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How TumbleSeed helped me cope with a newborn

Or was it the newborn that helped me cope with TumbleSeed?

A baby’s nap is a cherished, precarious thing. The brief window of time soon becomes as necessary and anticipated as a deep diver’s first gulp of fresh air: a sweet reprieve from the crushing void. Some parents rush to do the dishes. Others take a shower, or fold laundry. For me, a video game became my default nap priority; while our little man slept peacefully on a blanket strewn on the dining room floor, I nabbed my Switch and rolled up a murderous mountain, biting my hand to squelch the repeated yells of Game Over agony. I'd peer over to my boy: still snoozing. And so I'd launch another attempt up the impossible cliff.

TumbleSeed came out on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Windows PC on May 2. It was created by a group of five independent developers from Chicago, Illinois. Our baby came out six weeks prior, on March 16. He was created by my wife and me. In the intervening five months, I’ve become obsessed with both.

To the uninitiated: TumbleSeed is, mechanically, a game about maneuvering a sphere through a vertical gauntlet of obstacles. As in its immediate inspiration (Taito’s 1983 electro-mechanical arcade game Ice Cold Beer), you don’t move this ball directly; instead, you control each side of a horizontal bar that crosses the screen: Tilting the left side up allows the ball to roll to the right and vice versa. Careful manipulation of this rod is necessary to ascend and avoid the many dangers in your way. These obstacles are both passive (holes, lasers) and active (spiders, snakes). Narratively, you are guiding a seed up a cursed mountain beset with flora and fauna. There is a prophecy, and seed-powers, and secret messages; set them aside. All we care about is the core goal: to rise to the very peak of this mountain without dying.

To the uninitiated: A baby is, biologically, a small version of an adult human. Similar to other tiny organisms (Harold von Braunhut’s 1962 novelty pet “Sea-Monkeys”), they cannot thrive on their own without consistent attention; You must feed them and care for them, et cetera. Careful manipulation of your rod is necessary to prevent having a baby by accident. Obstacles to successful baby maintenance are many: work schedules, convoluted insurance plans, the mysteries of a productive nipple-latch. Narratively, you are rearing an heir to your earthly presence, one who can carry your name into the future long after you’re gone. Set that aside. All we care about is the core goal: to raise this innocent creature without going mad.

Neither obsession, taken separately, is surprising. I discovered Ice Cold Beer the year before at an arcade expo and was floored to find out an indie game was expanding on the concept. Where the arcade game was stark, rigid and tantalizing in its spareness, TumbleSeed is lush and evocative, an endlessly replayable trip through a bizarre wilderness. Playing on the Switch allows for a perfect quick-fix: Pick it up, have a roll, set it back down. And of course I’d be obsessed with my child, who is perfect and lovely even though he shrieks with the decibel force of an opera-trained banshee.

What surprised me was the timing of it all. Why was I drawn to this inscrutable, tough-as-nails-forged-from-devil’s-teeth diversion? And why now, during the first months of my first-born’s life, when the simple act of brushing my teeth in the morning became a luxury in the face of more pressing issues: a crying child, a diaper filling with excrement, a shirt spotted with milk-flavored bile?

In life, I had no idea what I was doing. Yet I kept coming back to a game that’s never the same (TumbleSeed’s main mode is procedurally generated), one that actively tries to prevent my progress. Perhaps having a child has made me pine for the false, manufactured difficulty of a tough game. One was a digital amusement. The other was a helpless person relying on me to live. Being faced with actual consequences has inured me to the frustration found in a challenging plaything. Many players felt TumbleSeed was poorly designed, lacking sufficient cues to warn of impending danger or responsive enough controls to react. But what some found brutal and unfair I found to be a relief.

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The crux of TumbleSeed’s brilliance is the movement mechanic. We almost always control video game protagonists directly: Push right to walk right, press A to jump. TumbleSeed asks us to not take on the role of this seed, but to interact with it. We only guide the seed, maintaining or ceasing its momentum; ultimately, it rolls where it rolls. A Mario game lets you step into his shoes; Madden lets you throw the pass or tackle the ball carrier. In TumbleSeed, you’re the wind pushing a bit of dandelion fluff, an ocean current carrying a single pebble. Without you nothing would happen. But you’re inherently out of control.

Many critics questioned this decision. “I never quite shook the desire to just control the tumbleseed directly,” Polygon’s own Phil Kollar said in his review. But had we been able to roll ourselves up that terrible mountain, TumbleSeed would have been one of the ten-thousand games pitting a small thing against great and dangerous odds. Instead, it asks us to take care of this small thing. It’s a game of nudges and prods, of hopeful suggestions and thoughtful maintenance.

