When I was 11 years old, around the 20th time I died just trying to walk between towns in the post-apocalyptic role-playing game Wasteland, my father asked me, "David, if these games make you so frustrated, why do you play them?"
If I couldn’t answer his question, at least I can take comfort that I was not the only one to face it. Dark Souls II was released last week to the simultaneous cheers and groans of millions of hard-core gamers. Cheers for its immersive world, epic sweep, and challenging gameplay; groans for its extremely challenging gameplay, sadistically unfair fights, and unforgiving checkpointing that sends players to repeat the same portions of the game dozens of times before progressing—or giving up.
Creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki cheerfully admitted that playing the game is an exercise in masochism, and was designed to be such. When asked in 2012 if he was a sadist, he replied:
If I had to say for myself, it’s actually the opposite – I’m more masochistic. Because I created Dark Souls while thinking about what type of game I would personally like to play. I wanted somebody to bring out a really sadistic game, but I ended up having to make it myself.
Miyazaki’s disappointment with insufficiently sadistic games is endemic to the increasingly significant numbers of gamers seeking “masocore” gaming experiences. The term “masocore” may sound like an offshoot of D.C. punk circa 1987 (back when “emocore” referred to hardcore punk bands like Fire Party and Rites of Spring instead of Dashboard Confessional), but it’s actually a term coined to refer to computer games that are even less forgiving than the harshest titles of the 1980s and 1990s. The term was popularized in 2008 on the Auntie Pixelante gaming blog, attributed by author Anna Anthropy to a SelectButton.com forum member. Anthropy’s definition of a masocore game was “a game that plays with the player’s expectations, the conventions of the genre that the player thinks she knows.”
The line between violating conventions and simply upping difficulty levels is blurrier than it seems. Loosely speaking, a masocore game exhibits some combination of the following:
- Perfect timing: Your margin for error in executing certain moves may literally be less than a tenth of a second.
- Instadeath: Your character is sickly and fragile, exploding sometimes after just a single hit.
- Permadeath: Saved games? No. If you lose, you go back to the beginning and start over.
- Dirty tricks: See that gold across the bridge? Just cross it and BRIDGE COLLAPSED YOU’RE DEAD HAHA. OK, let’s go around the bridge and pick up the OH NO IT’S A GOLD MONSTER IT KILLS YOU HAHA.
- Unhelpfulness: How does that thing work? What am I trying to do? Like the game’s gonna tell you.
The iconic masocore game was notorious for screwing with gamers: I Wanna Be the Guy, a free indie release from 2007. Like the plurality of masocore games, I Wanna Be the Guy is what’s termed a “platformer”: a 2-D, horizontal-perspective action game of jumping across obstacles (including the titular platforms), dodging or killing enemies, and most importantly, not dying. Super Mario Bros. is the classic platformer, and its many siblings, from Mega Man to Metroid to Ninja Gaiden, form a core canon on which today’s masocore platformers draw. I Wanna Be the Guy is probably the most proudly obnoxious, though (excepting the almost literally unplayable ROM hacks of old games like Kaizo Mario).
I Wanna Be the Guy is the story of “The Kid” (i.e., you) and his struggle to become “The Guy,” who is the evil final boss of the game. Along the way you have to navigate treacherous terrain and be subject to parodies of three decades of platformers (as well as non-platformers like The Legend of Zelda, Tetris, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!).
The game is plenty tough, but primarily memorable for its sheer subversion: Spikes that aren’t supposed to move shoot out of the floor at you, scenery falls on you, and a glass thrown at you in a seemingly non-interactive dialog scene will actually kill you if you don’t dodge it. Some of these tricks are exceptionally nasty, like a “save” button that comes to life and kills the player. The wittiest of these comes toward the end, when the game suddenly crashes:
Actually, the game hasn’t crashed, and if you don’t move out of the way fast, that error box will fall on you and kill you.
At its lowest ”moderate” difficulty setting, the game isn’t all that frustrating thanks to frequent save checkpoints that reduce the amount of progress you lose each time you die. (Designer Michael "Kayin" O'Reilly has said that the game pales next to legendary proto-masocore Nintendo title Battletoads (1991), which was somehow released commercially with its preposterous dexterity requirements.) If you die, you aren’t set back too far, and so the game becomes a matter of endless practice on each screen until your muscle memory has gotten the timing exactly right. Of course, someone had to go and complete the game without dying at all—and though the player is speaking Japanese, the language of anxiety, delirium, relief, and finally exhausted triumph is sufficiently universal that no Japanese is needed to understand him.