What Makes a Dynamic Platformer?

You’ve criticized the shallowness of super meatboy for basically being an execution challenge, but where would you say a pure platformer can get depth from, If there isn’t a dynamic element that responds to player input, such as enemies? multiple paths don’t really add dynamism necessary for a game.

Okay, so a lot of this depends on your definition of “pure platformer”. Is Mario a pure platformer? Is Mirror’s Edge a pure platformer? Castlevania and Megaman probably are not. Is Ori and the Blind Forest? It kind of straddles the middle, but also not really.

Mario has dynamic elements that respond to player input. Mirror’s Edge does not in most parts of the game. Super Meat Boy has a few (like the homing worms, and disappearing blocks, which you’ll notice aren’t duplicated in replays).

Multiple routes don’t have much dynamism, true. The idea is more routes on top of routes, on top of routes. Rather than totally distinct and separate routes, you make every little part have overlapping means of execution that have different results/tradeoffs.

Mirror’s Edge (at least when you include speedrun strats, if you don’t then your options are significantly reduced) is a great example of this and I happen to have two videos that showcase this type of thing really well:

The other thing to understand here is, there’s also a lot of different ways to do each route, different objects to vault over, different heights you could climb objects at, different ways to catch ledges, different speeds you can go and not go. Each route, each trick, they have different pay-offs, they put you in different places. If you screw up, they might kill you, they might leave you on a lower level, they might require you to go around a different way. It might cost you a lot of time, a little time, or no time at all. There’s a lot of subtle things to get down and understand about all of these routes, and they translate into a dynamism between them in the context of a speedrun, and to a lesser extent, simply clearing the level.

Mario frequently gets a similar type of dynamism from its levels, thanks in part to having a ton of different object types, all with different properties. Mario actually has a great contrast here between more fun dynamic levels and Super Meat Boy type levels when it comes to Kaizo Mario. I don’t like Kaizo Mario for exactly the same reason as Super Meat Boy. Sure, it’s hard, but it’s hard in such a way that you are constricted to doing this one exact thing. For an example of levels that are hard without doing that, check out this recent CarlSagan42 video:

In the very first level of this video it’s hard and it’s complicated. You have all these things to dodge all over the screen. You have all these different points you’re allowed to make jumps, and you can jump high, low, fast, slow. You can move closer to the right or left sides of the screen to keep ahead of the various things trying to fuck you or have more time to react to the things trying to fuck you. There’s a steady stream of powerups being delivered to him in ways that are difficult and risky to pick up. And it takes him almost 20 lives to beat it.

The variability in how you can solve meatboy levels generally goes down as the game progresses, with levels getting harder by getting more restrictive.

I think the speedrun is relevant here, because speedruns and the difficulties in producing them translate somewhat to the complexity and solvability of the game. They’re a good clue, especially in a game where the speedrun is so similar to a regular run of the game (unlike mirror’s edge, but lets just ignore that and pretend the non-speedrun version of mirror’s edge doesn’t exist)

In a good game, in a deep game, you have this wide-open possibility space, so figuring out how to speedrun is tricky, it requires examining all the possibilities and testing them back and forth. In a simple game, it’s solved really easily. In traditional games we see a similar trend, you get tic tac toe, with a small possibility space, that is solved trivially by humans. Then more complex games like Checkers and Connect 4 that are more difficult to solve. Then you get games like Chess which will probably never be solved, but which computers can search the possibility space efficiently enough to come up with damn good answers for almost any situation. Then you get games like Go, which until just recently it looked nearly impossible to produce an algorithm good enough to seriously compete, and will absolutely definitely never be solved because their state sizes are larger than all the particles in the universe. Bigger possibility spaces stave off solvability, preventing the game from getting repetitive, because you need to search a much larger possibility space and there’s way more relevant things to learn about the game, usually.

So speedruns can sometimes be a bit of a clue about how complex the game is or can be. Some are not representative, like Zelda Speedruns, which are completely off in their own possibility space that has practically nothing to do with the regular way the game is played, but in the case of platformers, super meat boy in particular, I think there’s a fair case for the speedruns being fairly representative of the original game (probably not for mirror’s edge though).

