I’m a competitive gamer. I play for fun first and foremost, but I also play to win. Always have.
I play games for fun, which is a good thing, because losing doesn’t frustrate me overmuch, and even if I get frustrated, I do not get angry, I do not go on tilt. This is a good thing, because even if I’m not entirely without talent in video-games, and my siblings and cousins would come to me now and then for aid with video games, I’m not exactly talented in those games either, certainly not mechanically. The progress I make in such games is usually through much trial and error, growing wiser in the way of the game, gaining game sense more than mastery over the mechanics themselves. It also means I tend to do better in games where manual dexterity plays less of a role, such as turn-based strategy games, or non-video games, such as miniature wargaming, or card-games.
Thrice over have I benefited from not going on tilt, from not getting overly frustrated when losses come (though some losses do frustrate me, I’ll make no lie, as that’s part of the competitive spirit). First and foremost, some of the fun is sucked away from the activity if it frustrates and angers you, and you’re certainly not happy at the moment. Second, in many games, you could have won, had you not gone on tilt, and so one loss leads to another, and that to another yet. Finally, since my skill came from playing those games many a time, or at least thinking of them, frustration would’ve had me play them less, and so I wouldn’t have gotten better. And I usually learned more from losses than from victories, which meant one has to be willing to tackle on their loss, not try to ignore it.
Knowing that for many games you’re going to lose about half your games until you’re near the top, and then you’re still likely to lose about half the games that matter, knowing that there’s almost always someone better, or as good as you, and that sometimes the dice doesn’t roll the way you do is the cause of many people going on tilt, of getting frustrated, as they feel things are out of their control. I found it liberating, because sometimes it’s just not your fault. And if you’re going to be losing games anyway, may as well take it in stride, right?
So what do you do with a game such as Nuclear Throne, where you can’t win? What do you do with a game such as Nuclear Throne, where no matter how good your run is, unless you’re going after a specific achievement a couple of times during your numerous playthroughs, or running away from the game, sooner or later, you will die? There is no avoiding it, the end screen, with the words, “You have failed to reach the Nuclear Throne” showing, after you failed, after you lost, after you were bested by a game that always will best you? Why, you should be the calmest of all, because it is inevitable, but that has never stopped mankind from trying to stop death, has it? And likewise, I’ve never gone on tilt as much as I have with this fiendishly fun game.
In a sense, Nuclear Throne is like endless runner games, or like endless schmups, where you know you’ll eventually hit a wall, and “lose”. Your true competition, your true rival, is your old self, the scoreboard, where you try to bypass your old score, to get better. You’re using the game to show your past self how you’ve progressed, how you’ve gotten better. You’re trying to impress yourself, and that’s always hard. But more than that, the differences between Nuclear Throne and those other games explain part of its draw. A masochistic draw, almost.
In many “arcade” games, you enter what’s often called a “flow state”, where you aren’t focused, and just react to the game, and are almost relaxed, as you try to beat it. That was certainly the case for me with Vlambeer’s previous game, LUFTRAUSERS, where the main mechanic revolved around letting go, quite literally. You can’t do that here, as you have to stay focused all the time, lest death comes upon you.
And that is another important distinction between most bullet-hell games, or semi-bullet-hell rogue-like games, such as The Binding of Isaac, to which Nuclear Throne is often compared – in most of these games, after you take a hit, you gain a period of invulnerability, and often in such games, you have access to weaponry that could remove all enemy projectiles from the screen. This means that you get time to regroup in these games, and death comes from a series of unforced mistakes, or unlucky situations.
Nuclear Throne is not so lenient. Two-shotting exists. One-shotting exists (dying in a single hit). A stream of bullets, each of which can hit you on its own exists. The term bullet hell is apt here. You can’t win Nuclear Throne. You can’t let go of your focus and let the game wash over you, but you have to be alert, from the first level to the last one, and there will be a last one, where you die. And many a time when my I died in Nuclear Throne, it was sudden, and I recoiled in my chair, or I saw it coming, and I tried to duck, or move out of the way, in my chair, even as my fingers failed to guide my on-screen avatar to safety, and I stared at the end screen once more. And each time I got less and less far, as I’ve gone on tilt, for the first time on my life, and I’ve gone on tilt repeatedly.
If I felt I got far enough, then my next few gameplays would go likewise, because I felt things were fine, but if things were fine and the death felt silly to me, or if I hadn’t gotten far, then the next few games were almost wasted, as I barely made it out of the early regions. And so, success led to success, and failure led to more failure. But in Nuclear Throne, there is no success, except the one you permit yourself to have, when you lean back and say, “this was good enough.” And that’s what all of competitive gaming is about, about deciding how good is good enough, and playing against yourself, working to make the least amount of mistakes, after a certain point you realize this is what all competitive gaming is about – making less mistakes than your opponent, and in the end, it’s only you whom you can control, so all games, mechanical dexterity aside, are about fighting against your own past self, against your own tendency to lose.
Gaming is about losing, and then fighting against your mistakes, of which tilt is first and foremost. The way I got better at Nuclear Throne is not by entering the “zen mindstate” I think of the “flow” as, and not even accepting mentally that I’m going to lose anyway, for I knew that from the get-go. What I did to do better in the game wasn’t even getting better, as much as it was what all competitive gaming, and much of our endeavours are about – I got less bad. I got less bad by recognizing that after I lose some runs, most runs, the next handful of runs are going to be wasted effort, and those in turn would lead to even more of those.
So, what did I do? I learned from the game. Nuclear Throne teaches you that you’re going to lose. It also teaches you that a single mistake can lead to a swift loss. But what I learned was to let go of the game. If I lost, then I’d take a break. It went counter to my old habits, of getting better by putting in the time, but since I was already going against my old habit and getting frustrated and going on tilt, it was the best way.
I got better in this frustrating and fun game I love by letting go of it, by taking the time to cool my head. The game might kill me, but it wasn’t going to defeat me. And so I keep aiming for the Nuclear Throne, but in small portions, because I’m not good enough to not get frustrated when I lose to it. I still have room to grow. I still have room to get better. Not merely at the game, but at being a player, a person playing a game. Which is what all competitive games aim to teach us, and what our victories, mechanical dexterity aside, come down to. They come down to having worked on ourselves, at having put in the time. The time to learn the right lessons. And in this, the last two of Vlambeer’s games are very similar, where one gives you the feeling of detachment from the get-go, and the other squeezes you hard, to show you’ve earned the right to feel that way.
P.S. The game’s amazing soundtrack is available on YouTube, free of charge. Give it a listen. The first track in particular is awe-inspiring.