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Super Hexagon and
Games of Shallow Focus

SuperHexagon500px

Depth of focus, also sometimes referred to as depth of field, is a characteristic of optical quality most often referred to in the context of photography. If there is a large quantity of space in focus the camera or lens is said to have deep focus. On the other hand, a lens where only a small area is in focus and adjusting the focal distance moves that area in a very granular fashion has shallow focus. Super Hexagon is a game of shallow focus.

I choose this analogous term from another field because I find it useful in two ways: first, to explain how granular the experience of playing Super Hexagon can be, and second as a sort of tongue-in-cheek comment on the fetishism of “depth”. I believe that there is something to be said in defense of shallow games.

Super Hexagon is a game whose design decisions put the player in a hyper aware state of the progression of their skill. The game provides a lens of shallow focus through which the player observes their growth, and as the player continues to grow the focal point of the lens follows, giving a very small, but clear snapshot of where they are.

Playing the first mode, ‘Hexagon’ for the first time, the player will lose quickly and often. However, a few more tries and the player will pass twenty seconds, then thirty, sixty seconds, onto the next mode, and so forth. The pacing of this player progression is both slow enough to provide challenge, while steady enough to recognize improvement, and it’s what makes this game such a significant example for this reflection. The use of time to function as a score and a qualifier for harder modes is generic enough, but the level design, so to speak, of the modes is purposefully tuned for the player to slowly inch their way further and is ultimately nothing less than superb.

At first the level will seem random and confusing to the player. Soon enough however the player will begin to sense patterns and recognize the separate ‘chunks’ of the sequence. Next they will learn to look at the game without noticing the screen rotation, or color, or other distractions. It is hard to put into words the incremental nature of this growth, for every attempt by a player to break their record, there are dozens that fall short. However, the rapid repetition of these sessions and the small victories that make up every successfully navigated chunk allow the player to still acknowledge and build upon their improvements. Of course the bits of randomness and high demand of execution in Super Hexagon are used to make it a procedural action game, and not a piece of sheet music, but it’s done in a moderate enough of a fashion as to not disrupt the growth of the player.

Ultimately, for all of its brutal fairness (or as some people call it, “unfairness”), Super Hexagon is a relatively low skill-cap game. After putting in enough time, I’m sure any player could eventually master Hyper Hexagonest, the most difficult mode. The game even has an ending for this masterful player to witness. Games like Starcraft II or Go are miles deeper than Super Hexagon, residing in the watery depths of game mastery where most dare not swim. Some might even call this a shallow game. This is in fact crucial to why I refer to it as a game of shallow focus. Not because of the similarity in word choice, but because being a game of a lower skill-cap and one with a definitive ending gives players a more refined context in which to view their progress and a point where they can more acutely see their progression resolve along with the arc of the game.

As a player, this has become increasingly important to me. Having spent countless hours studying frame data for Street Fighter IV, or watching streams of pro League of Legends players, I hardly ever feel the granular accumulation of skill anymore. It’s hard to point to when, or if, I ever grow as a player on a session-by-session scale. However, for a few weeks I spent an hour or so with Super Hexagon every night and each minute of that hour I felt my brain and fingertips ascending the skill ladder of this new, wonderful abstraction. That feeling of mental and physical growth is one of the most beautiful experiences that games can provide to their players, and Super Hexagon provides a lens of shallow focus for me to appreciate each distinct, incremental step of that growth.

10 Comments

  1. Jan wrote:

    “Ultimately, for all of its brutal fairness (or as some people call it, “unfairness”), Super Hexagon is a relatively low skill-cap game. After putting in enough time, I’m sure any player could eventually master Hyper Hexagonest, the most difficult mode.”

    I don’t see how you reach this conclusion. Have you actually at least checked this with a sample set of users? I’d state the exact opposite, that this is a game impossible to beat if the player’s general reaction time is below a certain physical level. I think anyone beyond 35 or 40 years old will have extreme problems finishing this, even with endless training hours.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  2. Zglen wrote:

    Great review/treatment. I completely agree and I like your terminology. What platform have you been playing on?

