Poorly Performing Platforming

Having just now finished Thomas Was Alone, I’m rolling around in my head why exactly I really hate platforming. The first time this realisation dawned on me was in the middle of the first Jak and Daxter. There was a big tall room with platforms all around the walls, some of which moved, some of which perched by monsters, and you had to climb to the top. Every time you failed in a jump, you fell all the way to the bottom floor and had to start again. Which is really poor design. And it’s in virtually every game with platforming elements.

As far as failstates go, there shouldn’t be much difference between “you failed the jump, go back and climb all the way up there to try it again” and “you were shot dead by the baddie, go back and kill 20 baddies to pick up where you left off.” I wonder if it’s something specifically about jumping in games as an action that puts me off, and not just the fact that there’s usually this repetitious design inherent in the fabric of platforming. In shooters and RPGs, you can generally soak up a fair bit of failure before the point of repetition is met (ie. you respawn). Plus, the point is often further offset by the availability of health items, protective abilities, stratagem, etc. The player is given the opportunity to fail, or to be inefficient in how they go about completing the level, up to a point before they’re confronted with the need to repeat it.

At least in most modern shooters, the failstate is waved away by tight checkpointing. I mention this because in Gamespot’s review of BioShock Infinite today, the respawning system was held against it as a negative since it hardly functions in any punitive way, whereas I see it as purely a plus. Why would you want the player to be further punished by death in BioShock Infinite by forcing them through the ringer again? They don’t gain anything out of it, it’s just a smack on the wrist for no purpose other than to disincentivize dying. But since dying is already a disincentive, however small, by breaking up the flow of combat, I’d wager that’s enough.

Anyway, very few platformers allow for that same leeway, to my knowledge (bearing in mind I’ve fairly avoided platformers since I recognized I hated their core mechanic). Braid and Portal are the only two that spring to mind, but feel free to correct me in the comments.

So with platformers, having flubbed what may have been the third, fourth, tenth, thirtieth jump in a series of jumps, you often need to go all the way back to that first jump and start again. And if that thirtieth jump proves difficult for you, you’ll probably fail it a few times before you manage to pass it. But because there’s a long series of increasingly difficult jumps to make before you try that one jump that caught you out, it’s made difficult to practice on that one annoying jump. Meanwhile, it’s likely you also may end up flubbing the twentieth jump, which you had originally made comfortably, on the second and third times around. And the more you go over this series and fail, the more frustrating it becomes, and the more likely you are to flub a jump.

Barring this low threshold for failure that platformers have, is there something about the mechanic itself that makes it more arduous than, say, shooting a mook in BioShock 2? I don’t think there’s anything inherently enjoyable about a shooting mechanic at its core – shooting a guy ten times until he’s overcome as an obstacle isn’t twice as fun as only needing to shoot him five times. Players often complain about bosses who are bullet sponges as a lazy and boring way to prolong a fight, to make it more difficult. The fun part about shooting comes in all the bells and whistles: level design, weapon diversity, finding synergy for your magic powers, resource management – whatever’s relevant to that particular game. When there’s enough room in there for the player to play around, the shooting mechanics work.

In platformers, I find there’s very little in the way of additives to make platforming enjoyable. (Let’s ignore the failstate problem for the moment.) If you fail a jump, perhaps you needed to hold down the jump button longer to jump farther. Perhaps you needed to be closer to the edge before you jump. Perhaps you needed to double-jump sooner, perhaps later. I think these aspects help to make platforming more tolerable but not necessarily more enjoyable. Jumping over a pit is still an obstacle to me. It doesn’t feel like a solution to an obstacle, it is the obstacle. Maybe that’s because I never think to myself, “That was a pretty badass jump over that pit back there.” Instead, jumping the pit is ticking a box on my way to an objective I will enjoy (completing this puzzle, picking up a collectable, unlocking a thingy, etc.).

Or maybe I’m just crap at navigating jumps, just like I’m crap at sharpshooting in any shooter. Except, for shooters, high difficulty seldom comes down to pixel hunting. As it is, I’m sitting here thinking about Thomas Was Alone: “great puzzles, pity about the platforming.”


