Wot I Think: Super Hexagon

By Adam Smith on January 10th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

Ever looking forward, I’ve finally found the time to explore my thoughts about one of last year’s finest. I played Super Hexagon and I loved Super Hexagon, but it wasn’t until I saw it removed from my screen and occurring in a drinking establishment that I found the words I needed.

I was seven or eight pints deep when Super Hexagon finally clicked with me. I’d like to say an excess of fizzy idiot-pop had placed me in my own personal zone, like a PI who cracks a case while spluttering through a mouthful of Wild Turkey tailfeathers, previously unnoticed connections bubbling up in the oak-tinged burn behind his hooded eyes.

I’m no Bogart though. Super Hexagon clicked when I watched somebody else playing, in a bar, my inebriated tunnel vision incapable of seeing anything but the downward spiral and figuring, hey, maybe I’m actually watching The Ascension, or at least an ascension.

The guy was touching screen like a techno concert pianist. I didn’t look at his face – I assume he was either a pre-Raphaelite angel or a helmeted member of Daft Punk – but I’m not convinced that the game even engaged him on a visual level such was his mastery. His eyes could have wandered wherever they chose, although the faces of the hushed onlookers were crowding out everything except the grain of the table surface and the scattered pint pots with their drippy dregs.

this is not me

Maybe he did look at the swirling abstractions – the twitching, pulsing obstacle course – but I could have sworn he didn’t need to. He picked the hexagoniest setting available, nodded his head curtly to signal intent and find the rhythm, and then he dodged and pirouetted, throwing unshaken shapes as if he had been born dancing. He danced, of course, on the four wooden legs of his chair and entirely without motion, except for the spring of a finger.

It was hypnotic. Watching was an honour and I understood how fighting game fans must feel, watching combos expertly strung together and juggles performed to perfection. This is how impressive e-sports champs must look as they micro and macro-ni cheese their way through matches. It was the Yputube video of heavenly bullet hell play and Guitar Hero dominance, but it was happening live, in a bar, on a tiny screen.

I am a Hexagoner, with definite emphasis on the last two syllables, proud when I survive for thirty seconds on the lowest difficulty level, ecstatic when I reach a new portion of the shifting shape. I’ve never quit a session without feeling I’ve made progress though, even if the timely measurements that flicker from the screen might not reflect my learning.

I’ve compared Super Hexagon to Hotline Miami before and I stand by that. The instant punching of the restart button, the immediate erasure of failure, and the presence of enormous difficulties with tiny consequences are common elements of both games. ‘AGAIN’, intoned so sweetly and yet sharply, is alternately needling, urging, encouraging, exasperating, calming, joyous and rewarding.

(edit: it says ‘BEGIN’ but my silly brain has decided it’s ‘AGAIN’ and refuses to be corrected)

The voice is a reward, at once part of the music and apart from it. It brings me back to myself every few seconds, whether through failure or advancement, and reminds me not to become one with the machine, even though that appears to be the path to ultimate success. Tetsmitho: The Hexaman (NSFMostPlaces). Cut me and I bleed angles.

Sometimes a session will last five minutes and feel like an hour, sometimes two hours will trance by in an instant. I don’t know if Dr Rorschach – whose Wikipedia photo weirdly reminds me of Brad Pitt – was in Terry Cavanagh’s conscious, sub or otherwise, but the shapes in Super Hexagon eventually start to resemble things. Or at least they do when I’m playing, at four o’clock in the morning, haunted by insomniac reveries. If your mind has immediately leapt into a gutter, do not retrieve it. The vantage point is useful. From there you can see the stars, which are pretty and mystifying, but more importantly, you can also see drainage in action.

Oddly, and I really can’t shake this, Super Hexagon has increasingly begun to resemble a living drain into which the various and vitreous humours of my eyes are drawn, like Janet Leigh’s syrup-blood, captured as it spills. And, as in Psycho, the drain and the eye eventually become one. The cuts are quick and brutal, just as in that scene, as famous for Hermann’s contributions as much as Hitchcock’s, but Hexagon’s music doesn’t bleed out on a bassline, it makes the blood pump inward and always toward the heart. COME ON, it synth-shouts, WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER.

Or maybe that doesn’t work, because maybe the music is the blood, the red thread of life pushed forward by the pulse and the throb. There’s something anatomical about Super Hexagon, that’s all I know, but that’s enough to cling to, the unexpected flotsam in what at first threatens to be a cold machine of a game.

I’m writing about the IGF-nominated masterwork now because there’s a blank space in the RPS archives that’s distinctly Hexagon-like. It’s a challenging game to write about both because it’s experienced in a strange zone that it’s hard to rediscover in words and because its surface-shape is so simple. Press the right buttons at the right times to win. That sure is a description of games, right?