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Robert Meyer wrote:

    @JAN, thanks for the question. I suppose in saying “any” player, I was being a bit presumptuous, which is a fair critique on your part.

    However, I do think you might make the physical demand out to be a bit more than it actually is. The game is so focused in the skill that it requires, and the complexity of executing on that skill is relatively low, so I do think that most anyone (especially most players of video games) could theoretically master it given *enough* training time. :-)

    @ZGLEN, thanks. iPhone 4 is the platform I played it on.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Michaelb wrote:

    People who think StarCraft is “deep” are also the ones that lose. Realize you’re playing a spreadsheet and victory comes easily.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  5. Jan wrote:

    Thanks for your reply. I still disagree though. The underlying assumption in your argument is that a skill can be trained infinitely. But that just isn’t true. Something like reaction time has physical and neurobiological limits based on various factors, including age. It does not matter how basic the skillset needed in this game is, you end up with a specific reaction time needed to move the cursor fast enough to the next gap. Anyone with a reaction time higher than this can not make it through, and as said before, you can only train reaction times up to a certain level.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Robert Meyer wrote:

    @JAN, ah sorry for any poor communication on my part. Firstly, yes, I definitely agree with you that you cannot train a skill infinitely, and I did not mean to assume that in my argument, however I also do not think it is necessary to my argument.

    My point was that the average person does indeed have the reaction time, and perhaps more importantly in this game, the pattern recognition skills to train sufficiently so as to be able to be competent in the hardest modes, given enough time.

    Reaction time is something that can be trained, but again, I actually think there is a decent amount of time to react compare to say, hit-confirming in Street Fighter 4, in this game, you just have to learn to see at the perimeter and grock the patterns enough to the point where your execution in the center doesn’t require most of your attention. Thanks again for the comments!

    Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 5:32 am | Permalink
  7. Bryce wrote:

    Great article. Duped me in the beginning. Got me thinking it was going to be negative.

    My experience with the game is similar and I’m mostly in agreement. However, I feel like you’re understating the higher order skill involved.

    When I played, I felt like my biggest obstacle was the distractions. Every game felt like a battle against the music/colors/voices/pulsations over my mental focus. Everything about the game is designed to distract you from what you’re trying to do, from the music and visuals to the absolutely minuscule scale of your avatar. Playing with the sound off is basically cheating, putting you at a huge advantage. Sure, you learn to zone it out, but that’s a completely separate skill from navigating the maze.

    The ability to focus is a much more meaningful skill than rapid path-finding/execution that caps out eventually. I found myself using mental techniques in other parts of my life that I had developed playing Super Hexagon. To me, that’s the real beauty of the game and it’s definitely not a shallow or linear skill.

    Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  8. paul wrote:

    it doesn’t in my case, been playin this for days now barely finishing first stage, cant imagine to ever finish the final stage.

    Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Alice Bevan-McGregor wrote:

    As a software developer, I immediately begin to analyze the problem of Super Hexagon from the perspective of the computer. Some pathfinding algorithms, relatively low frame-rate (15fps or so should do it) sampling of the display with bandpass filtering to create a wall/not-wall array of pixels, and tuning of the input vs. velocity and *bam*, this game is solved.

    And that’s where I see the beauty of it. This is a game perfectly engineered to be hard for the human brain to process. The rotations, the music, the colors, the inversions, the pounding beat and pulsation of the field all serve to scramble our senses and foul up all that fancy pattern recognition hardware in our heads that we are all so proud of. It’s brilliant. It’s something a computer could solve with trivial ease, but presents with equal difficulty to all those that pick it up, at least initially. Yes, physical reaction times play a large role in the later stages, but training your brain to avoid the distractions presented even in the earlier stages is an impressive feat.

    I also thoroughly appreciate the Tempest-inspired theme. ;P

    Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink
  10. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Alice,

    I like how your approach illuminates the way a game can encourage us to think, not just like a programmer, but like a computer – something I find both wonderful and frightening.

    Saturday, May 18, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

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