens of ways for your character to die. And certainly there are enough horror and mystery games whose plots revolve around murder. And yet for all of that, you’re usually not able to solve your problems with a gun–King’s Quest usually even rewarded you with more points or a better story if you went out of your way to find a nonviolent option. Moral implications aside, the point of an adventure game is more to figure out, using esoteric combinations of items, how to progress–shooting is an inappropriate verb.

I also wonder if Lucasarts’s focus on no protagonist death has something to do with it–it preserves a symmetrical relationship. There’s something extremely fair about a world where you can neither die nor be killed but you’ve just got to clever your way out of things.

5

Treasure Adventure Game is not without its flaws–the developer is remaking it and has promised to address many of them. It’s a shame that its introductory sequence is one of them because it goes on for a very, very long time. There was a while where the length of the introductory cartoon was a point of pride, where long cutscenes meant a game was a Good Solid Game, and that’s an attitude which has taken a long time to fade. TAG is a lot more longwinded than it ought to be. There’s an opening narration talking about the evil wizard and the cataclysm and the twelve treasures and all of that. And that’s revealed to be backstory to an adventure undertaken by two friends and the young son of one of them to find the legendary twelve treasures. And that’s skipped over in the opening credits–which feature a sort of slide presentation about the trio’s adventures–as backstory for the climax of their journey, when they bring all twelve treasures to the final temple. And that turns out to be a flashback nightmare that you wake up from–finally you get control of your main character. And you dick around a few islands for a while until you finally get your mission, which is to find all twelve treasures and Set Right What Went Wrong or whatever.

Like I said, it takes a while.

But once the game opens up, it opens the fuck up. After you find the first treasure, the game basically tells you, okay, what you just did you’ve got to do eleven more times and that’s the flow of the game: Find a treasure, bring it to the temple, get an item, use the item to find a map, use the map to find the next treasure, bring it to the temple, repeat until there’s nothing more to do. In no way does the game grab your next and drag you to the next checkpoint, but after its opening, it expects you’ve been paying attention and know how to play a videogame. You get a parrot friend who acts as a companion/hint system, but while it gives you guidance for the first few quests and can give you vague pointers towards specific puzzles, for the most part it’s just there to keep you company. Right now, all it’s telling me is that I’ve got all I need to go on my journey and I’ve got to find where the next treasure is. The map points to the coordinates, but it gives you no instructions how to get there. If you need an item, or need to go into a specific dungeon, well, you’re an adventurer. Go adventure. It’s trendy to compare things to Dark Souls when you just mean “it’s hard”, but in terms of dumping you in a world and expecting you’ll figure it out, it’s a distant cousin.

The issues I’m finding with the game–occasionally it’s slightly more aimless than it ought to be, the movement is a little too slow, the issues with the introduction–are all fairly easy to ignore in light of the raw quality of the rest of the game. It’s very simple pixel art, but the color scheme is lovely–it’s bright and beautiful and pleasant.

What I adore about TAG is how utterly unpretentious it is. Its grandness and epic scope is less because it wants to be an Important, Canonical Work and more because it delights in its own existence. It’s a happy labor of love.

Fez is the work of a genius who’s happy that he’s sold as many copies as he has because ha ha, you motherfuckers, I’ve finally shown you all: Gomez’s adventure is important to him because it sets him apart, marks him as special, gives him abilities no one else has, lets him see things no one else can see, lets him understand the world the deepest of everybody. Yes, yes, Gomez is essentially cleaning up his own mess but let’s forget about that: HE IS SAVING THE WORLD. And the world *is* an illusion: Its art style ensures that we only get *glimpses* of its true nature, ideas of what it “really” looks like. Treasure Adventure Game wants you to appreciate its world, wants you to enjoy it, and allows you to love it.

It’s a love letter to the games of Orlando’s youth: What Treasure Adventure Game reminds me, most of all, is being a kid and talking to my friends about the Nintendo games we’d make when we grew up–all of the notebooks of elaborate dungeons and traps and puzzles, of the hardest dungeons ever, of the coolest bosses. Stephen Orlando is one of those rare people who actually grew up to make that game.

