Super Hexagon: Transcendence through Minimalism

I remember well the first time I saw Super Hexagon. It was during some Steam sales, and the game was here, shy, discreet, not very popular. It never appeared as a feature in the home panel, and I had never heard of it. The name was slightly appealing, as I remember all the great games which include ‘Super’, such as the Super Mario Bros series or Super Meat Boy. Heck, there was also the Super Nintendo. The Steam description also amused me. It is typically the kind of text which does not help at all when it comes to searching information before purchasing, and I liked that. In case you never read it, here’s what is supposed to make you buy the game on Steam:

Hexagons are first order permutohedrons: The vertices of a hexagon can be formed by permuting the coordinates of the vector (1, 2, 3).

The north pole of the planet Saturn has a hexagonal storm cloud pattern with 8,600 mile long sides, larger than the diameter of Earth.

Though hexagon may appear to be a difficult word to rhyme, there are actually dozens of words that rhyme with it. For example: Autobahn, decagon, decathlon, electron, Kyrgzstan, Lebanon, leprechaun and marathon.

It was absurd but true. Somewhat related to the game but uninformative at the same time. More like trivia facts that you could say during parties, though I don’t see how you can engage a conversation about hexagons. Anyway, after reading those lines, I still had no idea what the game was about, therefore I decided to watch the trailer. And then I was sold. Upon watching the video, one thought came to my mind: I had to play it, or at least try it, for it was sure that I could not possibly beat it. In fact, I could not even imagine that somebody human could do it. I was so wrong, and I’m not even mad about it. On the contrary, Super Hexagon now epitomizes for me the essence of gaming, at its very core. Here’s why.

It is actually easier than it looks

Grandeur and minimalism.

Super Hexagon is thought-provoking, in many ways. Upon watching the trailer, I was absolutely speechless. At first its epileptic visual and unbearable music create a sort of malaise. One barely identifies what is going on the screen, except that it is moving, spinning and extremely disturbing. The malaise is almost physical: upon showing the game to some friends, several of them told me that they had headache just by watching me playing at the lowest level of difficulty. Not so many games can proudly say that they provoked real physical troubles, and Super Hexagon is one of them. For me, although I was clearly disoriented, I did not experience headache. The malaise was inner and psychological, for I had no idea what this game was about. Usually, video games are easy to tame. There is always a short period of adaptation, in which the player becomes familiar with the environment, the genre, the controls and all those little things. In Super Hexagon, this period is either infinite or extremely long. The whole game is in fact a never-ending tutorial.

So what is Super Hexagon? Described as a minimal action game, you control a small triangle bound to the sides of a hexagon. You can only move left or right to rotate around the six sides. Your goal is to survive the endless waves of hexagon-based patterns coming at you. The obstacles can be a 5-sided white prison with only one side open, or several lines requiring quick moves between them. Once you hit something, the game is over. Survive for at least one minute, and the game considers the level beaten, unlocking its hyper version, which is faster and harder. The game starts with 3 levels, Hexagon, Hexagoner, and Hexagonest, which are respectively on Hard, Harder and Hardest difficulty. Beat them all to unlock the next 3 levels which are Hyper Hexagon, Hyper Hexagoner and Hyper Hexagonest. Upon surviving Hyper Hexagonest for one minute, you finally enter the last zone where you can do nothing but keep playing before you unfortunately hit something. There is no required minimum in this zone. Survive as long as you can, and then die. This is Super Hexagon, and behind its apparent simplicity, it is one of the hardest game ever made.

The visual environment is psychedelic. The whole screen is filled with bright and flashy colors and rotate in one way before suddenly turning back and rotate reversely. The obstacles come at you from every corner, every side, and you have to dodge them, locked in the center of the screen, on the sides of your very own hexagon. It is your base, your home, your prison. Everything is spinning, and sometimes the exterior moves clockwise while your hexagon rotates anticlockwise. It is beyond disorientation. The core beats like a heart, according to the rhythm of the chiptune music. Colors mix together, and soon you are unable to tell what is an obstacle from what is not. It is too fast, too flashy, too extreme. Suddenly, you remember that this is only the first level. Here, I think everybody reacted the same way: after some attempts into the first level, I closed it and tried the other two levels. Oh god. I will never be able to do this. This is the point where Super Hexagon becomes more than a game. It becomes a personal challenge, no matter how long it will take to complete it. The game defies you with its minimalistic design. It’s up to you to take it or flee and leave this epileptic universe. I accepted the challenge and probably lost my sanity within but being able to say ‘I have finished Super Hexagon’ is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying thing to do in this era of gaming.

