Thin Red Line

Earlier this year, 1up.com published a rather unusual interview with one of the original programmers of Final Fantasy (the first one…but not just the first one), Hiroyuki Ito. I recommend reading it, but in short, Ito reveals himself to be quite a fan of the NFL, and explains that the basis of the game’s combat, in which each “side” lines up facing each other, plans their moves, then executes them all in a sequence, was inspired by the similar structure of offense (and defense) present in professional sports, particularly American football. As fascinating as I found this little revelation, I can’t say it truly changed my perspective on the game or the series, particularly since I’m not really that much of a sports fan anyway. But what it does do is underline how even concepts that seem simple or obvious in retrospect still tend to have lots of rather surprising thoughts behind them.

But what I usually find missing in FF games, and most RPGs in general, is feeling some kind of risk. There’s a lot of ways to create tense situations with risk and reward, and while I tend to disagree with a lot of the commonly used ones (like the common SMT trick of “you don’t know what these guys have until you get killed by them” or the general old-school “that last save point was an hour back”), most of them can work well enough when surrounded by an engaging setting or enjoyable mechanics. In my opinion, though, there’s a much more elegant way to cultivate these situations: you let the players make their own risk.

I’m using the word “risk,” because this is literally what the mechanic is called in Vagrant Story, one of the best and oldest examples of this idea. Although players may at first be inclined to go for big chains on the game’s timing-based combo system, as they present the most obvious path to major damage, doing so will quickly raise the main character’s “Risk” to dangerous levels, both making further combos more difficult and increasing the amount of damage taken from attacks. Increasing Risk has its benefits as well, so it’s not simply a punishment for playing well, but the tradeoffs create a mechanic for which neither increasing or decreasing is always the “best” option, and the desired consequences ultimately come down to situational factors and more importantly, player preference.

In general I feel like this idea hasn’t really caught on, which is fair enough since I think most players prefer the “your party can just become gods” approach, but at least one developer has tried pulling this out a few times: Star Ocean creators tri-Ace. Its first appearance is in Star Ocean 3, where your characters’ attacks use a special resource called Guts (Fury, in the English versions, but “Guts” is a commonly appearing mechanic name in the company’s games and “Fury” is not), with special attacks also consuming hitpoints (or magic points, in the case of spells, but since the MP bar is also a health bar, it still works out to the same thing). The Fury bar has two main purposes. First, characters (and enemies) can block “weak” attacks when their Fury is at 100%. For players, there are many ways to set up guaranteed combo situations off of blocked attacks, so it’s very helpful to block when possible. Fury is also the limit of how long your combos can be, as you have to stand still (stop attacking and moving) to regain it, so a single character can only chain moves until their Fury is too low to use the next one. The game’s “basic” combo path is Weak Normal (optional) -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> Weak Special -> Strong Special -> etc. In other words, you can only cancel a Strong special if you have canceled it from a Weak special, and Strong normals don’t cancel into anything. (There are still ways to begin combos with Strong normals, and the main character’s ability to do this on his own is one of his biggest strengths.) There are a small number of other restrictions on the ways you can use moves together, but in general this combo system allows you to alternate any pair of moves you want…whether or not they even “combo” in a standard sense. For example, a common tactic is to have the “Weak” special be one that doesn’t physically touch the enemies (as this will prevent them from being able to block it), either because it “buffs” your character temporarily (although canceling the move usually overrides these effects) or doesn’t reach at the spacing you’re using. But in short, the system tends to create a flow in which both sides “take turns” in the battle without specifically enforcing that structure. It’s possible to focus on a “slow and steady” strategy in which you chip away at enemies in a relatively safe manner, but you can also play for a big “bait and punish” game where you wait for big openings and capitalize on them with full combos. Really, really long combos, if you can master playing multiple characters at once.

Valkyrie Profile 2 uses a similar system, where big combos tend to leave your party open (often even more directly than in SO3) due to the resource drain limiting your available actions, but their most recent major release, Resonance of Fate, takes the concept to something of a logical conclusion. Although it’s possible to perform extremely weak actions for “free” in ROF, the standard turn involves having a character strafe the enemies while shooting a bunch, and by doing this repeatedly you can go for a big triple attack where all three characters do this at once. Both the single run and the tri-attack cost a single “turn,” and you gain back turns by destroying enemies and/or objects that may be on their bodies. For example, a common enemy is a gangster, and by shooting his bowler hat (usually by jumping over his head) you can gain back a turn. It’s very common to end up in situations where you spend all of your turns priming enemies and moving your team into position for a big tri-attack, which causes so much carnage that you regain all of your turns. Running out of turns is almost always a Game Over situation (although the game’s penalty for “dying” is quite low), and as a result that moment when you’re about to gamble everything on your last turn is almost always loaded with tension. Even if the enemies aren’t doing much, watching that critical moment where everything comes together or collapses is an exciting, rewarding situation for the player, created simply by everything they’ve done to that point.