8 thoughts on “Poorly Performing Platforming

  1. Interesting point. I’ve certainly never put that much thought into platforming perils before, but then again my brother was the one suffering through them more than I ever did. I guess there’s just something hard-wired into the genre’s DNA that’s designed to be frustrating. By nature, it’s punishing and unfair. But maybe that’s what people expect out of the genre.

    “I think these aspects help to make platforming more tolerable but not necessarily more enjoyable. Jumping over a pit is still an obstacle to me. It doesn’t feel like a solution to an obstacle, it is the obstacle.”

    Fair enough. On the other hand, a lot of people might argue that that’s the whole point. I’d bet that there are speedrunners — or just platformer fans in general — that enjoy the concept of obstacles to clear. Sonic games have probably endured for as long as they have because they (the good ones, at least) try to offer players an optimal route for exploration and mastery…and with it, expression. Even in games like Jak and Daxter, some people might want the thrill of clearing jumps, precisely because the price of failure (such as it is) can be so high. Learn and master, or face the consequences. For some, that’s just what makes a game that much better.

    Well, that’s just a possible theory, of course. Take it as you will…from someone who has the reflexes of a drugged sloth.

  2. The dynamic of having to retrace one’s steps repeatedly in order to retry to same specific component in a larger sequence is not specific to platformers; Dark Souls, for example, is a game I’m way into at the moment that does this all the time. I think it’s really about the tension between wanting to play fast/skilfully because it is joyful (yet also risky) versus wanting to play slow/cautiously because it is efficient, and I believe the best platform games focus very intentionally on this tension. I actually wrote an article about it a little while ago: http://blog.brendanvance.com/2012/04/29/the-quest-for-good-platformer-mechanics-part-2-or-mario-was-a-pretty-good-video-game/

    • Dark Souls was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote this but I decided to leave it out since there’s so much going on to differentiate it from your typical platformer.

      Trial and error is at the heart of many game genres, true, but Dark Souls is exemplary at tying trial and error into its constant flow to dissolve the negative effects of triggering the failstate. First there’s the fact of your dropped souls and your ability to pick them back up, and the value of souls as currency that assists progression quite early into the game. So long as you can reach the point where you failed the last time, and even if you reach no father than that, you’ve progressed through the area by virtue of grinding up more souls getting there. Every time you fail and reach again the point of your failure, you’ve improved, you’ve progressed, if not in location, at least internally. And upon reaching there, whether you choose to push onward or retreat with your souls, either way you’ve progressed from the last time you were there.

      Add to that the systems in place alleviating the failure threshold: the ability to increase your health bar, your defence, and your stamina, the use of messages to forewarn players of dangers, the power to summon helpers, the power to help others, to gain the lay of the land and learn from their tactics, the availability of health items, the many different ways an enemy can be overcome.

      This last one significantly departs the trial and error present in Dark Souls from that of most platformers and even most shooters. I didn’t mention the risk/reward of the tension you mention because that doesn’t even come into it in my experience of platformers, since playing quickly is so seldom a viable option. In many ways, if trying to run through them at speed, platformers are like an unforgiving rhythm game – perceive the need for your next button press and hit the button at the right moment to avoid the failstate. There’s very little deviation in what the game needs of you and your options for overcoming the obstacle. If you die trying to get back to the point of your previous death in Dark Souls, it was probably because of carelessness on your part, rather than failure at meeting the game’s appointed rhythm for you. It’s a self-inflicted error. But because every error is systemically framed as an opportunity for player progression, the cost of that error is largely waved.

      • I agree with your points. The ‘corpse run’ mechanic in Dark Souls is a super cool technique. It provides extrinsic motivation to keep playing; it acts as a sort of challenge/wager on whether the player can meet or exceed her previous performance; it leads to interesting decisions (continuing vs going back) and to some extent automatically regulates the amount of grinding players must do to best match their skill to the game’s difficulty; it provides hope, which is really important in a game like Dark Souls.

