Terry Cavanagh began his panel at Fantastic Arcade by playing his game, Super Hexagon, live on stage. Above, he easily gets through the "Hexagonest" mode, which is the hardest mode available from the start, and shows us one of the endings. It's inspiring.
After that, he played through the absolute hardest level in the game, in order to show the attending fans the true ending. I didn't realize Super Hexagon had an ending, much less multiple ones. But now I and a small group in Austin have seen it. "Congratulations," he told us all. "Now there's a much larger percentage of people who have seen this ending." To see it yourself, you'll just have to practice.
Of course, Cavanagh did all the preparation he needed for his virtuoso performance by creating the game. "I've already done a lot of practice over the course of developing my game," he told me afterward. "I'd say a good half of the time spent making the game was playing it, making changes based on what felt good. So yeah, I've played it a lot. Got a good head start on the rest of the world." Though even he was surprised it went so well. "I finished the hardest mode on the first try; that was good. I wasn't expecting that. I had a backup build that turned off collision just so I could show people the ending. I got lucky, I guess."
Cavanagh has inspiring words for would-be Super Hexagon masters. "I think if you can finish the first mode and you're into it, you can finish the game completely," he said. "I've seen this happen with the people that were beta testing it – they thought 'well, this is just way too hard for me' and then they got to the point where their reflexes were good enough and they understood the game well enough that they could actually finish it. That's what the game is all about. It should be a challenge to overcome."
There's more of an element of learning the harder modes than it would seem. The strategies are actually different. "In Hexagoner, there's far, far more spirals that can show up than in the other modes," he said, referring to the second difficulty level, which he described on stage as more about pattern recognition. "There's still regular waves that show up without patterns, but the difference is it's learnable. The whole mode is about training you to recognize the things that happen and how to react. Because I see the game has been somewhere between this alert state where you're reacting to what's happening, and this zoned out state where you know what's happening because you recognize it. That's where your head should be when you're playing."
The short sessions are there to inspire repeat play and practice. "Because it's so short, it's, I hope, kind of inviting," Cavanagh said. "I'm really happy with how that aspect of the game works. You never really feel like you're losing progress, even when you fail at the end of a 59-second run. You just go right back into it, because the game is tuned in such a way that it doesn't feel like a loss."
That tuning includes "obvious" elements like the quick restart time, but less overt decisions as well. "The music starts in a random place" when you restart, he noted. "If the music started in the very beginning every single time, then every single time you died you'd feel like 'Oh, I've lost and I have to start again from the beginning.' It's really important you don't feel that way, you don't feel like you've lost."
This isn't just a quick time-waster that you play on the toilet.- Terry Cavanagh
The ability to play it quickly and restart a few times whenever you have a minute is why Super Hexagon ended up on iPhone first, despite the existence of PC and Mac versions. "Because it's portable, it's always with you, you can play really short sessions, it's very suited to being a thing you carry around and you play while you're waiting for a bus or something," Cavanagh said. Despite his personal preference for the PC's button controls, "I think that's why [iPhone] is my favorite version of the game."