Die, Die Again: On the Mechanics of Masocore Games

Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -

After playing a number of XBLA and indie titles that either fall neatly into the masocore genre or share some aspects of their design, I'm prompted to wonder whether this represents a sound direction for the 2D platforming genre. I'm primarily thinking of games like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and VVVVV but also games like Limbo. Although Limbo is not a particularly difficult or twitch platformer, it still manages to rely heavily on trial-and-error and memorisation in order for the player to survive. To some extent, this is an inevitable aspect of playing a platformer. Experimentation and exploration are the only ways to develop mastery over the game and progress through the levels. However, the way death is handled in the masocore genre is akin to using a save-state in an emulator. Nothing is lost, and arguably, nothing gained in the act of dying. Although I don't deny that skills will improve and are still relevant to the masocore genre, they are significantly devalued by an unacceptable level of chance and repetition: playing is more akin to beating one's head against a wall than rehearsing for the deathless speed run.
 
For the masocore player, death is cheap. It is inevitable, no matter how good you are, that some aspect of timing or control will falter and you will die, over and over again. However, although one dies frequently, very little progress is lost so death is not punishing in any way. Although these games are difficult, the punishment is so trivial that players of almost any skill level can feel compelled to try their hand until they've succeeded at the task. This is most obvious in Super Meat Boy, where fully completing the game entails dying thousands of times. I'm inclined to say this is contradictory and not particularly good game design, being difficult without being punishing dwindles its impact.  For instance, Mega Man features jumps as hard or almost as hard as the above games, but punishes you severely for failure, the point to the difficulty being that you master a specific technique and become able to perform on demand.
 
Don't get me wrong, my intention is not to denigrate any of the above games, some of them are very good indeed, but I would want to say despite the fact they are masocore games rather than because of it. And as a result, they aren't as good as they could be, certainly not the perfect or near-perfect games that some are suggesting. So Giant Bomb, I would be interested to hear what you think of the above argument, which I'm not necessarily sure of myself, and your thoughts on the genre. Is the way it handles death essential and part of the fun, or is it a tiresome albeit distinctive gimmick?

#1 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -

After playing a number of XBLA and indie titles that either fall neatly into the masocore genre or share some aspects of their design, I'm prompted to wonder whether this represents a sound direction for the 2D platforming genre. I'm primarily thinking of games like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and VVVVV but also games like Limbo. Although Limbo is not a particularly difficult or twitch platformer, it still manages to rely heavily on trial-and-error and memorisation in order for the player to survive. To some extent, this is an inevitable aspect of playing a platformer. Experimentation and exploration are the only ways to develop mastery over the game and progress through the levels. However, the way death is handled in the masocore genre is akin to using a save-state in an emulator. Nothing is lost, and arguably, nothing gained in the act of dying. Although I don't deny that skills will improve and are still relevant to the masocore genre, they are significantly devalued by an unacceptable level of chance and repetition: playing is more akin to beating one's head against a wall than rehearsing for the deathless speed run.
 
For the masocore player, death is cheap. It is inevitable, no matter how good you are, that some aspect of timing or control will falter and you will die, over and over again. However, although one dies frequently, very little progress is lost so death is not punishing in any way. Although these games are difficult, the punishment is so trivial that players of almost any skill level can feel compelled to try their hand until they've succeeded at the task. This is most obvious in Super Meat Boy, where fully completing the game entails dying thousands of times. I'm inclined to say this is contradictory and not particularly good game design, being difficult without being punishing dwindles its impact.  For instance, Mega Man features jumps as hard or almost as hard as the above games, but punishes you severely for failure, the point to the difficulty being that you master a specific technique and become able to perform on demand.
 
Don't get me wrong, my intention is not to denigrate any of the above games, some of them are very good indeed, but I would want to say despite the fact they are masocore games rather than because of it. And as a result, they aren't as good as they could be, certainly not the perfect or near-perfect games that some are suggesting. So Giant Bomb, I would be interested to hear what you think of the above argument, which I'm not necessarily sure of myself, and your thoughts on the genre. Is the way it handles death essential and part of the fun, or is it a tiresome albeit distinctive gimmick?

