Monday, June 6, 2016

Critical Switch: DMC3 as Habitual Game

Devil May Cry 3 is, admittedly, a pretty strong argument for the sort of mechanically based analysis that I usually stay away from. Actually, it’s kind of frustrating. It’s a spectacular audio/visual piece that insistently breaks the tone and continuity of its world to have characters speak utterly silly dialogue and give you things like grades and points and you pick up orbs and all the rest of those sorts videogame-y things that make someone like me cringe. It also happens to be one of the best videogames I’ve ever played so . . . you win some you lose some I guess?

I’d love to try sometime, but at least for today I’m not going to be talking about Devil May Cry 3 as a piece of dramatic text. So I guess for today I’m calling a truce with formalism.
For today I simply want to talk about it as an action game, because, given that the discourse is currently dominated by an action game of a brutally difficult nature that I do not enjoy which shall remain nameless, I feel like I can contribute to that discussion by talking about a game whose approach to difficult gameplay is, in my opinion, much more mature and thought out with gamers in mind.

First of all, and this has been the subject of a lot of discussion lately, Devil May Cry 3 actually has difficulty modes, which is important for a number of reasons, including one I need to come back to later, but for right now it’s most important to acknowledge that it means the developers knew that different types of people would want to play this game for different reasons.

Second, the game always forces a break, both when you die and when you succeed. Every time you die, the action on the screen pauses before giving you three options.
Continue: Would you like to start from right before where you were, get right back into that difficult fight? (It’s worth noting that this almost always starts from basically right where you left off, given that short iteration cycles are a proven method of preventing frustration.)
Restart the Mission: Maybe you feel like you didn’t play so well earlier and want to give it another shot, or maybe you just wanna hype yourself up with some easier combat before giving another go at that boss fight?
Main Menu: Do you need a break? Are you done for the day?

You get a similar set of options when you finish a mission, when it asks you whether you like to go to the next mission, replay an earlier one, or go back to the main menu. DMC3 know it’s an intense game, and it also understands that being psychologically well-rested is key to playing it well.

As well, while at first glance, the style meter and mission grading system feels somewhat judgmental, it is a way to encourage curious players to come back to the game. It creates a visual metric by which one can judge their growth as a player, a form of digital, external validation that self-improvement in many other types of genres tend to go unnoticed.
So, in contrast to many other difficult games, Devil May Cry 3 is a game that is not indifferent to your playing it. DMC3 is not just designed like a habitual game, it’s also built like a game that recognizes our want to make a habit out of it, consistently rewarding player growth with ever increasing difficulty levels, new costumes, new playable characters, and thus becomes a game that gets an exponentially increasing amount of playtime out of what is, if you want it to be, still a relatively brief experience. It’s very emblematic of the design philosophy that guided some of the biggest hits on the PlayStation 2 in that way.

And I think the caring, encouraging nature of its mechanics (which, for better or worse, were also reflected in the carefree nature of its text) has shaped the community of truly dedicated Devil May Cry players in an important way. The famous Truestyle competition really wasn’t a competition at all, but really more of a non-judgemental talent show, with the competition’s third year featuring every character and playstyle equally, and where the community voted on their favorite videos in every category, but wisely avoiding trying to pick an overall “winner” of the event. In their own words, they decided fairly quickly that trying to find out the best DMC player was a fool’s errand, and to this day, the PhantomBabies website still features every video submitted for every category of the contest’s third year. And I think the contrast that shows with modern gaming communities speaks for itself.

From Olympia, WA, Play is Labor. I'm Austin C. Howe.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Critical Switch: Fallen Shadows - The Destruction of Lahan Village

Fallen Shadows: The Destruction of Lahan Village in Xenogears

Last year I finally finished Xenogears, that being my fourth fucking attempt at a full playthrough of the game that had been in my backlog since high school. The first two were aborted attempts from when I was emulating the game. I could never get the game to run at a satisfactoraly, Playstation emulation still being a messy, incomplete affair. Around Christmas 2012 I finally bought the game on PSN such that I might be able to play a representative version. I played for 30 hours, largely enjoying the experience until I got caught in a loop of bad game design during the raid on Shevat. So, there I was, playing the beginning of the game again after having put what should be enough time to beat the damn thing twice already. There was a benefit to this however.

