Your first game of Super Hexagon is a startlingly quick one. Just as you’re figuring our how to move your arrow around the inner hexagonal area, just as you’re understanding that you’re meant to avoid the hexagonal sides that hurtle inward toward your arrow, you overcorrect or freeze. “Game Over,” says a dispassionate voiceover.
Go ahead and get used to the woman who continually reminds you of the unavoidable facts of Super Hexagon. “Begin.” She says. “Line. Triangle. Square.” She says. She isn’t offering you any context or meaning, but the details. You’re losing. You’re starting. You’re progressing. You’re playing.
You don’t “die” in Super Hexagon. Your game ends. You make one mistake, or you hesitate and the game is simply over. There is no “life”, and no “death”, only winning the game and losing it. It is a meaningless, binary possibility. Hexagon takes basic forms and asks us to play with them, not because we’re saving a princess or dodging asteroids, but for fun. Of course, when we say something is “fun”, we say that because it resonates with us in some way we can’t immediately articulate.
Super Hexagon is about as minimalist as a game can get, but it’s also one of the most masterfully and carefully made minimalist games I’ve played. The aforementioned voice serves both as a dispassionate informer as well as a trigger for our own relentless self-goading. We hear her voice say “Begin” over and over until it starts to sound like “again.” We’ve convinced ourselves of this, and we obey her, telling ourselves we are merely following orders. In actuality, we’re dictating this to ourselves.
As the borders close in around me, the music buzzes like a foreshadowing alarm alluding to a crisis to come, and only continues to build as I manage to evade these borders. The crisis is self-evident, and the stakes have a way of seeming higher than they are as my focus is increasingly limited to the borders of my iPhone screen. The game forces total concentration, or at least a general submission to the challenge at hand.
So there you are, deeply involved in a game that is little more than a series of flashing lines and shapes, determined to attain whatever goal you may have at the moment. And that goal is left up to you. There are several “levels” you can attain: Line, Triangle, Square, Pentagon, Hexagon. You can “beat” the particular difficulty you’re playing by avoiding the barriers that careen inward toward your rotating arrow, reaching Hexagon and move on to the next. You can try to beat the scores of your friends. Or you can attempt to beat your own high score and move on for now.
That’s the motivation, at least, when I’ve failed for the 72nd time and am quickly tapping the screen, begging for the game to restart before the realization of failure kicks in. But when I’m in the midst of the revolving, flashing shapes, I’m feeling a very real sense of pressure and determination, and I have a feeling that I’m flexing the very same muscle that passive people like myself ought to use more often in life. The walls are closing in, the prospect of success seems remote at best, but I’m not giving up. I’m determined.
There’s a nihilistic aspect to success in Hexagon as well: all that dodging shapes does for us is give us the chance to dodge more, an obvious fact accented by the unmistakable feeling that we are regressing deep into some kind of abyss. The shapes that shift and blink and seem aesthetically pleasing in the moment begin to feel like nothing more than the promise of something greater.
In the end, despite its desperate attempt to be detached, and in fact because of its detached and unassuming nature, Super Hexagon provides us with an experience that feels like blind determination: it’s a harrowing and naïve approach to take toward life. It can only end in one of two ways: glory or destruction. But it’s our only option. It all started so fast, and we’re tired of failing.
So I face my arrow outward and try not to panic or freeze. If I focus hard enough I can find meaning in this seemingly dispassionate universe.
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.
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