My problems with indie platformers…

This week I bought They Bleed Pixels, and after three chapters, I gave up and walked away in frustration. I didn’t play enough to make a proper review, but the experience did help bring to mind several complaints I’ve had with indie platformers, and I want to talk about them after a few days to calm down. If I had written about this immediately after leaving the game, about 80% of every sentence would have been variations of fuck.

To begin, I love platformers. Back in my youth, Nintendo was full of these side scrolling gems, and I think back on how many of my favorite games were the 2D jump/attack variety. Among some of my favorites were Super Mario Bros. (And 2 and 3), Castlevania (and 3, screw 2), Bionic Commando, and Contra (And Super Contra). Those titles give you some idea of the variety of the formula, with each game having a very different feel and look, and they were glorious. They had a great blend of challenge and fun, and to this day, I can still go back and play some of them over just because I love them so much.

Then at a certain point, all the new consoles coming out created a shift away from the 2D side-view platform in favor of the 3D environment. I’m not knocking this because there are a lot of 3D games that I’ve loved over those consoles as well. But the dearth of the familiar platformer was always something stuck at the back of my mind. I wondered why we lost this particular style of gameplay when the increasing hardware capabilities should have made it possible to have some really pretty games on the 2D plane.

Then along came this resurgence of interest in the 2D platform style, and I’ve been pretty happy with some of the games I’ve played in recent years. Nothing from the big publishers stands out for me the way the old NES games did, though, and I think part of it has to do with the way a lot of the newer games are really just carbon copies of the old games. The old games, when they were new, had this wow factor, this idea that I was playing something never possible before. The Super Mario Bros. game that came with my NES was almost exactly like the one I could play in the arcade, and that was amazing. Now I could play the same game at home without having to sink a roll of quarters into it to make up for my slow learning ability. I could putz around at home, and then go to the arcade and maybe only spend four quarters to play the whole game.

I’m not one for nostalgia, though, and I think a lot of the indie retro style is meant to tickle a sentiment I’m rarely capable of feeling. I say rarely because something like Shovel Knight comes along, and it does tickle the nostalgia buttons in me for all the right reasons. It’s got gameplay that reminds me of some favorite old games while doing something new at the same time, and that’s what really pleases me. The nostalgia I feel for it is that return to the excitement of playing something new and different, something challenging, but not so hard it stops being fun even after I’ve died twenty or so times.

That is a tricky balance to achieve, the ratio of challenge to fun, and that is where most indie platformers lose me. They’re made to be hard, so hard that a minor percentage of people who buy them will ever beat them. Even the people who do beat them, I don’t think are having a lot of fun while playing them. I say this because I watch them play these games on YouTube, and their growls and slurs are almost as vitriolic as my own. Now, some of you may argue that you are still having fun, but I don’t think you really are. Bashing one’s head repeatedly against a hard object isn’t fun. Hurting your hands for a demanding sequence that allows no room for failure isn’t fun. It’s doesn’t tickle my sense of nostalgia either, because the old NES games that made me angry, I stopped playing and forgot about them and went back to the games I enjoyed playing.

Let me talk about They Bleed Pixels. Here’s a game that uses two buttons, but in my opinion, uses them badly, and even though I’m using a controller with eight easy to reach buttons, won’t let me map the game’s moves to other controls. It also won’t let me use the D-pad, and the analog stick’s somewhat ambiguous reading of my moves means that I spend a lot of time annoyed when the game won’t do what I need to do to survive a demanding situation.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is pretty, and it’s got a great soundtrack. I love that it has a girl as the protagonist, and while I’m not a Lovecraft fan, the premise was interesting enough to get me to plunk down the money to try it out. There’s a variety of enemies, and the art style does evoke some of that old school console nostalgia.

But the controls remind me more of all the old games that put too many moves all in one button, leading to frustrating situations where the attack or move I needed to do in a quarter of a second is misread and leads to repeated deaths. It doesn’t have to be this way. The game could have let me put the claw swipe on one button, the fast kick on anther, the high kick on another, and the jump on yet another. That’s the four face buttons covered and I’ve still got two over each shoulder for slides and whatever else the game feels I need. But instead, all the attacks are in one button and the difference between tapping and holding is easy to mess up in the heat of the moment.

But there’s something else here that makes me walk away, and it’s the demand for perfection. Levels are often set up with the entire floor covered in spikes, so I have to wall cling and wall jump perfectly to make it across an area. It isn’t long before I’m also expected to fight flying enemies who can hover in open space while I must frantically plan my falls to aim for a sticky surface and avoid plunging into spikes for the hundredth time in a row. This sort of platforming is already aggravating without any time constraints added, but then the game begins tossing in advancing saw blades, forcing me through a series of enemy encounters that I must beat to keep moving. There is no move to get past the enemies because the levels are designed with extremely low ceilings. So if I don’t play the game exactly in this one right way, I’m not allowed to advance.

Where I gave up was on one of these saw rooms, where the room moved vertically up to a trap door. I frantically searched for a button, using the right stick to pan around without seeing anything, and after being knocked back by an enemy, I fell down a deep pit and found the switch. So the game makers wanted me to fall all this way, kick the switch, and then double-jump from wall to wall, dodging saw blades all the way up, and racing to get above the ever rising blades coming from the bottom of the screen.

No. No, I’m done here, and I have zero desire to continue playing. I have so little desire to know how the game ends that even with YouTube just a click away in my browser, I just don’t care. That’s because from the moment the game started, I was never having fun with it. I ended up with a raw throat from yelling and growling at every misread controller input, at every death that came down to the analog stick screwing me over.

