Monday, September 21, 2015

Critical Switch: The Resistance Curve

The Resistance Curve
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The first thing that any good guitar player will tell a young student of the instrument who wants to learn how to play well is that “technique isn't everything, it just gets you where you want to go.” It's not that you want to play fast, though yes, playing fast is very fun, it's that you want the emotional content that playing quickly will allow you to access from your audience. Moving from slow playing to fast playing is a way to indicate an increased intensity in the emotions of your music, but of course, to increase that tension, you actually need to be able to play fast. Again, technique isn't everything, it just gets you to where you want to go.

In videogames, at least, single-player videogames, I feel like what we call “game design” is more or less what musicians call technique. The problem with the ludocentric approach then is that the games it produces can tend to be a little more Michael Angelo Batio than Yngwie Malmsteen.

As a guitar player, I've zero patience for technique for technique's own sake and, increasingly in videogames, I've little admiration for design for design's sake, and what I also find is that in games where I admire the design craft put into it, I'm struck by what that design does to, for lack of better terminology (and I apologize for perpetuating this awful word) “immerse” the player in a game's context.

I talk a fair bit about how well, or how poorly, certain games are designed, or certain parts of certain games are designed. I'm mostly interested in it because when a game is well designed, it usually means that the game's ludic structures aren't getting in the way of me seeing past those structures and absorbing myself in the moment-to-moment emotions that that game wants to provoke. So today I'm going to formulate the beginnings of an argument for certain ideas we can take from established design thought, and see how they can be applied in a way that does not assume, or catalyze ludocentrism.

I'm going to begin that argument, which I hope to revisit, by displaying examples of “pacing” in design and design terminology.

One of the basic principles I derive from this is “resistance.” The typical games terminology for this is “difficulty,” but I think the critic and developer John Thyer coins it a little more eloquently as “resistance.” How “hard” a game is and how hard it resists the gamer engaging with it are subtle, but different topics, and I'd like to revisit it at a different time, but suffice to say that resistance as a larger topic includes difficulty and that today we'll be focusing on difficulty. For a game to build a coherent fiction, than the amount of resistance we experience needs to be logical for the game's fiction, and the quote-unquote “logical amount of resistance” can often be expressed through design principles such as the “difficulty curve.”

Games that provide little resistance can be problematic because it stops being believable that my player characters are achieving something against great adversity, like a poorly-written action movie where we never believe that our hero is ever in danger. Few games like this exist that I can think of off of the top of my head, perhaps, unsurprisingly, a few movie adaptations from the mid-2000's that were mostly selling themselves on how they dressed up their assets. One could also argue games that have adjustable difficulty with “Very Easy” modes that take out some of the game's more compelling engagements.

I can however think of examples of games that morph into this, usually because they can no longer assume the gamer's interest in the narrative, because said narrative is either already familiar to the gamer, or because it is wrapping up. Thus, they are, and forgive this word, intentionally readjusting how much the game resists the player as a means to other ends. Two examples of this type of game come to mind.

One: Character action games with grading systems meant to encourage replays. Usually these games also have fairly extensive and meaningful character upgrades, such as Devil May Cry 3 where the Dante we begin the game controlling, equipped merely with a sword and handguns, becomes divine in all but nomenclature in New Game Plus modes where he wields a wide variety of melee weapons and projectile weapons with ease, not to mention commands magical forces of nature with his mere whims. The idea is that this makes getting those perfects ranks on fights not just easier, but also more visually entertaining. In fact, late last decade the “Truestyle” competition even found that there was an Olympic level of competition to be created by pitting players against each other to record the best-looking fights, as though they were ice skaters performing a routine. Even without the context of DMC3's story as we skip through cutscenes to beat more baddies, we derive it's own kind of artistic pleasure from watching ourselves create a sort of musical performance by rehearsing and sharpening strategies for perfecting combat encounters. Systems are not just conduits to narrative entertainment, as I often focus on, but also visual and musical engagement in the abstract, though I'm not sure “abstract” is necessarily the best term for that.

Two: Japanese Role-Playing Games. Because JRPGs often lack new game + features, usually, the moment when JRPG characters transform into DMC3 Dante-like deities . . . Danteities? . . . is planned as a part of the game's narrative arc. Players have access to powerful tactics throughout Final Fantasy VIII for example, such that the game is one of it's series easiest when it's sytems are well-understood, however truly broken tactics like the “Holy War” item which renders characters invincible (often used as part of the strategy for the game's superbosses) are not accessible until the game's final hours and most difficult conflicts. This is paced alongside the game's narrative such that the characters have more or less “finished” their narrative arcs: Rinoa has gained control of her sorceress powers, Squall has learned how to open himself to affection, their romance is realized, etc. In other words, the game becomes easier because the characters are now operating with clearer thought and a more explicit sense of purpose.

On the other hand, games with far too much resistance leave me wondering how, if I can't guide my player character to victory in this particular circumstance, how are they even achieving anything in this context? Sure I can try and try again, but usually in games that offer that much resistance, the end result is the feeling that I and my player character ended up lucky, not so much that we were meant to succeed. The example remains obvious to me but I will restate it for historical record: in Dark Souls, at no single moment does it become believable that the nameless motherfucker I control when interfacing with the game is capable of all this world-conquering badassery. On the other hand, intentional examples do exist, the most prominent example I can think of being Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, where seemingly every boss encounter is meant to leave you surviving by the skin of your teeth, and wherein the final boss is a puzzle whose solution is to give into one of the game's failstates. Dragon Quarter plays off the unlikelihood, showing weary, quiet characters in a state of constant oppression. The very point of the game is questioning how these unlikely heroes can best the world's myriad tyrannies.

Thus, the “Resistance Curve” is a tool we can use to indicate narrative states, not just a means to a varied ludointerfacial or “play” experience.

When you hear from me next, we'll be going over another tool of game design as a means of creating narrative pace: the feedback loop.

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

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