The Trouble With Flow-based Games

A phrase I’ve seen used a lot in game reviews is, “the game flows really well.” This usually refers to platformers in which the player moves with a satisfying flow through the levels, aided by a great control scheme.

A number of platformers could be said to be, “about,” flow. The most obvious example of these is Sonic the Hedgehog, which has control and level design all based around managing momentum. If you’ve ever watched someone play Super Mario Bros. well, then you’ll know that Super Mario is also about flow in a big way. These are two very big and influential platformers, so flow is hardly unique to them—though it’s something that they emphasize more than many other games, which is probably part of how they got to be so influential in the first place.

Flow, incidentally, has a lot to do with why I can’t get into Mario and Sonic; but the game which finally gave me context to frame what I dislike about them is Dustforce, one of the games in the Hunble Indie Bundle 6.

Dustforce is definitively a platformer about flow. The levels are built around the controls, so the better you master the controls, the better you’ll be at the game. Most of the levels are quite short, though not Super Meat Boy short, and range from being very easy to very hard. But completion isn’t really the point: the point is completing levels to the best of your ability.

Sonic the Hedgehog had a timer which measured how fast you beat a level, which is a minor indication of the game’s emphasis on flow. In Dustforce, levels are timed, as well as graded both on completion and, “finesse,” which is based on the combos you rack up. Since the game is about sweeping dust off of the levels, combos are racked up by collecting as much dust as possible as quickly as possible, so as not to break the combo.

The grading system isn’t there only for people who feel like replaying levels, either. Lots of levels need keys to be unlocked, and you get keys by getting better and better scores on levels; so at some point, you will have to start replaying levels and getting better scores before you can proceed. This practice will be necessary, too, because the unlockable levels quickly escalate in difficulty.

Dustforce is an excellently-crafted game that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys replaying levels again and again and mastering their flow. For me, however, the game is a tad frustrating, and gives excellent context into why I find Mario and Sonic completely frustrating. See, when you’re doing well in Dustforce and everything is flowing beautifully, it lets you feel like a badass and is thoroughly satisfying. However, as soon as you start fucking up and the flow breaks, you feel miserable.

That’s my problem with games about flow. There are two ways to master the flow in a game: master the controls, and memorize the levels. If you want to be good at Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, memorization will be necessary, because those games throw a lot of challenges at the player where they need to jump way ahead of the danger in order to avoid it. Just being great with the controls won’t be enough unless you can make fraction-of-a-second reactions to danger, or instead proceed with unsatisfying caution that breaks the game’s flow.

Dustforce doesn’t require nearly as much memorization, because it uses its pulled-back camera and informative level design to show the player what’s coming up in time for them to respond to it. However, a lot of the challenges are very complex, and if you aren’t a god with the controller, then you’re going to die a lot.

So, what am I crying about? That I die too much because I suck? Yeah, that’s a big part of it. But more importantly, when I break flow like this constantly, the game just isn’t fun. Old-school Sonic games are hardly difficult, after all; but I get sick of them because every time I reach a satisfying speed, an enemy suddenly knocks me on my ass, or a wall stops my movement, and I was expected to jump a second ago to avoid the challenge.

I’ve tried playing Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World 3, and both games feel miserable to me because I die constantly. I got almost two full game overs on world 1-2 in Super Mario World 3, and none of that was fun. Yes, if I play the game enough times to get good at it, then the flow will come together and I’ll feel like a badass, but building up to that, the game is no fun with all the flow breaking.

Maybe other people find Mario and Sonic fun even with the breaks in flow, or maybe no one sucks as much as I do at these games, but whatever, this is why I don’t like them.

6 thoughts on “The Trouble With Flow-based Games

  1. Hocus Pocus Hyperfocus: I know what you are talking about, personally I had this flow experience with games like Sonic Adventure 2 (it also helped that the addicting music advanced the flow a lot). Games like Rayman felt always disruptive to me, because I always died a lot in several stages.

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