The question is, how much does the rest mean, all of the things that aren’t perfectly timed inputs? If the maestro in the pub was working entirely from memory, as it seemed, the game could be replaced by beeps – push right now, push left now. That, I believe, is where the intensity and brilliance of the design can be found. Remove anything or add anything and Super Hexagon wouldn’t be quite as super. The music, the shapes, the colours, the movement, the precision of control and the speech aren’t quite cogs in a machine, because adding to or subtracting from them wouldn’t break the mechanism; they’re more like voices in a choir. You could modify the choir, you could even adapt pieces into solos or throw in an orchestra, but some pieces can be pitched perfectly without raising the roof.

Super Hexagon sings. Sometimes I applaud a game for the scope of its ambition or the sheer amount of toys it puts in my hands, but the fine edges of Cavanagh’s latest are suggestive of a scalpel-keen focus and adherence to testing and a sort of editorial precision. If it was a thousand-and-some word feature on a glorified blog, Super Hexagon wouldn’t necessarily reach a clear conclusion, but not a word would have been wasted.

No diversions, no tangents; light, sound and interaction, tuned for a perfectly chambered symphony.

Super Hexagon is available now, priced at £1.99.

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106 Comments »

  1. Kaminnozh says:

    This game too edgy for me.

  2. Cara Ellison says:

    Adam: perfect review. It says everything. I heart it. “Super Hexagon sings.” It does.

  3. GallonOfAlan says:

    So … is it sort of like the White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army’ video, backwards, as a game ?

  4. jhng says:

    Yes, a thousand times, yes!

    My GOTY2012 for all the above reasons and more.

    Of course, Adam does it a violence by writing about it — “of which we cannot speak, we should remain silent” and all that. If you’re reading this you’re wasting valuable Hexagoning time!

  5. DJ Madeira says:

    Sounds like Ziggurat, minus the polarizing creator.

  6. DickSocrates says:

    I just don’t like how it looks. It’s not an interesting thing to look at. And if you have time to play this you have time to do something else.

    • bwion says:

      “And if you have time to play this, you have time to do something else.”

      Surely that’s true of any game, though. And, indeed, of any activity at all.

    • MOKKA says:

      And there is the problem: Just by looking at it, even if you’re watching a video, you won’t understand why the game is so good.

    • wu wei says:

      Oh, well, if _you_ don’t like it, I’m sure everyone will stop playing. STOP HAVING FUN EVERYONE! SickDocrates has revealed how hollow your experience really is!

    • Douchetoevsky says:

      It’s a good thing you don’t like this game, or else you might not have had the time to write out that comment. Of course, a busy person such as yourself wastes no time on lowly videogames. How can any responsible person waste their time on such a fickle pasttime, when there are IMPORTANT things to attend to, like leaving asinine comments on videogame reviews.

      Truly, you are an exemplary being.

  7. Jigowatt says:

    Great WIT Adam. Loving Super Hexagon at the moment! One of the best games of 2012. Interestingly, I find I play best when my mind is distracted (e.g. if I’m talking to someone, or thinking about something other than the game while I play). Consciously thinking about my movements in the game seems to inhibit my progress.

    (Oh and sorry to nitpick, but the voice says “BEGIN”, not “AGAIN”. Although the latter would be appropriate!).

  8. McDan says:

    Reading this in a library and with headphones in for that trailer and I was literally jumping up and down in my seat not noticing anything else. Then when it ended people were staring at me and I just said It’s super hexagon then turned back to the screen. Who cares about them. Look at the game.

  9. ocelotwildly says:

    I absolutely love Super Hexagon. I really hope it gets the design award at the IGF, because it really is pure design, there’s not an ounce of fat on the thing. I only realised after playing it for a while that it was essentially a bullet hell variant, which I’m not usually drawn to, but one that had been reduced to first principles.

    I’m with Adam on the sense of suction into a great all knowing eye as well – I find I play best when I just gaze into the centre and let unknown, primal parts of my brain pilot my fingers for me. Staring at the circling drain allows me to collate all the information about the dangers of incoming shapes from my peripheral vision without my higher brain function having to worry itself unnecessarily. I find myself genuinely unnerved when, sufficiently roused by the rage of another failure to finally hammer Esc Esc Esc out of the game, I feel myself removed from its trance like someone has just pried a brainslug from my temple.

    I do worry that someone wandering into the room would assume that I have been taken over by a terrible game-hypnosis based world domination tool, not unlike the Octopus from bonkers Children’s TV serial The Prime Ministers Brain.

    • Lambchops says:

      I knew it reminded me of something!

      Loved those books/tv series and love Super Hexagon too.

