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.