YOU DIED: Reincarnation, the Eternal Return, and What Difficult Games Teach Us

Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, FTL, Hotline Miami; a keen observer should immediately notice a trend, they are all great games, but also, all of these games are fucking hard!  A “lowly” skeleton in Dark Souls will quickly punish a reckless Knight.  Timing is key in Super Meat Boy; prepare to become hamburger without it.  Low on fuel in FTL?  Well, now a rebel gunship is in your rearview mirror, with level 4 shields and guns blazing.  An ill-conceived plan of attack in Hotline Miami will leave you desperately trying to stuff your guts back into their rightful place.  These games seem to herald a renaissance in providing more than just filler until the next cutscene.  They showcase challenging gameplay that can open the door to a deeper appreciation for the game and an opportunity to be schooled in surprising ways.

Hard games aren’t new.  Back in the day, part of a game’s mechanics and re-playability was determined by their difficulty, this may have something to with the coin-op nature of arcade games spilling into the game designs for the home.  Arcade games were a source of revenue for the arcade owner, so the harder the games were, the more likely the need to plunk another quarter into the machine.  Remember Gauntlet?  “Elf needs food badly!”  The number of times I’ve heard that makes it reverberate in my head.  Gauntlet’s the best example I can come up with that encapsulated the idea of difficulty generating revenue; it was both ingenious and incorporated a dick move.  Instead of losing health only when the player is hit, health is lost constantly during the course of the game.  The only way to regain health was to either find the food sparsely distributed throughout the levels or pop another quarter into the slot, thus forcing gamers to keep feeding the arcade cabinet if they wanted to continue.

Even though challenging games have been with us since the beginning, games started to get easier to the point where the vast majority hardly cause anyone to break a sweat today.  Unless you’re a totally uncoordinated paramecium, I’m almost positive that a good 90% of the triple A titles released today can be beaten from start to finish without once thinking, “damn, that was hard!”  I know I’m not the only one that feels this way; back in June last year, Cliffy B made some statements that may have knocked a few people’s noses out of joint.

“In this current console generation…  we’ve taken a lot of steps to grow the audience and…  [contemporary] games have become more linear and easier, so it feels like a lot of quick-time-events…  when was the last time a game really challenged you and asked something of you, right?  There’s a reason why Demon Souls and Dark Souls have taken off lately.  It’s because they really require you actually try.”

It’s a breath of fresh air that the difficulty of a lot of recent games has been ramped up  and it’s a welcome trend that indie game developers have embraced.  One big difference between the games of yore and more modern incarnations has been precisely how the difficulty of the game is presented.  In the heyday of 8-bit games, games were hard because it was difficult to pack nuance into so few bits.  Games of that era were often just unfair.  We’re blessed today to have such powerful systems at our disposal.  The superfluity of computing power allows for complexity in game design and AI, adding a tactical layer previously impossible on lesser hardware.  Current games aren’t just about twitch skill; they’re designed better than their predecessors.  A bit of cerebral exertion can save a lot of grief traversing these digital environments.  Even with this being the case, death and restarting are inevitable when tackling today’s hard games.  You are going to have to try and try again until you get it right.  Given this certainty, death becomes a means of instruction rather than a barrier.

What does it mean to have to do something over and over again, knowing that a false step will lead to going back to point A, or your last save or checkpoint.  Nietzsche has a quote in his work “The Gay Science” where he states:

“…This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more…; and there will be nothing new in it… your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence… The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again…  Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth…  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment… how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” (Emphasis Added)

The above quote expresses a core concept of Nietzsche’s philosophy, known as the “Eternal Return” or “Eternal Recurrence.”  We who play and enjoy hard games are all too familiar with constantly going back to where we started from, over and over.  But those really good games, those games that we gush about and that stay in our memories–where we had to go back and try to beat that mission or level again, the fact that we had to try and try again didn’t cause us despair.  We embraced the opportunity to tackle that objective or defeat an end boss.  Those chances to finally “get it right” were precisely the moments we craved.

