If you've read the "About Me" section of this site (if you haven't, I don't blame you - who reads those without prompting?), you know that the investment of time that I put into a game is at least as important to me as, if not moreso than, the investment of money I put into it. For my generation of gamer - 30-ish, married, working full time, preparing to support or already supporting a family - it seems that generally speaking, it's more likely that we won't have time to play a new release that we're interested in than that we won't have the money to buy it. Sure, nobody can buy every $60 release as it hits the shelves (...well, I certainly can't), but things shift to the bargain bin, or there's Steam sales, or there's Gamefly. Games get pretty affordable pretty quick these days, and I'm lucky enough to generally be able to buy or rent what I want. But playing them still takes time, and nobody ever seems to have enough of that.
It isn't my intention, as I mentioned in my first post about Torchlight, to review games in the traditional sense on this blog and give them scores. Plenty of sites do that, and do it well, and I'm really not interested in the metrics of "this game is better than that game but not quite as good as that one." I do, however, want to call attention to games that reward the player substantially for the time put into them, because few things can endear a game to me more than the feeling that I've gotten a good return on that investment, and few things can sour me on a game faster than making me feel like I've wasted my time. "Time Well Spent" seems like a good label to award the games that excel in this regard (maybe somebody can whip me up a nice trophy graphic? Hint?), and my first such award goes without hesitation to Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV.
Chances are, if you read enough about games to be interested in VVVVVV, you've already heard about it somewhere else, but in case you haven't, a brief introduction is in order. VVVVVV is a platform game based around a simple concept: rather than jumping, your character reverses gravity. It's essentially a one-button game - well, one button and the directional keys - where the action button "flips" the effect of gravity, from floor to ceiling or ceiling to floor. The change can't happen in midair (at least, not by your doing), so you must find safe purchase either above or below before making your next flip. That's it. The game has one mechanic.
Within this seemingly limited structure, Cavanagh manages to craft some of the most difficult platforming challenges I've ever encountered. There's a set of rooms in VVVVVV labeled "Doing Things the Hard Way - Veni, Vidi, Vici!" that is just phenomenally brutal - check out the video below, if you don't mind having a tiny section of the game "spoiled" for you.
Ordinarily, I wouldn't have the patience for that sort of thing. The player recorded above might not be exaggerating when he says in the video's description that it took him 500 attempts to successfully complete that challenge; I know I logged well over a hundred deaths on it myself. That's a lot more failure than I'm usually willing to endure. A number of careful design choices on the part of Mr. Cavanagh, however, kept me playing through this and every other challenge VVVVVV could throw at me:
- With very few exceptions, the hardest parts of the game are optional, and can be tackled in any order and at any time you like. The twenty "shiny trinkets" hidden in rooms like "Doing Things the Hard Way" are bonus objectives, and you can pursue them or pass them up at your leisure.
- To encourage you to try to get them all, though, their locations are all marked on the map after you've beaten the main game, and most of them are within short distance of a teleporter that goes to and from the game's main hub area.
- No area of the game is ever "locked off" from the player; from the very beginning, you can access any part of the map you have the skill to find and work your way through. There are a few empty "filler" rooms scattered around, but generally speaking the whole map is very gameplay dense. You're always finding something new to try, and if it's too hard, you can go do something else and come back later.
- This is maybe the most important point: with only one exception I can think of, you're never asked to do anything that takes more than 30-60 seconds without hitting a checkpoint, and - as you see in the above video - death results in respawning instantly at the most recent one, without further penalty. (Aside from the "death counter" on your stats screen, but I learned early to just pretty much ignore that.) Try, try, try, try, try again.
More than any other game that comes readily to mind, VVVVVV goes out of its way to make you feel like every moment you spend with it is productive. You'll never run out of lives and need to start over. You'll never need to re-do 10 difficult things in order to practice the one that keeps fouling you up; there are enough checkpoints that you'll spend time learning to get better at new rooms rather than replaying the ones you can already beat. And you'll never need to trudge through old areas to get back to the one you want to focus on; teleporters are everywhere. I recently heard someone at my office - talking about something else entirely - say "Only the hard things should be hard." I can tell that phrase is going stick with me, and it's very much the design philosophy here.
Cavanagh wants to present you with a variety of genuinely difficult platforming puzzles, and let you get good enough to beat them. That should be hard, and it is. But all the stuff around that - moving around the map, re-trying really tough rooms until you get them right, finding the next area when it's time to move on - is so easy, so streamlined, that it just fades into the background so you can concentrate on the important parts. The game respects your time, and wants you to spend it exploring, learning, perfecting. Kieron Gillen over at RockPaperShotgun, when he wrote about the game, put it well: "Frustration isn’t difficulty. Frustration is difficulty cut with boredom." For as hard as VVVVVV was at points, I was never frustrated with it. With myself, maybe. But the game was never unfair. Getting good enough to beat it - which I'm proud to say I did, with all 20 shiny trinkets - was still up to me, but it never hindered my doing so. It enabled me.
I should say that I do have some qualms about the game's price, but also that I feel somewhat bad about having them. In a world where Bioshock can sell for $5 on Steam in a holiday sale, or a few dollars can get you a 20- or 30-hour RPG on the iPhone, $15 for a game that intentionally looks like a Commodore 64 title might seem a bit much. It's closest logical contemporary - Braid - sells for $5 less, and is both much prettier and, I think, somewhat lengthier. (VVVVVV took me somewhere in the 4 to 5 hour vicinity to complete, leaving only the time trials and "beat the game in under <x> lives" challenges undone.) But honestly, can I complain too much about experiencing one of the hardest and yet most satisfying platformers I've played in years for less than the cost of a dinner out? I can't. There's some truly excellent - and devious - level design in VVVVVV, stuff I can't remember seeing in any other game before, and wrapping my head and fingers around it was a delight. I got more out of those 5 hours here than I've gotten out of 10 hours or more in longer games, and I couldn't put it down. It was worth every penny, and minute, I spent.