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masocore games

contemporary videogame design shies away from player death, tries to avoid or at least mitigate the amount of time the player spends looking at a game over screen. in an age where game over is seen as undesirable, masocore games approach player death as a narrative technique.

this “genre”, which has proliferated recently, has had a number of names attached to it, but this one (coined by a pretty cool lady on the selectbutton forums) is my favorite for obvious reasons. it encompasses games like i wanna be the guy, jinsei owata no daibouken, syoban action. here’s an example of a typical scene:

trees full of apples. unassuming, you stride under one, and an apple falls from the tree and crushes you, sending you back to the start of the screen. you approach again, this time cautiously poking your nose out under the tree in an attempt to goad the apple into falling before you pass. you don’t jump back in time, you get crushed. this time it works, and you begin carefully making your way across a screen full of apple trees. some apples only fall in pairs, and you have to dodge between the two. sometimes you can jump at an apple to spook it into falling early. about halfway across, you notice an apple low enough you can jump over it. tired of the tedious apple-teasing, you graciously accept the respite of an apple you won’t have to dodge mid-fall. you jump over the apple, and the apple falls up and kills you. the apple falls up and kills you.

that’s from i wanna be the guy, and it’s probably the scene that the largest number of players remember, because it’s only on the second screen. but here’s an example from syoban action which will better substantiate the point i’m about to make:

syoban action is styled after super mario bros. cracked earth, hanging bricks, staircases and blue skies. blue skies with white clouds. near the end of stage 1 you jump past a cloud and die. the cloud grows teeth. it wasn’t a cloud at all, but an enemy! of course it killed you.

many players dismiss these games as being merely super-hard, but that’s not their defining principle, though they often are. (seven minutes and psychosomnium are good examples of games that fall into the genre but aren’t necessarily challenging.) my definition of a masocore game is a game that plays with the player’s expectations, the conventions of the genre that the player thinks she knows. they’re mindfucks.

in the example above, the player takes the cloud for granted because she’s jumped past clouds plenty of times in super mario platformers, she assumes they’re background objects. there’s a reason most of these games are based on super mario bros.

in fact, we can probably trace the genre to the famicom disk system version of super mario bros. 2, possibly the only commercial example. designed by takashi tezuka, the programmer of the original super mario bros., the game confronts players with mushrooms that kill mario and warp zones that lead backwards. the only reason this game could exist is because everyone who played videogames had played super mario bros. beforehand, arguably the most widely-played game of its time. conventions had been established, and learned, and could justifiably be fucked with.

many of the genre’s entries are in fact hacks of super mario bros. (super mario forever and kaizo super mario world being prominent examples). anyone playing them will come with a preexisting set of assumptions and an understanding of how super mario bros. is supposed to be played. how super mario bros. is supposed to work.

(watch that part where mario tries to jump a pit and hits his head on an invisible block. the joke works because anyone who’s played super mario knows can’t argue that that’s a technically legitimate place for an invisible block to be in super mario bros. but miyamoto would never put one there!)

super mario bros. 2 is a rare exception, because most of these games are simply unmarketable. which is why the masocore game, twenty years later, is starting to come into its own: now there are avenues for freeware games to reach wide audiences. these games have no need to sell themselves to the player, which
allows them to be among the most interesting game experiences being crafted right now.

11 comments

  1. kirkjerk wrote:

    So there are two ideas here:
    * unmercifully difficult games
    * games that fool the player’s expectations

    I guess the first is what really gives charge to the second… a game where you jumped into an unusually placed invisible block and that made a rainbow come down and give you 1,000,000 points just would not have the same zing.

    I guess it’s the first that made me into a wussy gamer; going back to the old school, any game could be made impossible or virtually impossible, I don’t always trust that the designer and I see eye to eye about how much effort should be put into the game, so I don’t mind cheats and walk-throughs so much, though I still have some pride in seeing a game through.

    4/6/2008 at 3:07 pm | permalink
  2. MisterSmith wrote:

    I Wanna Be The Guy is quite possibly the meanest game I’ve ever played.

    I’ve actually never gotten past the 1st screen, to be honest. I’m just THAT bad at that game (and gaming in general, for that matter)

    4/6/2008 at 6:09 pm | permalink
  3. auntie wrote:

    kirk, to be fair, super mario forever (which pulls the invisible block gag constantly, almost as punctuation) gives you a nearly endless stock of lives. most of these games do, considering the death itself is the joke.

    but yeah, these are all very clearly informed by the difficulty of eighties familynes games. there’s an antagonization between the game and player that feeds the experience.

    try psychosomnium, though. it does a mighty good job of fucking, nastily, with the player’s assumptions without being difficult.

    4/7/2008 at 1:43 am | permalink
  4. daphny wrote:

    i didnt know you got a new website. you DONT TELL ME ANYTHING

    4/7/2008 at 4:40 pm | permalink
  5. Edward wrote:

    As ever, you’ve piqued a relative tyro’s interest. Just wanted to dole out your propers before I hunker down here more regularly. Auntie, I can’t wait to read more.

    Oh, and is there a more recent game as universal as SMB that could serve as base for a new branch of masocore?

    Something makes me think that so many of the established first-person shooter conventions could be subverted quite playfully.

    4/7/2008 at 7:30 pm | permalink
  6. auntie wrote:

    owata and i wanna follow more closely to megaman, which does admittedly have more of an undercurrent of sadism to its level design than mario.

    as for first-person shooters, i’ve heard the sequel to mondo medicals (from cactus, the author of psychosomnium) explores some fps territory.

    4/7/2008 at 8:14 pm | permalink
  7. daphny wrote:

    WORK TIME FUN is as masocore as it gets

    i cant believe people criticized this game saying “it feels like work” MISS THE POINT MUCH, GUYS?

    4/9/2008 at 1:52 am | permalink
  8. christian wrote:

    sounds silly but i was playing Ratchet & Clank 2 last night and they seemed to have a bit of the ‘hard is better’ philosphy – not to the point of masochism but it was just impossible set piece after impossible set piece. you can hang glide under lava tunnels? rail grind this power line!
    its not a masochasm but it is odd that a mainstream series so embracing difficult deaths

    4/13/2008 at 7:24 pm | permalink
  9. g0m wrote:

    I just downloaded and played seven minutes. One of the scariest free games I ever played. I also downloaded syobon-action. I hate it. I like I wanna be the guy, but I hate this. Two words: NO SAVE.

    12/21/2008 at 8:00 pm | permalink
  10. Scott wrote:

    Hiya! Succesful I Wanna Be The Guy victor right here, and it is my personal opinion that most new games are far two easy. Now even though the reason old games were harder because of the technicle limitations at the time, I think that new games should atleast be challenging. Thats why I loved iwbtg, it was refreshing; that, and you can’t help but lulz when a spike pit rises from the ground and chases after you through trecherous platforming levels XD.

    12/2/2009 at 1:58 pm | permalink
  11. baconman wrote:

    See also: MegaMan X6. It’s another fine example of ludicrous, player-challenging hell.

    9/17/2010 at 10:40 pm | permalink

19 trackbacks/pingbacks

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