4

A Zen monk named Phil Fish is rumored to have attained enlightenment, and so the other monks surround him with questions. What’s it like now that you’ve attained enlightenment? And Fish looks up from his work–he is, grain by grain, creating a sand mandala which appears to be a group of tetrads forming the universal om, a mandala which Jonathan Blow and Jason Rohrer will solemnly sweep away later that evening while droqen and Richard Hofmeier nasally chant–and says, casually, I’m just as miserable as ever.

I’ve always found myself extraordinarily perplexed by people who say, about Fez, that it’s such a pretty and beautiful and calming game. I know a lot of people who play it to relax. Look: All games are meditative to me, all games are commentaries on Nirvana (for once I’m talking about the theological concept, not the band), and it’s very easy to see Fez as that, but what I’m struck by is how much, in the world of Fez, enlightenment destroys the enlightened.

Basically, the plot of Fez is that Gomez experiences an encounter with the Divine and brings it back to his village, and his fellow villagers only vaguely believe him at best. The experience with the Divine is not a good one: It causes the symbolic destruction of the universe. Pieces of reality begin falling away and Gomez finds himself desperately journeying everywhere he can to find whatever tiny crumbs of God he still can. This is kind of standard myth-of-the-cave stuff, many videogames have done this, but rarely have I seen such a continued sense of crumbling. Realizing that we’re just made of molecules, that the world is an illusion–I find that Fez is less about saving its world, because its world isn’t real, and more about Revelation Addiction. Gomez is a guy who dropped acid, saw God, and now trips as often as he can in an attempt to get back there.

I find myself wondering what the conversation would be like if Fish and I compared notes on drug experiences.

When I met Amanda Lange at IndieCade East earlier this year, we started talking about Fez, and, feeling clever, I mentioned a certain puzzle I’d head about, considered to be one of the most difficult in the game. Some message board–don’t remember if it was an official Fez one or like a GameFAQs board or something–essentially systematically crowdsourced the solution. Given that there’d been some fourth-wall breaking things in the game–a puzzle solved by scanning a QR code, for example–I had almost wondered if that was intentional. Certainly there’s something kind of poetic about needing to connect with others to attain enlightenment–but probably given where I was in my personal trip through the Eightfold Path, I didn’t exactly want to do that. I didn’t want to join a community just because I wanted to play a videogame–I’ve usually found myself unwilling to participate in online communities.

Oh, she said. I know the puzzle you’re talking about, and actually, if you just look at the clues, you don’t need to crowdsource it, they basically brute-forced it, you can just–and she launched into a brief explanation, culminating with an exhortation to read Flatland–a book I’ve always found to be daunting–and an analysis of Fez as an extended metaphor for a tesseract. From time to time you have a conversation with someone that’s so pleasant and unassuming that it isn’t until you think about it, weeks later, that you realize that this person is not only terrifyingly smart, but they’re also generously smart and that you’ve probably learned a lot from it.

Fish is well known for being dramatic and antagonistic; frankly, I adore his online persona, and his tortured “if I don’t make this game I’m gonna kill myself” pronouncements in Indie Game: The Movie were one of the few things that made it worth watching. Yes, people might rightfully call Fish a drama queen–but you know what? I’m a musician, rock and roll is lousy with tortured, antagonistic drama queens. (Case in point: I’m listening to Nirvana, the band, right now; a man, who killed himself a year later, is commanding me in a raspy scream to rape him.) They’re what makes music awesome, and if there’s one thing indie gaming needs, it’s more rock stars.

Hell: Play the game. Say what you want about it–and I don’t even think I like the game–it’s a disturbingly brilliant work. I’ve always had trouble connecting to Fez–I don’t think like it does. And yet it’s obvious that the game is an intensely, intensely personal work–it’s one of those works which is a clear snapshot of its creator. Whether Fish is talking about God, whether the thing is an explanation of a difficult scientific concept, or whether he simply wanted to make an intensely sophisticated and abstruse game, it’s clear that he’s trying to explain something to us.

There’s a bit from Neil Gaiman about Gene Wolf that always sticks in my head:

There are two kinds of clever writer. The ones that point out how clever they are, and the ones who see no need to point out how clever they are. Gene Wolfe is of the second kind, and the intelligence is less important than the tale. He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well.

