Guidance Gate: Your Gateway to Guidance

This is the second of an undetermined number of level design essays on the freeware version of Nigoro’s La Mulana (2005). The first is here. I’m not really concerned about spoilers, so if you are, well, you know what to do.

Guidance Gate: Was there ever so brutal a teacher with such an unassuming name? Last week, we established that the surface of La Mulana teaches timing and momentum. Now, we will learn to pace ourselves and mistrust certainties.

A sweeping, 8-bit flourish plays the first time you enter the ruins and never again, so perk those ears up. This fleeting instrumental introduction might be your last comfort for some time.

Two rooms in, paths begin to twist and branch. Keep heading east and you’ll eventually emerge amongst waterfalls where drowning is imminent. Alternately, a ladder leads to a maze of precipitous drops and traps, downward spirals branching east or west. To the west lies a land of sleeping giants. To the east you’ll find pyramids and circus cats. There are already more rooms than you can hold in your head. La Mulana argues mastery should never be confined to a single area; that progression and expertise hinge on memorizing connections and navigating spaces.

You will be punished for hasty exploration. Plunge forward through the sprawling, labyrinthine levels, and you won’t necessarily die right away, but you’ll feel overwhelmed by the claustrophobic unfamiliar. Failing to see the patterns for the noise, your eyes will whine for reason. La Mulana does not rely on invisible barriers to keep you in check.

Pictured at the top of this post is a room with many spikes, spikes that suspiciously line the bottom of the screen. This trap seems to plead for volunteers. That awkward, engraved structure in the center of the room reeks of secrecy. Listen close, and you might hear the skeletons whisper: Those spikes, they aren’t real, just non-interactive dressings and pixel paint, just like so many bricks and torches that color these ruins. Ignore the spikes, be courageous, drop down, trigger the switch, claim your reward.

The skeletons and spikes advise you to question that which you’ve come to accept as established truth, a lesson later reinforced by pig enemies with kamikaze diagonal assaults. The best way to defend against such an attack is to stand right next to the enemy, ignoring the careful instincts you’ve developed up to this point. La Mulana challenges habits ingrained by all those other games you’ve played. How many times have you been told to avoid spikes? Sure, La Mulana isn’t the first game to think up such tricks, but this is only the beginning, and it’s just starting to set the tone. Over the course of this journey, expect to develop a talent for spotting the invisible elephant in the room.

In this puzzle, you’re supposed to attack each piece of a suit of armor in a certain order. Pretty straightforward, but wrongful strikes invite divine retribution–lightning bolts that drain your health. Find the skeleton one screen over, who has memorized the solution to this puzzle. Said solution is not well-hidden, but its placement sends a clear message: Assume the answer is not in your head or in the same room as the puzzle you’re trying to solve. Avoid blind trial and error. Whereas the spike puzzle teaches courage, the armor puzzle preaches caution. Examine, question, prod your environment, but refrain from reckless assault. Punishment stays consistent throughout the game, as lighting strikes every time you attack a seal you haven’t yet unlocked. In this way, the game establishes a vocabulary of objects you’re not allowed to touch and expects you to follow suit.

La Mulana is slow to instruct, but quick to punish. Should we consider this a flaw? Is unbridled obscurity a design weakness? There are many who would rather watch somebody else play La Mulana than play it themselves. Is this a bad thing? You could make a convincing argument that obscurity is worse than oversimplification.

A lack of explicit instruction does have its perks, though, one of which is a hidden community component. I’ve been justifying my use of the “Let’s Play” videos as a strange form of multiplayer, or perhaps even conversation. I find myself returning to this video series not just for instruction, but for comfort and camaraderie. The ruins are lonely and unforgiving. They offer little comfort. But comfort arrives in the form of some dude on the internet, stumbling over the same puzzles, emitting nasally outbursts as he forgets what he’s doing and dies miserably. The views on his videos hover in the mid-twenty-thousands. It seems many would agree there’s no shame in consulting a guide on something like La Mulana. It just comes with the territory.

