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Arnold reminded me why I dislike punishment: I need novelty.

A bit ago I speculated on why different people feel differently about punishment in games, and I have a new theory thanks to Arnold’s levels in Bubsy: Paws on Fire!

The short version is that different people have different thresholds for maintaining interest in repetitive content. The long version follows.

As I mentioned before, the Arnold bonus levels in Bubsy: Paws on Fire! are a bit different from the main stages. You’re still making your way through a level trying to pick up collectibles and avoid obstacles, but obstacles only reduce your score and don’t actually stop you. The levels are also only about thirty seconds long and have no checkpoints. You’re guaranteed to get to the end, though it can be quite difficult to get all the collectibles along the way - and if you mess that up, you have to replay the entire level from the start.

I’ve replayed a lot of Arnold levels in my quest to get every collectible. They’re tightly-packed auto-runners that require near-constant maneuvering, none of which is especially difficult on its own - but if you ever hesitate you’ll miss a collectible. The challenge is more of mental discipline than twitch reflex skill, since you need to maintain focus for the full length of the level. It’s about not letting yourself fall out of the zone even once - which is why it’s good that Arnold’s levels are so short. Any longer and they’d be exhausting or impossible.

One particular Arnold level (2-8 Crying Saucer) took me far longer than any other (so far - I still have eight Arnold levels left at time of writing). And I’m pretty sure it’s because the first part of it was too easy. Most of the level is a simple and gentle pattern, and then the last eight seconds require (what I find to be) the hardest Arnold maneuver to pull off, a handful of times in a row.

The first few times I played this level, I easily nailed most of it and then stumbled at the end. After a bit of practice, I was almost able to do the hard part. I’d miss one or two collectibles each time, but I was closing in on success. And then my performance started getting worse.

The thing is, because there are no checkpoints in Arnold levels, practice means replaying the entire level. You can manually restart levels partway through, but there was no point in doing so here because the hard part was at the end anyway. So every time I retried the eight seconds of hard stuff, I had to play through twenty-two seconds or so of easy stuff. And after a while, I started screwing it up.

The first part of the level was already easy, but soon I basically had it memorized. It didn’t register as an engaging challenge or anything surprising. It became harder to pay attention to - my mind would wander and I’d lose focus, and so even though the required movements were simple my timing would falter and I’d miss the collectibles.

It required active effort to stay focused during the easy twenty-two seconds. There was no automatic flow state. I had to work at it. It wasn’t rewarding to do this, because I’d already done it several times and it was no longer interesting. But if I didn’t do it, then I’d screw up and fail to get all the collectibles even if I nailed the hard part. (Which happened, and was super frustrating.)

But I persevered, and eventually nailed the whole level in a single run. I didn’t time it, but I think it took me over half an hour to master this thirty-second level. Other objectively harder levels were much faster because they didn’t back-load the difficulty and I had a more consistent level of engagement throughout.

So, I suspect that I have a high novelty requirement to stay engaged with challenges in games. This is part of why I don’t replay games much, but also probably most of why I dislike large-scoped punishment - such as when dying to a boss means replaying a level just to get back to it. It quickly becomes boring, which causes my performance to worsen, and then it becomes frustrating as well.

Someone who requires less novelty to stay engaged wouldn’t get bored so easily, wouldn’t lose their focus, wouldn’t start screwing up on stuff that’d previously been easy, and wouldn’t get extra frustrated. To such a person, the repeated content is just more practice. I feel like this could explain a lot of the difference I see in how players react to punishment systems.