#2 Posted by Jack268 (3387 posts) -

Dying isn't fun. I enjoy games that challenge you, but when the challenge is repeating the same pattern over and over hundreds of times, it gets kinda dull and the point of video games is that they are meant to be fun, and dying a hundred times to complete a single jump isn't enjoyable, at least not to me.

#3 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@Jack268:  Yeah agreed, basically my position on platform design. If you get good enough you should have a realistic chance of not-dying. Not the case with this breed of games.
#4 Edited by Icemael (6320 posts) -

I agree. I have much more fun trying to 1CC a Metal Slug or playing a Mega Man game than I have playing Super Meat Boy. 

To use a martial arts analogy: playing a masocore game is like trying to master one technique (hell, not ever mastering it, since in a masocore you only need to get it right once -- whether you've actually learned something or just lucked out doesn't matter), while playing an arcade game or an early console game is like trying to master a kata (where you have to learn all the techniques properly, because there's no way in hell you're going to accidentally pull off a string of well over a dozen moves flawlessly). There's really no question which is more fun -- not, at least, for me.

#5 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@Icemael:  An excellent analogy. It sums up well my frustration with Super Meat Boy, which feels extremely shallow and unrewarding despite how good it is in some respects - the clever level design and concepts are wasted when the game actively encourages (or at least doesn't discourage) dying/not learning how to avoid death.  It's a sub-genre based on a completely invalid design approach.
If Super Meat Boy was translated into a more traditional side-scrolling 2D platform game then I would probably have no qualms about its acclaim.
#6 Posted by Yummylee (21629 posts) -

The growing case of satisfaction at the end of it all is supposed to be the biggest pulling points for those games, I guess - or at the very least just for you to prove to yourself how hardcore you are with your gaming ;P But of course the frustration it undoubtedly takes for you even begin to get close to the satisfactory finish overwhelms it for the most part at like 4 - 6.
I entirely agree that there are so many better designed genres out there that are much more worth the salt you constantly throw on your wounds, and masocore games are pretty much just a sort of elitist gimmick. They'd fit well as a kind of torture for Batman's The Joker to force on his victims, they're evil enough I think X)

#7 Posted by GlenTennis (3145 posts) -

While it's true in Super Meat boy that there are plenty of deaths, I would have to argue that they are cheap kills. The more you play at the game the better you get. I could have never done the final world when I started the game, but the techniques I learned playing through are helping me beat it. Also the more I practice a level, the better I slowly do. I don't randomly die in spots, but rather I usually progress a little further each time. It just comes down to whether or not you think the reward is worth the work.

#8 Edited by fr0y0 (150 posts) -
@GlenTennis said:

" While it's true in Super Meat boy that there are plenty of deaths, I would have to argue that they are cheap kills. The more you play at the game the better you get. I could have never done the final world when I started the game, but the techniques I learned playing through are helping me beat it. Also the more I practice a level, the better I slowly do. I don't randomly die in spots, but rather I usually progress a little further each time. It just comes down to whether or not you think the reward is worth the work. "

Pretty much this. Unfortunately I haven't played the other games the OP originally mentioned, but in the case of SMB there definitely is a progression. The controls are way too precise to allow simple luck to be the reason you complete a level. Timing and movement are key factors. 
 
Also, saying that death in those games has no or little to no effect - that's not seeing the big picture, really. Since actual ("personal") failure is really meta. Meaning that instantly quitting the game because you died one too many times is a form of punishment as well.
#9 Posted by ArbitraryWater (11726 posts) -

I think masocore is very much a way that "indie" games try to distinguish themselves. It is a valid way to design a game (basing it around the reward of doing really hard things right), but the problem is that it practically demands you play it all in one chunk. Games like these have a very low skill retention, at least for me. I didn't play Super Meat Boy for a few days, and now there is no way I can finish it unless I want to play far more than I ever want to. 
 
No, if I want masochism I want it in some other format than a platformer, and even then masochism for the sake of being masochistic doesn't especially appeal. Look at stuff like the Etrian Odyssey series; ultra punishing dungeon crawlers clearly based off the earlier Wizardry games (and equivalents). It's super grindy, and a fluke hit can totally set you back a few hours. That isn't fun. It's work. I haven't played Demon's Souls, but I have the feeling I would either love it or hate it immensely.

