The rogue-like FTL: Faster Than Light was an uncompromisingly difficult game, where playing up to two hours at a time could be undone by one moment of chaos. So many times I ploughed through that game only to declare the universe as being intrinsically unfair as a simple mistake cost me a good hour of careful planning, only to have to start over again. The illusion is that next time I'd get it right. I'd shield the doors earlier, or make sure to stock up on extra missiles, or avoid saving the crew of a ship on fire.
The futility of the game combined with the (somewhat illusory) sense that I was in control kept me coming back. It was only when I could get through to the end of the game regularly that I finally lost interest.
Which brings me to Frozen Cortex.
Frozen Cortex is what you get when you cross American Football with Frozen Synapse - which is in turn what you get when you cross chess with guns. I really enjoyed the idea of Frozen Synapse, but I never could fully immerse myself in it (Hell is Internet multiplayer...) I haven't had that trouble with Frozen Cortex, already rocking up close to 30 hours of game time.
The funny thing is that there's really not a lot to Frozen Cortex. The entire game consists of short matches, with each player controlling 5 robots on rectangular arenas populated with various obstacles. It's simple enough to grasp, simple enough to control, and a tiny mistake can undo hours of meticulous planning. Any given match can be thrown away from incorrectly guessing what an opponent would do, and that makes knock-out mode all the more difficult.
Because the games are so short, minor mistakes have those major consequences. Screw up on your own offense, and it's virtually guaranteed to be game over. Misread your opponents and it can be similarly difficult to come back during your own. The game's annoying habit to "pause" the turn halfway through a touchdown pass can often be just rubbing it in that you didn't realise the opponent had that option open, and there's nothing to do but slam the PRIME button and hope there's still enough time to recover.
And there are many ways it can cost you. A slightly mistimed run means a key player is knocked out. Throwing to a player too close to an opponent gives them no time to act before they are tackled. Passes that get intercepted. Having your player slightly mistime an interception. Moving to the wrong side of an obstacle. And of course, all these are compounded with scoring pads littered throughout the arena. They are only worth 2 points (compared to a 7 point "touchdown"), but a good run can cross several pads at a time. One particularly bad example was a robot that could just sneak around an obstacle for an unguarded heavily-padded run to the end-zone.
It's that futility that like in FTL: Faster Than Light keeps me coming back. I didn't see that play. I'll be mindful of that next time. It's with that attitude I've been able to beat the game on season mode (and opened up interesting variations), but haven't quite gotten through a knockout comp yet. The game is cruel, uncompromising, punishing, and that's what makes it such a rewarding experience.