The most common word you will say if you play Jumpman is “fuck.”
You’ll say it because you suck at Jumpman. Your blocky, orange character controls like a bar of soap on a bathroom floor. The inertia is incredible. Hold an arrow key for a quarter-second and you’ll go sliding across the ground with physics that would better suit an air hockey table, and the only way to stop is to apply equal force in the opposite direction.
You suck at Jumpman. Get used to it.
Many obstacles would be comically unchallenging but for the deliberately awful controls—it’s like trying to do a single push-up while wearing fifteen wool sweaters. Pixelated green enemies kill you if they touch you. Flashing blocks kill you if they touch you. Enormous yellow bouncing balls kill you if they touch you.
You don’t die in Jumpman. You explode.
I don’t care whether you’re a Catholic priest; play Jumpman and you’ll swear like a fucking sailor. You’ll swear more often than you blow up. And you’ll blow up a fucking load.
And you will be laughing as you swear.
The secret to Jumpman is that the penalty for failure is nil; in fact, there are a few rewards. You can rotate most levels by 90 or 180 degrees, causing enemies and giant bouncing balls to fall haphazardly as gravity re-orients itself. It is often beneficial to ignore your character and just maneuver the giant ball into all your enemies, often exploding yourself repeatedly in the process. Every time you explode, you reappear a moment later at your start point. Your enemies stay dead, but you do not.
Jumpman, a free indie game by Run Hello, is part of the masocore genre. Masocore games are masochistic, spine-breakingly difficult games, with a prevailing (though not universal) wisdom that failure need not equate with punishment. Failure in Jumpman is a setback of less than a second. This is also true of popular masocore games Super Meat Boy, Give Up Robot 2, and VVVVVV. Levels tend to be small, often a single screen. A level may take fifteen seconds to run through perfectly. A perfect run may take eighty failures to achieve. But you can do eighty failures in eight minutes. There are few training levels - eighty failures are all the training you need. Eighty failures in eight minutes and you can do something impossible.
And when the next level loads, your eyes boggle, and you, priest, minister, Mormon missionary, say, “I am so fucked.”
And you say it with a smile.
Being fucked is fun.
Spencer, a therapist I saw some years ago, asked why I had so many issues with failing. I almost never finished a work of art that wasn’t a school assignment, and then usually in a mad panic, days before the deadline, a sheet of paper taped to my wall, frantically making piles of charcoal and eraser dust on the carpet and pissing off my roommate. Why did I always want my time free to work if I was going to waste it on the internet? Why did I resent hours spent at dayjobs for taking time away from art I probably wouldn’t make?
(I am putting words in Spencer’s mouth; he would never be so strident.)
I told him that being afraid of failure meant being afraid to try. I had structured my life so I’d always have several ambitious, half-started projects going, enough that I could peck away at one whenever I needed the illusion that I was working, but never anything in such a state that it could actually be completed and released to the world’s judgment. I could feel like an artist without ever having to fail.
The creeping depression that had brought me to his office was the feeling that, if the payment for being zero-failure was to be without accomplishment, then the failure in my life was life itself.
“Can you think of any time,” Spencer asked me, “when you actually failed at something?”
I had to think.
Eventually I came up with this:
My first relationship was emotionally and, very briefly, physically abusive. My first girlfriend and I got together when I was nineteen. Warning signs that it was going to be a horrible relationship occurred about one month in, but we stayed together til I was nearly twenty-one. It was more or less a solid year and a half of crisis, as she went from one temporary living situation to another, depending on me for all emotional support and slowly destroying every relationship in her life. She’d pick a fight with me every night, I’d eventually get four hours of sleep, this would go on for months. I cracked several times, but also felt a steady weariness—a general grinding-down. I realized that I didn’t want to kill myself, but for the first time I understood why people who felt this way all the time wanted to kill themselves.
But I stayed. I had a very young notion that when two people love each other, they can always make it work. They have to make it work. To leave someone you still love is to fail them.
By the time I broke up with her, I said, I didn’t believe that anymore.
Then, in that way that therapists do, Spencer slowly coaxed the lesson in that out of me, mostly by saying, repeatedly, “…and therefore?”
Therefore what? Failure didn’t kill me. In order to end the relationship, I needed to believe that love alone couldn’t sustain a relationship with someone who mistreats you and, on rare occasions, punches you in the face. That perhaps such behavior was a turn-off. That “making it work” can’t be one person’s job in a two-person relationship. These were lessons in maturity, but they were also coping mechanisms. Believing in them was necessary to get out.
I failed. But in retrospect, failure looked a lot like the other thing.
It redefined what it meant to fail.
This is as close to a breakthrough as therapy gets for me.
I wish I could say I’ve never looked back. Within a couple years I was living in New England and working on a large independent game project, with a coder in another country, feeling like a proper developer. But I was making little actual progress.
Some lessons need to be learned through repetition.
Masocore games appeal to me, first and foremost, because they’re incredible. But they start to mean something to me more personal than fun.
My breakup was not without fallout. Past the liberating first months, I was a wreck. I had to figure out how to be single again, and how to earn back the friends I’d alienated. Failures in real life are messy where Jumpman’s are clean: you die, you are reborn, you try again. As many times as it takes.
There is a purity to this process. There is always a way to win. You have infinite tries, infinite time. There is a joy in death.
Being fucked is fun.
These lessons are harder to pick out in real life, among all the noise.
I often forget that the creative process is one of self-doubt. To write one sentence is to reject a half-dozen inferior ones that came to mind, and to reject the survivor upon revision. A blot of paint or chisel-chip in a block of marble obliterates the thousands of other paintings and sculptures that could have been. This is what it means to design. Most of these alternatives are considered for seconds and then forgotten, until the final product feels as though it came from nowhere. As if the right choices were my first thoughts. And I often ask when I start the next work, “Why isn’t this as easy as last time?”
Often, masocore games track statistics. Give Up Robot 2 told me that, by the final level, I had died over eighteen hundred times. Super Meat Boy kindly follows every perfect run with a replay that superimposes all your attempts on top of one another: copies of your character race across the screen, each ending in a burst of blood, perhaps a hundred or more times, until only one is left, the one that lived.
Upon victory, the game reminds you of all your failures.
“This is what it took to get here,” it says.
Without penalties, masocore gaming lets me explore this single theme: the ultimate success that comes after a thousand failures.
Why can’t I go back to when it was easy?
It was never easy.
Super Meat Boy
Give Up, Robot 2
This article originally appeared in twenty-four magazine, Issue 3.
Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.