Monday, September 21, 2015

Critical Switch: Feedback Loops

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Last we heard from each other, I was talking about how videogames can use the difficulty curve, or as I prefer to call it, the resistance curve, to indicate narrative pace as well as express an idea of how gamers are meant to engage with that game, and how manipulation of the pacing curve can allow a game's nature to change gradually.

This week, I'm going to be talking about how a game can use a well constructed feedback loop to create narrative pace within its set of interactions, particularly in the context of combat scenarios, as well as noting how certain types of feedback loops can imply certain narrative concepts when applying creative interpretation.

Last week I played semanticist by renaming the difficulty curve the “resistance curve”, here I think there's not as clear a good alternative for what we call the “feedback loop” so I think I'll stick to defining it for those not familiar. In essence, a positive feedback loop in game design is when a certain decision in interactive systems is encouraged by rewarding the player for making certain decisions often in such a way as they are put in a position to make that same decision again. That was . . . particularly wordy, so I'll also note that Ernest Adams in an article for Gamasutra from 2000-diggity-2 says that: “positive feedback can be defined as occurring whenever one useful achievement makes subsequent achievements easier.”

Levels and Experience Points in Role-Playing Games are among the most notable examples. By participating in combat, rather than fleeing, character avatars are slowly strengthened in said combat scenarios through gradual increases in certain attributes, which thus makes them more capable combatants, creating a loop wherein participation in combat is encouraged and rewarded. As the genre of role-playing games progressed, especially in the Japanese games, leveling systems took on increasing significance as well as metaphorical indications of a character's growth as a person on an emotional level by matching it to their prowess in combat. Vivi starts FFIX as an unsure little mage who only knows the basic fire spell, but after wrestling with the inevitability of death and coming out on top resolute in his intention to live with purpose, he ends the game capable of summoning a meteor onto the battlefield and crushing all who oppose him.

Metal Gear Rising has extremely solid core combat mechanics such that the basics of parrying and choosing between light and heavy attacks would create a compelling game on their own, but the game gets a lot more life out of those mechanics by adding Blade Mode, and subsequently, Ripper Mode. Blade mode slowly consumes a percentage of a meter below Raiden's health bar, and is the primary method for executing enemies in MGR, as low level guards will usually die to a single slice in blade mode, allowing Raiden to clear out the small fry in fights quite easily and then focus on more dangerous foes, who require a little more work before hand and then are also killed by a single slice in blade mode. What makes this a feedback loop is that when executing enemies Raiden takes their spines and crushes them in his hands to restore the entirety of both his health and blade mode bars. This is already an especially smart design decision as it increases the accessibility of the game to those unfamiliar with character action games, but what it also does is serve to vary the pace of individual combat encounters. MGR can be a very chaotic game, whose freeform combat mechanics allow for very loose decision making and input choices, but the addition of blade mode slows the game world down and reduces the game to a matter of few and extremely precise inputs. On top of that, in the middle of the game, and subsequently in New Game Plus, Raiden has access to Ripper Mode. While in Ripper Mode, the Blade Mode meter drains continuously, and damage is increased dramatically, so dramatically that one risks outright destroying enemies while forgetting to grab their spines. This is important because in high level play, Ripper Mode becomes incredibly important for destroying stronger enemies, but when executed poorly, leaves Raiden at the end of a fight with no blade mode meter going into the next one, thus leaving him effectively toothless until he can build it back up again. So MGR creates falling and rising tension in combat by giving Raiden access to different modes of attack, each of which feed into each other and rely on similar resources. While this is a smooth system design, it also feeds into MGR's continuous narrative tension between “Raiden”, the idealist who fights as a mean to and end, and “Jack the Ripper”, a ruthlessly violent person who fights simply for it's own sake. Thus, each combat scenario in MGR, especially on high difficulty and in high level play, creates contrasting tensions between these various states of identity for Raiden, and also feed into each other.

On a simple pacing level, Kingdom Hearts II's biggest problem was fixing the relatively static combat of the original game. While not a particularly long game, it also wasn't particularly varied in how to approach combat, leading to lots of mashing the X button for regular attacks, especially since MP could be so hard earned, leading players to save it as a healing resource. Two things were implemented to make this no longer be the case. One, MP would now slowly restore after Sora used the complete bar, and the curative spells now simply cost “the rest” of the MP bar, such that Sora now had access to good offensive and defensive magic, and would so as long as they had any MP to speak of, and then if they didn't get back MP, they'd have some soon anyway. They also implemented Drive Forms, which allowed Sora to briefly transform into a stronger version of himself who could wield two keyblades and magically float around. Drive bar itself is about as hard-earned as MP in the original, but then the designers had the brilliant idea to intertwine the two mechanics: When MP is empty, the Drive Form bar builds gradually, and when Sora enters a Drive form, his MP bar refills instantly. Thus, the stodgy resource conservatism in Kingdom Hearts was transformed into a system that was constantly encouraging gamers to be using every able resource. Thus, there creates a good visual pace to combat that distinguishes between a Sora using colorfully-animated magic spells, high-flying acrobatic melee combat, and . . . foofy anime nonsense that's really fun to look at. The narrative element of that is a little weaker to me than in Rising, but the pacing element is a bit stronger since we get to spend a little more time with each different type of Sora, and the most powerful variant feels earned.

This also creates a nice intertextual element in comparison to the original Kingdom Hearts, where Sora's control of his weapons and magic was much more awkward, whereas in Kingdom Hearts II he's a much more experienced combatant, and we get to see that growth from game to game.

In both the Rising and Kingdom Hearts II example, we can see how the pacing that their feedback loops create is not only a visual distinction between different sets of interactions that rely on (for lack of better terms,) different rulesets, but also alter pacing by adjusting the resistance curve on a moment-to-moment basis.

While I think that these games largely have system designs thought of independently of their narrative content, since they were each made within a mostly ludocentric context, I think they're already powerful tools within their extant contexts that, if and when they are used by designers with different, shall we say “alternative” ways of thinking about games, we'll see games whose design fundamentals and artistic ideas interact in ever more striking and meaningful ways.

I could still use your help making rent for October if you can afford to help.

From Olympia, WA, I'm Austin C. Howe

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