« My little problem with armageddon | Main | Star Wars: The Force Awakens »

December 10, 2015

How it feels: Guacamelee

In the toughest bits of Guacamelee, my hands sweat, and I feel myself gripping the controller, and my heart races, something I don't even notice until I step away for a minute to attend to lunch. This happens in the El Infierno challenges, say, or doing the longest of Poncho's combo challenges, or in the distractingly difficult Cueva de la Locura, or the treetops above Tule. I felt the same way doing the hardest challenges in Super Mario Galaxy -- the one in the play room galaxy with a pixel art version of Mario or Luigi where everywhere you stepped meant the platform would start to disappear, that was incredibly difficult, and you felt like you had to put all kinds of skills you had learned throughout play just to have a chance at completing it.

These level designs are fiendish, and yet I love the feeling I have when I complete one, even if it's frustrating getting there. It's not mastery, really -- I know I haven't mastered this game. It's more a feeling like I overcame my body, somehow. I'm in my 40s, and my reaction times are not what they once were. Mastery is out of my grasp; when I start playing, it takes me minutes before I can even execute the basic stuff with any fluidity. There was a point where I thought I'd just give up on getting the platinum trophy because I couldn't imagine being able to execute the combos that Pollo Poncho threw at me. Mastery suggests that I might be able to do it again, perhaps on demand; this is absolutely not that. Instead, it's sort of a meeting of persistence and luck. I persist long enough that some of the movements become rote, and if I'm lucky, my hands execute everything near enough to perfect to succeed.

Take Cueva de la Locura. It tests me by making me have to do two things at once -- I have to be in the moment, executing a precise set of jumps and "power" moves, but at the same time, I need to be doing it in the game's rhythm, looking ahead one step and keeping it in mind so that I can arrive in a place right when a supporting block reappears. I need to jump precisely to a place where there is nothing right now, but where something will appear by the time I get there. There's no visual indication of where it will be, so I have to remember from when it last appeared, when I was landing on another block as it appeared earlier; half the blocks are present at any given time, and I have to maintain a rhythm of progression.

If I'm to have a chance, I have to fight the frustration, make it not dominate, calm the heartrate, breathe, live entirely in the moment. This forces me to relax -- I can't do much about the sweating palms, I think, because my body is feeling this tension -- but if I can relax my hands enough, I might be able to get through it. And so, after every few failures, I'll stop, breathe deeply, try to relax my hands, dry those palms on my jeans.

What urges you on is when you get appreciably closer -- though not successful -- in a particular goal. When you *almost* get it but have just a couple of jumps or combos or whatever before you can get there. It spurs you on. It's the best kind of tease, like a day where there's cloud cover but the sun breaks through now and again, and you think there's a chance it might be beautiful and sunny if you just stick with it. The hardest part of Cueva de la Locura was not knowing, for a while, just how long I'd have to keep pulling these tricks off; the next stable spot wasn't visible from where I'd start off, and so for a long time I don't even have the encouragement of having a sense of when it will end. When I finally catch sight of it, in my excitement I actually fail immediately because my pulse spikes again, and I lose track of my next jump spot.

It was different in difficulty for me than another hard spot, at the top of a very tall tree, because there are no spots for rest. In many of the game's challenges, there are spots where you can stop, hold the controller, and pause for a moment of reflection as to what you want to do next. This area of this level, while really relatively brief in comparison, had no such breaks. You could not get half-way, and plan out the next bit. You simply had to do it all in one go.

There are lots of reasons to like Guacamelee -- it features a non-white protagonist (although he's still pursuing the same goal as Mario, with an endangered princess). The art is fantastic and the animation is fluid. There are lots of humorous moments and gleeful absurdity (such as being able to change into a partially hatched chicken egg). I could happily listen to the music for hours and have. All of that would be enough to keep me coming back, I'm certain. But these moments, when I have to still myself to be able to be strong enough to face its challenges down... those are sublime.

Posted by Brett Douville at December 10, 2015 11:09 AM