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#10 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@GlenTennis: @fr0y0:  I can see what you're saying and I agree. I did state that there is progression and skill is still relevant to games like Super Meat Boy. On the other hand, there are a few things that come together that are problematic. I mentioned the way it handles death because it seems like the deaths are trivial, no progress is lost. -Often having one specific path to traverse, others are fatal or dead ends. -Disincentivising taking one's time for the sake of the par score increasing the likelihood of death, as well as demanding highly specific timings and movements under time pressure.
I have not seen all the worlds but I haven't seen the introduction of any particularly new techniques, just new design concepts. Although skill is demanded, it seems like the level of trial-and-error or chance becomes too high compared to classic platformers such as Super Mario Bros where it is somewhat rare to die once you reach a high enough skill level.
That seems to me like the core of the issue, and the fact that Super Meat Boy's replays and death count appear to actively revel in how often you die makes it seem like constant yet meaningless deaths are meant to be a constitutive part of the experience.
 
I hadn't thought of the meta-consequences of the player quitting and that's a good point. On the other hand, the game does a pretty good job of reducing the incentive to quit.
#11 Posted by owl_of_minerva (1455 posts) -
@ArbitraryWater:  Demon's Souls is able to avoid the problem of masocore games because it is both difficult and punishing, arguably more the latter than former. Once you become accustomed to the combat system, and learn how to prepare for the areas, it doesn't demand any undue finesse. It's more a matter of being methodical and patient, as it slaps you down for trying to play like a superhero. I enjoyed the sense of vulnerability and realism, but I can see how losing a heap of souls from a few avoidable deaths could be immensely frustrating. On the other hand, it is based almost entirely on preparation and skill, the only element of chance being the human element really, which isn't a factor anymore.
I like the way you put it, low skill retention is exactly what I was getting at inelegantly above, as a consequence of the design philosophy, besides prioritising trial-and-error and increasing the element of chance. It's a valid approach, but it's contradictory and I would argue that a more traditional 2D platformer offers a more satisfying sense of progression and challenge.
#12 Posted by ahoodedfigure (4240 posts) -

I'd say it depends on the experience you're trying to convey.  There are ways to punish you for death, or there are ways to avoid death completely.  If the consequences are heavy, then it's about getting the skill right the first time.  If the consequences are light, it's about experimentation.  I think both approaches in some games have left me cold (or in a rage).  
 
I'm reminded of Super Mario Sunshine, which didn't have a huge penalty, but didn't start me on the last platform I jumped from, so that I felt as though I was being slapped in the face sometimes when I didn't quite gauge the jump.  The games that let me instantly start over are cool, but in the back of my head I'm always feeling as though the experience is a bit too lightweight for my taste.  
 
Still, a game like Knytt's Stories (which V-etc emulates heavily) with instant respawns actually felt balanced, because there were some tough moments in some of those jumps where I didn't relish doing everything over again.  And other games that allowed no save except between levels were frustrating, but at the same time I got the old endorphin rush when I managed to complete them.
 
I find saving in general to be a bit of a cheat in a lot of ways. We can go through an RPG and try out every avenue, and load it if we don't like the consequences. I applaud some games lately that have gone a more Ironman approach to things.  If there was some way to balance Ironman mode with an ability to continue that legacy somehow, I think I, at least, would find a lot more satisfaction in the games I play.
 
But I know others who really, really just want to play the game to the end.  There is a taste factor here that seems to suggest that everyone can't be satisfied with the same system, especially from game to game.

#13 Posted by LordMingo (2 posts) -

I respectfully disagree. To be a good masocore game if must have impeccable design and flawless controls; hence the high scores they get . If they lack these the entire point of the masocore game is lost; rewarding skill with progression. It isn't all about trial and error (and never luck) but rather developing reactions and reflexes to cope with the difficulty of the game, such as with their cousin, the bullet-hell shmup.
 
Yes death is cheap, but progression is so much more rewarding. The punishment is not so much in death, but not being able to progress and admitting the limit to your skills. I think there is more than enough room in the platform genre for massocore games. Personally they have been some of the best designed, most exciting and most fun titles I have played this year.

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