Monday, February 20, 2012

Timed Hits Part 3: Gems, Tiles, and Beats

This is the third and final part of "He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits," a series of posts on how game developers have used and modified the mechanics of RPG combat over the years, and what it can tell us about the genre. Part One, dealing with the inclusion of action and timing elements, can be found here. Part Two, an in-depth look at how standard RPG combat is refined and enhanced by increasing player choice, here.

In this conclusion, I'd like to look at games that have approached the issue of RPG combat by avoiding it - by throwing out "standard" combat systems entirely in favor of more unorthodox choices. These aren't games like Call of Duty, where the progression mechanics of role-playing games are used to enhance an established genre. They're not even true hybrids, like the Shooter/RPG Mass Effect 2, which play like a deliberate cross-breeding of genre. These games, in my eyes, are still fundamentally RPGs*, but ones that have replaced their combat systems with a separate but equal alternative.

I want to examine these games, not because I'm dismissive of RPG combat as it stands (I think this series makes it clear that, on the contrary, I've thought FAR too deeply about it over the years), but because, by transposing new systems into the place of the old ones, we can figure out what makes this genre so compelling and long-lasting.

RPG combat is a metaphor, an abstraction meant to represent the hectic back-and-forth of a real battlefield. At the same time, it's meant to give the player a feeling of connection to their character's actions, with menus (or other combat control systems) representing the choices available to the characters. If games are about simulating experiences that the player couldn't have in real life, then the following games approach that old goal of simulation in new, innovative ways.

1) Puzzle Quest

Infinite Interactive's Puzzle Quest created a slight stir back in 2007 by adapting a Bejeweled-type Match 3 game as a battle system for an otherwise typical fantasy RPG. The player moves around a map, solving quests, searching for treasure, fighting monsters. And when it's time to fight... Out come the gems!

During combat, the player takes turns with the AI, moving pieces on a Match 3 board, trying to line up gems to fill their various mana bars or deal direct damage. Matches of four or five provide extra turns and bonus effects, and much of the strategy relies on making optimal moves for yourself while denying strong moves to your opponent.

The RPG elements come into play by allowing either side to vastly modify the play field. Both player and opponent are equipped with a wide variety of spells whose effects range from direct damage, to massively skewing the distribution of gems on the field to a particular color, to destroying certain gems for a big boost in power. At the same time, player equipment and stats modify the effects of matching gems (generally increasing mana earned or damage dealt per match).

One of the ways that I like to judge games like this is by seeing how they represent different enemy "types". In Puzzle Quest, a "fast" enemy will have low HP, but plenty of cheap, quickly recharging spells. A "mage" will have a few cheap abilities designed to funnel mana to him to fuel his expensive, devastating spells. A "warrior" will have straightforward spells and a bonus to his damage for matching skulls (the direct-damage gem type). Fights become a matter of learning how to control the battlefield and counter your enemy's specific tactics (for example, denying a fire-based enemy access to the red gems he'll need to cast his spells). These mechanics allow the player to get a sense of what it would be like to fight these creatures that is both separate from, and parallel to, the sense they'd get from battling such monsters in a more traditional RPG.

2) Bookworm Adventures

Of course, Infinite Interactive was following in Bejeweled creator PopCap's steps in more ways than one with Puzzle Quest - the puzzle-game-as-fighting thing had already been done a year earlier by the kings of gem destruction with Bookworm Adventures, an RPG spin-off of their popular Boggle clone Bookworm.

Compared to Puzzle Quest, the combat in Bookworm Adventures (and its sequel, released in 2009) is ridiculously simple. You have a grid of letters. You spell words with them. The longer the word you spell (and the more difficult the letters used), the more damage you do to the opponents who are bashing away at your health after every word spelled.

What BA lacks in complexity, though, it makes up for in charm, and in visceral thrills. Lex, the titular bookworm, is cute as hell, and his vocal clips and dim-witted taunts are often delightful (not to mention the always-hilarious descriptions of enemies, most of whom are parodies or direct lifts from fables, nursery rhymes, and works of literature).

