Thoughts

Quick, short, often niche posts about games. Sometimes they are brief looks at concepts in art, design, culture, and psychology. Other times they are reactions to specific news items or just something silly that came to mind.

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River City Girls’ Boss Fights Punish the Player for Learning

I’ve started playing River City Girls and I mostly like it, but there are some really strange decisions around boss fights that came close to ruining the game for me.

The fights themselves are basically fine (at least the first two, which are all I’ve seen so far). You go up against a powerful enemy with unique attack patterns. They have a lot of health and they hit very hard, so you need to figure out their pattern and the best way to apply your own tools to get in sustained damage while avoiding nearly all of their attacks. They also change their patterns and become more dangerous twice - once when you’ve depleted a third of their health, and then again when you’ve depleted a second third.

It’s really not feasible to predict their patterns and vulnerabilities in advance - at least, I wasn’t able to. They have their own telegraphs but they can usually whip out attacks very quickly and you just have to learn through experience what their attacks are and what their areas of effect are. In short - I’d expect even very skilled players to die a couple of times in the course of learning each new boss.

If I’m correct, then dying to a boss isn’t necessarily a failure. It’s just part of the learning process. If that’s the case, then it’s bizarre how heavily punished it is.

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As a completionist, my thoughts about...

As a completionist, my thoughts about achievements are complicated. But here’s a simple illustrative anecdote.

I’ve been meaning to play Stick it to The Man for a while now, since I found out the story was written by Ryan North. I have it on my PS4 from when it went free on PlayStation Plus, which means it has trophies, which means I look up the trophy roadmap whenever I’m getting ready to play it. And thus far I haven’t managed to get past that step and actually play it. And Stick it to The Man doesn’t even have a particularly bad trophy list. There’s really only one trophy that sounds at all frustrating or unpleasant.

Then I saw the game was only a couple of bucks on Switch during the holiday sale. Switch doesn’t have trophies. So I paid a couple of bucks to buy a game I already have so that I’d have a version without trophies that I could just play and enjoy. I paid extra to not have trophies.

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In-Effie-ctive Surfing

One of my all-time favorite video game gadgets is the jetboard from Jak II. Apart from just being really cool, it made navigating the open world of Haven City much more interesting - it was faster than walking, capable of a variety of tricks and maneuvers, and got brief speed boosts from successful execution of certain tricks. This meant that even just going from one mission to another could be engaging as you practiced stringing tricks together along the way to maintain the top speed boost for as long as possible. This then paid off in the missions that required skilled use of the jetboard.

Effie is a recent 3D platformer by a small team that explicitly takes inspiration from genre classics including Jak & Daxter. It includes a “surfing” ability that’s superficially very reminiscent of the jetboard, as it involves taking your shield (which normally stays collapsed on your back), expanding it, and using it as a hoverboard.

But that’s where the similarities end. Surfing allows you to move faster, but it’s not really any more engaging than walking. You can’t do any tricks, and the only speed boosts are at fixed points in the environment spaced such that you’re not likely to be able to maintain max speed if you’re taking a direct route to your destination. You’re mostly still just holding forward, not practicing anything or getting rewarded for mastery of anything. Even the character’s body movements are bizarrely stiff while surfing, like there wasn’t time or budget to animate it properly (the rest of the game is much better animated).

It’s certainly possible the designers wanted to do more with surfing, but in the end it feels like it mostly exists to justify how wide open the game’s Red Plains of Oblena is - which in turn seems to be so wide open in order to justify the presence of surfing. The Plains’ points of interest are quite spread out and take a while to get between, which is improved by surfing but still not interesting, and this is also the only place you can surf. You can’t do it in the main levels, and the only goal that actually requires it is a fairly easy and dull ring course that’s one of the Plains’ points of interest.

It makes me really curious what the conversations were like during development. I can easily imagine grand plans for both surfing and the open area that there just wasn’t time or money to fulfill, and it would be difficult to remove either late in development (taking out the Plains would require restructuring the game, as it currently bridges all the linear levels, and taking out surfing would make the Plains incredibly obnoxious to traverse), resulting in the unfortunate half-baked state they ended up in. But who knows whether that’s what happened.

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Heavy Feet

Let’s say you were walking along and came to a platform suspended above deadly spikes. To proceed, you’d have to jump to the platform.

A platform suspended above deadly spikes.
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I wish it were standard practice for...

I wish it were standard practice for cross-platform games to allow sharing save files across platforms.

I played Dragon Quest Builders 2 on PS4, and now I find myself wishing I could relax by puttering around my end-game Isle of Awakening in handheld mode on my Switch. But I don’t want to play through the entire game and grind out all the Tablet Targets and scavenger hunts again on Switch just to get back to that state.

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Skill Tests are Delivered Experiences

Somewhere around 2007, I remember there being hand-wringing about how video games had started out as tests of skill and were transitioning to delivered experiences.