    • Magnetude says:

      I worry what my face looks like too, it’s properly hypnotising. I get this strange optical illusion effect while playing where it’ll switch abruptly from 2D surface with hexagons moving towards the center, to 3D tunnel that the camera’s moving backwards along. It happens at random when I least expect it and I have to suddenly change the way I process what’s happening. No other game has ever done anything like that. It’s like going on holiday in a synaesthesiac’s brain or something.

  10. Xocrates says:

    Super Hexagon shames me, not because I suck at it, but because it may happen that I’ll live to one thousand and, perhaps, become the most successful game designer of all time, but I will never be able to create a game as precise and masterfully crafted as Super Hexagon.

    Terry Cavanagh, I will buy a hat so that if we ever meet I may tip it for you.

  11. Koozer says:

    *watches trailer*

    OH GOD MY EYES

    …I don’t think this is a game for me.

  12. Jigowatt says:

    Here’s a beautiful and very moving article by Jenn Frank (the ‘voice’ of Super Hexagon). Be warned, it’s powerful stuff: http://www.unwinnable.com/2012/11/29/allow-natural-death

    It’s not a piece about Super Hexagon, but it does have some very interesting things to say about how the game can be interpreted.

    Anyway, I’m sure many people read this when Jim linked to it in the Sunday Papers a few weeks ago, but I thought it deserved another mention here.

  13. DarrenS says:

    Over-hyped garbage.

  14. DK says:

    It doesn’t have a Demo. Pass.

    • ocelotwildly says:

      Beyond the fact that it’s a little churlish to demand a demo for a tiny game that costs only £1.99, you can try out the original flash version here

  15. Duke of Chutney says:

    Far Cry 3 isn’t game of the year, this is(or was). I appreciate its difficult to get, but its pure brilliance. Good words Adam

  16. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    The Hexagonest is the King of All Gamers.

  17. AmateurScience says:

    I do hope Mr Cavanagh can find a way to overcome the nexus 7 input lag issues so that I can play this on my phone. Then I can be rubbish at it on the go too. Perfect game though.

    I love how this game has inspired some seriously top quality writing too.

    Also there’s something about the music that makes me feel like I’m moving at several thousand miles an hour.

  18. Laurentius says:

    Finally, game journalist praising a game that is at its core pure “gamey. I’m fed up with a caste of game journalist so afraid that would loose their status of masters in word crafting that they have to cling all the time to “narrative” and put on pedestal of bazillions of hollow words subpar game like Spec:Ops-The line, leaving game like Tetris, Minecraft or Super Hexagon to “common folk”.

  19. mgardner says:

    This game would have been right at home in an 80′s arcade, complete with spinner control and maybe even vector graphics. It would have sucked all the coins out of my pocket every time I walked by.

  20. felisc says:

    Mh, there really seems to be a lot of love for this game. I have not yet played it but i must admit i’m a bit confused by people saying it’s goty… I mean all i see is a bunch of geometry moving.
    Maybe it’s one of those things that don’t look like much, but once you experience it you’re in a love. Kind of like a calzone pizza.

    • Bostec says:

      Indeed, the pills I take don’t look like much but when I take ‘em, Hot damn I am in love with everybody.

    • Sternhammer says:

      So, nice to see the Chef from Mario Deluxe Calzone Pizza posting :)

      And yep, GOTY may be hyperbole but you do NEED to play this to fully appreciate its retro yet transient state inducing loveliness. It’ll certainly be the best two quid you spend in 2013.

  21. Patches the Hyena says:

    22.38 on Hyper Hexagonest seems to be my limit. Not for long though…

  22. MOKKA says:

    So who else here is showing some weird behaviours while playing the game?

    I have to sit on my chair in a very paticular way in order to play the game properly and the slightest discomfort makes it impossible for me to get anything done in it.

    • Sternhammer says:

      Hmmm, its not just me then.. it has that same ‘nothing in my peripheral vision, chair needs to be adjusted, lights have to be off, wife must be downstairs watching a murder mystery, 3 pints of stout in and headphones on’ requirement that retro stunner Ballblazer and its later clone Skyroads etc had. Only then can you unleash your inner reflexes and mind to the required level of detachment… One hell of a game !!

      • captaincabinets says:

        Fuuuck. Skyroads. Oh man. Two glasses of strong lime cordial, homework 3/8ths complete, very slowly sinking pneumatic chair, dog barking in the key of F#, or I couldn’t complete a single track.

  23. Dare_Wreck says:

    Now that I’ve seen Hermann Rorschach’s picture on Wikipedia, I can’t unsee Brad Pitt…

  24. GameCat says:

    It have some HUGE flaws.
    First, controls. My god, using arrows or mouse buttons is so fucking annoying. Press the key miliseconds too long and boom, game over. Someone bring me gamepad with stick or let me move using mouse (not mouse buttons).