But the real appeal of the game is the slow construction of perfect words, the thrill of tapping away at your enemies with "and" or "boat" or "car" as you wait for the final letter that will let you unleash "extraordinarily." The battle animations support the joy of it, ranging from a simple head-bop by Lex to an earth-shaking blast of vocabularial power. (Note: Do not try to use "vocabularial" in Bookworm Adventures, it is not a real word).

The RPG mechanics are limited - Lex levels up automatically as you play, slowly increasing his basic stats. And a new treasure is gained at the end of every level, two of which may be brought into the next to produce a bonus or defend against certain status effects. But to me, it's still a great RPG, because of the way it translates my mental struggles into in-game awesomeness. Blowing away the Monkey King with "devastated" felt as intense and real as blasting Sephiroth with Knights of Round did when I was 13.

3) Sequence

Confession time: When I started this series, two months ago (Ye gods, do I write slowly), it was initially as an EXTREMELY roundabout way of talking about a game that I felt had redefined RPG combat in an important, enjoyable new way, and which quickly became one of my favorite games of 2011. That game was Sequence.

The first game from the two-person team Iridium Studios (plus two musicians and a handful of voice actors), Sequence is one of the strongest gaming debuts I've played in a long time. The plot, which starts with a standard "guy-wakes-up-in-a-mysterious-place" premise, quickly expands to include warm, memorable characters, hilarious meta-musings on the nature of gaming, and, ultimately, strong questions on the nature and value of free will. I could write an essay on it (and probably will), but the focus of this article (and no one would blame you for forgetting, given how many parenthetical statements (including this one) I've been making), is on combat. And the combat in Sequence is sublime.

This is going to get a little complicated, so if my ramblings stop making sense, just skip this paragraph and watch the embedded video from Iridium's Jason Wishnov talking about the game (and even if you do understand, you should watch the video to see it in motion - plus, it's pretty funny). Combat in Sequence, to quote Wishnov, is a "mash-up between a rhythm game and a traditional RPG." When combat begins, a song starts playing. The player is presented with three small screens, each with a DDR-esque row of arrows at the bottom. One screen is for Defense - arrows that fall here represent enemy attacks, and must be blocked with well-timed player input or damage will be taken. Another screen is for casting spells - the only way of doing damage to opponents. The player chooses an equipped spell and activates it - causing a specific sequence of arrows to fall. Failure to input the sequence causes the spell to fail, doing nothing except wasting mana. The third screen is for re-charging the mana used to power spells - there's no consequence for missing notes here, but if you don't pay attention to it, you'll run dry and be unable to activate any of your attacks.

The tricky part here is that only one screen can be active at a time - necessitating a constant cycling as you deflect attacks, charge your mana, and execute the often-tricky sequences needed to unleash attacks. In essence, this means that your true enemy in these fights isn't the gorgeously drawn monster you're facing (which is really just a pool of hit points and an attack and defense stat to modify damage given and received), but the tempo and beat of the song currently playing. Timing becomes the most crucial consideration of every move - a powerful spell might be unfeasible if its steps are too complicated, or its sequence takes several seconds to input, seconds where you're either taking damage or frantically flipping between screens to block. The tension of dividing your attention, watching all the parts of the "battlefield", and waiting for a moment when your opponent's attacks flag to strike... It's as pure a sensation of "being in a fight" as any of the other combat abstractions I've encountered in more traditional RPGs.

When I finally tapped into that feeling, it made me realize that that's the element I seek out in games like this. The adrenaline rush of pitting my mind and hands against an opponent, of formulating desperate plans and executing them with my tongue clenched between my teeth. And Sequence made me realize that that feeling is core to the joys of the RPG, and that it transcends whatever metaphor a game uses to convey it - whether it be timed hits and Judgment Rings, or job systems and wordy menus, or deadly beats and falling arrows.