And oh God is Fish in the first group. Tell me he’s not. The entire work, the entire persona, have the mark of someone with a chip on his shoulder, and you know, I can completely understand that. Some creators create because they want to please an audience, but Fish creates because he has something to prove, I think. It makes Fez an extraordinarily unpleasant work for me, and I wonder if that’s just because I’m not one of the people he has to prove himself to. But at the same time, I find Fez to be a very wounded and very human work.

Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s why I find the game so difficult to love. It’s a very hostile game, and each time you peel off a layer it gets even more hostile. And each time you peel off a layer, you get closer to the core, to who Fish is, and you’re met with even more hostility and resistance. There’s a paradoxical compulsion to show off the Self, but also a huge terror of showing the Self.

Fez is a heart wrapped in barbed wire.

3

The liner notes to Treasure Adventure Game state, simply, that it’s a love letter to the games that developer Stephen Orlando played as a kid and “the countless hours of joy” that they brought him.

Holy shit. Joy, eh? That’s a word we rarely see. Right!, we say. This shit used to be fun! A comment left by Aaron Jean on Electron Dance says it well: 

I’ve been struck lately by just how dark gaming is at the moment….Why can’t we have more genuinely pleasant worlds in our games?..I do wish there were more worlds I felt like saving.

This is Blue Sky In Games stuff, and it’s true: Indie games can be depressing as shit. The existence of Depression Quest–released on Valentine’s Day, for fuck’s sake, and we say the scene doesn’t romanticize depression!–seems like it’s almost satirical, like the sad indie hipster equivalent of a sitcom kid pining for Super Murder Death Kill 3000 IV.

I’d extend this a little further to not just be videogames–there’s a general view out there that sad shit is deeper than happy shit. Let’s face it: When I was 17 I was listening to Nirvana and Alice in Chains while classmates were listening to Britney Spears and N’Sync. The associations of depression with introspection and intelligence, and bliss as a condition of ignorance–they’ve been associations I’ve never been able to quite slough off. Most of us can’t.

Things are somewhat different now than when Blue Sky was written–the rise of pixel games had yet to occur, and gaming was in a funny spot where it desperately wanted to avoid any perception that it was “kiddie” in any way. What can I say: I guess we all wanted to appear more mature so we made everything brown and violent.

Games are uncomfortable with themselves: Whether we’re deconstructing mechanics by calling them stupid while at the same time making a game about them a la Bioshock or The Line, or adding interaction to self-excoriating prose poems in order to attempt to say something profound, I feel we’re very reticent to let games be Games.

Look at Mass Effect 2: It’s one of my favorite games because it does not see anything shameful in telling a blockbuster starship captain story. You have a group of characters, all with their own shady pasts; an evil enemy, with a dark secret; some great pew pew shootemup action–Mass Effect 2 does not think that a videogame is a bad thing to be, and so instead of trying–and failing–to be Art (and by the way, one thing we all seem to miss about Games As Art is that “Art” is an expression of intent, rather than of quality…), Mass Effect 2 succeeds in being a Great Videogame.

Treasure Adventure Game sees nothing wrong with being a fun challenging platformer; the couple hours I’ve spent with it are demonstrating that by attempting to be a great version of something simple, it almost transcends its genre.

It’s really nice to play a game made in a state of joy.

1

Since I turned 30 it’s like a switch has been flipped or something: I had the typical 20s night owl schedule, preferring to go to bed around dawn and waking up around noon, but for whatever reason, every day I wake up around 6-630. It’s extending to days off and weekends now.

But I’ve made the best of it, and it’s actually becoming a very valued part of my morning routine to wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and play a videogame for a while. Yes, yes, Dusty, a little lovin’ does definitely beat that, but we do what we can with what we have, and what we have are videogames.

I got Bit Trip Runner in one of the Humble Bundles, I believe–I’d played and mildly enjoyed Bit Trip Beat and played but did not enjoy Bit Trip Core, so I’d been familiar with the series, but only gave Runner about 10-15 minutes of playtime when I got it. About three weeks ago I picked up the game again, for some reason, and have been mainlining it pretty much every morning. While it’s not my favorite game I’ve played this year, it’s the one I’ve given the most time and attention to. I’ve certainly given it the most care: It’s the kind of game where there were multiple levels that I was stuck on for three, four days, stubbornly playing certain stages dozens of times until I finished them. I finally managed to beat the game yesterday.

