Super Hexagon and the Search for Meaning
“I don’t get it,” came the fourth interruption. “Why is she so, like, depressed all the time?”
We were watching Melancholia because I heard it was wonderful cinema and because my sister had heard it was a powerful portrayal of a manic depressive girl. This was important for my sister, to see someone she could relate to, having been recently diagnosed with a similar condition. God only knows why we decided to make it a movie night.
The friends we invited were all lovely people. Pleasant company for a game night or for dinner. They are not, however, prone to appreciate thoughtful films, as I quickly learned that fateful night.
Their errant, ignorant words were like daggers to my sister. I felt her tense up next to me.
“We can stop this.” I told her. “We can do something else.”
“It’s okay,” came the patient reply. “I need to see how it ends.”
How can something which means so much to one individual mean so little to another? As homo sapiens all similarly adrift in the ocean of life, how can we all be so different? How can one find meaning where another sees only vapor? We must learn to become comfortable enough with our opinion that we can allow everyone else to have their own; however wrong we may think them to be. Humans always want to reduce and simplify. We cope with confusion by finding the lowest common denominator. Maybe it would be healthy to recognize that a work, though ripe with original intent, becomes more than it is intended the moment another person expresses an opinion about it.
I’m trying to write a book. Nothing fancy, just an adventure novel. As I wrote it, a miracle happened below the surface of my mind and I noticed the story beginning to revolve around ideas that I struggle and wrestle with. I set out to craft a thriller, but between the lines it reads to me like a page from my own diary.
Jon Blow created Braid and made millions. He also went into depression immediately after its release. People loved his game, but Blow felt they loved it for all of the wrong reasons. They praised it for its look and feel and challenge but not for any of its deeper meaning. I fear that when people read my book, they’re not going to read any of the parts that make it important to me. Writing that book got me out of a dark time. Publishing it might put me right back in.
What is a work of creativity? What does it exist as? The creator may fill it with expression, everything that is meaningful to her, but it will still be mishandled. As soon as a creator lets go of something, it is no longer theirs alone, it must be shared with every person who encounters it.
Richard Clark recently pointed out that the ancient tradition of exegesis should be best practice not only for interpreting the Holy Bible, but for understanding any created work, particularly videogames. He explained that:
In exegesis, which means to “lead out of,” the reader diligently examines every aspect of a text in order to discern the actual intended meaning. The reader then applies the actual meaning of that text to his or her own personal life, whether it is instruction, a type of life philosophy, or some kind of biblical warning. Eisegesis, on the other hand, means to “lead into” and refers to the reckless appropriation of a biblical text to one’s own assumptions and whims.
I stand with him shoulder to shoulder, in the solidarity of Christian orthodoxy and say a resounding “amen.” This is how it ought to be done. This is what we ought to strive for. But this is also something we should be very careful to say that we have fully grasped.
A human is finite and is not fully aware of what he does. An infant cries when he wants something, but he does not always know what he wants. A poet expresses something in words and it may well be a deep longing of her soul, but she is not fully aware of the root of that longing.
Terry Cavanagh perhaps had something in mind when he created his new game, Super Hexagon. Maybe he knows what he was trying to say, maybe he doesn’t but said it anyway. This is beside the point. The point is that from the moment I hear the word “begin” and am overwhelmed with bright lights and pulsing colors, I am forced to choose what the game means to me.
As I navigate the face of my spinning little hexagon towards gaps in the oncoming walls, I am disoriented. It takes me several minutes to realize that it is helpful to see my point of view as that of a camera zooming out. As the game progresses, I realize that my hexagon is growing, stretching and expanding and escaping from greater and greater prisons.
It reminds me of a video I saw once where Morgan Freeman narrated the journey of a camera pulling away from the earth. It started by showing a ring of people, then Venice, Europe, and all the earth. Go further, your view contains the entire solar system. Further still, our galaxy; quickly swallowed by all the known universe, which Mr. Freeman is quick to remind us is still expanding.
The camera of Super Hexagon pulls further and further out. My hexagon does not stay small like the earth, it grows and grows and grows. There is no limit it to how great it can grow.
This recalls the philosophy of Freidrich Nietzsche, who spoke of man as growing, man as becoming; man as the possibility of super-man, or over-man.
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? A laughingstock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the man: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment …
My hexagon is not a laughingstock but an overcomer. Though facing setback after setback, we persevere.
Nietzsche’s work has certainly been misappropriated and misunderstood. Men like Hitler and Mussolini used his thoughts to justify their crimes against humanity. Though he wrote of confronting meaninglessness by choosing to find meaning in art and beauty, he has often been lumped in as just another nihilist. He perhaps meant one thing, many thought he meant another.
If Super Hexagon is an outworking of Nietzsche’s ideals, then it is also a demonstration of his shortcomings. He spoke of man as improving and as you play Super Hexagon, you will eventually improve. But he also spoke of man as becoming something more than man, transcending the weakness of man’s nature by force of will, and this is a more tenuous proposition. This is a proposition that has led to holocaust and genocide. As mankind evolves and improves, we do not become something other than man, we merely increase the boundaries of man. Harsh lines of demarcation may be drawn to segregate people across all sorts of social levels, but they cannot divide us from a common heritage.
Super Hexagon illustrates this perfectly. You can go from level to level. Line. Triangle. Square. You can strive to last longer and longer. But you cannot beat this game. It is like approaching light speed, where the closer you get to the barrier, the more difficult acceleration becomes, and yet even more impossible than this feasibly breakable barrier, because there literally is no point at which the walls stop coming.
Exegesis creates the same difficulty. We should make every effort to determine a creator’s intentions. But we should not make the mistake of ever thinking that we can know them perfectly. We can wrestle with their thoughts, their words, their background, their culture, even their stated intention, but we should not easily assume that we have made the incredible jump from learning to learned.
This has caused much stir in regards to the Bible. Most people who profess to be Christians believe that God inspired it. He “put his breath in it”, and of all people, surely he would know what he meant to say, and if he meant us to know it, then certainly he has made us able to know it. However, the attempts (or lack thereof) to understand his intentions and the intentions of the men who wrote it have created nearly as many problems throughout history as they have solved. We can know as much as he intends us to know now, but we must lay hold of that knowledge with a healthy amount of fear and trembling.
In his article, Clark stated:
That question of meaning in games is one that has yet to be explored enough to be fully answered, despite the naysayers who may balk at the attempts. Games mean things to themselves, to our industry, to our culture and, yes, to individuals. Each of these meanings matter in their own way and the effect a game has on a specific person is particularly important, because it often sheds light not just on the potential of games, but on the ways in which we “play” with difficult and complex issues in our own life.
A game never stands on its own nor are they designed to. It stands on the foundations of all the opinions surrounding it. Clark astutely observes that “naysayers balk at the attempts” to reach the point of understanding what a game means. Yet meaning is not simply found, it is created by the very attempt to explore. Beating Super Hexagon is impossible but that doesn’t negate the value of our attempts to understand it.