According to the Wikipedia, "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It's an elusive feeling for me. I'd say that, in some of my better theatrical performances in college, the ones where everything just sort of fell into place, I experienced it. And there are times when I experience it playing certain video games. Sometimes it can happen when I'm writing, and almost invariably the things I write the most effortlessly are also the things I think are the best. Also, if I get into a good rhythm at work, whether it's firing off email after email or producing latte after latte, I can hit it for a while, though it's extremely challenging to maintain your singular focus when you must look into the visages of customers and see the existential despair that people only seem to experience during those three minutes before their triple soy mocha is delivered into their hands, restoring a sense of meaning to their lives.
As I was doing just that today at work, I was thinking about Ikaruga. If you don't know what Ikaruga is, it's a vertically scrolling shooter that was first released in 2001, and was made available this past Wednesday on Xbox Live Arcade. It's a very special example of the genre. (If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Don Pachi's lovely appreciation of the game.) What sets it apart in gameplay terms is a simple but very effective polarity mechanic. You can switch your ship's polarity at any time between black and white. While black, black bullets cannot hurt you, and while white, white bullets cannot hurt you. However, while black, you do twice as much damage to white ships, and vice-versa.
I'd never played the game before Wednesday. I have to admit, before playing it, there was this part of me that thought that maybe I'd have what it takes to be an outstanding Ikaruga player. I knew that the game had a reputation for intense difficulty, but I also knew that there are those players who excel at it. As it turns out, I am not one of them.
One of my favorite features of the XBLA release of Ikaruga is the ability to download and watch replays of high scoring performances. I always enjoy it when games include a feature like this. It was a neat addition to Gameloft's excellent XBLA remake of the 1989 classic Prince of Persia, and in that game, watching replays of great performances helped me to improve my own performance. I don't think that's going to happen with Ikaruga. But what I like so much about the replay feature is that Ikaruga is the sort of game that seems downright impossible if you're not very good at it. You'll find yourself in a situation where it might appear to you that there's no way to emerge unscathed from the hail of black and white bullets headed your way. The game might seem unfair. Well, it isn't. All you gotta do is download a replay from the leaderboards of someone totally acing that section, and you'll know it's not impossible. It's just that you suck at it. And what makes these stellar performances all the more impressive is that these players manage to rack up chain after chain of enemy kills (by destroying three white or three black enemies in a row) to earn the really big points. As if just surviving wasn't difficult enough.
Ikaruga is a beautiful game, and it's especially beautiful when it's being played well, because those performances make it look easy and graceful and natural. I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that, for the players who can perform on that level, it actually is kind of easy. I suspect that they've gotten to the point where, when playing Ikaruga, they enter that place we call flow. And that is a beautiful thing.
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