Having just now finished Thomas Was Alone, I’m rolling around in my head why exactly I really hate platforming. The first time this realisation dawned on me was in the middle of the first Jak and Daxter. There was a big tall room with platforms all around the walls, some of which moved, some of which perched by monsters, and you had to climb to the top. Every time you failed in a jump, you fell all the way to the bottom floor and had to start again. Which is really poor design. And it’s in virtually every game with platforming elements.
As far as failstates go, there shouldn’t be much difference between “you failed the jump, go back and climb all the way up there to try it again” and “you were shot dead by the baddie, go back and kill 20 baddies to pick up where you left off.” I wonder if it’s something specifically about jumping in games as an action that puts me off, and not just the fact that there’s usually this repetitious design inherent in the fabric of platforming. In shooters and RPGs, you can generally soak up a fair bit of failure before the point of repetition is met (ie. you respawn). Plus, the point is often further offset by the availability of health items, protective abilities, stratagem, etc. The player is given the opportunity to fail, or to be inefficient in how they go about completing the level, up to a point before they’re confronted with the need to repeat it.
At least in most modern shooters, the failstate is waved away by tight checkpointing. I mention this because in Gamespot’s review of BioShock Infinite today, the respawning system was held against it as a negative since it hardly functions in any punitive way, whereas I see it as purely a plus. Why would you want the player to be further punished by death in BioShock Infinite by forcing them through the ringer again? They don’t gain anything out of it, it’s just a smack on the wrist for no purpose other than to disincentivize dying. But since dying is already a disincentive, however small, by breaking up the flow of combat, I’d wager that’s enough.
Anyway, very few platformers allow for that same leeway, to my knowledge (bearing in mind I’ve fairly avoided platformers since I recognized I hated their core mechanic). Braid and Portal are the only two that spring to mind, but feel free to correct me in the comments.
So with platformers, having flubbed what may have been the third, fourth, tenth, thirtieth jump in a series of jumps, you often need to go all the way back to that first jump and start again. And if that thirtieth jump proves difficult for you, you’ll probably fail it a few times before you manage to pass it. But because there’s a long series of increasingly difficult jumps to make before you try that one jump that caught you out, it’s made difficult to practice on that one annoying jump. Meanwhile, it’s likely you also may end up flubbing the twentieth jump, which you had originally made comfortably, on the second and third times around. And the more you go over this series and fail, the more frustrating it becomes, and the more likely you are to flub a jump.
Barring this low threshold for failure that platformers have, is there something about the mechanic itself that makes it more arduous than, say, shooting a mook in BioShock 2? I don’t think there’s anything inherently enjoyable about a shooting mechanic at its core – shooting a guy ten times until he’s overcome as an obstacle isn’t twice as fun as only needing to shoot him five times. Players often complain about bosses who are bullet sponges as a lazy and boring way to prolong a fight, to make it more difficult. The fun part about shooting comes in all the bells and whistles: level design, weapon diversity, finding synergy for your magic powers, resource management – whatever’s relevant to that particular game. When there’s enough room in there for the player to play around, the shooting mechanics work.
In platformers, I find there’s very little in the way of additives to make platforming enjoyable. (Let’s ignore the failstate problem for the moment.) If you fail a jump, perhaps you needed to hold down the jump button longer to jump farther. Perhaps you needed to be closer to the edge before you jump. Perhaps you needed to double-jump sooner, perhaps later. I think these aspects help to make platforming more tolerable but not necessarily more enjoyable. Jumping over a pit is still an obstacle to me. It doesn’t feel like a solution to an obstacle, it is the obstacle. Maybe that’s because I never think to myself, “That was a pretty badass jump over that pit back there.” Instead, jumping the pit is ticking a box on my way to an objective I will enjoy (completing this puzzle, picking up a collectable, unlocking a thingy, etc.).
Or maybe I’m just crap at navigating jumps, just like I’m crap at sharpshooting in any shooter. Except, for shooters, high difficulty seldom comes down to pixel hunting. As it is, I’m sitting here thinking about Thomas Was Alone: “great puzzles, pity about the platforming.”