At England's independent game festival GameCity, Terry Cavanagh was introduced as "brilliant and unforgiving," and his popular iOS action game Super Hexagon is certainly an example of both.
Super Hexagon has three modes: Hexagon, Hexagoner and Hexagonest, and they're labeled "hard, harder and hardest."
"I like to think the first two modes are just practice," Cavanagh joked.
Of course, he's a master of his own game, in part because of his persistence -- it took him a few tries, but he was able to complete the game in full before a live audience, even through its final Hyperhexagonest mode unlocked after 60 seconds surviving the hardest difficulty. The prize is just a simple kill screen and a single word of praise: "Wonderful."
Behind him, the projector showed his folder of bright, offbeat and minimalist prototypes on his computer, from things made in jams (there's a game where you have to drive a speeding bus the wrong way down a cluttered highway) to popular VVVVVV. The folders are labeled simply by number, one through seven, and in the seventh is a prototype called Hexagon.
Hexagon was a small prototype intended for the IGF Pirate Kart, but Cavanagh found himself dwelling on it and saw further potential. He decided to start by making it harder -- of course.
Cavanagh has a gentle, open demeanor that's somewhat at odds with the extreme difficulty people associate with his work, and he isn't known to seek out speaking engagements or to do them frequently. After revealing to an awed audience the reward for meeting the incredible challenge of completing Super Hexagon, he smiled just slightly. He gives the impression of someone under whom a placid exterior lurks dreamlike depth -- much like his work.
Edge Magazine features editor Jason Killingsworth is one of the only people close to being as good at Super Hexagon as Cavanagh himself. In a Q&A on stage, Killingsworth asked Cavanagh about "the idea of playing stylishly in a game where the result doesn't depend on stylish play."
He meant the way that players who are quite good at Super Hexagon have the option to take a long loop just because it looks prettier, even if the game's mandate is sheer survival. Players who watched Cavanagh play were not only engaged by the gameplay, but enthralled by the colors and hypnotic look.
"Most people don't think my games are very beautiful," Cavanagh says. "I try to make things look interesting but I'm not really much of a visual artist. I keep things minimal for a reason... I settle on something very, very quickly."
Visually, the final version of Super Hexagon is not especially different from the prototype. Just the act of using simple geometry for the game creates a certain aesthetic harmony that stands out.
For Cavanagh, the idea of incredibly difficult gameplay isn't about cruelty at all, but in the satisfying intellectual experience of engaging with a system that doesn't care if you can defeat it. That principle is even more meaningful in an age of games that intend to be cinematic experiences with clear beginnings and ends; Cavanagh is more interested in the repetition of movements and behavior in studied rehearsal, a process Killingsworth compares to the practice and performance of music.
Jenn Frank, who does the voice-over for the game, is a well-known journalist who once said all games are about death. The purity of Super Hexagon's mechanic -- survive -- seems to speak to this message. Killingsworth asked Cavanagh if he thinks abstract games can be about such deep human things.
"I don't think one person making a game it's possible to make something that isn't personal in some way, even subconsciously," he replied, after a thoughtful pause.
"When you do everything yourself -- in this case apart from the music -- you're making something that is the product of thousands of tiny decisions, and every one is the reflection of the person who made it, what they're like, and what they think about."
"I can't speak of what an abstract game can do in terms of talking about subjects like death and love, but I think games can absolutely be personal, can be about the person who made it," he adds. "This game... this is me."