Also, “obscure” and “difficult” are terms that fail to grasp the scope of La Mulana. While Flight to Freedom showed me that illiteracy can be harnessed as a game mechanic to elicit a sense of vulnerability, La Mulana takes this idea further by denoting literacy and observation as separate peripherals. You have to earn the right to look around, and then, separately, earn the right to interpret your observations.

I can’t remember the last game I played that inspired me to regularly consult a manual. La Mulana’s manual is an interesting text in itself, since it’s not just a technical, dry affair. It offers cautionary advice, evocative artwork, beginner strategies and narrative exposition. You might say most game manuals contain such things, but most of that information is useless repetition. I used to think a game that encourages use of a manual does so through bad design. Portal doesn’t need a manual. But perhaps manuals, in many cases, have been rendered useless by flabby, burdensome tutorials. You don’t need a manual if the game bangs you over the head with HELPFUL INSTRUCTIONS until you don’t want to play anymore. La Mulana is one of the few cases I can think of in which the design warrants a manual not because it’s bad, but precisely because it’s good.

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Skimming the Surface in La Mulana

Once I believed that games like Nigoro’s La Mulana are all about innate skill and twitch reflexes. Now I’m convinced the demands of such games are primarily psychological. Granted, established videogame vocabulary is an important barrier of entry, but perhaps more important is sheer force of will and a simple willingness to sign up. Like Dwarf Fortress, La Mulana expects and rewards devotion. It embraces the obscure and the difficult. It asks you to learn a set of skills completely, backwards and forwards, like you would a close friend or potential love interest. It wants you to fight the queasy apprehension mortality plants in our bellies, to resist the voice that tells us we must play, see, watch, read, hear everything, but there’s so little time. La Mulana wants you to slow down. It isn’t needy. It doesn’t crave your approval. If you’re not willing to make time for La Mulana, then it isn’t interested in you.

So let’s borrow some time and look at level design.

La Mulana drops you off in a village with a sharp, retro color palette, full of wild greens and foreboding blue-blacks. The game quickly establishes that it’s not the sort of side-scrolling love letter that makes you travel in one direction. It’s the other kind. Ghostly translucent villagers pace with pots on their heads. A pink child gleefully sprints the width of the screen. You can go right, or you can go left.

La Mulana teaches without tutorials. It will devise devious tricks for you later, but your first lessons are straightforward. You’ll learn that pots drop coins, just as soon as you take the initiative to break some pots. Shortly thereafter, you’ll unmask exactly three coin-holding pots in the entire jungle. The first sits one screen to your immediate left. The second waits another two screens over. The third lies back to the far right, up a few ladders, at the edge of some rapids that whisper like amplified static.

Pots drop coins in tens, so you’ve now got thirty coins in your possession. A glance at the village shops reveals that’s enough to buy almost nothing. A map costs exactly thirty coins. For twenty coin, you can afford a tool that resembles a firearm and bears the ambiguous label of “hand-scanner.” Another ten will buy you a floppy disk thing called a “Game Master.” Two mysterious objects are better than one boring map, you wisely reason, so you forgo the map and head for the bargain bin. A quick scan of the manual tells you what your new toys can do: save the game, read signs and examine corpses.

The coins you collected in the jungle don’t respawn like they do in the ruins, so their number resonates. La Mulana expects you to spend the coin before you enter the ruins, providing you with just enough currency to purchase a handful of modern amenities most games take for granted. La Mulana reduces literacy and observation to peripheral objects and makes you an active participant in narrative exposition. Reading and looking around are abilities you have to earn, just like opening locked doors or throwing knives or breathing underwater. But these tools appear early enough so they accompany you for the majority of the game. La Mulana’s gods are harsh, but not cruel.

