Here we have yet another musical platformer that I shouldn’t have bought but couldn’t help myself. This didn’t work out the last time I tried it. I’m sure it will fail the next time I try it. Evidently I can’t learn from my mistakes.
In the past I’ve said that I’m rubbish at 2D platformers. That’s basically true, but I don’t think that’s what keeps me from enjoying the genre. I’m rubbish at fighting games, but I still enjoy mashing the buttons and listening to the absurd sounds the combatants make when they pummel each other. Also, the cutscenes are usually… really something. I’m not so hot at driving games, but I can still enjoy them on the lower difficulty settings.
No, this problem goes deeper than being “good” at something.
INT: Home Office – Night
(Load BLEEPS and BLOOPS punctuate a steady electronic beat as Shamus plays a 2D platformer. His face is expressionless, or perhaps looking ever so slightly bored. Despite this, his head bobs very slightly in time to the music as his hands work the controller. Eventually he misses a jump and dies.)
Shamus: (Deadpan.) Shit.
(He sits up straight and tries again. This time he manages to complete a long series of complicated jumps. These lead into a difficult series of vertically ascending wall jumps. He reaches the end of the level, completely nailing the entire sequence. He blinks and looks down at his controller in surprise.)
Shamus: Wow. I seem to be getting pretty good at these.
Shamus: And yet, I still don’t care. Why am I not enjoying this?
(Suddenly, DOKTOR SCIENTIST bursts through the door. His long grey hair is frazzled and unkempt. He’s wearing a lab coat and carrying a clipboard.)
Doktor Scientist: (Hammy German accent.) Vell, zere is a zimple und logikal explanazion for zeez phenomenon!
Shamus: First off, that German accent is terrible. Second, isn’t that trope like 60 years out of date by this point? Other countries do have scientists you know.
Scientist: (Rolls eyes.) Fine. No accent.
Shamus: And is that a clipboard? Who uses clipboards these days? Isn’t this conversation supposedly set in the modern day? You’re completely wrecking my suspension of disbelief.
(Dr. Scientist throws down his clipboard and smooths out his hair.)
Scientist: (Exasperated.) Why do you have to make everything so BORING? (Deep sigh.) The point is, there’s a simple explanation for why you’re not experiencing pleasure during this exercise.
Shamus: You mean aside from the fact that you’re interrupting me?
Scientist: Yes, completely unrelated to that. See, the sensation of pleasure you experience when playing games is actually the release of dopamine within the brain. Dopamine acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It’s associated with pleasure, but it’s also key in building memories and mastering tasks. The “pleasure” you’re looking for is actually just a chemical in your brain.
Shamus: Okay, but why am I not having fun?
Scientist: Evidently your brain isn’t releasing dopamine related to this particular task.
Shamus: Yes, buy WHY?
Scientist: This task is very much related to spatial processing and timing. Maybe your brain favors more social interactions like-
Shamus: I’ll stop you right there, because social interactions are not my thing. See, I like shooting dudes in games. I like driving around, flying stuff, doing melee combos. All of that involves timing and spatial processing to some degree.
Shamus: So why do I enjoy all those other things, but NOT 2D platforming? Why do all the other tasks give me dopamine and not platforming?
Scientist: That’s like asking “why do people like different things?” I’m just a humble neuroscientist. I can’t answer those kinds of questions. Maybe you should ask a philosopher.
(Suddenly, PHILLIPE PHILOSOPHER dashes into the room!)
Phillipe: (Hammy French accent.) You need my help, no?
Shamus: Fuck off.
Games have a lot of different ways of tickling our brains. In particular, a lot of mechanics-focused stuff seems to be focused on working with left-brain activities: Timing challenges. Pattern recognition. Reflex tests. Memory challenges. Execution testsEven if you remember it, can you reliably execute this 5-button combo?. Spatial awareness. Logic puzzles. Exercises in logistics and planning. Rhythm-based challenges.
And those are just the raw mechanical systems. On top of that you have stuff like story, characters, tone, themes, music, visuals, and all the other artsy stuff to keep the right hemisphere of your brain interested.
Nope! We’re done with that bit. Moving on…
The point is that games have a lot of different ways of stimulating our brains. I have no idea why jumping around in 2D doesn’t do anything for me. It’s very similar to a lot of other gameplay concepts. Like, on a fundamental level, it’s not that different from shooting. Both activities are about planning, timing, pattern recognition, and execution. But no matter how much I play 2D platformers or how hard I work to master them, they never give me the same pleasure as obliterating Combine with physics objects in Half-Life 2 or acing a fight in Batman: Arkham City. My right brain loves all the colors and music, but my left brain just isn’t into it.
I wouldn’t make a big deal about this except it feels really strange to master a task in a videogame and not get any satisfaction out of it. I feel like a junkie trying to get high on a placebo. The rush just isn’t there.
I guess this is what gaming feels like to non-gamers. They play, they do a thing, and there’s no reward. They shrug and say, “I don’t see what the big deal is with video games.”
To make this even weirder: I enjoyed the hell out of OlliOlli2: Welcome to Olliwood. That’s a 2D downhill skateboarding game. That game is basically a platformer except you’re on wheels and always moving right, instead of being on foot. What’s the deal? If someone put Mario on roller skates would I suddenly enjoy Super Mario Bros? But wouldn’t that just turn it into an auto-scroller level? I hate those stages more than the others!
To make this even weirder still: I enjoy platforming in games like Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed. Isn’t that mostly the same deal in 3D? But then I don’t enjoy Super Mario GalaxyEh. I actually DO enjoy it, but I enjoy it for the exploration and inventive scenery, not the hopping around.. What’s the deal, here? What are you looking for, brain?
I don’t know. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like there’s a shortage of games to play these days. I’m not upset that I can’t enjoy these games, I’m just really curious as to why.
Given my ignorance of the genre, I can’t really tell you if Neon Beats is worth a try. It’s got all the typical 2D platformer mechanics like insta-death hazards, wall-jumping, moving platforms, dashing, and the like. I can’t tell you how it stands up against classics like Super Meat Boy or Spelunky. I like the music and the minimalist visuals, and the rest is a mystery to me. I like the burst of colors when you jump off of walls and the little flutter of tiny particles to give this abstract world a bit of heft. Even the menu music makes me smile.
I’m pretty sure you could get me to buy Super Deluxe Stab Yourself in the Hand With a Pencil 3D if it was colorful and had the right kind of music. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I guess this is better than being addicted to lootboxes.
 Even if you remember it, can you reliably execute this 5-button combo?
 Eh. I actually DO enjoy it, but I enjoy it for the exploration and inventive scenery, not the hopping around.
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