Learning to Speak Pixels
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that recently we’ve developed an obsession with “really hard games.” I’ve adopted last year’s Dark Souls, the (in)famously self-proclaimed “hardest game ever,” a game so hard its tagline is “Prepare to Die,” insinuating not only will you probably fail quite often, but it’s actually expected, by you, the person paying for this game, and you know that, and that’s actually a large part of why you’re paying for it, as one of my favorite games.
I paid $60 to get flipped off by Dark Souls, because I apparently like that sort of thing.
Thus, They Bleed Pixels, the newly-released platforming beat-em-up from Spooky Squid Games, seemed like it would be right up my alley. I like beat-em-ups AND platformers, and as my previously mentioned Dark Souls (ahem) problem indicates I’m also a fan of Hard games, and that is the one thing that I had consistently heard about They Bleed Pixels – that it is very hard.
In the considerable amount of time I’ve spent with it, I’ve concluded that They Bleed Pixels is hard, but not in the same way that Dark Souls is hard. That is to say, They Bleed Pixels is hard in a way that ultimately wants you to succeed which, I suppose by today’s masochistic standards means it’s really not hard, or, alternatively, could mean that games like Dark Souls are not actually hard as such, and today’s masochistic standards are just that – masochistic. The notion that They Bleed Pixels wants you to succeed is important here. It is the reason why Dark Souls is not really that hard per se, it just likes flipping you off, whereas They Bleed Pixels is hard in a way that makes you feel like it actually wants to be your friend.
But I’m not here to talk about Dark Souls and how difficult it is. That’s a conversation that’s been going on for a while now, and if you really want you can catch up on it here, or here. What is interesting is how in They Bleed Pixels, Spooky Squid have crafted a game that is hard in the most devious and ingenious way.
My expectations going into They Bleed Pixels were that it would be very hard, and my early experiences with the game lived up to this in spades. I died a lot. I swore even more. I cursed the developer and the controller and my own clumsy hands. Levels were taking me 30-45 minutes to complete (one particularly pesky stage vexed me for a full hour and a half before I could claim victory).
Ultimately I did beat the game, and felt not only accomplishment, but a feeling that I wanted to go back and play it again. Then I noticed something miraculous: I had gotten better at the game. Not just memorized enemy attack patterns or timed platforming sections with a stopwatch, but actually gotten better at the game. Levels were now taking me 10-15 minutes to complete, not upwards of half an hour. I was making fewer of the mistakes that plagued my previous run. I had become, for all intents and purposes, fluent in the game.
This term is chosen carefully; getting good at They Bleed Pixels is very much like having a conversation with someone who speaks a different language. At first it will seem nearly impossible. But over time you work at it, and your efforts are facilitated, and eventually you get it. Then not only have you accomplished something, but you feel awesome because you worked it out based on your own ability to cooperate. This is the most effective strategy for improving in a game like They Bleed Pixels – the ability to stop trying to brute force your way through the game and instead just listening to it.
Yes, They Bleed Pixels is a game that communicates back to you. You push a button and something happens. Every time. Its consistency is very much a “language” that you can learn; you become familiar with things like attack timing, jump arcs, the friction in a wall slide, and myriad other essential actions. You can read it as clearly as if it were written in front of you. A truly skilled player can reach a sort of harmony that exists between the button input and the on-screen action, knowing precisely when and how hard to push a button to complete an air juggle combo, in a form of symbiosis that is entirely intuitive; you feel it, and you just know.
Intuition is an element of games that has been left by the wayside in recent years, so at first it’s a bit jarring to see a game embrace it so wholeheartedly. But They Bleed Pixels rewards intuitive play very well. You are given all the tools you will need to succeed right up front, and throughout the rest of the game you are simply learning to use them effectively. Never will the game try and unfairly overpower you or present you with a challenge that you are not already equipped to handle; there are no surprises. The platforming is, at times, devastatingly difficult and the enemies are relentless, but the difficulty really stems from simply trying too hard to play the game and not hard enough to just feel it.
All games are essentially conversations between the developer and the player, existing to communicate a message. A game like Dark Souls communicates that “here is a brutal world and it hates you and frankly if you can’t succeed I don’t really care.” This is, for better or worse, what we have come to associate with “difficulty” these days – the message is writ large right from the start, it’s just not a friendly one. It flips you off.
At first glance, They Bleed Pixels may appear to convey a similar message of blatant disregard for the player’s enjoyment or well-being. It is, instead, a game that wants to open a dialogue with you, you just have to go through the process of learning the language first. But once you do, you will find a game that encourages you to succeed, and to spend time with it in a way that’s mutually productive and not simply frustrating. It never simply flips you off. After all, how can you be flipped off by someone who only has two fingers?
Header illustration by Zoe Quinn