Cavanagh vs Killingsworth: This Super Hexagon Ain’t Big Enough

Of all of the concepts in video game history, only one seems to have the unique attribute of being both completely irrelevant, and strangely everlasting.

It’s the concept of high scores.

Long ago (I would say even into the Super Nintendo era) the need and use for high scores in video games as a dominate means of measuring achievement feel to the wayside. In its place came the greater ideas of narrative, exploration, and eventually direct competition, creativity and, of course, unique individual game achievements. In other words, pretty much everything but a rolling tally of numbers is used to judge gamers, and games, by skill and merit.

And yet, even as gaming spreads more and more into the public conscious, the idea of a high score and video games still goes hand and hand. To this day, you still hear movies and other mediums throw out the line “I beat my high score!” or something similar when the story calls for a gaming reference. In a way it’s no surprise. The idea of one set of numbers being greater than another is used in so many other fields to declare a winner that its natural for that same feature to be the defining characteristic of victory for gaming as well in the eyes of many.

Of course, with the explosion of mobile gaming, the idea of a high score is becoming slightly less barbaric than it once was. Those simple app games are re-exploring the concept and, thanks to the global communication devices they often run off of, are also bringing back the idea of the classic arcade concept of communal high score competition. Just like an arcade, there are of course those gamers that shine above all others, and whose names remain such fixtures on the tops of leaderboards that you would think they were programmed there. Also, much like an arcade, every now and then a small group of those superior scorers will engage in a back and forth over the top spots that creates one of the competitive concepts that you see in just about every other field with regularity except for gaming. Genuine, individual player vs individual player rivalry.

Right now on the leaderboards of “Super Hexagon,” this rare moment is occurring. Even better, it’s not two civilians that are engaging, but two heavyweight players. In one corner is Terry Cavanagh. Terry has the unique “Super Hexagon” advantage of not only having programmed “Super Hexagon”, but creating the damn thing in the first place. The game’s challenge of moving a small triangle through a pulsating and vibrant tunnel of constant death is his doing. Actually, allow me a quick sidebar here before we move any further. If you’ve never played it, “Super Hexagon” can be sadistic. Think, “Dark Souls” without the thrill of accomplishment, because there rarely is accomplishment to be found within its impossible confines.

Yet this common idea doesn’t hold for Cavanagh who constantly finds himself atop the leaderboard. He isn’t doing it through any programming advantages either. The man is just that good and, even more important, is obsessed with remaining the best player in the world. He constantly checks in to see if anyone is eyeing the throne, and smites all those who would seek to replace him.

It’s a madness that has worked so far and, were it not for Jason Killingsworth, Mr. Cavanagh may be a man without rival.

Have you never heard of Jason Killingsworth? Well along with being an editor for Edge magazine, he’s also something of a gaming daredevil. His accomplishments include beating every challenge in “Super Meat Boy” (a game designed, more or less, not to be beaten), garnering every achievement in “Spelunky” (which you have to look up, to truly appreciate), and he’s also a strong advocate of unpopular ideas like the 100 hour video game. In an interview with Wired, whose interview broke this story, he puts his motivation best:

“I have near-crippling levels of perfectionism,” Killingsworth says, and a penchant for exquisite challenges. “Most games these days feel like cow-tipping — the only requirement to succeed is to possess at least one working arm,” he says. “I want to spend my gaming hours breaking crazy-eyed, bucking stallions.”

The blindingly fast “Super Hexagon” is his latest stallion, and therefore,  so is the high score of Cavanagh. Their competition hasn’t been so much a sweet science, as it is a stick and move affair. Killingsworth takes a jab, Cavanagh posts a new score moving farther out of reach. It’s the same, again and again. Only recently, has a true counter-strike has been landed as Killingsworth has beaten Cavanagh in the games third highest difficulty by 12 seconds. It’s not total victory, but for a creator who has a “Frankenstein” like obsession with his work, it’s enough to make him sweat and feverishly check the leaderboards each day to make sure Killingsworth doesn’t claim even part of the kingdom for long.

Yet, like all great champions, he is still gracious in defeat as he is quick to praise Killingsworth for accomplishing what few, if any more, ever will. He does this for the same reason he is so adamant about maintaining his spot on the leaderboard. Because he just wants to promote the game he is so proud of.

That, is the biggest reason this one of my favorite gaming stories of the year. Someday someone is going to have to invent a better phrase for it, but until then this is simply old school gaming at its purest. It brings back such glorious concepts of arcade spirit and high score competitions, that aren’t marred by things like cheap tactics, glitch exploitation, or the dreaded pre-pubescent bewildering smack talk that plagues so many other competitive games either. No, somehow in an industry that is becoming more and more obsessed with corporate ideas, lies a high profile back and forth between a game creator who just wants everyone to love his game as much as he does, and a hardcore gamer who welcomes challenges that take no prisoners.

In other competitive fields they refer to events such as this as being for “the love of the game”, or representing “the integrity of the sport”. Video games don’t really have a similar phrase, but the beauty of it is they don’t need one. Because in a simpler time, we just called this gaming. In a more complex age, that’s thankfully all this still is.


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