There had always been some variety in games, but the culturally-dominant games had once been things like Tetris or Asteroids or Space Invaders - games with strict failure states and no actual victory condition. The long-term hook was understanding and developing the skills required to do better and better on repeat attempts, so these games had high score tables. They were analogous to challenges like the high jump or 100-meter dash.

And as technology improved and games became more mainstream, the culturally-dominant games were becoming things like Half-Life and Uncharted - games where failure was a temporary setback and there was a clear victory condition. Here, the hook was the game’s atmosphere and story and characters and the goal of finishing the game, so these games had save files. These were more analogous to literature and cinema.

A lot of people weighed in on whether it was good or bad that games (as an overall culture force) were becoming more and more focused on delivering experiences. Some people were excited about the possibilities while others feared losing their favorite hobby. But in hindsight, the fact that the discussion was framed this way at all makes it clear just how twisted and limited our view had been by the prevalence of skill-test games leading up to that time. Because in hindsight, it’s obvious that games have always been about delivering experiences. “Mastering a skill” is just one small subset of the many, many kinds of experiences a game can deliver.

Back then, people were talking like there were two types of games - skill tests and delivered experiences - and the market was moving from favoring the first to favoring the second. But the truth is that the market was growing, branching out from the small area in experience space that had been staked out by skill tests, developing areas like “interactive storytelling” and “self-expression” and “relaxing escapism” and many, many more. Skill test games are still around, but now they can be seen as the niche they always were, since games themselves have grown beyond them.

The old perception of games as skill tests does still linger, but that’s not actually inherent to what games are - it’s more a consequence of the limits of the technology of the time and the social and economic structure of game arcades. It’s an accident of history that a lot of people my age grew up in a culture that saw games this way, rather than as (say) a vehicle for exploring emotional states or experimenting with identity or creating collaboratively.

The situation is improving as more people grow up with access to a wide and varied gaming landscape, but you still run into people who think that Gone Home is a failure of a game because it’s a bad skill test, when it was never trying to be a skill test in the first place. And things are a lot murkier with games that overlap niches and provide multiple experiences - some people will tell you that the only proper way to enjoy these games is to embrace their skill-test elements, even as other people plainly state they are only interested in the other elements and the skill-test aspects are an outright obstacle to enjoyment. And of course, the truth is that every game is an overlap that provides multiple experiences.

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My Top Ten Games of 2019

Based on how much joy they brought me, not on objective greatness.

  1. Dragon Quest Builders 2
  2. Bubsy: Paws on Fire!
  3. Dragon Quest Heroes II
  4. Wandersong
  5. Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal
  6. The Touryst
  7. Cat Quest II
  8. Final Fantasy XIV (not yet reviewed)
  9. Muse Dash
  10. Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition

Honorable mentions to Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, Archlion Saga and Quarantine Circular.

Most anticipated game for 2020:

  1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Top five games I’d like to see announced:

  1. Disney Magical World 3
  2. Dragon Quest Heroes III
  3. Dragon Quest Builders 3
  4. Fire Emblem Warriors 2
  5. a followup to either Bubsy: Paws on Fire! or Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back

Some more Bithell shorts and KEMCO pocket-sized RPGs would be nice too.

#video games #gaming #top ten

Tags: Thought

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Games that make spectacles of themselves

So, there’s a genre for which we don’t quite have a consensus name. Games like Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta, Vanquish, etc. were dubbed “spectacle fighters” by Yahtzee in 2009 and this seems to be the most popular name, though I’ve also seen them referred to as “character action” or “stylish action” games.

I’m mostly okay with “spectacle fighter”. After all, these are games where you fight a lot of enemies but there’s a mechanical emphasis on the spectacle you create by doing so with uninterrupted combos and varied moves, tracked by some combination of style meters, high scores, and grading systems. The problem is that a fighting game is something else - a game like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. The name we have for games where you fight a lot of relatively weak enemies is a “brawler” or a “beat ‘em up”. So really the Devil May Cry genre should be called “spectacle brawler” instead of “spectacle fighter”. It’s a subgenre of brawler in which spectacle is emphasized. The name fits (and conveys more information than “character action” or “stylish action”). Take out the spectacle scoring system and you’re left with a brawler.

By analogy, we can imagine spectacle-focused subgenres to other game genres. And in fact, I think a lot of extreme sports games qualify as “spectacle platformers.” Think of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or SSX - these are games about navigating a platformer-like playground, but your goal isn’t just traversal. It’s getting long varied combos along the way. These combos are of tricks rather than attacks, but it’s still the case that if you took out the spectacle scoring system you’d be left with a platformer.