At its heart, Bit Trip Runner is Canabalt attached to a rhythm game. It’s nothing particularly special–the music isn’t my style and isn’t that distinctive; the graphics are Bit Trip’s usual garish pixel art, fine to look at but, you know, whatever. It’s an entry in a series I more appreciate than like in a genre that’s all but dead.

I am curious about why I stuck with the game when games like this usually leave me cold very quickly.

As far as most people are concerned–sites like Hardcore Gaming 101 go into exhaustive histories of things like Bemani, but we’re gonna limit our discussion to the fads I’ve noticed–rhythm games are either Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. They’re less games and more somewhere in between performance and activity: During the peak of both, I could find a TV with at least one set up at every party I went to.

Guitar Hero ramped up towards its apex–I’d say the exact moment it died was when Seth Scheisel histrionically called Beatles Rock Band the “most important game of all time” ($7.99 on Amazon)–during the same period of time I was active in the band King Chef. The very first time I played the game was on one of our usual trips to Best Buy–what can I say? It was Jersey. You go and figure out something to do there.

There was a demo kiosk, and the three of us were looking at it, and since I was the guitarist I went first, and I loaded Heart Shaped Box, which is a song I’ve known how to play since I was 15, and I squeaked out a barely-passing version of it. Perhaps, we decided, because I played guitar, there was some kind of uncanny valley thing going on: The muscle memory I had for the song was contrary to what was going on in the game. But then my drummer tried and failed out, and my bassist did only slightly better. Perhaps, we decided, because I played guitar, I’d developed the necessary dexterity a little better. Certainly–I would find this out after I eventually bought the game and practiced some–there were some skills I’d developed from playing guitar which helped me. I attempted, time and time again, to explain hammerons to my non-musician friends, who would nod blankly and still spastically twiddle the strum switch during bits I played in a more flowing manner.

A thing I began to notice: I eventually got good enough at Guitar Hero to surpass my actual guitar skills. Where I was still a clunky pop punk guitarist, I was learning to shred at Guitar Hero.

Guitar Hero is an asymmetrical experience in the context of a party, and in that context it’s not completely dissimilar to what it feels like to be on stage, when you’re only sort of aware of what’s going on and you’re focusing more on what your fingers are doing. Even beyond hamming it up and dancing around while you play, everything but the notes in the game–your avatar choice, the club you’re playing in, the cuts and camera angles–is for the spectator’s benefit. Paying attention to what’s going on in the club is the easiest way to get distracted, and so the vast, vast majority of what’s on the screen gets ignored in favor of focusing on the portion of the screen where the notes are listed.

Something like Bit Trip Runner isn’t performance-focused: I played it on my laptop in my bedroom, which is barely larger than my bed–this wasn’t one which made it to my living room TV, wasn’t one I expected anyone to be interested in watching. I find it a more absorbing game; you are directly controlling the action rather than the action happening parallel to the game.

This is hard to explain: Moreso than Guitar Hero, Bit Trip Runner feels a lot like playing music.

I guess it’s like this: Music is a very physical thing to perform; when you’re with your band and you are locked into a groove, the music isn’t forming the soundtrack to the world as it does in Guitar Hero–the music is the world. That everything in Bit Trip is timed to the beats help this; camera angles and such in Guitar Hero just kind of happens.

But here’s a thought, and perhaps the entire point of this exercise: Playing Bit Trip runner is so much like playing music–not, you know, playing your own song, but somewhere in between drilling scales and playing along to an album.

My question to myself is: Can you imagine if you’d woken up and drilled scales for an hour every morning? Or hell, practiced singing, or worked out your core, or even just cleaned or something?

Lesson unlearned, though: The final game in the Bit Trip series, Void, was on sale for $2.50 on Steam, and I bought it. I played it for fifteen minutes and loaded up Runner again.

Seriously, dude, you could even just fucking sleep for another hour, you know?