Having played the beginning of the game so many times, I’ve come to more deeply appreciate how Xenogears develops the town of Lahan into a complex place filled with conflicted characters to make it’s imminent destruction more emotionally impactful, which is in stark contrast the to the idealized Doomed Hometowns featured in other games.

What’s interesting is that this is partially accomplished through an absolutely infuriating minigame of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

In Xenogears you control Fei Fong Wong who one night was left at the doorstep of the Lahan village chief, who then raised him as one of their own. Over the years Fei grows into a talented martial artist and painter, and the villagers come to accept him despite early skepticism from some. The day the game starts is the day before the wedding between Alice and Timothy, two friends of Fei’s. The gamer sends Fei upstairs where he talks to Timothy, who asks Fei to go visit Alice and keep her some company, and Timothy’s younger brother, Dan, who asks Fei to meet him outside. A crucial design decision: Fei does not follow Dan outside of his own accord, the player must guide him to Dan. This gives us the opportunity to explore the town at our leisure.

In one of the houses in town is a man who is extremely good at Rock-Paper-Scissors. He tells Fei that if he’s beaten five times he’ll hand over a special item. Make no mistake, when one challenges this man they have no clue what kind of shenanigans they’re getting themselves into. Of the 3 hours I have currently logged in this playthrough, probably 45 minutes of it was playing this asshole in Rock-Paper-Scissors. This NPC has a number of different strategies programmed, and only one of them has been fully discovered to be exploitable, and even then, he doesn’t always use that strategy, leaving players to brute force their way into winning by using the strategy, even when it doesn’t work, just so you can eventually catch him using the pattern that the strategy responds to. Even then, it’s only guaranteed to work for three games in a row. You have to win five times and after you win three times, the pattern resets and he chooses one of the three options at random again. This is, to say the least, frustrating. I probably had this strategy work for the first three rounds at least ten times before winning the five games in a row. Word of advice, as is often given in the Xenogears fan community: if you win, save, then copy that save.

If you lose to this dude, you lose 50g. If you win, you get 50g, and you can’t challenge him unless you have at least the 50g to lose. When you start the game, Fei doesn’t have any money to begin with. So what else can you do but send him to go look for it? Well first of all you can find 200g in Fei’s bed, but that’s only four losses in a row, can’t we buffer that out some? If you investigate rooms close to Fei, you can find various items just by pressing X near barrels or the jump button near a spider web, and pick it up. This piques curiosity. Perhaps there are money and items in all corners of the town? And in fact there are. Gamers do things like jump down the water well and they’ll find a number of items, but to really rack up some loot they start talking to the townsfolk. Then something happens: the townsfolk are interesting.

A gamer with any genre-savvy already knows as soon as the happy music kicks in and the bright colors show up onscreen that this town is some variety of doomed. And the game shows it’s hand upfront with a short scene that shows the village destruction already in progress. In other games, it would already be difficult to care especially given how utterly typical this all is. But there’s a specific contrast to be made. The townspeople of Lahan do not live perfect lives. They live fragile, human ones. Certain characters I talked to to get money, or specific items like the Mermaid’s Tear, but I found myself so compelled in these stories that I had to talk to more of them and see the lives they were living.

There is, for example, a drunkard at the bar you can try and console. There's a woman next to the cow-creature thing that tells us about her insecurities as a woman in this small town. The other women simply get married to the men in town, but she wistfully thinks of a more independent life that she doesn’t think is possible in Lahan. There’s a child standing on the roof of a building who misses his father who’s chasing his career in a distant city, and his mother, who misses her husband and worries for the state of her family. Alice and Timothy are set to marry the next day, and the bride-to-be openly wonders whether she might've ended up with Fei instead had he arrived in her life years earlier. Cold feet? Genuine remorse? We don't know and we never will.

These stories all come to brutal ends when the two warring nations of Aveh and Kislev end up sparring over Lahan. Neither is directly responsible for the town's destruction though. That would be Fei. He, in an attempt to defend his adoptive village, commandeers one of the military mechs and loses control of it and himself, causing a blast that absolutely levels the town, and kills most of the villagers. Why did Fei lose control? What mysterious forces is he wrestling with? And what would've happened to these people had such a sudden tragedy not occurred? These questions become so much more compelling because they are directly related to the guilt that Fei feels continuously throughout the game that we as players empathize with being we spend so much time with Fei throughout the game, and they're the questions we ask continuously as we probe the mysterious secrets of Xenogears.

From Olympia, WA, Play is Labor, I'm Austin C. Howe