This leaves me in a bit of a funk because I want to support these indie platform game makers. I want to encourage them to do more games in a style that I loved as a kid. But most of the games I’ve bought have been designed for a completely different audience, and the trend of the indie market seems to be catering almost exclusively to the speed runners. It isn’t that I can’t find some gems in there. In recent memory, there’s been Spelunky, Steamworld Dig, Shovel Knight and Battle Block Theater that scratched that platform itch and which I considered fun for the most part.

But for every fun game I’ve bought, there’s been four or five more that left me so mad and shaking, and Steam just keeps pushing more and more of these kinds of super hard indie platformers at me. It gets to the point where I’m so reluctant to buy anything, I’m at risk of missing out on even the fun games like Shovel Knight because I’ve been burned so often by other games. As it is, I came into Shovel Knight way after it first launched, and only after it was on sale. After playing it, I like it so much that I’m planning to get it for my Vita and PS4. It’s so much fun, I don’t mind paying for it twice. But I almost didn’t get it because the other indie games have made me wary of risking my money on games I won’t be allowed to enjoy. If I pay someone 14 euros for a game, I don’t want to be kicked out of it in the opening chapters because it demands perfection and nothing less. So I buy less games, afraid of this situation being as common as it is.

I’m not the only one to make this observation about games, but this is the only medium where some of the manufacturers gleefully work to prevent you from ever seeing the end of their story. Movies don’t stop in the middle to ask you to fight the usher before you can see the second half. Music doesn’t quiz you in the middle of an album to make sure you’ve grasped the underlying themes in the lyrics. Ebooks don’t give a pop quiz before letting you see the next chapter. But games can and often do trap you at an early point in their story, refusing to let you see the rest because you couldn’t press up, up, x, square, square, square, triangle in a tutorial level in exactly three seconds.

This is not a situation that can’t be addressed with optional skill levels. Think about a game like Street Fighter, where you have the option of setting the skill level. When you first get the game, you need more time to understand how to input attacks. So you bump down the skill level and the enemy attacks come less frequently. Once you feel comfortable using the moves, you bump up the skill level until you’re at the top, racing through fights with the confidence of a veteran.

So for that combo example I just gave, the game maker could adjust the timing of the combo through a skill level slider option, giving me four or five seconds to get in all those prompts until I’ve memorized it and can handle doing it in a shorter three second window. Adjustment of skill doesn’t mean game makers have to get rid of the combo, it only means presenting a skill slider to allow for slower input timers.

The same is true of more modern games like The Last of Us. When you play it on the easiest setting, the game gives your gun a target lock. Once you’ve got a feel for the fights, you move up to normal mode, and you lose that helping crutch. Now you have to aim to hit the enemies. But you’re more comfortable with all the controls, so this is just a little bump to overcome.

Or look at Grand Theft Auto V, which will let you skip missions entirely if you fail them enough times. I only had to use this on the flying sections, but it was an amazing and unheard of idea, that the game maker wanted me to see their whole story so much, they even got rid of the pass/fail blockade that might have sent me out early on in the game.

So let’s get back to They Bleed Pixels again. A skill level option might mean the enemies don’t shove me off a platform the second they see me. It might mean those saw blade traps move a little slower at a lower skill level, and there’s maybe a few less saw blades lining that wall I needed to double jump. Having these options to acclimate me to the game doesn’t mean the hardcore speed runners can’t still play on the hardest setting and spend their days cursing and swearing with every failure. All it means is that the game maker values my perspective as a less skilled gamer who would also like to pay them for their creation. I need a lot of practice before I can move up to the next level in most games, and I appreciate those games that give me the option to scale back the difficulty until I’m more assured of my skills.

Even indie games with no difficulty slider can make the game easier or harder with just a few in-game variables. In Shovel Knight, you can smash the save points to get extra treasure, but that also means that if you die, you’re going all the way back to the beginning. There’s only two or three levels in the whole game that I can complete with no save points. But the thing is, I don’t need to do this to beat the game. It’s just an added layer of challenge for folks looking for a harder game, or those looking to score a unique achievement/trophy. I have won the trophy for making it through a level with no saves. But there’s another layer to this challenge, beating the whole game with no saves, and I don’t think I can ever do that. Which is okay, because that part of the game isn’t made for me. It’s made for the hardcore crowd.

And this is where I want to close this ramble, on the idea that an indie game can appeal to more than one niche audience and still be a success. Shovel Knight can appeal to a less skilled gamer like me by bringing back that old/new nostalgia factor, and it can appeal to the hardcore speed runners at the same time. This is why it frustrates me so much to see a game like They Bleed Pixels lock me out early on and refuse to give me any useful options to make the game less brutal. It doesn’t even need to be a difficulty slider, as I’ve shown with Shovel Knight. It could be an option in the controls to let me map out all the attacks to other buttons. It could be an option allowing me to use the D-pad to eliminate a lot of those misread directional inputs. If I’m willing to pony up the cash to play your game, why are there no options for me to customize my experience? Why are you so rigid about how I play your game?

I want to be a platform fangirl without reservations, but my support and enthusiasm are now constantly tempered by the worry that the game I want to play doesn’t want a loser like me to play it. That’s a damn shame because it often only takes a few small concessions to let me in, concessions that won’t compromise your game in any noticeable way. But if it’s so easy for games to make concessions to players like me, why do so many indies make their games so very hard to enjoy?