    Second, that goddamn voice:
    “GAME OVER, AGAIN/BEGIN, GAME OVER, AGAIN/BEGIN” – Goddamn Voice

    Uhhh, shut up. Why I can’t turn it off? Oh, you can, but it mutes the music as well and music is huge fun factor here.

    • beekay says:

      Yes, the controls are abysmal – I was only able to play for about two minutes before I quit in frustration. Why would you use arrow keys to move continuously when it would make so much more sense to have it move discretely? The article describes touching, so I assume that’s the only way it’s possible to play.

      • skymt says:

        The touch controls are essentially identical to the keyboard or mouse controls: tap the left and right sides of the screen to move.

        Terry Cavanagh voiced a bit of his rationale for the controls in this Steam thread.

        I get that not everybody like how the game feels, but I promise you that it’s very, very intentional. Stick with it – once things get hard and interesting, I think you’ll come to see why they are they way they are! I think analogue controls in this game would feel very messy – you really need digital precision for everything to work the way I want it to work.

        After playing… Oh dear… 5 hours of Super Hexagon (according to Steam), I think I get why that is. At higher difficulties, it works almost like a rhythm game. You learn the muscle memory for patterns of notes/obstacles, then play is mostly about not letting your brain get in the way. Analog controls would require a degree of precise motor control that would render harder levels practically impossible. One tip: if you find yourself overshooting gaps a lot, make sure vsync is off. The input lag it introduces makes the game significantly harder.

        • beekay says:

          This post convinced me to play it a little more and I am now completely in agreement with the prevailing adoration of the game. The controls are indeed fine.

        • GameCat says:

          One unwritten video games law: if it sucks at start why should I except it to not suck after couple of hours?
          “Oh, it’s bad now, but it’s getting better after X hours. Now sit down and enjoy that miserable and frustrating experience until it will be fun.” Sorry, this is bullshit.

          • c-Row says:

            Never got past the trial in NWN2 for that exact reason. That whole first chapter just sucked dwarf balls and was so full of bad fantasy tropes… ugh.

          • Josh W says:

            In exactly the same situation, I wish someone would make a mod to take it out, but I suppose most people who mod nwn2 already can stand the first chapter!

  25. DrunkDog says:

    I don’t know. I did think it was a case of the Emperor’s New Geometry at first, but now having played it I can see there’s something there. I don’t think it’s the “best thing ever”, but is very “game”, pure game. In fact I’d quite like to see a Commodore 64/Speccy demake to see if the concept holds up when it’s lo-fi.

  26. Jackablade says:

    You know, I joked on KotakuAU that perhaps the seemingly inexplicable adulation that this game generates from media and public alike was because it was a variant of the Snow Crash virus and the infection was sending players into a euphoric state only able to sing the praises of the game in order to ensnare more hapless players.

    I joked, but reading this article and thread, I have to wonder.

  27. ffordesoon says:

    SUPER HEXAGON

    SUPER HEXAGON

    ALL GLORY TO SUPER HEXAGON

  28. Shazbut says:

    It looks addictive but not fun. Being taunted by my score would no doubt take me back to it but it still seems like a big waste of time waiting to happen. I think I’ll pass.

    Also, graphics like that can’t be healthy

  29. aliksy says:

    Looks like a free flash game from 2002-ish. Music is kind of catchy but also kind of annoying (to me). I guess I’ll file this under “Things That Are Not For Me”.

  30. d00d3n says:

    Very hectic game. Not suited for old people with shit reflexes and a fixed spatial awareness of the world. I find it nice that so many people like it, even calling it GOTY and such, but the game was not very fun to play for me. I also fail to se the intellectual reasons behind calling it one of the best games of the year. Sure, it is an original puzzle game with unique game mechanics. That’s it, right? No packaging, no context, no gameplay progression. Sure, the ideas are nice, but come on, these are not tetris level gameplay ideas (or even picross level for that matter). Is this really a game that belongs in the same category as World of Goo?

  31. sonofsanta says:

    I think that was the finest bit of writing I’ve seen from you yet, Mr. Smith, and on a topic that – at first glance – seems so impossible to write on.

    Bravo, fair northern knight of our keyboards. Bravo.

    (yes, a pointless comment, but then so are all the “that woz shit” comments that inevitably arise like grass in the spring, so I thought I’d balance the books a bit)

  32. Carra says:

    I just swore out loud while playing this game. Not something I do often…

  33. JayC1407 says:

    The hexworld sings to me and I respond in kind.

  34. Josh W says:

    That this game intentionally doesn’t put things in the centre of the screen is pretty damned clever.

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