Thursday, May 14, 2015

Critical Switch: Republican Dad Mechanics

I was gonna go on this long tirade about Dark Souls and abuse and nihilism but honestly, I think I want to focus on something in particular, it's a design trend that Dark Souls has largely fathered and I'm concerned about where I see it going.

Dark Souls and the semi-franchise it emerges from and has helped popularize has brought on the rise of mechanics whose design intention is to get gamers to be more careful, and build skill, but also have least the potential to cause brash, irrational decision making.

These types of system designs I will designate: “Republican Dad Mechanics.” You could also probably call them “school bully mechanics” but, an election year is coming up and dammit, this country is on the line! You know how it is.

In theory, the Republican dad is someone like this: they want to teach their child how to hit a baseball, but they find that the child is swinging limply, missing, or losing grip of the bat.

Now what a sensible human being would do is give expert advice: plant your feet firmly, grip the bottom of the bat strongly in the palms of your ha- nah fuck that, what the Republican Dad does is throw the ball so hard that they might actually hurt the kid, the logic being “you're gonna swing the bat or walk away with a bloody nose.”

That is the basic root of much of a lot of Dark Souls core design, but it's probably best indicated by the Blood Stain mechanic.

A primer for the unfamiliar: in Dark Souls, when you die, you leave behind a stain of your blood, and on that stain is the Souls that you picked up before you die. Souls are extremely valuable, as they are both the currency you use to buy things from merchants and blacksmiths, but also the experience points you use to level up. Even to gamers hell bent on the ultimate challenge of beating the game at Level 1 will use souls to upgrade their weaponry.

This creates this extremely common situation: I just died to a horde of ene mies while h olding a not-insignificant amount of Souls. Given that I am likely to die if I try and combat those enemies again, based on previous results, I would like to rush in, grab my souls, and escape the room as soon as possible. Thus, I begin my bum rush back behind enemy lines and within a moment I've died to the same horde. Thus, by the rules of Dark Souls I've lost my opportunity to ever get those Souls back. This logic applies to any other type of enemy, obviously, since enemies you've died to once are almost by definition enemies you are likely to lose to again.

Thus, the game has given me something that should encourage me playing better, that is, the loss of my souls, but it's also made those things the carrot on a stick that forces me into nonsensical loops of actions. I have played at least 200 hours of these games, I cannot shake the feeling that regardless of how good I get at them, the fundamental psychology of that mechanic will not change.

Bloodborne, From Software's new game in much the same style, has actually doubled down on this parental conservatism with it's new Regain mechanic. In Bloodborne, a certain percentage of damage taken within a certain time frame can now be regained if the player quickly strikes back at their opponent. The psychological punishment is actually even more severe here. As . . . I can't believe I'm citing this man, but the quote actually is pretty good, Tim Rogers writes:

 If an enemy hits you, doing damage, you can get your health back if you hit them soon enough after they hit you. This is idiotic. This is insulting! This is a huge, dumb punch in the face of a perfect combat system. It's filthy and it's gross. Wow, it's so great; I love it a lot.
With the Regain System, Bloodborne begs you to take tiny risks. I say the risks are "tiny" because that's how it feels: just one more button press. That button press is highly likely to get you killed, because for the length of that button press — the first few dozen time s, anyway — you're not thinking about position, timing, or stamina. You're thinking, "Hey, I can get that health back, so let's see if I can get that health back." Ten seconds later, the enemy is dead, and you have half the health you had during your initial engagement with the enemy. You feel like the biggest sucker in the world. You've seen the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The Wizard of Oz was flipping you off.

The weird part is, in case you missed it, Tim Rogers likes this part of Bloodborne which you can list off as reason number 9001 about why I don't get that guy. Or maybe he's being ironic, I don't know y'all, New Games Journalism was weird.

So again, the game is shoving this obvious carrot in your face, but the only real answer is to just let it go, man. That could be a lot of things, but for a game as ludically focused as the FromSoft games tend to be, I'm just gonna call it misguided design.
Now of course other designers are preaching the Miyazaki gospel. Lords of the Fallen, one of the first major-studio Souls-likes adds an experience multiplier so that the longer you avoid resting at a checkpoint and spending your experience the more experience you build . . . which is bizarrely reflective of modern financial economics: “You've invested in some good stocks and made some smart decisions! Now make the decision whether you want to retire early and die rich or GO FOR MORE” even though there's no real reason to do that except maybe to buy that second Bugatti.

The idea of course is simple enough: let's put in mechanics that encourages gamers to more consciously engage with the interactions at hand. But in these cases, we have system upon system built to encourage wild and often unrewarding risk-taking. So how do you avoid being a Republican Dad designer?

This is the easy part: the solutions have always existed! But in particular I want to point out the tremendously smart decisions made by Platinum games, in particular how the parries work in Metal Gear Rising.

Parrying is exceptionally important to scoring high in Revengeance, or even just surviving on the high difficulty levels.

Parrying is attached to the same keys as both movement and attack, and that makes it inherently risky, because if you screw up the parry you're swinging at an enemy or running when you need to block.

