Let’s Run

So Awesome Games Done Quick 2013 is done, and with it the SDA marathon events have raised about 3/4 of a million dollars for charity. That’s really amazing, and on one level I’m really proud that I’ve been able to participate, even if it’s on some small, nigh-useless level. I had felt, for many months prior to my trip this year, that general speedrunning communities and activities, and even the charity angle on the whole thing, might not really be enough to make my trip worthwhile. I was really going just to see friends, my family, and Yuzo Koshiro.

None of that’s changed from my trip, really. But it doesn’t have to. Every year I meet more and more people that I’m excited to go see again, so while my sister’s family won’t be in the area next year, and Magfest may not have quite as amazing of a headliner (though I can think of a few I’d like to see at least as much as Koshiro), I’m really hoping that I can make the trip work out again next year, even if it’s not as long.

This was my fourth Magfest, and I’m still astounded by how quickly the event has grown. In 2012 the event moved to the gigantic Gaylord National in National Harbor due to space constraints at the previous venue, and I couldn’t imagine how many people were there. This year didn’t seem that much different, but according to the organizers the jump was from 6000 to at least 9000! By comparison, in 2009…there were apparently only around 1350.

I’m not really much of a convention-goer; I wouldn’t even say I don’t like them, but for the most part I wouldn’t choose them over other things I could be doing with the time and money. Fortunately, Magfest lines up very closely with something else I like to do, and I’ve always had an amazing time, so it’s not usually a hard choice.  Hanging out is fun enough, but I’m amazed by how many people show up to play music and the amount of obscure or largely inaccessible games that people bring out every year. This year I was only exposed to a few games that really caught me off guard or that I just hadn’t gotten to play before, but they sure didn’t disappoint.

 

This is a picture of me, for some reason.

My “favorite” was Pac-Man VR, a hilarious little entry in the Virtual Reality craze of the 90s. You put on the helmet, stand inside a small enclosed ring on a platform so you don’t stumble off and hurt yourself or the precious machine, then get a small 1-handed grip for the controller. You’re Pac-Man, in first person, and the controller has one button, which is used to walk forward since the game would be impossible to control if you were forced to always move like in the original game. Also, since you can’t see ghosts that might be behind you (or outside your general field of vision period) the game doesn’t use a standard life system. Instead, you have a short amount of time to collect 1/4 of the dots on the field, and if you’re successful you get another equal period of time for the next 1/4, and so on. As such, the main challenge of the game after the adjustment period is over is not getting lost trying to make your way to the last few dots. The final one is marked with a nice arrow, but since you can’t see the overall layout it’s not easy to tell what the best way to get there is. I never saw anyone finish the first level so I’m not sure how the later levels change the formula up, but it was great to watch (both the player in the game, and the tv which had a separate line out) and play for a bit.

I also spent my traditional time at the Cave shmup setups, and while, between Magfest, emulation and the fantastic array of console ports, I’ve played nearly all of their games at least a bit, there was still one gap in my experience: Ibara Kuro. The original Ibara is a sequel of sorts to Battle Garegga, which I consider my favorite game of all time, but the “Black” version is essentially a remix by another programmer that changes up a lot of the mechanics. The game is quite a bit easier than the original if you play conservatively,  but trying to take advantage of the scoring mechanics tends to place you in between impenetrable walls of bullets. It’s not a very forgiving game and I didn’t have time to learn anything tricky, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless. I think I embarrassed my friend by singing the soundtrack constantly, but what else was I supposed to do? It was so loud in there you could barely hear it!

