Punishing difficulty conveys a personal story in The End is Nigh
"There were a lot of subtle elements in my past platformers that I never fully explored because I was worried about alienating the audience. I wanted to make a game that was honestly a bit uncomfortable to play for people who have issues with stress. I wanted to make a game about stress, pressure and expectation. I feel like I was able to do exactly that in simple and elegant ways I'm quite proud of."
Edmund McMillen hasn't returned to hyper-challenging platformers since Super Meat Boy arguably set a new standard for them back in 2010. After years of development work on The Binding of Isaac and a handful of other titles, it felt right for the developer to return to the genre and explore the things he had been afraid to do then.
The End is Nigh is a ludicrously challenging platformer about the inevitability of death. Created along with Tyler Glaiel (Closure), it brings a new spirit to the genre, one that explores the pressures of stress and bottomless despair, yet still contains those soaring moments of accomplishment that spit in the eye of failure.
"In the past, people would say my work felt like a love letter to classic video games," says McMillen. "I wanted The End is Nigh to walk the line of a suicide note or retirement letter. Its themes really are an abstract tale of the dark side of game development - the lonely, stressful, paranoid dregs of the creative process."
Returning to the platform genre
"I had a theme I wanted to explore, platformers are simple to make, and the exploration of difficulty in that genre felt really inspired and appropriate."
McMillen and Glaiel approached the tropes of platforming after racking up experience working in several other genres.
"It's been 7+ years since I worked in the platformer genre," says McMillen. "I've been in mostly Isaac land for far too long. I had a theme I wanted to explore, platformers are simple to make, and the exploration of difficulty in that genre felt really inspired and appropriate, especially since there are obvious expectations of me when it comes to hard games with jumping characters."
McMillen's return to the genre features a character called Ash, one of the few remaining sentient creatures left after the end of the world. In this lonely, hostile place, Ash would hop its through a punishing landscape doding murderous traps, all in hopes of finding a friend.
"Deaths just feel satisfying aesthetically. Your gibs bounce around the map, the screen shakes, the sound effect is impactful, and it only takes half a second to get control back after you died."
Finding that friend would be no easy task, but the developers already knew some of the best ways to buffet a player with challenges without breaking their spirit.
"Everything in The End is Nigh is predictable and consistent — no randomness — and controls are extremely tight so you never feel like the game is responsible for your deaths." says Glaiel.
"Additionally, the game is very lenient about control things - you can press jump a few frames before you hit the ground —or a few frames after you fall off a platform — and still have the jump work, so you never miss a jump and complain ‘But I totally pressed jump there'."
"Another thing is that deaths just feel satisfying aesthetically — your gibs bounce around the map, the screen shakes, the sound effect is impactful, and it only takes half a second to get control back after you died," says Glaiel. "Its all there to make sure dying is still fun, so even though you can die 100 times on a level you never feel that bad about it."
Forgiving controls and entertaining fail states help to limit frustration, but it would always be a careful balancing act. "Difficult games walk a line of abuse and understanding that, I think, is pretty important. I guess it's like a horror movie where you want the viewer to feel safe enough to continue, but worried enough to still be scared," says McMillen.
"Dancing around that in games that explore difficulty is pretty hard and quite alienating to a more mainstream audience, but I think as long as the player knows the safe word, you end up with a really compelling experience for a select few that really wanna test their limits."
A story of game development
"The End is Nigh started as an exploration of personal hardships, but as it unfolded, it really became a story about my struggle with game development, my obsession with my work, and how it affects my family."
"In The End is Nigh, we wanted mechanics that would induce panic or stress in the player. Hence all the things like jumping off of falling buildings or the toxic water and clouds that you could only stay in for a very short period of time." says Glaiel.
It was that very stress that was a part of the personal story of game development that McMillen wanted to tell.
"The End is Nigh really became a retrospective on the dark side of game development. I think when going in, specific elements of my other work kinda just bled through." says McMillen.
"In the past 3 years, I've faced some very difficult personal hardships," says McMillen.
"Just when it seemed like the end was in sight, something else would come up and drop me even lower than I already was. The End is Nigh started as an exploration of this, but as it unfolded, it really became a story about my personal struggle with game development, my obsession with my work, and how it affects my family."
The End is Nigh, while combing for new territory in a genre the developer had already done extensive work on, was also a statement on what the developer felt about their work in game development and the effect it had on their life. Within its waves of failures, the small steps in growth, the hidden joys, the constant defeats, and its bleak story of finding friendship would all touch on things the developer felt about making games.
