This is a post about Super Hexagon and being shy
Super Hexagon is difficult, exhilarating, minimal, and enlightening. The controls are uncomplicated, and precise. The visuals are colorful, but basic. The music is symbiotic with the frenetic pace of the puzzling, and progressively hypnotic in the later stages.
The game has one rule — don’t touch the spinning shapes twirling inward at you. “You” are a small arrow in the center of the screen. Played on an iOS device, you tap on the left or right side of your screen, and the view rotates accordingly. As varying colored shapes swirl like a whirlpool inward, sometimes in stymieing labyrinthine arrangements, you have to quickly rotate the screen to avoid them. As you progress, the movement of the pieces becomes quicker, their arrangements more complex, the order of arrangements more varied, and with little more than an infectious musical cue, the rotation of the shapes can change altogether.
Super Hexagon is addictive. It’s relentlessly hard, but success is exhilarating. Making it even 30 seconds into a game made me feel like a hyper-reactive, clairvoyant, maestro of spinning shapes and a little yellow arrow in the center of this techno-scored, spinning universe. That’s likely because I heard the synthetic female voice that ushers you into every game, pronounce, “game over” within five seconds of hearing, “begin” about a dozen times before I managed to successfully maneuver the playing field around several shapes. It was fun, and I got progressively better. Once I broke 20 seconds for the first time, I was hooked.
Super Hexagon is simple, and clever. It has a thin rule book, and consequently feels ripe with strategy, but also directly tied to your reflexes. This is one of the hardest games I’ve played in a long time; this is one of the most rewarding games I’ve played in a long time. It starts with an elementary mechanic that progresses to require dexterous solutions, swiftly executed. It has no narrative. It has no characters. It’s worth playing every second you have an urge to play a game and nothing else.
Super Hexagon is pure play. “Play is the thing.” Only considering games that are purely play, Super Hexagon may be the best game I’ve ever played.
I was shy as a kid
Especially as I entered my teenage years, I felt odd being called shy, and didn’t like admitting it (although I did, often to placate the accusers so I didn’t have to talk to them). Now I tell people I’m shy as a joke. I tell them about how shy I was as a kid, usually after having said something facetious. No one believes me. With new friends, or people I’m just getting to know, I’ll jokingly throw out, “Oh, I’m really shy,” and they’ll laugh. While I’ll still employ calculated silence (mostly in professional settings), people who know me would say I don’t shut up often enough.
As a young child, I don’t think I had much awareness of my shyness. I just knew that in most cases, I didn’t care to talk with people, and in some cases didn’t want to be around people at all. Shy was a label, and once I learned what it meant, I knew I didn’t like it. But so many people thrust it on me that I did what most kids do — I wore the label.
I think improv is what killed the shyness. In my teenage years, around friends, the typical thing would happen — someone would tell a joke, someone else would riff off it, then another person, then another. We got competitive about it, kept track of who dropped the ball the most in an evening. I got pretty good at never dropping it. And it seemed most of the time I could send a laugh through the room. I don’t remember what we joked about then, but I’m sure it wasn’t funny to anyone but us. The idea is that you could say anything as long as it made people laugh, as long as it wasn’t boring. It didn’t matter if it was offensive. The social cue was obvious — people laughing meant you were doing it right.
I’ve gotten the idea that the best things to talk about are the ones that fly right off the top of your head, the phrases unchecked, unfiltered, on fire and brimming with spontaneity. I don’t want to talk about the weather, or your job, or anything mundane or ordinary. I want to talk about everything we shouldn’t be talking about, all the naughty stuff, the taboos, the bad words, the stuff we got yelled at for asking about as kids. I want to say all the unsaid things, hear others say all the stuff they thought they couldn’t. If we had a conversation that’s the kind it’d be, or at least, that’s what I’d hope for. I love to talk to people, all kinds of people, as long as they’re willing to help me break the stupid box that’s been put around public conversation.
I haven’t thought of myself as shy in years. Then I played Super Hexagon.
Those first dozen or so attempts at Super Hexagon were the first indication this wasn’t really the game for me. I kept wanting everything to stop so I could analyze it. It was all the tries after that where I learned the real lesson, the secret, paradigm shift that hit me like a truck — there is no time to slow down, or stop, or think or any of that other nitpicky bullshit. You just have to go, with less planning and more instinct, less deliberation and more action. I thought it all at once, paused after losing a round, reeled, then played some more and slowly started to accept it.
I started silently repeating to myself, as I played…
listen to the music…
don’t avoid the shapes, go towards the open spaces…
Thinking all these things made me feel silly, and like a weird puzzler-playing hippie. But they helped. And adopting a less rigid, more fluid mindset drastically helped me improve at the game. These ideas of freedom and fluidity felt counter intuitive, strangely foreign to me. Then I realized.
I’ve found the worst conversations are the fake ones, the disingenuous ones, the constrained ones — the kind we’re forced to have when we’re afraid to say the wrong thing, when we’re forced to say what we don’t mean by profession or convention or peer pressure. I’m not good at those, not really. I’ve learned to feign the right inflection, project the appropriate tonality, stretch my paltry acting skills as far as they’ll go — but I don’t like those conversations. They lack the explicit language that keeps people from stumbling around in vague dialogue, lacking the mutual knowledge necessary to have the really good conversations — the knowledge that we all want to break this stupid conventional box around conversation.
When I’m constrained, by circumstances or my own perceptions, I shrink. I’m more like the shy boy with something to say, but internally fumbling, wondering what’s OK to utter, what’s not inappropriate to say, instead of what’s honest. Limitations can sometimes push us to be creative, but when they’re too many or we too unfamiliar with how to navigate them, we stumble.
I’m still bad at small talk. But I’m good at being honest, and getting better. While playing Super Hexagon, I had to get into the improv mindset, and never second guess, despite all the barriers coming at me fast and random.
I think I’m going to play this game for a long time. I’ve quickly developed a strange attachment to it, for the reasons you’ve just read. It’s a great stress reliever for me. Staring down into that ever spinning maze of colorful objects, with Chipzel’s 8-bit track pumping into my ears, deftly navigating Terry Cavanagh’s masterpiece of design, I feel in the zone — in a state of flow.
It’s remarkable play. And I think, like the best kind of play, it’s taught me something about myself.