The screen above teaches you two of La Mulana’s most important lessons: momentum and anticipation. The area contains four different levels of elevation, each one split by gaps. The small gap in the bottom left is narrow enough to encourage you to jump straight up, adjusting your momentum in mid-air. La Mulana is unlike Mighty Jill Off, in that a jump of this kind is atypical. The heavy controls make it difficult and impractical to adjust from a static position once you’re in the air, but you need to learn that this is possible, and sometimes necessary, to get through later puzzles. While the gaps teach you to move, those slithering sky-blue snakes school you in the art of war. Like many other enemies in the game, they speed up when they get close. Your whip attack, like your jump, is slow and deliberate. You’ll have to sneak up behind the snakes or anticipate their moment of acceleration and time your strike. Frantic button-mashing won’t suffice. The auditory cues help with timing, as well, as the harsh swoosh of an empty strike vividly contrasts the muffled explosion of an attack that connects.

The above entrance to the ruins offers advanced lessons. The arrangement of the bird enemies forces you to consider every mechanism in the attack motion. As you climb the ladder and reach a horizontal plane equal to the bird at your far right, the bird is gonna pull a GIRP and dive bomb ur leprechaun-lookin avatar. Meanwhile, the above bird shuffles slightly to the left, leisurely blocking your ascent. As the far right bird approaches, you feel a sense of urgency. You want to get off that ladder, but the lethargic guardian above blocks the way. You can’t jump from the ladder and you don’t want to climb down, so your only option is to experiment with the whip. You could try to intercept the attack, but the bird moves too quickly. After a few tries and some blind thrashing, you might notice a vertical wind-up that precedes the usual horizontal whip motion. By placing yourself at the top of the ladder and facing to the left, you can easily dispatch the above bird simply by striking at nothingness, then climb to safety just as the other bird reaches the ladder. The birds teach you that every part of the whip motion is relevant. You can’t directly swing upward, but you can use the pre-attack animation as an indirect, vertical attack.

After dispatching those foul fowls, you can concentrate on breaching the entrance. If you’re anything like me, your first attempt will prove unsuccessful. Since the gap between the middle platform and the space next to the front column is so narrow, you might be inclined to simply fall forward. But the game doesn’t allow you to adjust momentum while falling. Even if you just need to move slightly forward to reach a lower platform, you have to start with upward momentum. This lesson in videogame logic affects leaping trajectory for the rest of the game. Falling is helplessness. Forward movement is only allowed if you jump first. Avoid careless plunges.

The jungle on the surface presents temporary boundaries to entice you with promises of further exploration. To the far left of the map lurks a hulking blue giant that you can dispatch after obtaining a certain item. To the far right flow rapids that drain your health. Visual cues, like the old man’s hut next to the giant and a bird suspiciously hovering above the rapids, hint at secrets that can only be uncovered by plunging the depths.

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Structured Aimlessness in Foam

Foam has been persistently loitering in my conscious memory for the past couple of weeks or so. In my first sitting, I played about half-way through and got stuck. I put Foam down with the intention of returning, but I’ve been putting it off to make time for other things.

I never stopped brooding about it, though, and I couldn’t figure out why. Yeah, it looks weird. In fact, no other game looks like it. That’s an impressive feat in its own right. But I’ve played weird-looking games before–games like Space Funeral and Yume Nikki–and moved on quickly. Something made Foam stick.

Lately, I’ve felt conflicted about this scrutiny I’ve started placing on games. Foam, especially, is so unassuming about how interesting it is that picking it apart feels wrong. Sometimes, “What makes this interesting?” feels like the wrong question to ask, like I’m missing the point or something. Art defies explanation. It just is what it is. Words stumble and stutter to communicate the appeal of something like Foam.

Here’s what the author, Stwelin, said about his game:

I am so lazy about making games, there was a thread made about it. This is my first game. Dear god, what have I done?

He knows that he can’t explain what Foam is, so he doesn’t even try, opting to let the game speak for itself. Smart guy.

Foam makes a quiet, but confident introduction. Its empty soundscape and Microsoft Painterly aesthetic calmly ushers you into a dark dream. Trees, birds and door-frames have a sloppy sense of geometry.