If there's a lesson to be taken away from all this, it's this: The battle is what matters, not the skin it wears.

At the risk of being a terrible shill, I'd like to point out, here at the end of this series, that Sequence is available on XBox Live Arcade and Steam for $5 (and it often goes on sale). If you love RPGs, and even only like rhythm games, you owe it to yourself to play it.

*If one of the points of this series was to consider what, exactly, "RPG" means, by excluding elements of narrative design and focusing solely on combat, I have to conclude that, in this regard at least, the series has failed. Having examined as many combat systems as my feeble memory could present me with, I've become a little flummoxed by the sheer diversity of the genre. The only similarity I can find (and even here I'm generalizing horribly) is the common sense of disconnect between the player and the action on the screen. Menus, swapping gems, even things like Shadow Hearts' Judgment Ring, all stand in between what the player experiences and what the character does. Even in games that give direct control to players, the character's stats still modify the effects of player action in a way that, say, the character in Modern Warfare does not. If Zelda's Link was meant to be a "link" between the game world and the real world, then perhaps an RPG character is defined in the way they don't link, in the way their existence stands between and modifies the difference between the player and the game.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gunpoint: Where Player Freedom Becomes An Artform

Tom Francis is one of my favorite gaming writers. He works for PC Gamer UK, and has been responsible for some of my favorite features written on the ways players can explore and engage with the games they play.

You can always tell one of Tom's reviews by the glee with which he approaches the subject. They're full of breathless descriptions of bizarre or interesting situations the games let him get into, dumb, fun tricks he's logic'd himself into trying. For instance, take this example from his review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution:

He’s inside gang territory, trying to make it to a door at street level. He decides to use the surprising development of a vending machine falling out of the sky to distract the gangsters, so that he can drop down and get to the door without attracting attention. A sort of pepsi ex machina.

Jensen hurls the vending machine arbitrarily and tumbles off the building after it. His Icarus Landing System kicks in, floating him safely towards the street below in a dazzling ball of golden light. When the vending machine crashes to the ground, the armed gangsters nearby all look at it in surprise. Then they look at the dazzling ball of golden light floating down to land across the street, and they draw their guns.

Francis's critical perspective on games seems fueled not so much by the choices and scenarios that games force on people, but by the ones that they allow. His writing celebrates games like Deus Ex for allowing the player's own mad ideas to be a major factor in their success. As such, it's not surprising that when he decided to design his own game, it became something like an art studio for brilliant works of player creativity.

It works like this: Tom's game, Gunpoint, is a stealth platformer about breaking into buildings without being shot by some EXTREMELY trigger happy guards. The levels are full of interactive elements - light switches, door panels, cameras, alarms. On the surface, these are all on the side of the guards, systems in place to thwart your hero, Conway, from reaching his goal. Except Conway has an ace up his sleeve (also: springs in his pants, but that's neither here nor there): The Crosslinker.

Mousewheel up, and you enter Crosslink mode. All of the details of the level fade into darkness... Except the devices. Those light up like lights on a Christmas tree. And, like a child opening his presents on Christmas morning, you can start to play...

Drag a line from any device to any other to connect them. A light switch will now open a door. A guard walking through a motion sensor will call an elevator to his floor, distracting him. Re-wire a hand-scanner so that, instead of opening the door it's connected to, it activates the scanner on the other side, activating the door in the opposite direction, slamming into the guard and knocking him out. The Crosslinker turns every level into a playground for crazy Rube Goldberg machines and nasty pranks.

The brilliant, compelling thing about this design is how unnecessary most of these tricks are. Gunpoint is built so that brute force is almost always an option; guards can be pounced from behind and knocked unconscious; you can even buy a gun and shoot them dead - although, in keeping with the idea that this is a stealth game, gunshots will quickly summon difficult-to-avoid-snipers at the level exit (although even these can be avoided with enough upgrade points invested in a bullet-deflecting belt). Even when using the Crosslinker, there are a few simple moves (the aforementioned suicide-by-door trick, for instance) that can be used over and over to clear levels... efficiently. You could play it that way.

