I explore playing retro-themed platformers as a means of enlightenment.
I never used to get headaches. Only the rarest ones would come and go throughout my childhood and teen years, usually only due to not eating or sleeping enough during a particular day. I could stay up night after night in the summer and sit four feet away from a bright-blue Final Fantasy inventory screen or THPS park editor and never feel a thing.
Several years later I find myself sitting in my dark bedroom wearing sunglasses to shield my retinas from the multicolor sheen of Super Mario Galaxy. Yeah, some lights were switched on right about then. Nowadays I can't last past three hours of gameplay without needing to pop an Ibuprofen. The health warnings were right and that's fine. I shouldn't play games all the time anyway.
The dedication we have to gaming can harm our bodies and minds. It is the only medium that requires skill, concentration, patience, hand-eye coordination, and potentially lengthy bouts of time to effectively enjoy. I take pride in these facts because they are the most clear and evident link we have to appreciating games as a respectable means of communicating new and rare ideas. These concepts help make them more tangible and real than any other art form around. We slowly kill ourselves to learn and perfect new systems in each title and it's this language of control that is, typically in the name of survival, our common toolset used to avoid near-constant cycles of virtual death. Dying is an inevitability in most video games and perhaps it is this common feature that steers certain individuals away from the gaming experience entirely. This is why I recommend games like Flower to cautious or easily-frustrated non-gamers. They can only live, they can only breathe, and they can begin to disintegrate the disingenuous falsehoods of games that their childhoods and the mass media are telling them they are. Some of us on the other hand prefer the classic pain of survival. Not in the face of an opponent but instead in the soul of our own inherent will to feel alive.
Fez tore my brain apart. Its multiple series of interwoven and complex cryptographic puzzles surprised me continuously with their intricacy and eventually had me scrawling nonsense upon sheets and sheets of graph paper like so many others in April. Your physical deaths as Gomez matter none as he instantly respawns from his last stable stance when you slam into a platform or fall into nothingness. The sound of a small, low electronic beep signals the event but other than that, there is little fanfare for the little guy's demise. Alas, Fez is about slow cerebral torture. A game about death by psychological demolition and expectant systematic failure. True death comes when your brain ceases to function no matter how hard you pull on your hair or how intently you stare at the spinning black monolith. Your natural limitations are measured with a percentage and a decimal: I am dead at 181.5 percent.
Super Meat Boy shredded my hands. I never truly died in SMB because, just as in Fez, there is little fanfare for your repeated demise. Herein lies the pain: the stubborn nature to complete increasingly difficult levels until my hands turned to frigid claws wrapped sorely around my 360 controller and my legs stung with the sensation of instinctively hitting them too many times when my temper would flare from inevitable missteps. Super Meat Boy is entirely about muscle memory and reflexes at this point as it requires a heaping helping of practice before even attempting later or Dark World levels. The individual designs are are so succinct and the control so precise that every micro-action is entirely yours to own up to as a player. Only after arriving at 100% completion did I realize I loved Super Meat Boy for it's heady level of challenge because it offered me a new and distinct feeling unlike anything I had felt before. Unlike Fez, that 100% did not represent death. In fact, death never came in Super Meat Boy. Instead I felt something close to the twists and bends that were required of my mind in Fez.
The torturous pain in dedicating oneself to completing a difficult video game was relatively new to me at the time and only now do I wish I had got to experience this rush sooner. After a while, during maybe the 100th attempt at a particularly sinister level in Super Meat Boy, or while musing on the same silent puzzle in Fez for the third hour in a row, my psyche would enter a state of purity. It was a numbness borne of repetition in the face of constant and potential failure, something we could perhaps call looking death in the eyes. The numbness turns you laser-guided, a being whose sole purpose is to survive as long as your body and mind will allow in the face of intense "virtual" adversity. Surviving not against death but through the ever-encroaching pain of failure at the hands of whatever beast designed such a path, whether cerebral or physical, and expected you to traverse it at all.
Challenge is repetition, repetition is failure, failure is pain, pain is numbness, numbness is purpose, purpose is survival, survival is life. There is no death, only a fear of dedication.
I would call my time with Fez and Super Meat Boy my only moments I had ever reached a state of zen while gaming. I believe video games, in all of their seemingly death, murder, and killing-obsessed glory, represent a new division in entertainment, blazing a killer neon path carved by ancients a quarter century or more ago. As interactive art and as a place to let go of your physical reality and develop an ardent and transcendent new purpose through ritual suicide and becoming a martyr for your avatar's insurmountable cause not in the name of victory, but in the acceptance of failure. Those who do not fear death and who truly understand the pain of second-by-second reflexive or mental dedication can reach a much more pure and pleasurable state of bliss with their time spent with such titles.
Modern games typically lack this ability because they do not pursue challenge as such, which is why I celebrate the design decisions laid out in Fez and Super Meat Boy wholeheartedly. Their primary traits harken back to a time I imagine most gamers were struck with a similar significant feeling of enlightenment and could share it collectively, as evidenced additionally by the reception of Mega Man 9. They perhaps understood then why video games are so special and why those who have not reached such a level could never relate.
Those headaches suddenly become a clarion call for your entrance into a focused and pristine posture. Because when the lights are finally flicked on, you are sobered enough to see that there was no beast in the darkness.