A few days ago, I was studying for a midterm, which obviously meant I was looking for anything to do other than study for my midterm. The Internet, as always, provided. Through my haphazard blog-reading and link-clicking I eventually arrived at the Flash-based game Hexagon, made by the appropriately titled Distractionware. In five seconds I knew I wasn’t studying any time soon.
Hexagon is everything that makes video games compelling, condensed and refined to medicinal purity. If a traditional game you would buy in a store constitutes a meal, Hexagon is straight high fructose corn syrup. There’s no substance to it, but the play is so sweet that you just want to keep going.
The game is incredibly simple. You control a small triangle that you rotate around the titular hexagon while an endless stream of barriers flows toward you. The object is to navigate the triangle to one of the sides of the hexagon where there’s an opening in the barrier. This isn’t particularly unique—iPhone smash hit Temple Run is based around the same concept of continuously dodging approaching obstacles.
Visually, Hexagon kind of resembles the minimalist design and straight lines of the classic arcade game Tempest, except if the developers at Atari were really in to club drugs. It’s all bright colors and flashing lights; the hexagon even pulsates to the beat of the game’s droning (yet surprisingly tolerable) electro-techno soundtrack. In other words, unless you just dropped acid, you’re not playing Hexagon for the graphics.
Instead, it’s the game’s ability to balance its frustrating difficulty with the ever-present hope of success that kept me coming back. It needs to be said that Hexagon is almost comically hard. To pass each of the game’s “levels” the player must survive for ten seconds—you’ll be lucky to make it to the second one on your first try. Of course, another chance is just a push of the space bar away, and why not try again? It literally costs you only a few seconds.
Those seconds quickly pile up, however, once you get lost in the frenetic pace and constant positive reinforcement of every second you add on to your high score. There’s zero friction involved in the game experience—you’re always right back to dodging for your life—so you don’t even have a moment to consider how much time you’re wasting.
Now, I don’t think Hexagon is going to end up there with Super Mario Bros. or Tetris as an all-time classic. I doubt it could even be some kind of time-sucking phenomenon along the lines of Farmville. Hexagon is the video game equivalent of candy—after a while, you’ll become sick of it (if you’re particularly photosensitive, expect sickness to set in much sooner). Still, that doesn’t change that it is compelling as any game I’ve ever played for those first few minutes.
Playing Hexagon, I was reminded of the Halo series. Hexagon’s geometric obstacle course doesn’t have much in common with shooting aliens, but its gameplay is at the essence of Halo. The game designers at Bungie, the studio behind Halo, developed a mantra while making the first person shooter: “30 seconds of fun.” While Halo featured a complex, sprawling world and an intricate narrative, at its core the game was designed as a series of discrete gameplay experiences. They were brief and intense, and they were repeated over and over again to create a massive game.
That philosophy is hardly unique to Halo. The people at Bungie simply articulated the universal truth of game design—no matter how big a game, its success depends on its most basic mechanics being fun. In that way, Hexagon represents brilliant game design, just without any artifice.
Of course, presentation is an important part of any video game as well. Presented without a filter, Hexagon’s unadulterated gameplay can’t hold up over time. But that’s not a bad thing—the game is awesome while the novelty lasts. The fun might be fleeting, but on the bright side, I think I passed my midterm.