While mum on specific details, the developer seems to paint a bleak picture of what game development had become to them. McMillen has faced some challenges over the years in creating games, and like many creators, has felt a powerful strain from their work. He's felt the crushing weight of stress bearing down on them from too many hours working, too few hours left for loved ones. The pain or broken friendships. The wondering if it is all worth it.
"The End is Nigh is my most personal game — it explores a lot of themes I wasn't comfortable enough to write about when I was more concerned with profits and peoples' opinions of my work and myself. "
All of these elements come through in the game's actions. The repetition of actions leading to a kind of success, only to be met with more adversity. The wondering if it will all be worthwhile.
That exploration of barren lands that are hostile, and can only be overcome with hard, hard work. Game development can be a slog of constant failure, although the rules are rarely as fair, or designed to keep you going, asThe End is Nigh has been designed to be.
"Over the years, I've been working hard to really trying to find my voice with my work. The Binding of Isaac was a big achievement when it came to creating something that felt like an honest piece of who I was. The End is Nigh is a continuation of this same goal.The End is Nigh is my most personal game — it explores a lot of themes I wasn't comfortable enough to write about when I was more concerned with profits and peoples' opinions of my work and myself." says McMillen.
"Even though it was only in dev for 7 months, there were many times during that period where it really felt like this would, for sure, be my last game. I think that may come through a lot in the game's narrative," says McMillen.
The joys of repetition
"We added lots of secrets to discover to encourage replaying areas and make it rewarding to discover new things each time."
"A pretty important aspect of the design of The End is Nigh was the gradual mastery of the game's mechanics and areas by replaying them over and over." says Glaiel.
Replaying would be an important aspect of the design of The End is Nigh, something that only makes sense given the many, many plays that it often takes to get through a stage of a truly challenging platformer.
However, this game would put a positive spin on that repetition, giving players new things to explore for, making that repetition rewarding on multiple tries rather than feeling like a punishment.
"An earlier design of the game emphasized this much more by having a lives system from the start (collect tumors for more life containers to make it gradually easier) and forcing you to start over from the beginning every time you ran out of lives —and ways to unlock warp points so you could skip sections of the game that you've already adequately mastered." says Glaiel.
"In practice, this proved to be far too punishing and frustrating, so we gutted that system. (Spoiler: its brought back in the 2nd half of the game). We added lots of secrets to discover to encourage replaying areas and make it rewarding to discover new things each time."
"Designing levels is very formulaic for me. I have a list of mechanics to explore and set 'chapters' that use those mechanics. I lay them out in a way that tells a story of growth."
That repetition would also come with the familiar honing of skills that those who played McMillen's previous platforming work would know. "Designing levels is very formulaic for me," says McMillen. "I have a list of mechanics to explore and set 'chapters' that use those mechanics. I lay them out in a way that tells a story of growth — you start out feeling limited in your abilities."
"You are just learning how to walk, but by the end, when you venture back into those first areas, you feel like a god because you've taught yourself so much and your skill level has risen so high," he adds.
"It's super important to show growth in games like this," McMillen insists. "You want the player to feel accomplished enough to continue, because the end keeps asking more and more of the player as they go. Once they feel comfortable, the rug is pulled out from under them, and more restrictions and stress come at them from all angles."
"We each have our own unique style of level design so the secret areas all feel distinct and unique compared to the stuff on the main path."
This was helped by the more exploration-based elements placed in stages. "Ed (McMillen) did all the levels on the linear path of the game, and I went through adding the secret areas to them afterwards," says Glaiel. "We each have our own unique style of level design so the secret areas all feel distinct and unique compared to the stuff on the main path."
This would play to both developers' strengths, and also give players a reason to go back to play levels they had already done, or try some challenging things in levels they were already attempting. This spirit of exploration would add some new elements to the game that would jazz up the platforming and take it in new directions, but it would also work to curb the danger of player irritation.
By hiding rewards in old stages and encouraging replay, The End is Nigh convinces players to come take a look back at where they'd come from and see how they'd grown. Perhaps a late game stage is too frustrating to continue, and the player just decides to go grab some old collectibles in past areas.
Getting these collectibles – exploring to find them – not only shows other aspects of the game they may have missed, but also gives them that sense of how their abilities had grown. What was once incredibly hard can be almost trivial with the practice the players have had with the game's systems, reinvigorating the player's spirit to move on.