A week of Luftrausers
Difficulty is a harsh thing, but we desire the situations that produce it even if we dread it in abstraction. If any art form could produce a consistent study of difficulty, and make it’s audience experience it more brutally it would have to be video games. We desire play that enforces situations of great stress, it’s just when that play becomes mundane, when the game ceases to be “fair” and becomes “cheap” we cease to prefer it. What Luftrausers is good at is understanding exactly what makes difficulty desirable in video games. It just then happens to mess the whole thing up.
The new arcade movement is a set of video game designers intrigued by the idea of difficult games as a medium. Their muses include numerous quarter crunching arcade games and well probably life. The flagship product of the movement is Hotline Miami a game so difficult and random it can ultimately be immutably frustrating with out ever seeming impossible. The game is made of humane mistakes, a guy rounds a corner before you come in or you happen to miss judge a shot, shatter a window, and get eaten by guard dogs. The game is difficult with out ever seeming out of the player’s possibility. Luftrausers is similarly intoxicating. We understand our plane and how it moves and how it moves is intense. It’s first set of goals are challenging with out ever seeming impossible.
What sets luftrausers apart from Hotline Miami is a key feature of it’s genre: the high score. Shmups are built around scoring mechanics, players all over the world compete to be the best at mushi mushi pork & other shmups. On my third day in Luftrausers I did something I have never done before: I made the highest score on psn. At 64k my score has reigned supreme for over a week now. I receive fan mail asking me opinions on plane builds and parts usage. My theories of the game’s spawning algorithms are discussed by other players. I have never felt as in tune with a game as this one, so why am I so unhappy with it?
Richard Garfield held a talk on a cruise where he discussed luck versus skill. High skill games often deter players from playing again. Crush a 9 year old in chess and they will simply think they’re stupid, beat a 6 year old at a board game and they’ll just think you got lucky. The level of intention a player can express in a game in turn determines how likely a player will interrupt the result as their fault. Fail a mission in Hotline Miami? Well guess what, it’s just because that guy rounded a corner and he probably won’t next time. The problem is shmups are a high skill genre. Once you’ve beaten r-type you can pretty much always beat r-type. A good game of touhou involves a lot of luck, but experience ensures you will come through ok. Shmups are games that consistent play usually ensures success in the future. I couldn’t make a 64k score again even I tried… And I have tried.
What does one do when your skill at a game is so consistently misread? When I watched totalbiscuit’s wtf for luftrausers I was struck by something: he’s a lot better player than I am. The people emailing me on psn? More committed. Now am I a regular shmup player who understood chain kills, popcorn, managing said corn, leading, and other basic shmup skills before those other players did? Probably. But here is the problem, high skilled players of Luftrausers are not properly rewarded. The game is simply,to chaotic to provide skill sets with proper motivation to continue. Take the missions for example.
Luftrausers is based on numerous missions that often teach you fascinating facets of the game. These challenges can range from the mundane: kill 5 enemy types to the absurd: take down a blimp with nothing, but homing missiles. The problem the missions reveal is that when we read luftrausers as more than just a high score sandbox, but rather as a level with a mission to accomplish the game becomes difficult in ways that jostle with the underlying craziness. When you’re only out to play or make a high score getting gunned down by a minor foe is nothing, it’s like losing a mission in Hotline to mistiming a random dog. The problem is when you’re tasked with something exceedingly high skill: take down a blimp or kill an ace at Max combo in SMFT mode all of the chaos means excessive repeating to get a few seconds practice to only to have your hopes dashed again as the next play through proves even more difficult… Say aces spawning in the first moment or the blimp showing up extra early. The problem becomes this frustration is not with your inept skill level, but rather with your inability to better your skill level do to randomly spawning foes. The game becomes cheap in a way Hotline Miami never did. It switches the fault line of frustration from your own (I suck at chess) to the game (this game is cheap) it’s like any of those numerous nes moments in the angry video game nerd adventures. I would like to say this challenge makes the game better, but in reality it makes it worse. It encourages excessive play in order to spawn a random seed that happens to be forgiving enough for the player to practice their skills. Luftrausers’ problem is that it trains pilots to be skilled and then drops them into an environment where those skills become irrelevant. It fails to make the difficulty of the missions engaging and in the end it just relies on a cheap trick of fast infinite respawns to keep the player going. It is however the best hi score sandbox ever made, it just fails as a linear game.