Really, you just walk from place to place, but the game system strikes the perfect balance between aimlessness and purpose, between wandering and searching for something. Restricted areas are sometimes guarded by locked doors, more often by weird, squeaky creatures that could be mushrooms or aliens or teacups. Foam operates like a minimalist, walk-about, Zelda game. Areas shut you out then welcome you in interesting ways.

Foam makes prominent use of negative space in its audio and aesthetic. The game opens with some sparse effects, and the soundscape gradually fills in as you explore further. Visually, the amount of black, open space on screen enforces a tone of retro anti-realism, but not in a typical, cutesy, pixelated way. The empty space reminds me of old-school JRPGs. In interior rooms, like inns or weapon shops, the tiles would only take up a small portion of the entire screen, leaving the surrounding space black. Usually, modern games like Bastion fill this kind of space with distant, foggy landscapes.

The black space and the tilted, top-down camera view work together to make Foam’s world feel constricted yet open-ended, like a labyrinth. The space lends melancholy accents to otherwise mundane dressings. Sometimes, the surrounding darkness cements the path forward. Others, it makes you feel like you’re walking around in nothing. Foam feels unfinished, but in such a way that you would never want it to be finished because it feels so undeniably whole in its unfinished state.

Foam’s sounds sing of structured aimlessness. A music track for an area usually consists of a few short phrases, looping endlessly without much space in between. The phrases avoid becoming repetitive by blurring the line between music and noise.

Each area is structured sort of like an interior room, so you never really know if you’re indoors or outside. Things that look like windows hover over stuff that looks like grass. To complete objectives and reach new areas, you discover alternate physical forms, scattered throughout the environment. You become fire and mushrooms and eggs. You learn your environment completely without the cramped sensation of forcing your brain to memorize a test.

In your short time with Foam, you will come to know certain landmarks so well, simply entering unfamiliar territory invokes powerful tension. Transitioning from focused, meditative stupor to the jarring experience of the uncharted and alien defines the game’s pacing. Though the player shifts forms frequently, most of the environment remains consistent throughout the experience, so any subtle changes have great and lasting impact. In addition, Foam sometimes unabashedly breaks its own rules and contradicts established perspectives.

Robert Yang recently wrote about a browser game called March, a “first person art-platformer,” by Mindful XP. Yang argues that March lacks confidence, since the game resorts to text to communicate themes already made apparent by its “fog, color, and spatial distance.” Despite the game’s shortcomings, he recommends March because of its “strong sense of ‘voice.‘”

Yang’s description of March implies we can forgive shortcomings if we get a “strong sense of voice” in return. “Voice” is difficult to pin down, but I know Foam’s got it in spades. It’s a game I don’t feel like I’ll ever forget. A lot of folks in the comments over at Free Indie Games advise taking notes or drawing maps, but I enjoyed wandering, waiting for the environment to petrify as muscle memory.

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Parsing Interaction in Emily Short’s Bee

“Sooner or later you’re going to lose,” Bee announces.

Losing I can handle. I love a good forced failure. It’s this “you” business that’s giving me trouble.

“You are a junior spelling champion. Your parents have been teaching you at home since you were four. You’ve never wasted a moment in a conventional classroom.”

Hmm, nice to meet me. That’s who this “you” is supposed to be, right? Call me a narcissist, but I think this story is about me. This text will take me somewhere else, where I’ll impose my presence by making important decisions. Got it.

But sometimes it doesn’t really feel like Bee is about me. I’m not really playing the protagonist, per se, but living vicariously through her thought spasms, forcing myself to think with another brain. That’s not me begging moms to take me back to the salon for another expensive haircut. It’s someone else.

The you in Bee is smart. She’s training for a national spelling bee. She’s home-schooled. Her family is religious and conservative. Her thoughts are interesting. Her sister is funny.

