Hippolyta: A Study in Simplicity

Last week I extolled the elegance of the shotgun in video games (Elegance is a Shotgun”, PopMatters.com, 17 March 2010). As a tool, it rather perfectly fits into a definition of the quality of elegance as something simple, basic, and efficient. The only real complaint that I received about this observation is that the shotgun is a weapon in games that tends to make play easier.

Now while I do think that being “easy” in some ways only furthers my point (after all, being simple and being easy are concepts that are often synonymous with one another), I do have to admit that in gaming the most elegant games are often highly complex and difficult to master, maybe in spite of being easy to learn. Go or chess are games that, on the face of them, are elegant and simple in terms of design and the ability to teach someone the basics of how to play, yet these are games whose ability to master is not exactly “easy” to accomplish.

Thus, this week I thought that I might discuss a game that is very difficult and yet in presentation and mechanics is elegant and simple, Evil-Dog’s flash game, Hippolyta.

Hippolyta’s visual aesthetics are defined by what appears to be a very basic design. The intro sequence for the game consists of about a half dozen well rendered stills that appear like layered line drawings. These images serve as all of the background necessary to understand the forthcoming game. Hippolyta is featured in battle, she is captured, she is imprisoned, and then Hippolyta begins “dressing” herself in her war paint, the blood of a mutilated animal.

Best of all, perhaps, is the minimalism of the final couple of lines that defines both Hippolyta and the player’s goal in the game: “One morning her wounds finally healed. She simply decided to go home.” While “going home” is a very basic description of purpose for a protagonist, it is also a very classic epic motif. Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, can be understood as being simply one man’s journey home, and this simplistic description of Hippolyta’s desire speaks to a very fundamental human need — to feel safe, to return home.

The gameplay itself reflects the very basic qualities of the plot. Hippolyta will ride through the woods on a horse fleeing those who pursue her. Featuring only five buttons with very simple functions (it is a flash game after all), Hippolyta’s flight is accomplished through only these few abilities. The “w” key allows Hippolyta to jump, the “a” key allows her to protect herself with a shield, the “s” button allows her to duck, the “d” button speeds her horse, and the space bar allows her to throw a javelin.

While obstacles in Hippolyta’s path can only be overcome through these five means (ducking, jumping, shielding, attacking, and speeding up), these obstacles vary a fair amount in quality over the course of the game. Some types of soldiers can only be overcome by impaling them with the javelin, some only by striking them while jumping, and some by blocking their blows with a shield. The duck button has multiple uses: it allows Hippolyta to avoid overhanging tree branches, to avoid arrows shot at her from behind, or to ride through enemy tents.

While none of these obstacles and their solutions sound especially difficult to deal with (especially since doing so requires only a single button press), they become so because of the rate of speed that Hippolyta encounters them at and because there is such a variety of types of obstacles to overcome that the player constantly (and very rapidly) has to process what type of obstacle that they are encountering and quickly map it to the appropriate technique to circumvent that obstacle.

The particularly neat thing about the design of obstacles here is that visual and aural cues (and sometimes a combination of the two) give the player a very slight heads up on what is coming next but also serve to complicate making that assessment. For instance, a sound akin to the firing of a bow is accompanied with Hippolyta’s cry of “incoming” or “arrows to the front” if unseen sharpshooters are about to attack or “arrows from behind” if, again unseen, projectiles are about to appear from the back. Since missles shot from the front require the use of a shield to halt their progress and arrows from the back require Hippolyta to duck, the sound of bows being fired preps the player for one of two actions, while Hippolyta’s warning causes the player to have to rapidly narrow that choice to one option. It is easy to make the mistake of using the wrong approach to solving the problem, resulting in Hippolyta’s death — a result likely to occur very often in the game. Hippolyta requires only perfection. How elegant is that?

Because the segments of the game seem to be randomized on some level, the game is not one of simple memorization as each new attempt offers a different order of types of obstacles that have to be avoided. The game is about pattern recognition and a very, very rapid form of such. Unlike other games that ask the player to quickly recognize patterns and press buttons reflexively in response to those visual cues (like rhythm games — Rock Band or Guitar Hero — or even the most recent Prince of Persia), the “reflex” requires more judgment on the part of the player. An orange note capsule requires the press of the orange button in Rock Band. A tree branch from the front or Hippolyta’s warning can both require a press of the duck button, multiple visual cues are mapped to a single action. Likewise, similar looking visual cues like two different types of soldier on the ground in front of you require two different types of button presses to dispatch. You have to think about it, and the game does not allow time for much thought. It is about escape and pursuit. In other words, fear not rationality. The tension created by the need for perfect success in order to surmount a segment and the tricky way that cues make the player second guess themselves serves to evoke such terror.

The game’s design speaks to an awareness of this challenge and builds progressively on its simple duck, jump, and stab mechanic by steadily introducing new complexities as Hippolyta’s flight continues. Initially, few cues and few types of response are necessary to learn in order to begin Hippolyta’s flight. You will need to jump rocks and logs, duck tree branches and through tents, and throw javelins at soldiers. Each new segment introduces one or two new types of obstacles that complicate this more basic pattern. The introduction of soldiers in the second sequence that must be crushed beneath your horse’s hoofs make assessment of how to deal with an oncoming soldier (stab or crush) surprisingly tricky. It is still a simple mechanic. Nevertheless, it is one that grows more and more difficult to master as these sequences grow longer and more varied.

The actual input in the game remains as graceful and elegant as the figure of Hippolyta herself. As elegant as a shotgun? Maybe, but clearly more deadly, especially for the player.