And in practice, it turns out I dislike spectacle platformers in roughly the same way I dislike spectacle brawlers. I understand the appeal of spectacle as a way to raise the skill ceiling (once you finish the level, you still have the goal of doing so with a better score/grade) but I like my challenges, successes, and failures to be inherent to the game’s world rather than imposed by an external scoring system. If I meet a hard challenge and find a way to deal with it, but have used a lot of health or ammo or time because I made mistakes, I’m still satisfied that I rose to the challenge and it’s up to me whether to try to do it better - which would mean doing it faster and more efficiently with fewer mistakes. If instead I deal with a hard challenge and then get told I only earned a D because I didn’t do it in the way the developer decided was stylish, that feels like an arbitrary constraint on my experience and makes the game less fun.

#gaming #video games #game genres

Tags: Thought

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Bayonetta: The One That Got Away

To me, Bayonetta will always be the franchise that got away.

When I started using GameFly over a decade ago, I loaded up my queue with tons of games I was curious about. One of the games that made its way into my list early on was the original Bayonetta. It wasn’t my usual type of game - I’d never played Devil May Cry or Viewtiful Joe. But the game was very well received - it got “universal acclaim” according to Metacritic, and people were talking about the game a lot. About its “very easy automatic” mode (which I talked about too) and whether its portrayal of its title character was sexist or empowering.

In short - Bayonetta was clearly an Important game, and I wanted to be part of the cultural moment and contribute to the conversation. But I wasn’t impressed by the demo, and whenever I did try a “spectacle fighter” or “character action game” or whatever we’re calling them these days, I didn’t like it. So as much as I wanted to experience Bayonetta, I didn’t really want to play it. I put it in my queue, but it stayed there for years as I kept sliding it further down and the cultural moment passed.

Eventually, I had to admit to myself that even with GameFly, games were coming out much faster than I could play them. I had to prioritize. I had to admit to myself what games were in my queue just because I felt like they should be and take them out to make room for the games I actually wanted to play.

I have a tiny twinge of sadness any time I take a game off of my GameFly queue unplayed. It’s a small admission of defeat to the inevitable march of time and entropy. It’s an acknowledgment that we can never do all that we wish we could. And whenever I add a game to my queue, in the back of my head I wonder if I’ll just be removing it in a year or two.

But Bayonetta is always the game I think of. It’s the highest profile game that had been in my queue for the longest amount of time, before I admitted I was never going to play it or its sequels. It’s the one that got away.

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Indirect Boss Fights in Platformers

I’ve been thinking about boss fights in platformers. Mostly because I just played Effie, a 3D platformer whose boss fights… kinda aren’t boss fights.

In Effie, you play as young warrior Galand cursed by evil witch Melira. Melira is the villain for the whole game and shows up for a boss fight at the end of every chapter. But you never fight her directly.

Instead, she hovers menacingly nearby while you deal with waves of normal enemies that she’s apparently summoning and/or traverse a hazardous platforming course. Melira’s only direct contribution to the fight is a telegraphed area-of-effect attack you need to avoid periodically. She does get a health bar, though - sometimes you deplete it just by defeating her summoned minions, other times by reaching and activating levers that trigger hazards she just happens to be in range of - and once her health bar is empty you win and (except in the final fight) she retreats. (The most perplexing encounter has you damage her by pouring wine on her and then when she’s had enough she escapes by diving into the vat of wine.)

So, okay. Is this a boss fight? It’s narratively framed as one. It’s a climactic chapter-capping encounter with the game’s antagonist in which she tries to kill you and you fight back until there is a clear winner and loser. And it’s also mechanically framed as one, challenging you to use your accumulated combat and platforming skills in a high-pressure gauntlet. The only thing I can point to that makes it not a boss fight is that you never really fight the boss - the encounter still serves every other purpose of boss fights I can think of.

But I think the fact that she doesn’t engage you directly undercuts her as a villain. She’s much less threatening if all she can throw at you is an easily-avoidable area attack and things you’ve defeated many times before. She’s much less impressive if you can compel her to retreat just by defeating a bunch of other enemies or if she repeatedly positions herself exactly where she needs to be in order to be vulnerable to triggerable hazards.

It’s normal for bosses in platformers to test you on combat and platforming skills that you’ve learned and practiced earlier, and thus in a sense not actually provide anything new and unique. Especially if the boss is supposed to be much more powerful than you and it would be silly to let you attack them directly. But I think it’s a lot more satisfying if the game finds a way to frame the conflict as a direct battle, even if you can’t use brute force.

I find myself thinking, for example, of Klaww, a boss in Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Klaww is gigantic and you can’t just, like, walk up and punch him. So the fight is mechanically a series of platforming challenges in which you avoid Klaww’s thrown boulders and navigate platforms suspended over lava to reach him, where you don’t damage him directly so much as cause him to stumble and drop a boulder on his own head. It’s not especially cathartic because Klaww himself hadn’t been built up as an emotionally-significant antagonist - he’s just a gate you have to get through to proceed to the next area. But he still scared me the first time I played and the fight is clearly framed as you outmaneuvering a much stronger foe. I wish fighting Melira in Effie had felt that way.