In All Seriousness

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colossus.pngI've been having some serious trouble formulating a response to this post over at HardCasual. A couple days ago they called out me and the rest of the blogosphere for the way we've handled You Have to Burn the Rope. HardCasual's point is that YHTBTR is a "smart" game, like Passage, and that games journalists are making it out to be merely "clever," by which they seem to mean "good only for a cheap laugh." I've been reading HardCasual for a couple weeks now, and I like it a lot, but something about this rubbed me the wrong way. I do agree, though, that YHTBTR is worth a bit of deeper analysis.

Aside from being funny, what, exactly, is YHTBTR saying? It's an almost perfect example of a classic action-adventure puzzle of the sort you might find in a Zelda game. It's simple, but its simplicity shouldn't be overestimated. Under normal circumstances, a player would naturally spend a couple minutes jumping around bullets and throwing axes before he or she figured out how to beat the Grinning Colossus. The point, of course, is that these aren't normal circumstances, and the game takes every available opportunity to point out the solution to the puzzle ahead of time. Knowing the solution removes all - well, almost all; there's still some platforming that requires twitch-play - the challenge from the game.

What's interesting to me is what that leaves you with: this super-simple, ultra-short, minimally challenging game is a perfect test case for an experiment about the relationship between difficulty, accomplishment, and fun. I've played YHTBTR a dozen times now, despite the fact that there is very little reason to do so. One play-through is almost exactly like another; it's impossible to lose, and no significant way to win with style. There's no emotional build, and likewise no significant narrative arc. The credits song is catchy, but I've already got it as an MP3, so that isn't a great motivator. The only good incentive, as far as I can make it out, is an emotional burst associated with winning, even in the absence of a challenge.

Possibly I'm reading my own reaction all wrong. It's conceivable that the real attractor to this game is the relatively high production value. Certainly, YHTBTR is well polished. Its graphics are solid, its interface is very well designed, and its self-aware sense of irony is downright charming. But it seems to me that there is something about burning that rope; maybe not a feeling of accomplishment, exactly, but a sense of satisfaction, or at least completion, that provides some sort of positive reinforcement. Something which indicates that - or rather, reinforces my belief that - at least for some gamers, myself included, a game can impart a sense of joy that is unrelated to its difficulty.

Is this what Kian Bashiri was trying to way with his game? I don't know; maybe not. It's what I got out of the game. If you're interested in the author's intentions, there's an interview with him over at IndieGames that's worth checking out.

The problem I have with HardCasual on this issue, aside from the pretentious tone that they adopted and the fact that they seemed to spend more energy complaining about the blogosphere's reaction to the game than on their own analysis of it, is that the production of FAQ files and video walkthroughs is not counterproductive to the message of YHTBTR. In fact, from my perspective, it's an excellent demonstration of the game's lesson. Creating elaborate guides for this game simply reinforces the central point that the puzzle is not a significant challenge, and doing it with the evident joy expressed on blogs like Rock, Paper, Shotgun or my own supports the thesis that a game without a significant challenge can still be fun. I think the fact that these fan-creations were so quickly aggregated on the YHTBTR homepage is further evidence that, far from detracting from the game, these artifacts are very much in keeping with what the game is trying to accomplish.

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Sam said:

Hey, this is Sam from Hardcasual. Thanks for the comments. I can't say I really disagree with you (especially about my pretense). To be clear about one thing: I love a good joke, and I love a good feeling of accomplishment. I just had some worries when I looked back on the weekend of RSS feeds and saw a lot of writing I felt was entirely outside of my interest or experience.

Thanks for your comments and taking me down a peg. I'm only now figuring out how to best write for this world. This was our first big splash in the blog world, and I hope you and others keep reading as our writing and content mature.

- Sam

Chris said:

Hi from HardCasual,

I actually agree with you about the responses to YHTBTR as great cultural artifacts, but Sam wrote the Ropeburned article, so I can't respond for him.

I think his intentions of that article went beyond YHTBTR, and were aimed more at the problem with game blog cleverness. Many of us (myself included) tend to fall into a gamer vernacular created by an outspoken few. We usually go for the dick joke.

I was fortunate enough to interview Leigh Alexander from Gamasutra and SexyVideoGameLand the other day, and this was a big point of discussion. That to will pop up on HardCasual soon, so please keep reading. We promise to be less pretentious.

Then again, we do love discussions, so we're always eager to start a healthy argument.

Oh, but YHTBTR...

For me, I enjoy it because the game tells me to do something and I do it. I wonder if it has to do with my need to obey the rules, and the feeling of accomplishment from a job well done.

Eh, maybe?

Also, I'm addicted to burning rope, so that could be it too. :)

ndef Author Profile Page said:

Hi, Chris! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

Reading through Sam's article, it's clear that he's addressing more than just YHTBTR, as you say. And, actually, I completely agree with his complaints against the overuse of dick jokes. They're rarely insightful and usually not even that funny. Fair enough. That's why I prefer reading Sexy Videogameland and Play This Thing! and HardCasual to mainstream sites like Kotaku and Joystiq that I think are more likely to resort to that sort of thing in place of making a more interesting point.

My real problem with Sam's article, I guess, is that I think he picked a lousy example with which to launch a justified scolding of games journalists. Nobody (that I've seen) is making dick jokes about YHTBTR. I don't think that clever means the same thing as juvenile, and I have a lot of trouble using "clever" in a strictly pejorative sense the way Sam seems to be using it in the article.

TYTBTR makes an interesting point about the cathartic experience of winning a game. But it makes that point by being clever, and the fact that game blogs have embraced that cleverness in order to show their enthusiasm for the game doesn't diminish the game or, in my mind, the blogs themselves. It isn't equivelent to an actual analysis of the game, but it doesn't do any harm, either.

As for YHTBTR itself... you make an excellent point about the satisfaction that comes along with obeying the rules. I hadn't considered it like that, but I think you're absolutely right. It's almost as though, instead of playing against the game, you're playing in cooperation with the game: it tells you what you should do, and you do it, and together you beat the boss. Achieving a goal through that sort of cooperative action does make you feel good about yourself and your role in the system.

Again, thanks for writing, Chris. I really enjoy reading HardCasual, and I'll look forward to Leigh's interview.

sam ryan Author Profile Page said:

Hi, this is Sam from Hardcasual.

Chris said a lot of what I would have, and I collected a few more thoughts on the website. I really appreciate your thoughtful feedback and your measured and thought-provoking response to the game. I hope my pretension hasn't turned you off of our future work too much.

ndef Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for stopping by, Sam. For what it's worth, I thought you raised some great points about the game in your original article. I look forward to reading much more like it in the future.

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