This sense of vigor or excitement that accompanies reliving the moments that have passed before is another key concept to the “Eternal Return.”  Nietzsche asks us this: if we were confronted with the idea of having to live our lives over and over again for eternity, would we shy away from it or embrace it like the best thing ever?  I’ve come to think of this concept like watching an amazing movie.  No matter how many times I watch 007 take on Goldfinger, it never gets dull.  Bond lives the kind of life any guy would be thrilled to live.  Jetting around the world, bedding beautiful women, owning a license to kill.  That’s the kind of life what I’d be psyched to re-live over and over.  Therefore, Nietzsche asks us to live heroically; when we play titles that capture our imaginations, what are we other than heroes?  Nietzsche posits the possibility of a constant cycle of repetition, not so that we will “throw ourselves down and gnash our teeth” but so that we learn “to crave nothing more fervently” than to live a life worth being repeated and have us embrace it.

Of course, seemingly pointless or obviously overt repetition can be disastrous to a game.  However, the cores of many things we do involve repetition.  Ten thousand hours, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, is how long it takes to master something.  That is a FUCKTON of repetition.  That being said, easy games make you go through the motions and don’t challenge you to work through to get to the end.  The game becomes boring and your suspension of belief breaks.  Simply, you no longer care.  It’s like those rote moments of our lives where we’re on autopilot.  There’s nothing that becomes memorable or even worth remembering.  Crappy, easy games are just like those moments: at best forgettable, at worst a complete waste of time.  Nietzsche’s asking us to live our lives in a way that, when it comes down to it, we realize that it wasn’t just a complete waste of time.

However, beyond just repeating those difficult parts of games, we also aspire to transcend them.  We try our best because ultimately we want to beat the game.  Here is where the act of dying (mandatory repetition) can teach us how to overcome the obstacle that caused us to have to relive the same moments (levels or boss fight in the case of difficult games) and triumph over those barriers.  Buddhist philosophy also embraces the concept of repetition, but inherent in the repetition is the possibility to get ourselves “unstuck.”  It’s almost like getting an unlimited number of mulligans so that you can achieve a perfect score.

An article by Lewis Richmond on the Huffington Post site includes a great paragraph to help illustrate my next point:

Ever since the movie “Groundhog Day” came out in the early ’90s, many people, especially Buddhists, feel that the movie holds some kind of profound, existential message concerning spiritual practice and the spiritual path. For those who may not remember, in the movie Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-centered, egotistical TV newscaster who goes to the town of Punxsutawney, Penn., to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations there, and is forced to relive the same day over and over until he learns how to be a nicer person. I doubt that the producers of the movie ever intended their lighthearted comedy to become a lesson in Buddhist teaching, but so it goes.

Just like Phil Connors, we gamers get the opportunity to re-live the same moments over and over.  We’re given these opportunities to break the “karmic chain” that keeps us bound to “level 1, stage 1.”  One the most ingenious gaming mechanics I’ve seen that ties beautifully into keeping with the theme of Buddhist philosophy is the messaging system in Dark Souls.

In Dark Souls, once you find the orange soapstone you can start to leave messages to other players online.  These messages are short, limited to a sentence consisting of a few words.  This messaging system reminds me of Zen koans, brief statements, dialogues, or questions designed to help Buddhist practitioners on their paths to enlightenment.  Koans are designed in a way that the answers or the point that they’re trying to illuminate aren’t always obvious.  They challenge the practitioner by requiring them to tease out the point that the koan is trying to make.  Now, koans aren’t necessarily limited in their length, but they are often obtuse or do not lend themselves to linear thought.  The limitation of the messaging system in Dark Souls forces us to try and tease out the meaning of the message another gamer left for you.  When done right–as opposed to trying to trick you into falling to your death–they’re brief snippets of information, enough to help you work out a possible solution to the problem without spoon-feeding you the information, be it assistance in defeating a difficult boss or notifying you of a secret passageway.

Hard games challenge us in various ways.  They teach us to temper our emotions, think strategically, manage scarce resources, and to plan ahead.  I know that I do decidedly worse when I play angrily, rushing forward headlong only to meet an early demise.  Planning out my next move and tactically assessing the situation leads to success far more often than by brute forcing my way through a level.  Again, like Phil Connors I’d like to think that games can teach us to become better people.  Repeatedly forcing us to triumph over challenging situations, difficult games make us work for it so that when we finally come to the inevitable “FUCK YEAH!” moment, the reward is that much sweeter.

Check out Episode 127 of the D Pad D Bags Podcast, featuring DmC and XCOM.

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