I’m playing gravity-flipping platformer VVVVVV, and I’m — START-DEATH.
Ahem, sorry. I’m playing gravity-flipping platfo– START-DEATH.
Grrr. I’m playing — START-DEATH.
I — START-DEATH.
Goddammit. I’m trying to play Terry Cavanagh’s gravity-flipping platformer VVVVVV, but it’s not going well. I’m on the hardest section, the infamous vertical combination of rooms known as Veni, Vidi, Vici, and frustration finally has a name. I start … and I die. Over and over. Start … Death. Start, Death. START-DEATH.
VVVVVV is a game about solving puzzles by switching gravity. If there are spikes on the floor you switch gravity, fall to the ceiling and then drop down on the other side.
Of course this describes VVVVVV the way “Just a bunch of atoms having a boogie” describes the universe. The distilled concept may be simple, what emerges from it is not.
The Veni, Vidi, Vici section is the equivalent of atoms forming Manhattan Island, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, gaining awareness of their essential oneness through the Buddha. It is the apotheosis.
There is a Shiny Thing, which you want very muchly. A small box blocks your path to it — but because there is no jump or climb button, your only option is to fall upwards through labyrinthine tunnels bristling with spikes, alighting seven screens up on a platform that disappears the moment you touch it, forcing you to reverse gravity to normal and fall back through the gauntlet again to finally land feet from where you started, on the other side of the box.
That’s the plan, anyway. I just START-DEATH.
I’ve been playing for twenty minutes now. Twenty minute-years, stretching from the inky depths of endlessness into a dark forever where time and space hold no meaning, a nether-zone into which Herculean effort is poured by the galaxy-load and nothing emerges save Misery and Tears.
My best effort I get to the third screen. Usually I die on the second. It would be funny but for the fact IT ISN’T FUNNY AT ALL.
I’m not good with failure. I go all Kevin-Costner-in-Tin-Cup, stubbornly repeating mistakes rather than letting the anger go and changing tactics. It becomes this ego thing, as if my whole sense of worth is being called into question, and my only choice is to bang my head against the wall until I break through — or knock myself out trying.
The rage builds. If there were any cracks in the game design, the merest hints of fracture in the control scheme, or unfairness in the logic, I would be ready to destroy worlds.
But VVVVVV is flawless. Veni, Vidi, Vici presents no faults. It is simply there, an ashen monolith gazing down upon me, willing me to try again.
So my fury turns inwards. VVVVVV is not wrong, I am wrong. I am worthless, lacking; I am … not … good … enough. If I can only complete this, get this Shiny Thing, everything will be okay. But it is too difficult.
The START-DEATHs pile up, hundreds of them, gnawing at my insides. What if I’m here forever? The thought chills me. In fifty years survivors from the Wiki Freedom Alliance, having defeated the armies of the sinister Fox Network, will emerge from the Below Ground to find me in the rubble hunched over my laptop, its screen long since dead, my fingers tapping morosely upon the arrow keys and a stream of arcane gibberish tumbling from my dry lips: hard right into Veni, arc back for Vidi, adjust centre for Vici …
But then, at my lowest ebb, a Strange Thing happens. I become oddly calm. The sheer quantity of START-DEATHs has broken through some wall in my consciousness and I’m drifting in a floaty crystalline no-man’s-land beyond.
It suddenly strikes me that VVVVVV is essentially military desensitisation training for failure, forcing my ego against the truth that lack of success in trivial situations does not equate to actual death.
It’s like stage fright for an actor — how the fear of social humiliation shunts the brain into that primal state evolved to deal with life-threatening situations. Body frozen to avoid detection by predators, brain wiped clear of higher thought to scan for danger, digestion and other non-essential systems slowed down, giving that dry throat and sicky feeling in the stomach.
All of which may be useful when being stalked by a bear, but doesn’t help to perform Death of a Salesman.
Likewise, all this rage in my head, all this blood pumping to my hands and face, the unused adrenalin coursing through my body — it simply isn’t advantageous to my current situation, which is sitting still trying to guide a pretend man around a little maze of pixels.
Veni, Vidi, Vici’s strength is that the sustained repetition of death works as a kind of cognitive therapy, showing me over and over again that this “failure” isn’t a thing to be fought. In fact death in VVVVVV carries such a minimal penalty — you’re yanked back up for another go in milliseconds — that it ceases to be Failure at all, and becomes only Trying.
START-DEATHs turn into START … … … DEATHs. With the jabber of my mind subsiding, the rest of my intelligence can do its work. My fingers dance their way across the keys, my brain maps the twisting tunnels into its memory, and my thoughts come and go, devoid of their usual urgency.
I experience this disconnect from … everything. Thoughts, desires, actions — they all happen, and it’s as if I am simply an emptiness watching them.
Meanwhile, in VVVVVV, Captain Viridian traces his merry path through the pixelated maze. I lose myself as my fingers do their thing. My fingers, connected to the arms, linked to the brain, breathing air through the lungs, from the atmosphere, warmed by our sun … the whole thing joined, entwined — a mad dance spiralling around this plucky astronaut falling inexorably toward the eternal Shiny Thing at the centre of our souls. The Shiny Thing coming closer, unstoppable, a brightness and a power that can mean only Death — but not the death of failure, rather the death of returning, a homecoming, a remembrance of things as they really are.
I complete the Veni, Vidi, Vici challenge two days later, when next I play. It’s fun, but doesn’t make me feel a better person or anything to have done it. The experience was the thing. As one wise old sage once put it: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”