And who says this has to be limited to RPGs? (Personally, I’d argue that generally tri-Ace’s games aren’t JRPGs in the first place; for example, SO3 is more of an action game in which the RPG elements primarily serve to change the difficulty curve in various ways, rather than “forcing” players to simply master the game…but I digress.) Fighting games already tend to create a sort of unenforced “turn” system, with one player at a disadvantage, waiting for a chance to reverse momentum and get their own turn. Powerful characters like Eddie in Guilty Gear and Arakune in Blazblue can often override a game’s “normal” cycles as they gain nearly unstoppable mixups and blockstrings, which lead into excruciating damage. But when they don’t have their extra tools they have to run away, as the alternative is to be put in pressure too intense for them to handle alone.

To me, the idea of having to reverse disadvantages, turning them into the upper hand, every fight, is almost irresistible, but those examples are a bit extreme. Arakune, in particular, practically wins games long before the last combo starts (with that last combo itself being absurdly long and damaging). I prefer to feel like there’s still some real risk on the line, even when I’m ahead, like with GG’s ABA, whose “empowered” mode lasts a long time but decreases in large portions if she ever gets knocked on the ground and leaves her incredibly vulnerable if it runs out. And sometimes you can find good cycles even without such pronounced highs and lows at all, like with Litchi in Blazblue, who fights both with and without a long staff. While holding it, she commands much more of the screen, but is limited in her options for converting combos. Barehanded, she has to play a short-range game but has more options for movement and damage. Persona 4 Arena‘s Teddie also has a constantly shifting set of options, as the items thrown by his persona go through their prescribed cycle. Although only a couple of the items are clearly weak, the variety of setups and tricks available to the character require that both players stay aware of what’s coming next or be caught unaware.

One final genre where I’ve seen this sort of thing a lot are, perhaps surprisingly, shmups. The ultimate example is Cave’s Espgaluda II, in which you can save up magical crystals, then spend them at any time you want to slow down time. The most obvious use is to slow down patterns you have a hard time dodging to make them much easier to avoid, but the game offers a number of increasingly convoluted ways to increase your score by manipulating time. Normally, destroying a slowed enemy will clean all their bullets off the screen, but there’s also a special slowdown where the bullets will reappear and reorient themselves to move in your character’s direction each time you destroy another enemy. These bullets give you points every time they disappear and respawn, but inevitably choke the screen with an unavoidable cloud of death that must be managed before it becomes too much.

Other games also allow you to save up bonuses like invincibility or powerful weapons for score or survival purposes. There’s too many to even mention, but Psyvariar is a great game where getting close to a number of bullets gives you a brief period of complete invincibility. In high level play these cycles often pass by every few seconds, while beginners will probably start by trying to sync up their shields with the most difficult bursts. In Radiant Silvergun you can capture certain bullets by touching them with the “sword” weapon, and after ten captures the next use of the sword produces a gigantic sword that gives invincibility and cuts almost everything on the screen. Like all of the other weapons, precise use of these options makes the game much easier to get through, and it all comes down to the same thing; finding the best opportunities to build the cycle.

Essentially, it all comes down to rhythm. It so happens that I’m also a huge fan of music games and have played music for a long time, and when I was thinking on all of these examples that suddenly struck me as very similar, I realized that’s what I really love: being able to find my own rhythm within a heavily structured game and play with it. While all of these games, and many more, give you the instruments and stage, it’s up to the player to find the beat and write their song.

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5 comments on “Thin Red Line

  1. Brandon Shelton says:

    In terms of JRPGs, I think the Dragon Quest series handles the risk-reward balance the best. The risk of getting a party-wipe is losing half your gold and returning to the last church used, which doesn’t exactly sound like a huge problem, but the games are balanced in such a way that you can typically only afford 1 or 2 new pieces of equipment by the time you make it to a new town; losing half of that gold can really be the difference between getting the best weapon/armor or not. The reward of playing “well” isn’t really all that tangible, it’s just that you can afford to buy more items than you would otherwise.

    Playing these games the “safe” way is typically slower, but also works on more levels than you would expect due to the huge range of enemy encounter group composition; in a particularly tough encounter, you can try to sleep, blind, or otherwise disable the most troublesome enemies, but that also means spending the MP you need to heal, or hit for big damage. Status effects typically have a high success rate, but there’s always a chance that sleeping or blinding will completely fizzle and leave you with a wasted turn and MP that could have been spent causing or healing damage. On a slightly higher level, playing it safe in a dungeon means deciding when to leave or keep pushing onward, and that is mostly dictated by what kind of battles you’ve been getting into. Since the punishment isn’t starting completely over as in every other JRPG, it’s a much more viable strategy to keep pushing on, because you don’t lose EXP (and in the later games, class levels) and hence maintain some semblance of “progress” even with a party wipe. This also plays into the moment-to-moment decisions in a battle too, because the spell to exit a dungeon costs 8 MP, and 8 MP has the potential to get you through like 4 or 5 battles if you get lucky enough. Considering there are NO consumable items that will exit the dungeon, this actually comes into play quite often, although it’s less of a Thing towards the mid-late game.

