I hate difficult games. Despise them even. This is perhaps a character flaw, a sign of my struggle with daily discipline. But I just find that process of anger, self-doubt, furious rage (even if it's offset by sublime satisfaction) to be an incredible downer. So when people tell me about the runner's high they get from extreme difficulty of titles like Dark Souls, the whole ritual seems hyper-masculine and unnecessarily complicated.
"Why so serious?" I joke.
And with that in mind, I was suckered into pulling my hair out in the vibrant world of Pid. Designed by Swedish studio Might & Delight, I was lulled into assuming that the clean lines, soft focus, and approachable color palette would be a sign of ease. I unwisely presumed that the journey of Kurt, a little boy who's somehow found himself on a robot-infested planet and who only wants to go home, would be, well, an easy one, like Littlebigplanet before it. This was going to be a summer trip to the beach.
I was very wrong. Pid is very, very hard.
Suddenly, I found myself stuck. And by suddenly, I mean in the first hour or so, I was hopelessly flailing against one of the game's gigantic bosses, slamming my controller against my knee and generally frightening the poor soul next to me during a Trans-Atlantic flight. I have no regrets, but be forewarned: Pid will make you crazy.
This difficulty is part of its charm and quite in vogue with titles like Trials, Super Meat Boy, & Spelunky. Jesper Juul has written dying in games is more complex than a mere binary of winning or losing. "Failure is central to the experience of depth in a game, to the experience of improving skills," he writes. That is exactly the feeling one finds in the world of Pid. New skills are doled out slowly. You are given an energy orb that allows you to float, then later bombs to protect yourself, then a slingshot for the orbs to pull you into previously unaccessible locations. Yet this rationing of skills is met with profound hardship. During one particular puzzle sequence, I counted that I had tried a particular piece more than 50 times.
Repeating these tasks takes on a zen quality. You are doing them to do them, memorizing the timing of each aerial drone's flight pattern and firing schedule. It reminded me of the process of writer Joan Didion when she would set pen to paper.
The most important is that I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes.
That's what traversing through Pid feels like. Moments of process and frustration, punctuated by success, and bookended by a lot of planning, adjustment and strategy. You're rewriting the first page of your novel again and again and again.
Of course, the core question is: why engage with Pid for so long? Making hard games is easy in a sense; just create something that the player could never master, watch, and wait. It's a hole-in-one approach. Success is possible, but highly unlikely. But I power on in large part due to the aesthetics. The world is colored in muted tones of blues, browns, and reds that belie the discomforting reality that awaits you. The design is a sedative and a very effective one at that. During one sequence, Kurt moves out of the factory to travel to the next world during a rainstorm. There's no danger, just a walk through puddles and the quiet tapping of raindrops on the pavement. You'll appreciate breaks like this.
But Pid's difficulty does highlight the problem of story in games. The plot is actually quite endearing. The robots glisten with personality. There's a Gulliver's Travels, stranger in a strange land quality to it, and the heartbrokenness of the robots that you meet along the way and their longing for a return to normalcy is stirring. There is a secret cabal of aging automatons, a very angry kitchenmaid with a dangerously voracious appetite, and even a lonely sax player encountered in the dark. Might and Delight have successfully filled the world with wonder and mystery. If Roald Dahl had ever made a videogame, this would be it.
But by the time I was finished leaping over missiles or battling each of one of the game's bosses, I was in no mood for a story. Moreover, I had to remind myself why I cared. It's a bit like putting a book down ever couple weeks and then coming back to it. You vaguely remember why you were reading, but the nuance of each plot point is lost on you.
Pid is also part of a larger indie project to rethink the nature of the platformer. Playdead added chiaroscuro art direction for Limbo, Jonathan Blow added a rewind mechanic for Braid, LittleBigPlanet has its patchwork textures. These changes are not merely cosmetic, but drastically separate this higher class of platformer from the also-rans.
If Roald Dahl had ever made a videogame, this would be it.
For Pid, the new territory is a bit more oblique. In the 1990s, usability expert Jacob Nielsen explained the difference between creating content for the web and other media, like television. Quite simply, it was the difference between leaning forward and leaning back. Television was low resolution, heavily authored, and ultimately passive. It was something that washed over you. You lean back. The Web, by contrast, invited closer reads, and required direct user input. This was leaning in.
Something similar is at work with the grammar of Pid as a platformer. We tend to think about space and size in platformers as something bounded by the top and bottom of the screen. Our interactions read from the left to right, the way one might think about a book. The default for platformers is leaning out. Our focus is on the immediate layer of gameplay, not what's behind it.
In much of Pid, platforming space is redrawn in three dimensions. Kurt moves side to side, but out attention is drawn to relationship between the foreground and the background. This is done by making the bosses, well, utterly enormous, but also through the simple use of perspective. A giant maitre D' at the start of game poses your first real challenge as he moves from the background to foreground, from blurriness to focus, before attacking. It's a subtle trick that forces you to lean in.
Touches like this kept a difficulty-hating player like myself engaged in the world, even when my blood pressure was telling me otherwise. It turns out that the trick was adding some delight to all that might.