Not halfway through the second page, I had already mapped out the ‘best’ way to approach this work. I would avoid any plot choices involving spelling practice. For dodging such dull endeavors, Bee would reward me with a more interesting story. By ignoring the part that you theoretically can’t win, I would win. For me, the opening sentence had immediately painted Bee‘s game system as an exercise in futility. I’m going to lose, so I should obviously avoid playing. Why doom this poor girl to pursue expertise in a fruitless exercise? And as an added bonus, I could make some high-minded commentary on the tenuous intersection between games and story. Inevitably, I would muse, the most gamified approach leaves you with the least compelling narrative.

Except here’s something: I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about. I don’t know what to make of interactive fiction. I only discovered it recently because of its uncertain participation in the independent videogame space, by way of the very same Emily Short’s write-up of a disturbing title called The Baron. Though I was disquieted and intrigued by The Baron, I didn’t immediately hunt down every piece of interactive prose I could download. I moved on. Lately though, the more I consider how this type of text operates, the more confused and fascinated I become with the process. I know something about games, and I know something about literature, but of this thing that straddles the line between the two, I know nothing.

But I’m trying to learn.

Murky protagonist characterization is an issue that videogames understand. Most main characters lead double lives as murderous psychopaths and pretty-nice-guys (once you get to know them). Because of this confusion, I often resort to “you” when I try to write about the experience of playing a videogame. First-person feels right in the past tense, when I’m relating my own interpretive process or narrating an unexpected anecdote. Then, there’s the third-person player, which often feels too distant and makes sentences stumble. You is a nice compromise between the two. For whatever reason, it feels the most natural. Interactive fiction lives in this twilight zone, the in-between space of the second person present.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

Text adventures, like the aptly named Adventure, were highly influential in the gaming sphere when they arrived in the mid-70s. Today, they serve a devoted, niche community. In a recent interview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Cadre (Photopia and Endless, Nameless) said he doesn’t enjoy playing IF because he finds the process “exhausting.” It seems absurd that someone who writes interactive stories can’t stand playing them, but I understand Cadre’s complaint. Traditional, parser-based IF involves typing commands into a prompt. The parser, which resembles a limited search engine, decides whether or not the computer comprehends typed commands like “go north” or “stroke moon” or “use spellbook on gerbil.” Parser-based IF can be frustrating because it’s impossible to make airtight, and if a work lacks polish or players prove uncooperative, the fragile fourth wall frequently topples.

Now, many interfaces exist to tell interactive tales, though parser-based IF probably still shares the most overlap with games. The trial and error conversation between player and parser elicits a strange sense of exploration. As with most videogames, you’re barred access from a bulk of the content until you achieve a certain interface mastery. IF juggernaut Andrew Plotkin, who has called interactive fiction “the first *hit* videogame genre,” champions the parser as the fundamental mechanic of IF. According to Plotkin, it “draws the player *into* the game world in a distinct and powerful manner. You can’t skim the text or skimp on imagining the situation, because the situation is your only guide to what to try next.” In other words, a text adventure without a parser isn’t really IF, but something else entirely.

Bee is not parser-based IF, nor is it simply a plugged-in, choose-your-own-adventure story. Short wrote Bee on the Varytale platform, which operatessomewhere on the spectrum between stateful CYOA (like Choice of Games) and quality-based narrative (like Echo Bazaar).” Stories developed on Varytale let you navigate their text through a labyrinth of links, while the system tracks a handful of conditions that may or may not be displayed. Your options depend on prior choices, so you can’t go to the salon with Mrs. Barron unless you’ve visited her home, and you can’t practice Arabic loan words before you’ve gotten down the basics of synonyms and phonetics. The Varytale format fits Short like a glove. It highlights her confident command of interactive interface without hamstringing her crisp, lucid prose.

My spellophobic playthrough ended quickly. I didn’t get anywhere near the national competition. My shameful badge was that of the lowly “local spelling champion.” But at least I had lived!

Initially, I made many stereotypical assumptions about the characters in Bee. I assumed there’s no way this girl wants to spend most of her time with spelling flash cards. Her parents are clearly using the bee competition to stroke their egos and show off in front of their claustrophobic homeschooling community.

