Continuous Games

Video games are often a time-based medium although that’s not a prerequisite. In contrast to, say, music or film, games can be a discrete medium as is proven by countless card, table top, or puzzle games and their digital equivalents. These games typically work turn-based where activity pauses until a player does his or her next move.

Of course, its debatable if such a pause really qualifies as the game taking a halt when – in the mind of the player – the game actually progresses in the form of them thinking about the next move.

Still, from an aesthetic point of view, one could argue that these games are discreet games because they consist of a distinct set of turns. Often, there is also no timer involved in such a game, theoretically allowing a turn to take forever and hence entirely eliminating the time dimension.

In contrast to this we have the often fast-paced, highly attention-demanding video game which punishes you for reacting too slowly or which puts you in an arena with other players who play against you simultaneously. It would almost be an understatement so say these games embrace the dimension time; some of them simply put them at their core. Music or rhythm games are an obvious example, though one could argue that every game which demands timely reactions has this dimension at its core.

These games are continuous in the sense that their parts are continuously moving and consist of an amount of state combinations (turns) that is practically infinite.

One of the beauties of video games is that things do not have to be at either one of these extremes. In fact, many games happily mix discreet and continuous elements, be it from an aesthetic or a game design point of view.

For example, when we look at two of the most popular games by Terry Cavanagh, VVVVVV and Super Hexagon, we can observe some interesting decisions on this spectrum from discreet to continuous.

VVVVVV is, in principle, a platform game where the player cannot jump but only reverse gravity. Here is a clip from the game:

Generally, I would classify platform games as continuous games and VVVVVV shares a lot of their common properties (e.g. navigation through quick reaction) but taking a closer look at the game reveals several significant decisions which I would book under discreet:

  • The player can reverse the gravity only at discreet points (at the floor or at the ceiling) and not e.g. in mid-air
  • The gravity reversal only affects a single element in the game (the player avatar) and not e.g. other non-fixed objects
  • The game consists of several discreet screens which swap instantaneously upon entering/exiting; there’s usually no scrolling

These principles are valid through almost the entire game but are consciously broken in selected portions of the game in interestingly designed ways. For example, in one section of the world the player can reverse gravity in mid-air, though only indirectly by hitting deliberately placed gravity-reversing barriers:

Or in the following section of the game where the screen does scroll and where its edges become an enemy:

Still, I would argue that the ingenuity of VVVVVV comes from the fact that it takes a genre which is heavily coined by its continuousness (fluidity of camera, movement, player input) and removes some of that to create new, interesting challenges. Fittingly, the game is also created in a „discreet“ aesthetic: pixel art, low-bit sound effects and chip tune music.

Interestingly, Cavanagh’s next commercial game, Super Hexagon, became a counterpoint to most of that and embraces continuity wherever possible. Here is the games’ trailer:

The game is an endless obstacle run where you have to evade incoming walls for as long as you are able to. Everything about it acts on a continuous scale:

  • The player avatar can only move on a circle; somewhat the ultimate continuous element
  • The camera is in continuous movement, rotating around the player and zooming back and forth nonstop
  • The world is dynamically generated and constitutes a never ending stream of obstacles
  • The music runs in a loop and never stops pumping its beats
  • It literally uses time to track player scores

The game practically never stands still and is in this sense the exact opposite of VVVVVV with its hand-crafted, discreet set of screens. Aesthetically, while it does feature chip-tune music, it does not employ pixel art but geometric forms rendered in high-resolution, visually matching its continuous character.

Interestingly, however, Super Hexagon does „break“ its (continuous) core by employing several discreet elements and those are crucial to the success of the game:

  • The obstacles are not entirely dynamic but form distinct sets of patterns which the player must learn to be successful at the game
  • The game offers six stages and each stage can be considered „beaten“ if the player survives for one minute
  • A voice marks play time in steps of 10s and points out if they have broken the previous high score

The stages are an interesting design choice because the game would essentially still work if there would be just one stage which contains everything. I can only guess why Cavanagh decided to distribute the game across multiple stages among which I see the following aspects:

  • The player gets a more satisfying sense of achievement and progress
  • The stages subtly vary with respect to some design elements (obstacle patterns, camera movement), giving each stage a distinct character
  • Visuals and music can vary more easily, removing some of the inevitable repetitiveness of such games
  • The difficulty can ramp up in a more tightly controlled way from the first to the last stage

For example, compare rotation speed and camera movement from the first stage of the game:

… with those from the last stage:

I find the ending of the last stage especially fitting: the camera sits still for the first time and the game continues until your inevitable death. Visuals get monochrome, music reverses and on the last screen the player sits still, orbiting in sync with a hexagon. It’s one of the most beautiful endings in all of video games and I could write three more articles about why this game is such a triumph.

My point is that both VVVVVV and Super Hexagon have game design cores that are on separate ends of the somewhat artificial spectrum discreet/continuous, yet know very intuitively when to stray from their core to create either interesting challenges or keep things fresh.

In the development of my own game, I am facing similar problems as Cavanagh must’ve faced when designing Super Hexagon. My game is also on the continuous end of the spectrum and I am asking myself how far I can push it into this direction before it falls apart.

–Thomas

1 comment

  1. Nice post, I’m looking forward to your three-part article on Super Hexagon’s ending 😉 If you do end up writing it, you might enjoy Jenn Frank’s article on Super Hexagon (https://unwinnable.com/2012/11/29/allow-natural-death/), where, toward the end, she talks about how she sees the game as an allegory of life and, ultimately, death. With this interpretation, Super Hexagon becomes a game about timing and time in the widest sense… Wonderful.

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