Game Over and Over and Over

The extremely difficult Dark Souls II and the rise of “masocore” gaming.

When I was 11 years old, around the 20th time I died just trying to walk between towns in the post-apocalyptic role-playing game Wasteland, my father asked me, “David, if these games make you so frustrated, why do you play them?”

If I couldn’t answer his question, at least I can take comfort that I was not the only one to face it. Dark Souls II was released last week to the simultaneous cheers and groans of millions of hard-core gamers. Cheers for its immersive world, epic sweep, and challenging gameplay; groans for its extremely challenging gameplay, sadistically unfair fights, and unforgiving checkpointing that sends players to repeat the same portions of the game dozens of times before progressing—or giving up.

Dark Souls, belaboring the obvious.

Creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki cheerfully admitted that playing the game is an exercise in masochism, and was designed to be such. When asked in 2012 if he was a sadist, he replied:

If I had to say for myself, it’s actually the opposite – I’m more masochistic. Because I created Dark Souls while thinking about what type of game I would personally like to play. I wanted somebody to bring out a really sadistic game, but I ended up having to make it myself.

Miyazaki’s disappointment with insufficiently sadistic games is endemic to the increasingly significant numbers of gamers seeking “masocore” gaming experiences. The term “masocore” may sound like an offshoot of D.C. punk circa 1987 (back when “emocore” referred to hardcore punk bands like Fire Party and Rites of Spring instead of Dashboard Confessional), but it’s actually a term coined to refer to computer games that are even less forgiving than the harshest titles of the 1980s and 1990s. The term was popularized in 2008 on the Auntie Pixelante gaming blog, attributed by author Anna Anthropy to a forum member. Anthropy’s definition of a masocore game was “a game that plays with the player’s expectations, the conventions of the genre that the player thinks she knows.”

The line between violating conventions and simply upping difficulty levels is blurrier than it seems. Loosely speaking, a masocore game exhibits some combination of the following:

  • Perfect timing: Your margin for error in executing certain moves may literally be less than a tenth of a second.
  • Instadeath: Your character is sickly and fragile, exploding sometimes after just a single hit.
  • Permadeath: Saved games? No. If you lose, you go back to the beginning and start over.
  • Dirty tricks: See that gold across the bridge? Just cross it and BRIDGE COLLAPSED YOU’RE DEAD HAHA. OK, let’s go around the bridge and pick up the OH NO IT’S A GOLD MONSTER IT KILLS YOU HAHA.
  • Unhelpfulness: How does that thing work? What am I trying to do? Like the game’s gonna tell you.

The iconic masocore game was notorious for screwing with gamers: I Wanna Be the Guy, a free indie release from 2007. Like the plurality of masocore games, I Wanna Be the Guy is what’s termed a “platformer”: a 2-D, horizontal-perspective action game of jumping across obstacles (including the titular platforms), dodging or killing enemies, and most importantly, not dying. Super Mario Bros. is the classic platformer, and its many siblings, from Mega Man to Metroid to Ninja Gaiden, form a core canon on which today’s masocore platformers draw. I Wanna Be the Guy is probably the most proudly obnoxious, though (excepting the almost literally unplayable ROM hacks of old games like Kaizo Mario).

Dracula hurls a bushel of fireballs and exploding fruit at you in I Wanna Be the Guy.

I Wanna Be the Guy is the story of “The Kid” (i.e., you) and his struggle to become “The Guy,” who is the evil final boss of the game. Along the way you have to navigate treacherous terrain and be subject to parodies of three decades of platformers (as well as non-platformers like The Legend of Zelda, Tetris, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!).

Dodging falling Tetris blocks in I Wanna Be The Guy. The Kid is on the leftmost block (and about to be crushed).

The game is plenty tough, but primarily memorable for its sheer subversion: Spikes that aren’t supposed to move shoot out of the floor at you, scenery falls on you, and a glass thrown at you in a seemingly non-interactive dialog scene will actually kill you if you don’t dodge it. Some of these tricks are exceptionally nasty, like a “save” button that comes to life and kills the player. The wittiest of these comes toward the end, when the game suddenly crashes:

Stupid buggy game …

Actually, the game hasn’t crashed, and if you don’t move out of the way fast, that error box will fall on you and kill you.

The old “fake error box that kills you” trick. Note the explosion of blood from your corpse.

At its lowest ”moderate” difficulty setting, the game isn’t all that frustrating thanks to frequent save checkpoints that reduce the amount of progress you lose each time you die. (Designer Michael “Kayin” O’Reilly has said that the game pales next to legendary proto-masocore Nintendo title Battletoads (1991), which was somehow released commercially with its preposterous dexterity requirements.) If you die, you aren’t set back too far, and so the game becomes a matter of endless practice on each screen until your muscle memory has gotten the timing exactly right. Of course, someone had to go and complete the game without dying at all—and though the player is speaking Japanese, the language of anxiety, delirium, relief, and finally exhausted triumph is sufficiently universal that no Japanese is needed to understand him.

