Art Tickles – Thinking and Doing

Written for Haywire Magazine.

Mighty No. 9 is a thoughtless game. A large majority of what goes on in the game is a matter of reflex, input, and available weapons. There is little thought to the challenge, very little beyond the specific, precise action required of the player. As each stage rolls forward to its inevitable conclusion, the tools that players have to avoid the enemies placed in optimal, trap-like positions are minimal. Very often, the difference between a low damage run and a death run is engineering a specific sequence of events, usually exploiting some gap in the AI to avert some required no-win jump or dash.

The result of a stage cleared well in Mighty No. 9 is a swell of relief, a sense that the stage isn’t going to abuse the player anymore, a brief sigh, then the next stage only throws more inevitable and unfair disadvantages and mechanically abusive scenarios at the player. Each stage seems filled with unavoidable damage, until an unrewarding method of circumventing each trap is found through trial and error (or erratic, hasty input), and the cycle repeats for the next trap.

This kind of call-response method of trap navigation doesn’t challenge how I approach play mentally or offer me a puzzle. There’s nothing inherently joyful about figuring out the right tool for any particular area, simply because the problems feel like arbitrary walls to blunder through, hurdles to exercise past. There are no puzzles to solve.

Mighty No. 9, much like the Mega Man games that came before it, is a game about doing. It’s an experience that expects the player to simply overcome the hurdles rather than question why the exercise was presented in the first place. The actual act of behaving within the mechanics is the whole point, and the narrative reason for the mechanics is an afterthought at best, and a hindrance to play at the worst. Occasional cutscenes will interrupt stages, offering cursory expository dialog without enough elaboration to be worth their running time, and ultimately result in halting any sense of momentum the stage had built. A momentum that Mighty No. 9 tragically struggles to hold even under ideal circumstances. Further, thinking too hard about a challenge only really leads the player to being frustrated by the lack of available options, rather than enabling an emergent experience that indulges both the puzzle-solving part of the brain as well as the exhilaration of death-defying inputs.

Asking the right questions

Which actually may’ve been one of Mighty No. 9‘s biggest flaws. Outside of the game’s unfulfilling combat and unrewarding challenge structure, there is a genuinely interesting story premise laying the groundwork for a discussion about responsible AI programming, the nature of humanity in light of intelligent robotics, and the capability of autonomous evolution beyond original programming. Unfortunately, these topics are set dressing—little more than props and facades—built around the central focus of running, jumping, shooting, dashing, and dying. Any time a potentially interesting topic arises, and the game has an opportunity to shed its strict adherence to raw mechanics, it does so only slightly, handling the topic with verbose dialog comprised of more surface explanation than deep examination, and then ending the cutscene before any thoughtful consideration could be granted to to the proceedings.

Most depressingly, the two androids, Beck or Call, broach the most interesting topics, which are either briefly glossed over by the two scientists or left hanging with no further discussion. The gravity of these questions is never answered in the text or dialog, which only gives way to more mechanical interaction. The moments that do gain gravity feel a little bit theatrical, occasions of unfulfilling grandiosity or over-explained cutscenes, and never really match the intensity the player should feel over the events.

What stands out so strongly is that Mega Man has the benefit of not trying to be an overly thoughtful game. It’s a story about a crazy doctor that steals another crazy doctor’s robots, exclusively to make them violent for unstated reasons. The friction between doctors Wily and Light, and their competitive dynamic, has never really been one that requires much thought. It’s understood that Wily needs to be stopped for the same reason the Cold War was quietly terrifying. It’s a pretty universal human emotion to see the coming apocalypse, and feel a personal duty to subvert it without the need for further framing.

And while Mighty No. 9 shares a lot of the same quietly apocalyptic vibe, it’s a much more pensive game. It adds cutscenes, voiced dialog, and little twisty moments to the narrative. By their very presence, the need for further thought announces itself, only to be left largely alone. Those moments exist only to justify the idea that there could have been thought there, thought that ultimately goes nowhere, rather than just offering the challenges because Wily was just crazy enough to require it. Instead, Mighty No. 9 asks us to think a little bit, while simultaneously speaking down to us and withdrawing its interest in thinking or talking when it comes time to save the world again.

The hardest part of this criticism is in framing how Mighty No. 9 did both something and nothing at once. There are thoughts to be had, and they’re worth having. However, they weren’t had, and their absence leaves a gulf that feels impossible to bridge without first remarking on the lack of a bridge. Mighty No. 9 is a game about doing, and also a game about thinking, but thoughtlessly so.

Mighty No. 9 asks questions

Which is a very ponderous experience to consider, but that I feel will never really lead anywhere. Whether or not thoughtlessness is worth consideration, I can’t help but feel Mighty No. 9 leaves me wanting to ask questions, but ones I can’t quite put my finger on. Can something be profound or valuable if it’s both underthought and thought provoking? Is there enough artistry in mechanical interaction to make only a cursory trip through the narrative worth following anyway? Trying to find the right questions seems as complex and difficult a task as answering the ones already present, and one I feel is beyond my reach.

Mighty No. 9 is a thoughtless game, but it’s made me very thoughtful.

Thoughts?