I also met some guys out there who play King of Fighters XIII and some other fighting games, and a few hours of KoF even when I hadn’t spent any time practicing recently was really nice. I had really forgotten how much I liked the game, and I’m always surprised by how much better I do against players who aren’t local for the most part. I feel like a lot of the guys in Denver have “figured me out” at this point, and it’s hard to beat them without coming up with new one-time gimmicks, but on the road the fact that I play less common characters and do have a lot of bad tricks can help a lot. In the end I didn’t ever actually play Zerp, who plays two of the same characters that I played for a long time, Elisabeth and Shen. That was kind of a disappointment, but he showed up a couple more times while I was at AGDQ since he also knows Josh and a couple other guys, and ended up introducing me to Chaos Code as well, which is a weird Taiwanese fighting game that mashes up some “anime” mechanics with more KoF-ish type basics. It definitely feels a bit weird and “cheap” (in the production sense) but it’s got some fun backgrounds and a weirdly addictive soundtrack, and I’m pretty excited to share its goofiness with some of the local players in Denver.

Finally, there was the man himself, Yuzo Koshiro. I honestly had no idea what his performance was going to be like, although it was billed as the first of two acts for a “dance party.” Sadly I was correctly left to assume this meant he wouldn’t be pulling out any of his more prog rock/metal/fusion type stuff, but the set certainly didn’t even begin to disappoint. He ended up DJ’ing about an hour of game music from across his career, starting with some Actraiser music before moving into some heavier and more “rave”-y stuff like Streets of Rage and Shinobi. The climax involved many tracks from the Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune arcade games, which I was especially excited about. I’m not at all familiar with the games, but I basically always love singing in game soundtracks and wish there was more.

I ended up having to cut Magfest short on both ends and would’ve really loved to stay even a little longer, but it was still just a great time and I didn’t regret going out to make sure I got a nice Sunday afternoon and evening with my sister’s family. After that, it was time to get to AGDQ.

I feel like a lot of the event actually speaks for itself if you watch the stream, although anyone who’s been to a major fighting game tournament or anything else knows how completely different being there is from being a long-distance spectator. The atmosphere was definitely a lot more subdued overall than a competitive event, but a lot of the same passion was there. Speedrunning may be less of a commitment per game in many cases (although the top players on Super Metroid and similar popular games have certainly poured a lot of their lives into their titles), but I was still struck by the enthusiasm with which players absorbed new tricks and asked for help on a staggering variety of runs and games.

I can’t say I felt that same drive, even in the middle of all this. For me learning about the basic speed tricks or concepts in a game is really fun, but it’s kind of like trying out combos for characters I don’t play in fighting games. It’s not fundamentals, or sometimes even useful, it’s just a fun little unique thing to try out.  I don’t want to rehearse a whole game in most cases, I just want to see something new and fresh. But it all ties into my greater understanding of the “performance” aspect of speedrunning and other superplays. It’s not just about knowing how the game works and playing it a lot; there’s a lot of important “setups” or other combo-esque sequences needed to really excel. The players know exactly what the desired outcome is, and the drama stems from human error and the unpredictability of programmed behavior. This doesn’t change my outlook towards these kinds of plays overall, but it does make the idea of doing them a lot more approachable now that I’ve started to understand the methods and scale of work better.

The other facet of performance is, of course, the player and their personality. For the most part, viewers respond best to people who are fun to watch along with their games. Whether these are people like Mr. K or Cosmo, who bring a warm friendliness to match their esoteric and detailed knowledge, someone like PJ, whose enthusiasm and temper hold steady through even the most stunningly painful games, or the over-the-top personalities like tri-hex and Flicky who often dominate the stream’s attention even if they’re not playing (for better or worse), the players are definitely a big draw not just for me, but the viewers at home. Of course, some carefully cultivated mystique can go a long way too, but it’s usually best for someone like Siglemic who’s got a game that’s sufficiently popular and flashy to entertain the viewers on its own.

I’ve been around the block a few times with these events, and I knew coming in that there wasn’t some kind of life-changing experience coming. But as my interest in fighting games has grown faster than my interest in speedruns, there’s still a lot for me to think about in terms of what this trip and the community is “worth” to me, and there’s not an easy answer to that. I’ll be back in the future, I’m sure, but with my sister moving out and a lot of other stuff unresolved in my life, I’m not quite sure when that future will be.

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.