Now granted, this can still happen, but unlike Dark Souls, Revengeance has got your back. What Revengeance does to mitigate possibly misguided player risk-taking is implements two types of parries.

The better kind, the kind you want, are often referred to as “Perfect Parries”. When a parry is executed within frames of an attack landing, Raiden will riposte, for enough damage to outright kill a low level enemy, and often to do 20% or more of a bosses health.

It would've been easy for them to look at player inputting those parries too early and say “git gud scrub” and walk away, but Platinum actually wants people to enjoy their videogames so they don't do that. Instead, they offer a version of the parry that can be activated much earlier, but also doesn't offer the riposte reward, often not resulting in any player reward other than not being hit. This is on top of having an invincible dodge move as well, for moves that cannot be parried, and that you can also use instead of a parry when you really need to get out of Dodge.

Bayonetta does something similar where when an invincible dodge is activated within the right time frame of an enemy attack, Bayo enters Witch Mode and gets to shell out massive damage, but you can still execute the regular dodge at a lower level of risk.

How would you implement those kinds of risk-mitigation mechanics in Dark Souls? Well . . . you don't. Because the fanbase would never shut the fuck up about it. Because remember, the most important thing you can derive from a hard videogame is being self-important about being able to beat it.

This week you'll've heard the Majula theme from the Dark Souls 2 original soundtrack and the Firelink Shrine theme from the Dark Souls original soundtrack composed by (I am definitely going to screw this up) Motoi Sakaruba, and “Stains of Time” from the Metal Gear Rising OST, music and lyrics by Jaimie Christopherson.

Zolani Stewart will rejoin you next week.

From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.


  1. Interesting article! Platinum and From Software happen to be my 2 favourite developers, so I love that you used a comparison that I can really relate to.

    My impression of the the regain feature so far is that it has inconsequential mechanical significance, but pretty interesting psychological effects. To me it seems like it was designed to coax out a player's greediness for the sake of story expression. Namely, the bloodlust said to afflict seasoned Hunters. I love the aesthetic and emotion created when you start desperately slashing at an enemy. The fury with which you hit the buttons and blood being flung from either side of you, and then the aftermath with your character drenched in it. The actual gain is negligible, and sometimes you lose more in the process. But I think that's the point, and that the game frames it like a curse for the player to either succumb or resist, maybe even for the sake of roleplaying.

  2. I disagree that these are "Risk mitigation mechanics" at all. You're framing them like the opposite way from how most people would probably frame them, it's success versus critical success. I disagree that these even count as mitigation, considering mitigation is about reducing the level of harm inflicted. Mitigation in dark souls would be like forfeiting say 3/4ths of your souls in exchange for just getting some back. Critical success would be like, the range you can pick up your dropped souls is much bigger, but only the actual bloodstain gets back the full amount.

    I would further argue that you don't present any good reason why this is supposedly bad or "misguided" design, just that you don't like having a ball thrown at you so hard it will knock your teeth out if you can't defend yourself against it (which is a silly comparison to make to dark souls, the game that is forgiving on so many levels, not to mention has a really easy tutorial).

    Having design along these lines has existed since Mario (and further back of course), and the mitigation you're seemingly talking about (making the game easier when you fuck up, right?) has only been a recent trend, which people got sick of incredibly quickly. The Souls series has been lauded by fans precisely because it doesn't give into the trend of making everything an exercise you can repeat endlessly without risk, because it doesn't bind the players action to only the limited set that allows them to progress, and it has no safeguards against making mistakes, enabling people to mess up without condescension.

    That and your refusal to point out a design solution is petty.

    "New Games Journalism was weird." Funny, I'd say you're part of it, but I'm vindictive. I like the regain system as well, and I wish Tim Rogers would fuck off with his pretentious writing style and just say what he means without a frenetic summary of whatever passes through his head. I don't get what you don't get about him or that mechanic. It's another thing adding risk and reward to the game, playing on the common person's sense of loss aversion, but designed so you only stand to gain so much from it (if you want for an opportunity to attack repeatedly it drains, if you attack repeatedly you risk being hit again).

    People enjoy psychological punishment, people enjoy things that are hard. This is why we even bother to play games in the first place, so that sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fail. And the feeling of success is stronger as that success is more rare, and as the consistency of success improves over time. This is a basic component of operant conditioning. The regain mechanic, in addition to the retrieval mechanic, are there to give people another thing to risk, to sometimes be successful and sometimes fail at.

    If you add means of mitigating these, or make these easier, then you're increasing the rate at which they succeed, and decreasing the rate at which they fail. This makes the sense of reward or enjoyment for success weaker.

    Naturally since you're part of new games journalism, you don't see an issue with this, and would prefer to mock the fan-base for being self-important or entitled or some such business. Grow up and do your job right.

    1. It was a bad decision in Super Mario Bros. as well -- which is part of what led us on this unfortunate path, the last thirty years. It's part of what has been holding the whole medium back.

  3. The souls style always seemed like the guy from this video to me, more than it ever did a bad dad.

    1. Where's the like button? I like your comparison.