The thing is, you hardly spend any of your time spelling anything in Short’s narratives. Bee is more interested in language as an idea rather than a mechanical exercise. “Practice” largely entails imagining places that words can take you. Spelling is transcendental. Spelling is escapism. The character’s love of language simultaneously serves as game system and character trait. It allows her to travel to exotic locales, to feel worldly and cultured. Lying face down on the carpet, smothered by oppressive loneliness, this girl bathes herself in words. For her, spelling isn’t just another family ritual or prayer at the frigid altar of Practicality. It is her ritual. Her coping mechanism. Her antidote for loneliness. Her sense of self.

Bee is engrossing because it never resorts to explicit, over-the-top, “beady-eyed religious fundamentalist” characterizations. The weirdness of the narrator’s environment reveals itself with subtlety. The characters’ religious fundamentalism is a matter-of-fact, even endearing, part of their complex personalities, preventing them from being reduced to one-note caricatures. The parents are devout, controlling and paranoid, but never cruel. The annoying but beloved younger sister is allowed, if not always encouraged, to be strange and to draw pictures of strange things.

Most of my assumptions about Bee were wrong. In my second run, I spent more time with Latin and German roots, and the story rewarded me with more opportunities for social exploration. Participating in the game system’s linguistic universe contributed to the longevity of the narrative and, for the most part, this system deftly reconciles the conflict of interest between experience and productivity.

But just as role-playing the diligent competitive speller bought more time, it led to repetition. Passages began to show up multiple times, and I ended up skimming, searching for something I hadn’t already read. I’m torn over whether or not to call this element a flaw. Though the repetition removed me from the experience, it also contributed to the story’s verisimilitude. After all, you, I and this girl live repetitive lives. We arm ourselves for an unpredictable world with artificial schedules and base new behaviors on past experiences. We want to know what to expect, though we think we crave novelty. To some extent, we all take refuge in the arms of our routines. Bee offers us “new things” but reminds us of the psychological roots common to humanity.

(I saw Bee at Free Indie Games)

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Why Ambiguity Matters

The only feedback Mighty Jill Off offers is that drug my brain gives me for learning new patterns. The screen shuns easy numerical incentives like coins. There’s an unobtrusive timer ticking away under the hood, quietly tracking my progress. But I don’t know about that until after I’ve scaled the tower, and I find out thirty minutes have passed. A more skilled player might breeze through Anna Anthropy’s unsympathetic platformer in ten minutes or less. Either way, you’re likely to spend each second so utterly engrossed that time will retire from your conscious mind, much like the television that softly murmurs in the next room. All you do in this game is jump. The mechanic is borrowed from an arcade platformer called Bomb Jack. It’s a slow, floaty kind of leap that allows you to cut off upward ascension and hover through the air. Mighty Jill Off is not so much about its fundamental action, but the process through which the player comes to know this action completely. It’s a game about S&M. It’s a game about game design. It’s a game about ambiguity.

Most well-funded commercial endeavors strive to avoid ambiguity at all costs. Many a game reveals everything it has to offer in some front-loaded, mind-numbing, text-heavy tutorial. For me, this is something like shoving children aside and opening their presents for them. It undermines those initial, sacred moments of exploring a shiny new playspace. Too many triple-A endeavors end up dull, derivative and unimaginative, and I think a lack of ambiguity is to blame.

In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that ambiguity is one of the things videogames are best at. It’s a significant part of what the “video” in videogame is good for:

In digital games, the computer keeps the rules. The computer tracks all the numbers. Digital games therefore have much greater control over what information the players have access to, making videogames capable of much greater ambiguity than board or card games. (52)

The experience of playing a videogame is one that is developed in a fog. We don’t want to know about velocity, acceleration or collision angles. We just want to save the princess. Fueled by secrets, videogames challenge and direct us with carefully paced revelations.