Take the time to master the balancing rod, and you’ll find you can manipulate your seed’s path with near-total accuracy. Pushing both joysticks up at the same time raises the seed vertically with minimum roll. Ease off the right and left stick at specific intervals to bob and weave through obstacles while still progressing higher. Most beginning players make the mistake of thinking TumbleSeed is a game about rolling around; after all, it’s in the tagline: “A rolly roguelike,” marketing material called it. But to let your little guy roll is to risk immediate catastrophe. You can pull the sticks in opposite directions to try and slow its momentum, but there is no brake button. You can’t stop. You need to anticipate. So you look ahead, plot a course, and send him on his way.

As a new parent, your baby’s immobility is a sacred blessing. They might be crying or hungry or wet — each demanding a particular, sometimes overlapping solution — but at least they aren’t going anywhere. You can place them on a playmat and know they’ll still be plopped down right where you put them. Then one day you place them on their belly. You turn around to fill another mug of coffee. You turn back and they’re looking at you, face up, staring at you as if their world has flipped 180 degrees. It has. And so has yours. The next day, you find he’s awoken from a nap and rolled under the dining room table, gripping the wrought-iron legs like he’s bouldering sideways along a slick rock face. At least there aren’t any snakes.

TumbleSeed’s ever-changing mountain is split into five separate regions: Forest, Jungle, Desert, Snow and the Summit. Different creatures and obstacles exist in each. Whereas the forest and jungle crawl with leaping arachnids, fluttering wasps and creeping slugs, the desert and snow are more littered with holes, the arid or frozen soil cracking under your weight. Rooted sentries rotate and follow your move, blasting you with intermittent sniper fire. Subterranean squids emerge from the ground like pop-up rockets. Then there are the banana snakes, those dead-eyed slitherers that pursue, zombie-like, with reckless slow-motion abandon.

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Because each mountain is unique, you never know the required path to victory. Sometimes the forest is covered in hopping spiders. Sometimes heat-seeking bats hound you from all sides. Sometimes the desert floor is pocked with so many holes the only trail upward is a sliver between two gaping chasms. If you fall, you lose a heart and are whisked back to the beginning of the region. Fall too far up the cliff and you lose multiple hearts. Get hit by a fly’s spittle? Lose a heart. Roll haphazardly into an apathetic slug? Lose a heart. Allow a retracting circle of spikes to thrust up at the wrong moment, and your seed is impaled, its brittle body exploding in a cloud of opaque goop.

Most video games are designed to offer a false cocoon of safety. This rotisserie of mini-triumphs makes us feel greater than we are. But TumbleSeed doesn't expect you to surmount its challenge. TumbleSeed knows better. It knows that to scale its immense height would be to stop trying. Sometimes we need to fall into an endless series of holes. Sometimes we need to lose over and over if only to remind ourselves of our own inadequacies. This is how we improve.

My son’s GI tract was anything but inadequate. He was lying on the changing table, my hand on his belly, when it happened: a slight gurgle, followed by a dramatic vibration and loud splutching sound. Thankfully an open diaper laid open beneath his porcelain bum. Despite the explosion of opaque goop, our surroundings took only minimal damage; the mahogany nightmare was contained. We were lucky on this day. Sometimes that’s all it takes: a bit of luck and some good timing.

But we can’t always be lucky.

I first played TumbleSeed in May. I received an early review code from Greg Wohlwend, one of the lead developers, for an assignment from a culture site. Each attempt is scored with a simple number equaling the height of your ascent: Roll all the way to the top for a 1,000, or fall in the first hole and get a 5. The first month I never made it out of the Jungle. On May 3, I somehow neared the top of the second region after a run of 10 minutes, 15 seconds, amassing an impressive 374. It was a fluke; I barely reached 300 the rest of the month. But the experience satisfied; I stepped away, defeated but happy to move on. I listed it as one of the ten best indie games on Nintendo Switch. I thought I was done.

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Since I’m a teacher, I have the summers off, so I stayed home with the kiddo while my wife worked. On one fateful day in early June I set the napping boy down, picked up my Switch, and fired up TumbleSeed on a whim. I made it past the Forest’s hopping spiders. I slid and snuck around the Jungle’s buzzing flies. Here it was: The Desert! My visit was short-lived. The motion-detecting cannons, the vacillating lasers, the lack of navigable terrain, it was all too much. By the time I reached that third area, my health had been so whittled away by those damned banana snakes I never stood a chance.

Our son kept taking naps. And I kept rolling. Soon I reached 446. Three days later: 559. And then one day, miraculously, I rose beyond the Desert’s final laser beam and found myself in a wintery village. My heart thudded in my chest. I had never been this high before. The boy could wake at any moment. I rolled on, thumbs trembling slightly atop the dual joysticks. Snow whipped horizontally across the screen. Some new creature, a mechanized spider that climbs out of a hole and shoots at you, delivered the finishing blow. But the small taste of a good run made me thirsty. I could do it.

