Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016)

The Barkley Marathon and Incomprehensible Game Design

The challenge of understanding something enough to beat it is part of the joy of unraveling incomprehensible game design.

Sometime later this month or early next month, thirty-five masochists will meet up in Frozen Head State Park outside Wartburg, Tennessee to run what is widely accepted as the most difficult marathon in the world. The Barkley Marathon, held annually since its inception in 1986, has been finished only sixteen times. It’s a brutal, multiloop, hellscape of a race. It’s also an inspiring example of design.

When we criticize game design, we often bring up the concept of clarity in a variety of forms. How clear is the interface? How clearly does the game communicate its goals? Is progression clear? Does it tell the player where to go next? Or what things that the player is doing wrong? Clarity is an excellent game design goal. Except for when it isn’t.

There is an intentional incomprehensibility to the Barkley Marathon that in many ways is a core to its fascination-inducing success. Take the simple fact that while the race is held in the same general area every year, each marathon’s specific path is changed each time that the race is held. Similarly, while the course is described on a single map, each runner must decipher the map and copy it onto their own documents to the best of their ability. They can carry with them no GPS, no altimeter, and certainly no cell phone. They map their journey by getting their bearing on the first loop, then remembering their surroundings on the second, that is, if they make it that far.

Reaching one’s limit in the Barkley Marathon

In no small way, these runners experience the course in the truest sense. By the time that the woods have chewed them up and spit them up, those mountains up ahead become their own challenge. Each brutal climb and bramble-filled tract of land is etched on the runners’ memories as well as on their skin. This personalization of the incomprehensible is admirable. The inscrutable is made clear, not through design, but through perseverance, and recognizing what needs to be accomplished next brings with it its own sense of reward. This is why, time and again, when a game has a map feature, hardcore players encourage others not to use it. I turned off the GPS while playing Firewatch recently and can attest to the sense of ownership over the experience that you achieve by getting lost and then in finding your own way.

More than an experiential ownership though, the incomprehensibility of the Barkley Marathon makes you appreciate the land as a local might. The race features no aid stations, just two water drops along the way, and no path is marked. In fact, only about a third of the course is on a trail at all, the rest is through the Appalachian wilderness. Key parts of the course are recognizable, and they’re given nicknames like “Rat Jaw” and “Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall,” things you might hear described around the local watering hole. Like a local, the runners will add their own story to each location.

The way lived locations become myth is mirrored in the way that we talk about certain games. Your failed attempt at beating Battletoads may go down as legend among your group of friends. We can see legends like these in the making today whenever someone creates and then beats their own brutally difficult Super Mario Maker level. The challenge of understanding something enough to beat it is part of the joy of unraveling incomprehensible game design.

Of course, the absurd difficulty of the five-loop, 100+ mile marathon is a huge part of its allure. In the 2015 documentary about the race, the marathon’s creator Gary Cantrell describes the value in the confronting the extreme: “If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

The brutally difficult Devil Daggers.

This is a realm so rarely approached by games, the painful meld of difficulty and incomprehensibility. Games like Dark Souls, or more recently Devil Daggers, embrace this approach. Two very different games, one an action-RPG, the other a hellish shooter, but both ask a great deal from their players. Importantly, every victory in the game, even if you never finish them or even surpass your own personal best, are rewarding in the pursuit. To some extent competitive games like League of Legends are appealing for the same reason, feeling rewarded simply in the pursuit of nothing but a game well played.

One of the 2012 Barkley Marathon runners had this to say after he gave up after his third loop: “Sometimes when something defeats us we feel a need to go back and prove something, to ourselves I guess. I don’t feel that way about this. It was just, I gave everything I had and it wasn’t enough and I’m okay with that.”

It’s rare to feel ourselves so tested in games, so confronted with the inscrutable and insurmountable, largely because the concept goes against so much of what we think about good game design. When put ourselves in that space though, our experiences can border on the profound. Cantrell’s approach to the Barkley Marathon mirrors this sentiment: “You like to see people have the opportunity to really find out that something about themselves.”