But most likely, you won't. Instead, you'll sweat, and puzzle, and play, until you've found a convoluted, beautiful solution to your problems. Because you can.

The motivating philosophy behind Gunpoint is, I think, that if you give players freedom, and have faith in them to use it, they will. You don't HAVE to set off a cascade of opening doors, moving elevators, blaring alarms, and darkened hallways that culminates in a man being electrocuted by a light switch. You do it because it is, objectively, awesome. And it is equally awesome that the game allows you to do it, with no scripting or forcing. The only motivating desire is the desire to do something great with the vast, flexible tools provided. It's the difference between "Man, that game just did some awesome stuff," and "Man, I just did some awesome stuff."

It's challenging, refreshing, rewarding. I expect videos of Gunpoint solutions to be a big hit on Youtube (and I'm quietly hoping Francis will implement some basic video-capture elements into the game to make sharing mad, inspired solutions that much easier). Because who doesn't love showing off just how crazy they can be, when someone gives them the chance?

In closing, please enjoy this: Three unscripted, me-designed moments from my most recent Gunpoint playthrough that had me laughing or feeling like a badass. These are, I guess, technically spoilers, but since the whole game is devising your own personal way around obstacles, I don't think it'll hurt to see my approaches.

1) I'm standing at the window of a building. Across a small alleyway stands another building, with a guard, above me, looking out. I'm safe now, but when I move my cursor into the space between the buildings, it turns red, telling me that I'll be seen as soon as I step (or leap) outside. He's in pouncing range, and I've upgraded my leap enough to propel me through the window, but there's no chance I'll cross the distance before he puts a bullet in me. I could shoot HIM, maybe, but I've still got objectives left in the level, and no time to clear them before the sniper shows up, blocking the exit.

I slip into Crosslink mode, look at my options. I'm in luck! The switch behind me is on the same circuit (devices on different circuits can't be linked together, usually) as the lights on his floor. I hook my switch to his lights, exit Crosslink, and flick it. Lights go out, he turns around to turn them back on, and as soon as his back is turned, I pounce, crashing through the window and slamming my fist into his face. Awesome.

2) Problem: I need to get through a door, and there are guards on either side of it. I can't open the door myself, and they'll shoot me on sight. What to do, what to do....

Solution: I've bought a new gadget in the between-mission store: the Longshot. It allows me to, with the expenditure of a power core, Crosslink a guard's gun. I laughed out loud when I saw that. I pull out the Crosslinker. A few tweaks later, and I set a tragedy in motion.

I flick a switch, and the lights on the floor go out. Guard A is the closest to the light switch, but it's on the other side of the door. So he activates the hand-scanner to go through. This activates the door... which activates Guard B's (standing guard further down the hallway on the other side) gun... Guard A crumples to the floor, shot. Guard B stands there, slapping at his gun, wondering why it misfired... as I come up behind him and pounce. Beautiful.

3) There's a Pro on the floor below me. Pros are special types of guards, clad in black suits like high-price bodyguards or Will Smith hunting aliens. Annoyingly, they're much harder to manipulate than their less-professional brethren. They won't follow noises. They won't freeze in place when you point a gun at them. They just shoot you, and then you're dead. Like I said, annoying.

I leap down, crashing through the hallway's plate-glass roof. Quick as lightning, the Pro unholsters his gun, points it at me, pulls the trigger... And the lights go out. The door behind him opens. And, grinning at his misfiring gun... I pounce. It is exceptionally Batman.

Thanks, Longshot.

Gunpoint is still in development. You can follow its progress and sign up to test (which I've been doing for the last nearly-2-years, and highly recommend) at and on Twitter at @GunpointGame. The game is up for the Audience Choice award at the Independent Games Festival this year, so if what you've read here (and on Tom's blog) sounds interesting, consider voting for it here:
Voting ends Sunday 2/19.