Surprisingly, the game is very simple in its design, yet it is absolutely marvelous. I don’t think anyone can do simpler than that: a triangle rotating on the sides of a geometrical figureand dodging whatever come at it. Can you imagine playing it, if you have no idea of what it could look like? One would laugh at the game. Is it even a game? But then comes the environment, the flashy colors, the psychedelic craziness of the whole thing, and everything is now splendid. It is splendidly disorienting, and insanely addictive. From the simplest things of Super Hexagon come the greatest feeling that one can possibly experience in gaming, which is the feeling of wonderfulness. This feeling is so rare in the video game medium nowadays that people may not even remember what it is. It is not the feeling of seeing astounding realistic open world, with impressive field of depth or great rendering of the rain. It is neither the feeling that comes after experiencing a well-written plot, with thoughtful dialogues and clever situations. All of this is known and expected. Wonderfulness is about being lost and experiencing the unknown. It is something unique, a one-time moment. Super Hexagon grasps us, plunges the player in a 6-sided world of painful flashy colors and unbearable music. It mistreats us badly, and yet it gives us a candy every time we improve our pitiful record. Through its minimalism, it tries to make us feel like heroes. These are just obstacles and geometrical figures, you can do it. Come on. And because we are under the feeling of wonderfulness, we cannot help ourselves playing it, for we know completing this game will bring another rare feeling that is often associated with wonderfulness: transcendence.

No really, it looks hard but it’s not. It’s harder than that.

There is a hero in all of us.

I talked about the difficulty of the game in the beginning, which is insanely hard. I found it amusing that the very first level begins already on hard difficulty. In fact, the game is so hard that it needs to create more terms beyond hardest: hence, Hyper Hexagonest, the last level of the game, is simply put on “hardestestest” difficulty. It is simply amazing. Just by expanding the language and create a neologism to fit its requirement, Super Hexagon innovates much more than most of the games of the market. It creates its own universe, in which you are nothing but a small triangle bound to the sides of a hexagon. If you are not happy with it, deal with it. The game is not your friend. It will not hold your hand and help you in any way. The world is finite, you either master it or give up and look for something else. Something that will comfort you and your gamer ego. Super Hexagon gameplay is cruel, but its cruelty is essential. Anything easier would be pointless, as there are many other games whose purpose is to simply win. Here, victory is not the end, but rather the consequence of something bigger.

One would think beating such a hard game brings satisfaction all over the place. While it sure does that, I personally see it differently. Once you’re deep enough into the game, winning is barely satisfying. What is it, anyway? Is enduring the level for one minute considered a victory? Technically, you beat nothing. After one minute, the game enters in hyper mode. It keeps playing, whether you are still in or not. The levels were created to distinguish the different sets of patterns and colors, but enduring one level for one minute is the minimum. The main goal is to actually reach the last zone, a black-and-white absolute level where the time is infinite. Here, victory consists in surviving as long as you can. It truly reveals the whole process of the game: victory is about playing and staying alive. Every “Game Over” that you hear, said by a female voice, is like a knife stab reminding you of your humanity. You were deep into the game, hypnotized by the patterns coming quickly at you and the addictive music; suddenly a bad move or a moment of inattention bring you back in the real world, and the game ends. Your trip has ended, you are no longer a hero. The game has beaten you, until you decide to try again.

Consequently, the victory is not when you stopped playing after one minute, but rather when you keep playing it, going beyond your limits, surviving all the nasty patterns thrown at you. Super Hexagon is cruel, but behind its cruelty, there is a true will to make you a hero who transcended its nature. It beats you with raw fists, but it is up to you to strike back and show what you are made of. It is as cruel as you want it to be. Once you begin to play it, you notice patterns which keep coming and helpful techniques. What was a psychedelic universe is now almost friendly. Slowly you become more and more efficient, second after second. The music that was once irritating sounds now encouraging and before you even notice, everything becomes crystal clear. This is it, that particular moment where one reaches the state of transcendence. Super Hexagon is no longer a game, it is simply a triangle fighting for its life and almost moving by itself. The player is not playing anymore, he is experiencing something beyond gaming which requires full involvement, both physically and mentally. Time slows down, and one minute equals one hour. I rarely experienced something like Super Hexagon in gaming. Such implication into a video game draws a parallel between this medium and literature. As you are deep into a fascinating book, to the point where nothing else exists around you, so you will be in Super Hexagon. It is not only a consequence, but an obligatory thing in order to win the game. The feeling of reaching the black-and-white zone for the first time cannot be described. It feels like reaching apotheosis. Few endings in video games succeeded in doing so, and I honestly did not expect such a satisfaction from a game where the only objective is to dodge obstacles as a triangle.

Oh yes, sometimes it becomes a square. For fun.

Verdict: Play it over and over.

Graphically simplistic, insanely addictive, surprisingly satisfying, Super Hexagon is a tremendous tour de force made by Terry Cavanagh. It proves that gaming does not necessarily require a lot of things in order to become something big. When form follows function and allows the player to transcend himself, through perseverance, physical and psychological involvement and hypnotism, it creates something absolutely marvelous.I loved progressing in this game and entering the six-sided world again and again. The trance provoked by a profound and successful session of Super Hexagon is without a doubt one of the strongest I had with the video game medium, and it justifies being reduced to a simple triangle moving around a hexagon. Chapeau, Mr Cavanagh!


Created by: Terry Cavanagh

Music: Chipzel


About Maratz

Ludophilophage. Explorateur de mondes pixelisés. Coucheur de mots sur écran. English. French.

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