What 'Super Meat Boy' Can Teach 'Assassin's Creed'

Assassin's Creed 2 broke my TV. If it was more like Super Meat Boy, it wouldn't have.

On paper, I would have said that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is the perfect game for me and that Super Meat Boy is my worst nightmare. As it turns out, that's only half true. Brotherhood is definitely a game for me, and I've spent dozens of hours engrossed in it. But I was surprised by how much I enjoy Super Meat Boy, even through I have a notoriously bad habit of breaking expensive things when I get super frustrated with games. I snapped my Nintendo DS while playing Henry Hatsworth (the damned Nurse boss), which is a jump-puzzler like Meat Boy. On the other hand, I broke my new TV while playing Assassin's Creed 2, albeit in the one part of the game that actually stymied me. Sadly, it is an otherwise pretty easy game ("How I Broke My TV Playing Assassin's Creed 2", Rick Dakan: Writer, Reader. Gamer, 30 November 2009).

I'm doing much better now, though, and have limited my angry reactions to a muted outcry of "Oh, come on!" followed by pausing the game and walking away for a few moments. I was expecting a lot of getting up from the couch, but Super Meat Boy does a great thing to short circuit the rage quit reaction: it throws you back into the challenge instantly. There's no time to be angry for too long because you're already trying again. Plus, the levels are so short that it's a matter of seconds or maybe a minute at most to complete most levels once you figure out the trick. There's even a great deal of pleasure to be found in a watching all those deaths on simultaneous replay when you finally find the path to victory.

Big, 3D world games like Assassin's Creed aren't set up for instant "try again" moments. I really liked the new Prince of Persia because it found a cool short cut around loads -- the character never died when he missed a jump, as his princess companion always rescues him at the last moment so he can try again. The resulting experience is not unlike Super Meat Boy; there wasn't much in the way of needless repetition or long waits while levels reloaded. And actually, Assassin's Creed handles the jump puzzle sequences quite well. I enjoy them, they give good checkpoint, and it's usually more about figuring out the puzzle rather than pure hand-eye coordination. Only a few times did I suffer a frustrating "need to load the level again" fall.

Assassin's Creed's biggest problem is that there are numerous sequences where you don't know what to do. For example, there's a sequence in the Coliseum where you're in diguise and trying to infiltrate a passion play. There are two moments in there in which you can instantly fail the mission because you don't do the right thing at the right moment. In particular, you have to hit your mark on the "stage." I don't know which Renaissance director came up with this dumb choreography, but having centurions move from spot to spot in front of the stage must surely have been an annoying distraction for the audience.

But the worst moments are those missions in which being detected by a single guard leads to instant mission-failure. This is most egregious in the Da Vinci related missions, where it's easy to play for many minutes and have it all go to hell and then reload and replay it all again. It's a sin common to stealth-based games, one I even somewhat enjoyed in the game Velvet Assassin (a game I think no one else in the world liked), but I think the tone for such all-or-nothing stakes needs to be set from the outset, as it is in Super Meat Boy. Assassin's Creed is usually a pretty forgiving game, and indeed many times when you get "caught" by a guard, part of the fun is running away and hiding. While there's often a story reason for why Ezio can't get caught, there's also often not, and it's this dissonance that causes frustration. Well, dissonance and constantly sitting through load screens as punishment for the smallest mistake.

That's the lesson I want all developers to learn from Super Meat Boy -- challenge is great, but frustration isn't. If your game doesn't load as fast as the Meat does and requires replaying long stretches of relatively easy play, then don't put in insta-fail moments without thinking two or three times about it first. Only when you've really thought about it and looked at all the other options should you consider it. And then, why don't you go ahead and throw in some extra checkpoints just to be safe? No one will complain, trust me.

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