So here’s a Super Meat Boy speedrun:

And here’s some speedruns of puzzle levels from CarlSagan:

Notice how different and creative some of the speedrun solutions are from the intended solution. This represents to me an underlying depth in the system of Mario that is brought out through these level designs.

Of course I’m also comparing super meatboy to the best fan levels I’ve seen in mario maker, not to mario games directly. So maybe that’s a worthy topic of comparison.

Thankfully we have Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit, so I can avoid doing a little legwork there, and I think he chose fairly interesting levels to analyze actually, which is a standout from typical level design analysis which mostly looks at how levels teach the player. Especially the SMB1 level.

Plus Mario has this dynamic choice of killing enemies or avoiding them, both of which are difficult due to their positioning. Enemies bar your way, but you can make it easier by taking on the additional (but inefficient) challenge of killing them. This is a common interesting choice in Mario and other NES platformers, but which is not present in Super Meat Boy. In Mario, enemies even have the additional utility that they can be jumped off of to get higher, but only once or twice, which is useful in some places.

And how different does a super mario speedrun look from a super meat boy speedrun in terms of divergence from and innovation on standard play methods? Well, the warpless walkathon might blow your mind, but that’s not really representative of how the game is normally played.

(I chose the runs I felt were most representative of the original here)

So do the actual official Mario games have more depth than Super Meatboy? Maybe, maybe not, probably. The later ones seem to be fairly complex, but all of them kind of just zip straight ahead through the levels, where meatboy levels have more verticality, so it’s kind of hard to really compare. There’s also a lot of optional mid-level challenges which integrate with the existing level design that a regular player would pay attention to that a TASer does not, where meatboy does not have those. So maybe the “compare the speedruns to actual play, then compare to each other cross-game” methodology doesn’t work the best here.

I guess all I can say is, I really wish I could play mario maker, and there’s definitely ways to make deep platformer interactions.

What makes Super Meat Boy that much different from, let’s say, Super Mario Bros. To be more specific, you usually bash Super Meat Boy for more trial and error like gameplay due to tight execution but what makes that bad and harder Mario levels that much better?

More points that branch, and more multiplicity among branches.

There’s more ways to approach levels, and more ways that each of those attempts in of themselves can vary.

Like, it’s not just tight execution, it’s that you’re given only a couple viable strategies for each level, and they tend to involve repeating practically the same string of inputs over and over again. Mario has reaction time factor in more. Enemies are dynamic, reacting to you, you can interact with them in a variety of ways and they can have further interactions amongst themselves, and the levels are set up in such a way that they are challenging, but still allow this type of improvisation and emergence, rather than precisely trying to regulate exactly how you play them. This means each attempt at a level varies more from the prior attempts. This means you have this space to play around in and devise strategies, rather than just interpreting the will of the level designer.

On your response to dynamic platformers, as well as lack of superposition it seems like something that hurt super meatboy additionally was its lethality, which I think is something you’ve mentioned as generally taking away from the game because it prevents counterplay. On this topic, something that recently illuminated this for me was while playing Thumper, where you have to get hit twice begore dying, and you can get back your health with skillful play, which actually creates a really dynamic system where there is actually superposition of harder and easier ways of bypassing obstacles, and the harder way gives you more points as well as giving you the chance to get health back, but is riskier. While that dies at higher player skill, because it’s a rhythm game and thus can be totally perfected, it’s quite shameful that a rhythm game is more dynamic than SMB.

I dunno whether it’s more dynamic overall than SMB, but health is an issue. If you have an extra point of health, like Mushrooms in Mario, then you can damageboost, then things can deal different amounts of damage to you (bottomless pits versus getting hit by enemies). I wouldn’t use the term superposition, I’d just say it’s another branch in the overall state space, as is regaining health, which can be a challenge unto itself.

Too much health makes it so the challenge is trivial, too little health makes it so there’s no wiggle room. Wiggle room allows for depth, too much wiggle room and all the states where the player needs to engage in a challenge are pushed into irrelevancy. The idea is to create a large number of branching points that all create unique combinatorial challenges for the player. So there’s a massive number of ways to be challenged by a particular obstacle, and ensure all of those ways are legitimately challenging.

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