Super Hexagon and Games of Shallow Focus
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.