And then I couldn’t. Time after time, run after run, I failed. But my average high score creeped up. Soon I was reaching the Snow most days. The moment I breached the final area and caught sight of the peak I felt like Peter seeing those heavenly gates for the first time. I was in thrall to this game like few others in my 30 years of playing.

So it was with a heavy heart I read this postmortem from Wohlwend on the game’s relative failure. Deemed too hard and unfair by the paying public, it had not sold nearly enough to recoup costs. Spurred by feedback (and a desire to eat food), the devs planned to right the ship with a patch that would allay players’ concerns. Instead of the single procedural mountain, a player could first tackle four smaller, static cliffs designed to be a series of proving grounds. And additional power-ups would be added to negate some of the more punishing moments.

These were sensible additions. They were not detonating the impossible cliff but giving us more choices, more tools. But at the time I thought: Oh no. I was so close. I felt a sudden need to scale this mountain, the one I’d grappled with and clawed at for so long, not the diminished, softened version created out of necessity. Wohlwend wrote that 0.2 percent of players beat the game. Less than one percent reached the summit at all. I was already among the one-percent. My sleeping baby stirred, crying: He was hungry. So was I.

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Soon after the game launched back in May, Richard Clark wrote about TumbleSeed for Game Church. Clark wrote, “Tumbleseed hands you a predictably difficult situation and trains you to embrace your own limitations. The skills you’re learning aren’t agility or hand-eye coordination. They’re skills of the soul: humility, patience, and self-restraint.”

Video games are not often seen as the bedrock of humility and patience. Annual events focus on the completion of complex game worlds in as little time as possible. Characters often stand at the precipice of global disaster and, predictably, save the day. But in our own lives, days are not saved. They are filled with mundanity and routine; they revolve around an abundance of small failures and rare triumphs. Get through the day and another one awaits. Tomorrow is just another chance to fail. When we fire up a game we expect results.

“A lot of games are structured in which each level poses problems that the players will already know the answer to,” Michael Thomsen, critic for The Washington Post and others, said in an email. “And in so doing shifts the game's focus onto performance and efficiency instead of creative thinking or problem solving.”

Many games have become like a daily task. We don’t have to creatively ponder the solution to making toast. We’re asked to do variants on things other games have asked us to do before. So the solution lies in our ability to perform rote action. In such a scenario, punishment becomes an unsavory impediment to something we’re expected to do well.

TumbleSeed, with its odd movement mechanic and unexplained seed powers, can’t expect us to do well. We’ve never seen or done anything quite like this before. And yet its punishment is swift and severe. To the majority of potential players, the outcome was “unfair” or “too hard.” But what else could it be? The game’s singular design made it a brand new thing; playtime will be rife with unexpected outcomes. It’s up to you to wade into unknown territory and deal with the consequences. Few do, Thomsen says, because what appears to be a sudden difficulty spike “forces us to realize we actually aren’t that interested in the game’s problems.”

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The core problem of TumbleSeed isn’t how to evade capture or attack a pursuer. The problem is: How do we maintain balance and calm when all stimuli evokes a feeling of chaos? TumbleSeed works because the skill required isn’t some kind of twitch reaction but an absence of action. To be scared is to suffer a quick demise. To defeat the mountain you must not be in awe of the mountain.

Back in March, after four days in the hospital, we were allowed to go home with our newborn baby. They just ... let us leave. I still can’t believe it. Somehow, with all of the advances of modern medicine, trained doctors believe it’s a good idea to release an innocent, helpless creature into the care of know-nothing amateurs. That first moment home with your tiny bundle is a fresh kind of horror. You love them so much. And you realize: That won’t be enough.

One day he will start wailing, and you won’t know why, and you pick him up and put him down and change his diaper and try to feed him and nothing will work, and you will feel helpless. You will feel punished for not knowing what to do. And when he finally calms down, and everything is peace and light, you know that this is not an ending but the first of many beginnings, and it’s only a matter of time until the next unknowable crisis. You will be scared and you will be in awe.

I thought I sunk so deeply into TumbleSeed as a relief from the higher-stakes game of parenthood. But I realize now the game is so alluring because it is, in fact, so familiar. Each day my wife and I struggle with the singular design of this brand new thing. Each day’s Sisyphean task is different, and tough, and unfair. But simple improvements bring sweeping joy.

On July 8, 2017, at 1:38 p.m. ET, I rolled up a mountain and defeated the scourge atop a once-impossible peak. “I AM MASTER OF ALL CREATION,” I tweeted, self-mockingly. Then I put the Switch down and picked up our beautiful boy.

I am master of all creation.

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