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.

下克上なるか?

“Top players are just the ones who know the easiest ways to win.”

See this? This is a game that I’m good at.

When I read that Daigo, the famous Street Fighter player, said something along these lines in an interview earlier this year, I laughed. On one hand, this idea pretty much sums up Playing to Win in one sentence, and it echoes a lot of sentiments from Seth Killian’s “Domination” essays. But I’ve also wondered if I’m just hearing the things that I want to after spending years bitching insufferably about how I practically only like playing bad characters.

Either way, the funny thing about the word “easy” is that it’s completely nebulous when people are talking about fighting game strategies and characters. Players may work for months or years to develop relatively technical characters like Morrigan in Marvel 3 or Viper in Street Fighter 4, but as soon as they start winning, the attitude shifts. They’re not difficult anymore, just “mindless” easy-mode characters that are only about execution. And many top players aren’t eager to grind out these demanding sequences of combos and followups, particularly in Marvel where there are such an overwhelming number of possible opposing configurations. For most players it’s simply more effective to learn how to deal with as many situations as they can find than to go all in on a powerful strategy that’s difficult to set up optimally. It’s the old “if you can’t get the hits, it doesn’t matter if you can do the combo” saying, taken to the extreme.

For example, there’s this semi-infamous bit of Firebrand theory. I’m still not sure if anyone knows how to get out of it, aside from playing at least two characters with invincible air reversals. And the reason they wouldn’t, is because nobody plays this garbage anyway. It looks amazingly cheap once you get the hit, but you have to get that hit against a full team while working with one assist that does “nothing” and one that’s slow and not very useful to just throw out there. The few players actually using this (probably hugely underrated) character rightly use much more flexible teams where it’s possible to frequently go for easier implementations of his unblockable shenanigans with lower reward, rather than betting everything on a single shot. It’s also occurred to me that many players outside of large population centers like NY and LA rely heavily on online play for practice, and this also discourages “harder” characters. It’s more difficult to see how successful your gameplan is when you’re struggling with your basics in an unstable situation, and to adjust to “real” timing, which is how you really impress people at tournaments, after long periods of delayed training is also a major factor.

In my experience, there’s also not many people (proportionally) who want to “win at any cost” in the first place. It’s not the stigma of being that jackass who plays heel characters; to me it seems that even lots of fairly competitive minded players tend to believe in trying to get to the top their own way, particularly outside of the larger and generally more cutthroat Capcom series. I’ve always hoped to gain experience in a “balanced” way, trying to avoid having disproportionate flaws in my game and so to some extent I’ve found myself really “distrustful” of playing good characters, or more specifically, ones who are good at avoiding certain elements of a given game. Of course, sometimes more obscure characters lead to winning based on the opponent’s sheer ignorance, which is even more annoying than winning despite playing in a way I see as stupid or sloppy. But the underlying “disadvantages” to playing top tier in my view are the same things that make weaker characters so much harder to learn games with for me. I’ve often found in “anime” games that by playing low tiers I have to spend so much effort not dying instantly that it’s hard for me to learn much else. In CS1 especially, my move to Hazama as a primary character in some ways reinforced my lazy, random playstyle that I still have a hard time overcoming, but it also started to open up opportunities to play and actually try doing stuff. In the end I didn’t even learn that much, but I can really only blame my attitude at the time for that.

All of my experience has really led me back over and over to those difficult dilemmas. Is it better to force myself to play limited situations to the best of my ability, or to allow myself more mistakes and chances to try things? Is it better to play characters that I naturally find to match well with my style or to force myself to branch out and learn how to work with different strengths and weaknesses? Probably my biggest worry about playing good characters is that I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable “step down” when an update comes out or I stop playing whatever game it is. Even when I’m not winning, the difference between how hard I’m having to try is something I tend to feel is pretty unambiguous.

