When good design creates unhealthy results

Taking the rules of ‘The Floor is Lava’ to the next extreme, Verlet Swing is a 3D platformer where you are not allowed to touch anything at all. You begin each level falling and must master the complicated physics of swinging around using a magical rope.

It’s a delightfully surreal experience and its 100 levels steadily climb in difficulty. It’s also a high speed game that demands precision, timing, and more than a little luck to beat. Even the top tier speedrunners can’t consistently beat some of the later levels, so don’t let the early stages deceive you into thinking that it might be a cakewalk.

As with other modern games renowned for their difficulty, Verlet Swing employs some tactics to make the repeated attempts more bearable. Just like Super Meat Boy, levels are compact and short, lessening the frustration of having to retry them several times. There is also barely any delay between losing and starting your next attempt. In fact, since you’ll likely still be holding down the mouse button after just crashing, you’ll take off again right away a split-second later.

It’s good design. It minimizes the frustration of losing and respects the player’s time. It still sucks to fail, but you aren’t given any time to stew in that defeat because you’re already trying again with renewed determination. I played through Verlet Swing in one session, completely and constantly engaged. But is that necessarily a good thing?

Sure, I was having fun whilst I played in the afternoon, but my enjoyment of the game began to fade when I was still playing it late in the night. Victory may have been in sight, yet less than 2% of people who own the game have actually beaten the final set of levels. It’s a brutal ordeal with some of the cruelest designs imaginable for this control scheme.

The quick transition between failure and retrying is useful when a level takes 20 tries to beat, but it’s an issue when it starts taking 200 tries. Some levels took me an hour of nonstop attempts, during which I had to be constantly focused and tense. I walked away from the game with pain in my hands and back, as well as a serious eyestrain. Not to mention a lack of sleep the following day, which is my bad for getting too invested in a game in the middle of a workweek.

Games need exit points where the player can comfortably step away from the computer. We often talk about this when addressing the ‘one more turn’ mentality behind strategy games. The player could stop playing after finishing a turn, but the game then starts moving all the AI pieces and that entices players to react when control is returned to them. To help players get out of this cycle, some of these games summarize the last turn so players don’t need to worry about forgetting any details when they return to it later, or they permit players to save & exit when they are dragged into a battle or diplomatic meeting in the AI turn.

Many exit points happen after victories. Beating the game, a whole world, or even just a level is a clear exit point after which the player could retire. Players could also stop after watching a nice cutscene or being transitioned to a whole new area, both of which would require them progressing through the game. Failure is more difficult to step away from and few games offer exit points for that, aside from completely losing a game with no option to reload an old save.

Dark Souls is often critiqued for the long treks between bonfires and boss-fights. It takes players out of the flow of the battle, forces them to spend minutes working their way back, sometimes past menial enemies or areas that are mostly empty. Sure, I too get grumpy when I need to walk through all of Darkroot again just to get back to Sif for the 12th time that day, but it does space out the tension and engagement. It’s a break from the fight during which you can loosen your grip and focus, maybe grab a drink or otherwise take care of yourself.

Imagine an iteration of Dark Souls where you’d die to a boss and immediately the fight restarts with you already having to dodge the first attack. Any convenience that would offer would be overshadowed by frustration once your attempts begin to pile up. That’s basically the experience I had playing Verlet Swing.

And, sometimes, getting a Game Over is the exit point you need to get away from a game you may have been playing for too long. You might leave the game feeling a little more sour than you’d do after winning, but at least you are leaving. This was a major benefit of the live systems that have fallen from grace in gaming nowadays. If you’ve failed a level 20 times by now, maybe it’s time the game cut you off and give you a Game Over screen. You can always come back later and load a save, but maybe you need a break now.

While I don’t think any of these solutions would be a perfect fit for Verlet Swing, it’s interesting to think about how we should treat failure in games and how now-outdated mechanics may have actually been beneficial in a way.

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