In her analysis of Super Mario Bros., Anthropy suggests that ambiguity means more than just unseen algorithmic dance parties. It’s also about teasing out mechanical subtleties. After catching up on my freeware, I’ve been playing Max Payne 3. It’s a sleek, smart game that has left me with an unsatisfied feeling, despite its merits. I think it’s that feeling that Jim Rossignol calls “hollow.” For one, Max Payne 3 is a game in which you do the same thing over and over again for twelve hours. This in itself is not a problem, but new challenges do little to demand alternate strategies. In between Max’s admittedly endearing quips, there is only the player’s grim, dogged, stupid persistence. Max has issues, but there’s no way he hates himself quite as much as I hate that next wave of persistent bullet punching bags. Too soon, my experimentation with the impressive dodge-shoot mechanic was foregone in favor of a safer, less interesting turtle-shell strategy: snappin’ in and out of cover, pickin ’em off one by one.

By ambiguity, I don’t just mean “what the fuck was Braid about?(Editor’s note: The answer to this question can be found here.) Ambiguity in videogames doesn’t have to be about confusion. The best games, like Portal, have an exhaustive understanding of the manipulative, lab-rat relationship between player and game author. Precise, tight design goes hand in hand with ambiguity. Jumping is a single action that can be executed and challenged in infinite ways. The player affects momentum. Momentum affects the trajectory of a leaping Mario. Obstacles like Bowser tell Mario where to leap. When such a mechanic is properly cultivated, mastery doesn’t just require sharp reflexes. It demands nuanced analysis.

Mods like Brutal Mario are compelling because fresh interpretations of a well-worn mechanic can lead to interesting results. A well-crafted game system constantly asks you to reevaluate your abilities. At the beginning of Super Mario Bros., Mario has all the capacity for jumping he will ever have, but if he never leaves the first level, none of it matters. The mechanic and the obstacle course are co-dependent. My problem with Max Payne 3 is that greater difficulty arrives not in the form of variety but in more numerous and resilient bullet sponges. The game’s primary mechanic allows for ambiguity, but its system favors repetition.

This point of repetition is perhaps best illustrated by a zoomed in, slow motion camera that watches you pump bullets into the last enemy standing, long after that enemy has ceased to be artificially alive. This bullet cam mode, or whatever, is puzzling. It distills the relatively complex act of aiming and shooting down to a bloody button-mashing affair. I understand the basic primal appeal in this, and I willfully participated even when ammo was scarce. What weirded me out is that Max is self-consciously self-aware to the point that it’s almost annoying. He’s always drinking and frowning at social injustice with his dark witticisms and talking about how he’s so pathetic and amoral. But after Max finishes telling me how fucked up everything is and clears the room of bad guys, we take a load off by spitting bullets into one final, unfortunate corpse before moving on. Max clearly loathes what he’s become, but it’s not like we just shoot the place up and get on with it. The camera slows down, zooms in, and we relish in the red dance. It’s as if the game is parodying its own exhausting, yet irresistible, lack of subtlety. There’s a sense that Rockstar shares in some of Max’s humor and self-awareness but doesn’t do anything but nod dismissively and chuckle at my persistence.

Conversely, Mighty Jill Off is an acute exploration of the sadomasochistic game author/player relationship. The game commands the player to pursue a single mechanic until its potential is all but exhausted. Thematic resonance is constantly reinforced by the player’s willingness to commit to failure for the sake of mastery and master. With each level, the player gleans understanding of what it means to jump. The game asks you to forget about choice, as we often think of it in games, by reminding you of the submissive role that you chose by participating in the first place. It achieves all of this without resorting to easier, Skinnerian tactics like power-ups. The only reward is adrenaline-fueled vertical ascension. Mighty Jill Off shows that failure lends substance to success, and nuanced repetition can be the entire point, rather than a substitute for dynamic level design.

Note: Mighty Jill Off is currently part of the Recession Bundle, which includes six freeware games and two commercial games for a $1 minimum. Donating at least $5 unlocks an additional game. The Recession Bundle is open until Friday, 7/20.