1001 Spikes and Creative Maturity
Aban Hawkins and the 1001 Spikes is a content-enhanced port of a “popular” Xbox 360 game originally called….Aban Hawkins and the 1000 Spikes. I use the term popular in quotes since the original game was released through the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, the oft ignored little brother of XBLA. But while XBLIG was a mostly obscure platform, a few of its denizens did manage to rise to a relative amount of prominence, and I feel that Aban Hawkins was one of them. This new edition doubles the content of the main adventure through the addition of a new world and produces a few new unlockable modes to serve as side attractions to the central single player mode. There are also several unlockable characters, many visiting from other indie game series, that have unique abilities which adds to replayability. I played the game on 3DS, but you can also find it on Steam, Wii U, PS4, and Vita.
1001 Spikes is a big pixel-styled, Indiana Jones-esque platformer that hangs its hat on a brutal difficulty level. The game stars Aban Hawkins, an adventurer tasked by the departed father he hated with delving into the lost temple of Ukampa to plunder the untouched riches guarded within. The name 1001 Spikes has a two-fold meaning: the temple is loaded with spike traps (amongst other hazards), but also the player is given 1001 lives at the beginning to complete the game (there are other means of gaining additional lives, however).
1001 Spikes finds itself in the company of games like Super Meat Boy or Ms. Splosion Man, but unlike those games, the platforming physics are more humble. Unlike the fast slippery fluidity you’ll find in Super Meat Boy, Aban Hawkins is governed by relatively more limited mobility that is more similar to Super Mario Bros. 3 than many modern platformers. There is no wall jumping and your ability to control your trajectory while in mid-air (air control) has a fairly limited range. While Aban does have a means of attacking enemies through the daggers he can throw, there are actually very few creatures you’ll have to contend with in the temple. It is very much based around dealing with the various traps (spikes, boulders, pits, fireballs, falling ceilings, etc.) that Aban will have to maneuver through to escape the temple alive. In this context, the dagger is primarily used to intercept and deflect daggers being spit out being wall traps. The traps are all laid out in a fairly grueling pattern, and the game very rarely holds back on the player. In most games, after completing a fairly arduous series of challenges within a level, the designers will make the rest of the level a fairly easy path to the exit. This is, of course, not how 1001 Spikes works. Odds are, after surviving a harsh sequence of traps, you’ll only be given a slight breather before you find yourself again on a pathway expertly primed for your death.
And yet, despite the fact that it is an immensely hard game, it does try to be a very fair game. Traps are usually telegraphed before being triggered through (sometimes subtle) visual or audio clues which provide the player with a chance to evade oncoming death. These clues prevent the game from being completely trial-and-error like I Wanna Be the Guy (which is a game that is intentionally unfair), as careful observation will signal you onto the presence of a trap without needing to die on that trap first. Yet despite the subtle cues for these dangers, you will still die…a lot.
I’ve classified 1001 Spikes in the same company as Super Meat Boy, another notoriously difficult platformer, but really, 1001 Spikes feels like a game that is several steps up the ladder in terms of challenge. The level of precision timing and movement that is required in 1001 Spikes is exceptionally high, even for this type of hardcore platformer. Currently, I’m halfway through the second map of the adventure, and even though the levels are small in size, the harder ones have been taking me between 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete. I’m someone who usually goes for these types of ultra-tight challenges, but this game sometimes just feels too much for me in ways that its alternatives never have. It has crossed the line between being a daring test and a frustrating trial more than a few times. The experience is definitely not for everyone, and gamers who dislike daunting challenges should probably just avoid it. Regardless though, I remain hooked by the game despite the ills it casts upon me. It just pinches a nerve in me that refuses to allow me to be back down before something as trivial as a video game, and after I’ve conquered a particularly rough level, the cathartic feeling of triumph that brings is extremely gratifying.
Aside from relating my experiences with the game, I decided to write this blog because 1001 Spikes and the recent E3 event has me thinking about the maturity of games as a creative effort. It takes a lot of confidence from a designer to make a game like this. The designer has to have faith in the player that they won’t just walk away from the game at the merest sign of hassle, and the designer has to be comfortable with the thought that not everyone will find enjoyment in their game as a result of reasons that are perfectly rational. You see this more commonly in small scale development than you do in big budget games. Big budget games often feel so desperate to avoid the player from ever experiencing a second of discouragement that they are loaded down with quick hints to easily-solvable problems, constant nagging of the player to remind them of what they should be doing, and heavy use of scripted events to relate dangerous events (a “tell don’t show” mentality). At times, the designer’s assistance to the gamer can get so overbearing that these “sanitized” adventures feel bereft of excitement and thrill despite the bombastic action game trappings. Other times the desire to avoid frustration actually induces frustration. I remember an annoyance I had at the beginning of Borderlands 2 when the little robot wanted me to come over and flip a switch for him. Problem was, at the time, a group of monsters were beating down on me, and I had to deal with that situation before I could obey the orders the game was giving me in regards to the switch. Yet still, the little robot didn’t recognize my predicament and kept incessantly nagging me over and over and over on a quick audio loop insisting I flip the switch. I’ve experienced so many situations like this, when a game is trying to remind me where I need to be, but I’m busy doing my own thing at that time. Maybe I’m looking around for ammo or loot or just exploring the area to see what I can find, but since I’m not in the exact place the game wants me to be, it retaliates by spamming audio and visual reminders about where it wants me to go next. The desire to provide assistance to the player in avoiding confusion has become a rigorous demand for obedience.
I think there exists a difference in maturity between the big budget and small scale developers. I don’t mean maturity in the sense of tackling high-minded themes or in the sense of having excessive levels of violent or sexual content. I mean they are more mature in how they treat their games as a creative effort. The big budget developers remind me of teenagers desperate to make everyone think they’re cool. This is reflected in their game design by trying to make games that are as stress-free for the player as possible, but also in the ways they represent themselves in promotional and marketing material. E3 had a lot of good examples of this. So many big budget action games have these incredibly sappy trailers that want to give the appearance that the game is super deep on an emotional-level, when in fact, the games being represented are fairly straightforward and cookie cutter shooting game with little artistic resonance. (The Division struck me as an extreme example of this.)
Small scale developers, on the other hand, tend to design games that reflect a greater level of self-confidence. To take the professional and financial risk of striking out on your own requires a true passion for one’s own vision. These developers are simply putting their dream out there and, while maybe not everyone will “get it,” hopefully there is a following that will understand and enjoy their work. If big budget developers in this analogy are high-schoolers straining to be popular, then indie developers are the college-aged kids who have matured to a level that negative self-consciousness doesn’t hold them back.
I understand that there are perhaps rational business reasons for why big budget developers act the way they do. Those games represent massive capital investments that require the employment of hundreds of people, and, therefore, the major publishers are building and marketing their game to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. But the results of such behavior can often feel watered-down and inoffensive. It is like the difference between Bud Light and a microbrew. The Bud Light is designed with minimization of flavor in mind to appeal to a lowest common denominator standard. Meanwhile, the microbrew is tailored to be more flavorful, but this comes at the expense of turning off potential drinkers. For the case of 1001 Spikes, the high difficulty will surely turn off many gamers, but there is a fanbase out there who definitely jam on this sort of thing.
In the end, I don’t want to begrudge the big developers too much for why they build games the way they do. But if you consider games as artistic efforts, then I think the point still stands, regardless of commercial considerations, that small scale and indie developers have a much better developed sense of creative pride and artistic maturity.