There is evidently a strong social component to masocore. Achieving in these games doesn’t necessarily grant bragging rights, but there is certainly some prestige in besting the unstinting, unblunted efforts of a game designer to kill you as much as possible. I Wanna Be the Guy made for ideal voyeurism too, as people would post videos of themselves groaning, sighing, shouting, and screaming as the game threw exploding fruit and spikes at them from all directions. There was a surreal epilogue to I Wanna Be the Guy four years after its release, in 2012: One of the most profane YouTube players, Ari “Floe” Weintraub, played through the sequel, I Wanna Be the Guy: Gaiden, at the game tournament EVO while O’Reilly intermittently tormented him in real time (doing things like rotating the screen or sending random crap flying at the Kid), while the audience raved and two commentators mocked Floe’s slow and frustrated progress. It’s not so far from the ritualized public humiliation of The Gong Show, Japanese gameshow Takeshi’s Castle, and Roman gladiator fights.

Floe’s Ritualized Public Humiliation at EVO 2012.

Nonetheless, after the surprise of I Wanna Be the Guy’s dirty tricks wore off, people persisted with the game just to master it (as in the case of our Japanese player above). The most salient characteristic of these masocore games—the characteristic by which they make people masochistic—is not their trickery but their sheer imposing impossibility, and the Sisyphean struggle to master them. A trick, once seen through, is no longer a trick. But difficulty is eternal. And conquering difficulty is eternal as well.

So it was with Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes’ Super Meat Boy, the tale of an animate hunk of meat’s attempt to save his true love, Bandage Girl, from the clutches of the evil Dr. Fetus (and later Bandage Girl’s attempts to save Meat Boy). An indie platformer released in 2010, Super Meat Boy played very few tricks, but instead offered a very large array of extremely challenging platform levels. Possibly the hardest was a bonus three-level tribute to I Wanna Be the Guy, featuring this hellish screen:

Super Meat Boy: Seriously?

Yeah, all those jumps have to be executed with perfect timing with no pauses until you pass point 6. This isn’t even the hardest level, thanks to subsequent level packs and fan-made levels (in the Super Meat World extension) that ratcheted up the difficulty even further; e.g., RockLeeSmile’s absurd “Let It Rain,” which the designer makes no claim to have completed.

Super Meat Boy fan-level “Let It Rain” by RockLeeSmile. Watch out for the blades.

Super Meat Boy was a huge hit, garnering critical acclaim and selling more than a million copies in the 15 months after its release, and showed that two independent game designers could make something a lot more compelling than most of what comes out of the huge studios. McMillen’s follow-up game, the sacrilegious The Binding of Isaac, was equally challenging and popular, and McMillen remains one of the most intriguing creators around in both form and content.

More recently, there has been Derek Yu’s Spelunky, which procedurally generates randomized caves for your Indiana Jones-like character to explore and loot. No two games are identical except in their extreme difficulty and preponderance of instadeath (and permadeath).


Making it through 20 or so levels that constitute the game will take on the order of an hour if you survive (which you won’t), but Spelunky king Bananasaurus Rex practiced and rerolled the game enough until he finished the game in five minutes (though that record has since been beaten). Not content to stop there, he then did a “Solo Eggplant Run,” an elaborate, arcane, and gratuitously hard challenge that was not even supposed to be possible—Rex even had to exploit a bug in the game to pull it off. There’s no space to get into it here, but this Polygon article explains just how surreal an obsession besting these games can become.

Dwarf Fortress: Your imagination is more vivid than any graphics. Or at least these graphics.

Masocore doesn’t only apply to reflex-based arcade games. There are strategy and role-playing games that manage to be just as unhelpful and unforgiving, as with the indie cult favorite Dwarf Fortress—the personal obsession of designer Tarn Adams, who expects that the game won’t be fully completed for another few decades. If you can get past the somewhat cryptic ASCII text graphics, you will be confronted with a world of ridiculously overmodeled complexity, where dwarfs run amok in your fortress fighting, boozing, sleeping, throwing tantrums, creating wall paintings, and occasionally working—each creature modeled down to individual body parts. The obstacles to keeping your fortress up and running and the total absence of any winning conditions whatsoever led to the slogan “Losing is fun” and this reappropriation of an old learning curve graph:

The black line was originally Eve Online, but Dwarf Fortress works too.

Never fear, however, because with enough practice, you too can have a beautiful, smooth-running fortress like this one, helpfully annotated in pink by a player:

The infamous Dwarf Fortress of Boatmurdered.

Two years ago in these very pages, Michael Thomsen complained of the sheer pointlessness of the original Dark Souls: “Dark Souls takes so long to play because it refuses to tell you its basic ground rules, then kills you over and over again for failing to understand them.”

The question remains: why engage in such ultimately pointless tasks? Well, why read the sports pages or go bowling or watch True Detective? There is probably something in the dopaminergic brain system that seeks out brief moments of triumph against meaningful adversity. (See Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens for more on agonistic play.) The social approbation made possible by YouTube and sites like encourages people to engage in a very difficult but carefully regimented environment in which your successes and failures are wholly under your control, and most importantly, where success is indisputably possible. Yes, the task is Sisyphean, but you know it is possible to roll the boulder up that hill: Just look on YouTube and see the few and the proud displaying their boulders at the peak. The games may play tricks, but they are fair, and they can be mastered—so unlike life. Gaming allows us to improve on Samuel Beckett: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Oh my God, I finally won!”

Pippin Barr’s Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment.

ROBOT ODYSSEY CHALLENGE WINNER: In a tribute to a different and more educational sort of masocore, I am happy to announce that David Hunter has completed the Robot Odyssey challenge and escaped from Robotropolis! He writes: “I’m glad to have finally experienced this masterpiece. Oh … and my wife will be happy to see me again.” Sincere congratulations to Hunter on his achievement.