    • spineshark says:

      You know, I wasn’t even thinking about that kind of medium term, but even though I kind of brushed it off I agree there’s something to that. The genre has moved more and more towards design that lets you one-shot through all of the areas and progress strictly forward (at least as long as you don’t game over), so that kind of back and forth with a given section of the game gradually getting easier really only exists in series like DQ that have stuck to the same basics for a long time, or deliberate throwbacks like Etrian Odyssey. Personally DQ has never really clicked for me, mostly because I don’t like the music at all but I also feel like the games try way too hard to be pleasant and inoffensive, which I can’t stand. (Don’t ever ask me about Mario Galaxy.) Even VII, which is a pretty dark game on its face, seems unwilling to go for any real urgency or drama. I saw a Twitter message a couple months with an alternative interpretation: “It’s a realistic game because just like in real life, evil is bureaucratic, waiting for you to get bored and give up”…but I digress.

      The Dragon Quest game that I have beaten is Lufia 1, which is based on a lot of the same design, aside from a distinct lack of character customization. Personally I loathe dying so much that I almost always reset, (I’m an arcade player, through and through) but I still know what you’re getting at and agree with it. In Etrian Odyssey you can buy your escape items, but I think those games are much better at really giving you the opportunity to find “your” way to play while still preventing you from just running wild over everything. Like, I don’t know many other people who did this, but my method for both I and II was to alternate between having a “scouting” setup where I’d use Stalker to avoid having to fight much while still trying to safely scope out as much of the maps, obstacles, enemies and events as possible. Then I had my battle party, who would take advantage of the best spots to farm, dig in, and rack up the kills.

      At the very least, 2 and 3 still have a lot of mechanics that will eventually combine to nudge you out (and 1 has…the item load limit) of the labyrinth and back to town, and finding that optimum cycle of exploration, party-building, and returning to town is really the core of the series. And I think this has a lot to do with why I’m the only person who likes 2 the best; in 1 it’s too easy to sustain your mana and health resources (thanks to overpowered Troubadour moves), while I disliked how 3 tied the nonviolent exploration options (encounter reduction, etc.) to a class with minimal battle utility. It eventually hedges by offering the subclass options but once that comes into play I dislike how the focus is so much more on character building than the exploration and gradual progress.

  2. I liked this post quite a bit, mostly because if gives me great insight into your fighting game play style, and LOTS of things make more sense now.

    While I never completed any of the games you mention in this post, I have a better understanding of what the systems are going for and really would like to try to give them another try, understanding from a different view. Unfortunately(?), the only one immediately available to me is Vagrant Story (still), and I have a little more than a month right now, as I assume I won’t play much of anything when this particular semester starts. Maybe that can be a summer game? Either way.

    Risk/reward in the caliber you see it as is something I’ve seldom considered. Going for the safe combo or going for the BIG GAMBLES!!!!! I have only understood it from a fighting game stand point, and as you mention it, it shares a lot of similarities with RPGs and Risk/Reward. We actually compared this point when we did our fighting game panel at NDK, how (MMO)RPGs are just like fighting games, but slower.

    I do enjoy the “everyone becomes gods” aspect of games, but only if I feel like I EARNED it through decisions I made, even if that decision is grinding. One game I can think of that was BAD at this was The Glory of Heracles for NDS (I think it’s a remake of an SNES version? I dunno, but I basically got PAID to buy the game, so whatever!). It game begins doing a good job by having random encounters be extremely tough boss-battle level enemies. It was fun, exciting, and gave purpose to any sort of extra grind or search for items you found, along with focus on certain tactics to figure out and make it through every situation. They are often HARDER than bosses in the game.

    This is great, until the game progresses past the half way point. No normal enemy can touch you, and you can pretty much one-shot bosses with the right set-up. The random “hard” encounters? They just become things to keep you in ridiculous check to remember “you ain’t shit”. The battles becomes so difficult that they are basically unwinnable. It’s a victory/miracle if you escape the battle alive. It’s a battle against enemies that are faster than your fastest party member, all have status effects that disable your party members with maybe a 90% success rate, and casts on all members of your party. This allows the enemy free, HIGHLY damaging, attacks that will shred your people. Battles also have a maximum of 8 enemies compared to your 4 characters, so if one misses their cast, the next 7 will cover for them. The risk became merely walking through a dungeon you HAD to walk through, as it was the only thing in the game that could kill you.