        It’s a bit strange to compare Dark Souls to, say, Mario 3 because the former is multifaceted, a bit messy and I dare say somewhat more sophisticated while the latter is very sharply focused; I would claim, however, that there is a great deal of structural overlap between the two games’ various pleasures. Mario 3, despite seeming to rely on stark fail states, actually tends to be fairly forgiving; if you play slowly and carefully (as people tend to play Dark Souls) there are only a handful of truly demanding platforming sequences to be found throughout. In both games a single error can get you killed, yet in both games it is very possible to mitigate this risk by learning what not to do. When I examine the tools available to players in each game I tend to conclude that both provide comparably generous thresholds for error (Dark Souls, as you say, provides all sorts of rather explicit safety valves while Mario 3 provides more subtle details like fine acceleration/deceleration/air control, collectible items, strategically-placed powerups that act as armour and health regen, etc…). The salient difference between the two is that Dark Souls uses a foreboding tone to encourage caution (you are expecting failure and hoping for success) while Mario uses an adventurous one to encourage recklessness (you are expecting success and worrying about failure). Mario’s genius, IMO, is that one of two buttons maps directly to ‘run’, making it simultaneously the ‘have a lot of fun’ button and the ‘get yourself killed’ button all in one (Dark Souls does this too, albeit in a somewhat more complicated way). Both games permit players to adjust the game’s difficulty by correcting their demeanour, helping them through tough sticking points while giving them something interesting to do while repeating earlier sequences, but they sort of approach it from opposite directions.

        It sounds to me like you find no intrinsic motivation in clearing the sequences of a platformer game (you view them as busywork standing between you and what you actually want to do), which I find interesting; I personally do not perceive much of a difference between a technical combat encounter in Dark Souls and a level in Super Meat Boy, so for me they provide a very similar feeling of mastery and possess a very similar allure. Perhaps it has to do with the more orthogonal and multi-faceted nature of combat mechanics like those of Dark Souls (there are just so damn many knobs players can twiddle in their efforts to beat an encounter) versus the more unified mechanics of platform games, where all the parameters (speed, direction, air control, jump height, etc…) are bundled up into a largely non-separable mass of autonomic brain functions?

    • (Sorry, for some reason there’s no reply button to your latest comment, so I’m leaving this here.)

      The odd thing is, when I play platformers, I tend to play them cautiously even if they’re very poppy and exciting because I know my inclination against the mechanic. I experience the same problems in Rayman and TWA as I do in Limbo, so I don’t think the onus of pacing is a factor into my problems with platformers.

      Earlier I mentioned that the bare act of shooting in a game does not amount to much of an enjoyable mechanic, and that shooters where you pour bullets into a baddie until they drop dead are generally considered to be dreadful in design. (I think Infinity Ward recognized this when they populated COD4 with setpieces and grandiose experiences to frame the shooting, since shooting in Call of Duty becomes humdrum very quickly on its own.) The same is true of meleeing an enemy, but Dark Souls’ combat succeeds by the sheer variety of melee options available to the player and the systemic complexity growing out of that. So while I can easily grasp the enjoyment you’d get from completing a level in Super Meat Boy, its nature as a collage of pits and traps taken piecemeal prevents me from sharing in that enjoyment.

      I’d like to contrast this for a second with the platforming in Dark Souls, which is a lot more ramshackle than that in most platforming games, but somehow the grief works towards its benefit. Bearing in mind the trail and error element we discussed earlier, I think a lot of it has to do with how the freedom of movement that is allowed of you in Dark Souls feels rewarding – I never came across any invisible walls, so if there was a ledge or a chasm that I stepped towards, I could fall down or trip into it or jump headlong in, which gives a sense of relation to the world that is often prohibited in games of this type. So, early in the game you’re bound to be knocked off a ledge or to attempt a jump, only to fall to your death. But later on, in places like Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo and the Crystal Cave, the ability to jump and fall can prove productive and rewarding. Given the inherent difficulties in motioning your character to make a jump, that you actually managed to succeed seems preposterous. If the mechanic were smooth and finely-tuned, it wouldn’t feel like such a cosmological miracle. But because the need for jumping is so rare in Dark Souls, it gets by by not fixating on it as a core component. The genetics of platformers don’t allow them the same leeway, but they abide by the same principles of finality.

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