But all this and I haven’t even mentioned what’s often the most important factor of all, at least once a series has been established: people just come to really like their characters. The newest and zaniest additions to a given roster almost always have my attention, but I can definitely understand why for some people it’s such a big deal, and there are still certain characters and kinds of characters who have a real draw for me. Probably the most interesting game to look at though is Persona 4 Arena, in which most of the cast are characters appearing in previously released RPGs, and on top of that, ones in which talking to and “forming bonds” with them is an integral part of the experience. Essentially, lots of people already had strong favorites, even completely distanced from however they were going to play in this context. For some characters (particularly Yukiko and Elizabeth) I think this has helped their popularity a lot, when otherwise their playstyle and the challenges they have to deal with against other characters would make them extremely rare in the US. On the other hand I think a lot of people (myself included, to some extent) have been demoralized by the feeling that their preferred fighter isn’t effective or simply doesn’t match up with the way they want to play. (Actually I’d better clarify, because anyone reading this who’s played against me is probably going to assume it’s just more whining about Elizabeth, when in this case I’m referring to Naoto.) While plenty of them have simply gotten over it and moved on to characters they feel better about (overwhelmingly, Chie) I think this has actually backfired for others. Regardless, it’s created an interesting dynamic that hasn’t yet been tainted by patching the version that we play on here.

Obviously, Mitsuru fans are simply superior.

It also leads to one final question: when is it easier to “give in” and learn another character? For many top players here, in many games, the answer seems to be “never”; despite the apparent decline of characters like Dhalsim, Guile, and to a lesser extent Boxer and Rufus, from their heyday in earlier versions of SF4, players who have stayed dedicated to what they know have remained on top of the US scene for years on end now. Obviously, every possible scenario leads to potential second-guessing, and watching Dieminion’s sheer tenacity and ability to space, block, and throw things just right overcome his completely mediocre Marvel 3 team’s limitations leads me to believe there’s absolutely nothing preventing him from winning with easier options except that selfsame stubbornness. I’ve seen similar situations both in the local scene and in other games, as two of Colorado’s best and most dedicated players are Zangief players and face a endless string of “bad matchups” in tournament. And plenty of players have fought their way to the top even with significantly weakened mains in other games like Blazblue (i.e. Lord Knight’s amazing second place run at Evo 2011, and the even more amazing grand finals, or Goro’s appearance at the NEC qualifier tournament last month) and Soul Calibur (again, the Evo results practically speak for themselves).

Still, counterpicking strategies have dominated other games like Street Fighter II for years, and even in Japan, which was once notorious for extreme “loyalty” there seems to be somewhat less emphasis on it. Just this past weekend I saw some of a Super Turbo tournament in which the format was 1v1, but each player was allowed to choose 3 different characters, kind of like in King of Fighters. A player only lost after having all three characters defeated by the other player, which led to a very different experience than the standard “single elimination, character lock” format used, or even a team tournament with otherwise similar structure. And watching this years Darkstalkers Combination Cup with English commentary, there were similar expressions of surprise at certain old-school players having earnestly picked up new (to them, obviously) characters. But when a game is that age I have to think that it comes less down to superficial factors and is more about having a fresh experience with a game that they’ve played to death and beyond.

I’ve been thinking a lot about character choice recently, for a lot of reasons. Like I mentioned before, I don’t have a concrete style and to a large extent I’ve tried to avoid typecasting myself. My favorite things are counter-attacks, screen-filling or otherwise gigantic moves, fast/over-the-top movement, awesome throws, and unfairly high/fatal damage.

For obvious reasons, you can almost never get more than 2-3 of these on the same character.

Oh shit. I just realized something. Hold on a sec.

For me the real question is the same as it is when I’m pondering anything else about my fighting game play though: what do I want to get out of it? I’ve felt for a long time like there has to be MY game out there, but I just don’t know how to find it, or it’s not out yet, or nobody else plays it. I don’t have larger goals because I don’t feel like I can make myself care enough for them to be possible. But it’s also because of that aimlessness that I can’t make myself care enough in the first place. I’ve been able to “carrot on a stick” myself for a pretty long time now, but I just don’t know how much longer it can last.

But again, past experience just makes me more and more cautious. In beatmania I found a playstyle that made it extremely easy to improve for a long time, and I set goals for myself that seemed pretty easy at the time. Then it became almost impossible  to get better (not to mention my way was always completely unsuited for Arcade play), and when I have time to play at all, I’ve been working solely to force myself to unlearn bad habits. More than ever, I can’t tell whether it’s better to win “badly” or to go out on my own terms. Complacency is my biggest worry in anything I do. I already know what happens when I tell myself I’m doing something “well enough.” But what happens when I can keep pushing myself to work harder?

I can’t wait to find out.