VVVVVV: The wages of sin is frustration

VVVVVVIt is easy to go down to hell;

Night and Day the Gates of Dark Death stand wide;

But to climb back up again, to retrace ones steps to the open air, there lies the problem, the difficult task.

– Virgil, The Aeneid

Hell is other people, Jean Paul Sartre is supposed to have said. He obviously never played VVVVVV, an indie game for the PC, Mac and Linux.

VVVVVV is essentially a game about dying. That’s not the point of the game exactly, but it’s what you will find yourself doing mostly, over and over and over again. Impaled on spikes, squished by multi-coloured abstract nouns or some other inventive torture device will surely do you in more than once. The strange thing is though, you’ll immediately go back to mindlessly attacking the same puzzle again. And somewhere in all the frustration, anger and swearing, fun will happen.

So what’s it all about? Well, aside from a frankly bonkers story about a ship full of tiny, happy two-dimensional space travellers being pulled off course by dimension travelling scientists conducting dangerous research, the idea of VVVVVV is to get from one screen to another, avoiding traps and rescuing your comrades.

The primary mechanics are very simple: run left, run right and reverse gravity. This seemingly simple system, added to some fiendishly cunning level design, creates a game that transcends the seeming roughness of its construction. The early rooms are simple affairs, just avoid a couple of spike traps and reverse gravity to fall upwards out of the screen. Soon though, more obstacles are thrown into your path: swift moving enemies, exits that wrap around to bring you back to the opposite side of the same screen, scrolling screens reminiscent of the time-trial sections of 2D Mario games.

Checkpoints come thick and fast, and respawning is relatively painless. The frustration creeps in around the 10th time you’ve died in exactly the same way, trying to overcome a section of puzzle that you just can’t see the way through. Solutions to tough rooms in VVVVVV are herculean feats of timing and memory, leaps into the unknown and preternatural reflexes. The feeling of successfully forging a path to a waiting crew member, and picking up the collectible trinkets along the way, is something that just has to be experienced to be understood.

The Tomb of Mad Carew

Carew was probably sane before he played this

The game features one of the best chiptune soundtracks I’ve ever heard, even with the modern trend among indie developers to go back to the sounds of the early demo scene for inspiration. Collecting shiny MacGuffins (which the game is at least honest enough not to pretend have any relevance to the plot) unlocks new tunes for you to enjoy. Pushing Onwards especially is just a majestic piece of composing which brings back memories of my earliest gaming experiences, when you had to load kilobytes of data off a tape cassette just to play Populous. If a piece of music can still bring a smile to your face after half an hour’s brutal punishment from a tough puzzle room, then I count that as a success.

That brings up a slightly tangential issue, that thinking about the music in this game sparked off. It seems to me that there are two ways in which I enjoy 8 bit music, and while I haven’t discussed this widely, it might strike a chord with a few others. On the one hand, there is chiptune that stands up as good, complex electronic music composed with game device synthesizers (something like Nullsleep springs to mind). I appreciate this on an aesthetic and intellectual level, just like I do Neil Young or Portishead.

The other form of enjoyment is something to do with connecting on a deeper emotional level. It’s something to do with hearing the sounds of your childhood, used in a way that is fresh and new, yet joyfully chaotic and respectful at the same time. It’s difficult to describe, so probably best that I point you at something like Mario Airlines. You’ll get the picture.

Back to VVVVVV then. You should play this game. Then you should go out and get all your friends to play this game. It will make them better people. Unless, of course they hate innovative game design, great music and gameplay that challenges not only your reflexes, but your analytical mind as well. Send those people off to play Wii.

And as a final word, there is one major problem I discovered while playing, to my cost. The game originated as a shareware Flash game online, which means that it stores saved games in protected Flash storage as a Local Shared Object or LSO. Unfortunately, ad companies have realised that we’ve all wised up to http cookies, and have started using LSO to track your browsing history. That means that paranoiacs like myself have begun using browser add-ons like BetterPrivacy to delete everything in shared storage.

So, the game saved fine on my first play-through, and I went to bed seething with joy at the progress made at painful cost. However, on coming back the next day, no saved game was in evidence. The problem was only uncovered through some judicious Google searching, and a rather unhelpful thread on the Steam forum. Basically, it doesn’t look there is a fix coming, so disable your over-active Flash cookie deleter, and deal with the fact advertisers can see all those filthy websites you’ve been studying.

All images are copyright Terry Cavanagh – http://thelettervsixtim.es/

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