    Thinking back on this experience, and the other I never respected/completed, I feel like I cheated myself hahaha. I want to experience more games that are pieced together well, and force my brain to wrap itself around it. While I do complain about The Glory of Heracles’ random (ravenous murderer) encounter system, I want to believe there was something I missed and I just failed as a player. I never think too deeply, and it’s something I want to open up to more. I was never good with the systems of Final Fantasy 7/8, for example. I never had much creativity, or fully understood the affected stats of equipping certain spells/Materia. Maybe doing a semi-speed run of an RPG with a good system will open my eyes to the possibilities of the world~~~

    Or I remain scrub status, either way.

    Thinking about it now, I enjoy puzzle games a lot. There’s usually a solid ONE answer there that can be solved in very few ways (and it doesn’t matter, as long as the solution is the same). I think my mind set with RPGs is I’ll play through it, and if my tactics work, that’s my “ONE” answer, even when there’s a huge variety of different and better answers. Either way… This is one long ass comment about nearly nothing, I’m sure 🙂

    I like the Espgaluda II video. THAT SHIT JUST KEEPS ESCALATING!!

    • spineshark says:

      Not every game is a misunderstood classic. Sometimes you do play games that are just bad or uninteresting. (For example, every part of FFXIII-2 that isn’t the music.) I can’t really speak to Heracles either way though, since as weird as it might sound given some of the stuff I’ve written I don’t really think of myself as an RPG player. (And if I was gonna play one based on literature? It would’ve been that Wizard of Oz game, easily.)

      Well, when I put it that way…I don’t think of myself as…a person defined by any particular interest. I’ve almost never gone around trying to introduce myself as a musician or a gamer or anything else. But I’m losing track of the point.

      As far as “becoming a god” goes, it’s fun sometimes, but usually at the very least I want some kind of illusion that the whole thing isn’t a foregone conclusion. In a single player game, if nothing can stop me except boredom, why am I still playing? (Although if it is an illusion, you know what they say about magic tricks: don’t keep doing the same one or everyone will figure it out. Do the “OMG THIS ATTACK REDUCES YOU TO 1HP” in every Final Fantasy game, and just like anything else, it just becomes, “oh, this.”)

      That’s not to say that, intellectually speaking, I prefer to get randomly screwed by the game. But at least it’ll make me want to come back for revenge.

      I feel you on the puzzle games, haha. I like strict, rule-based games, whether it’s learning how to operate in them or (in some cases) even what they are in the first place. That second one in particular kinda ties into ANOTHER post I’m trying to write, maybe it’ll be finished soon. But to me this has always been one of my biggest hurdles in fighting games, since for the most part I have a really hard time playing against players. No matter how good I am in the framework of the game (usually not much), I have a hard time adjusting to what people do. And yet this has always been basically my biggest real gripe with BB, it’s always seemed to me like a game where it’s very hard to “play your way” beyond character choice for the most part. You pick a character who does stuff you like, and then…you do that stuff. And whoever’s better at doing that stuff wins. Man, I’m probably not making any sense, I don’t know how to explain it.

      And boy, if you like straight-up puzzle games I’ve got some good ones for you to check out!

    • Brandon Shelton says:

      If I’m understanding you correctly, it sounds like you want an RPG that kind of forces you to use and explore its subsystems? There’s a great number of examples of those, but at the risk of recommending you some incredibly esoteric and unfriendly games I don’t really want to give you too many recommendations. One recent example that might be okay is Resonance of Fate (spineshark mentioned it in the post) because that game is all about figuring out what the hell to do, and once you actually learn what you’re doing the battle system can be a heck of a lot of fun. Vagrant Story also demands a certain intimacy with its systems, but it’s kind of at the bad end of that spectrum because it isn’t exactly obvious how you’re supposed to interpret all the weapon attributes, and being good at the battle system can only get you so far in that game. Another good choice could be Radiant Historia for the DS, though I admit I haven’t played it all that much. It has a puzzle-esque battle system and its encounters seem varied enough to keep you engaged (at least for what a while, from what I’ve read). Also on the DS would be Final Fantasy Tactics A2, if you have the inclination for a strategy-RPG. The nice thing about that game is it has a Hard mode which does a decent job of making enemies challenging enough, and the game is designed so that you can play how you want and still be able to pull out tough victories.

      As for your FF7/8 mentions: most FF games aren’t challenging enough to really make you delve into their systems. If you wanted to try playing something you’re already somewhat familiar with, rather than doing a speed-run of an FF game, you could instead do an “arbitrary-restriction” type playthrough (like no-EXP in FF8, or initial-equipment-only in FF7). FFX actually seems pretty solid for that option because people have come up with all kinds of crazy restriction play types that still keep the game fun and engaging but force you to think about equipment-customization and other aspects of the game.

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