Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Welcome to my Fantasy Zone

I've been playing Bayonetta lately. When I first played through the game, I had this annoyed feeling like I "didn't get it." I love every DMC game (note: the rumors of a game released between 1 and 3 is a myth) and I generally like most action games of the same type. Why wasn't Bayonetta giving me the same sort of satisfaction that I got from DMC?

After I beat the game, I went back to play it normally, and wow. There is an absolutely huge difference. Suddenly, the game is satisfying in magical ways. Bayonetta reminds me a lot of DMC1. Both plots are equally retarded - both games provide a lame, annoying plot as an excuse to beat up bad guys. Both games have a similar level of difficulty (harder than DMC4, easier than DMC3, way harder than God of War).

Most people who play DMC1 don't get it. They play through the entire game with Alastor, don't really get high style marks, and figure that spamming Air Raid is an exploit. Performing Million Stab is impossible to these kinds of people except on accident, and every boss is an exercise in frustration.

Bayonetta is a lot like that, except Bayonetta has infinite continues and more ways to get bonus items. Bayonetta is a lot easier to reach the end, although the enemies are overall similarly difficult. Eventually the novice player figures out the dreaded "PKP" and abuses it all the way to the end of the game, probably feeling like PKP is an exploit.

In DMC1, people who actually stuck with the game after it was over and played a couple more times through were rewarded with "the feeling," a sort of positive energy that is hard to explain with words. I think this "feeling" mostly begins in DMC1 after the player does a second playthrough on normal difficulty, unlocking all the hidden secrets. It's sometime around there that the player begins to experiment with Ifrit, begins finding new ways to use Dante's powers, and starts understanding the style gauge. The inevitable Hard playthrough comes sometime after that, and then DMD some time later. Often a novice player sees DMD and thinks that it's too hard, but the fondness remains, and later on he attempts playthroughs on Normal or Hard as a way of recapturing the magic.

On my unlocking run through Bayonetta, I found a certain level of satisfaction that comes from finally mastering all the little ways to use her moveset. Sure, PKP is still useful, but there are quite a few other good moves in her arsenal too. I realized that first runthrough of the game is sort of a trial, something you kind of have to grind through to gain understanding. Once you reach that certain level of understanding, it just clicks and subsequent playthroughs are exciting and fun (I'm not done unlocking stuff yet, haha).

I think this kind of game design is probably not so good. It relies on the player making a second "unlocking" run through the game, and more importantly, it relies on the player avoiding cheats (and there are a few in Bayonetta). One of my friends thought that it was okay to play through DMC3 with Super Dante, beating all the various difficulties. That won't help you achieve the same feeling.

The feeling I'm describing is really only attainable if there's a real, reasonable threat of failure. It happens at the exact point where you make a mistake, and you know exactly what and how you made that mistake. That level of understanding, where you know what you need to do and understand that you can do it, is what produces this feeling. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this "flow," and it's something I think is hard to explain in words.

Most normal people experience this feeling rarely. I look at my various family members and wonder if they ever enter this state. Real life is a terrible place for achieving such things. We have to express ourselves in some difficult creative way to do this. The most ideal way to do this for a normal person is via music, although art/drawing can also produce this state. Unfortunately, most people are simply not skilled enough at either of these things to produce more than brief moments of flow. Like DMC1, and really more like DMC3, most people don't get to the level of skill that makes any flow viable. They just get frustrated at the difficulty or complexity of music (or art) and give up.

No wonder Robot Unicorn is a flow-generating machine. It has two mechanics and a very simple way of avoiding failures. Actually avoiding failures is the difficult part, but it's so satisfying to dash through stars that there must be some insane magic involved. My only grievance with Robot Unicorn really is that it speeds up after 35000 points; at 35k, the game is fast enough that player input is entirely to blame for failure moment to moment, but "almost failures" rarely ruin you. At 50k, "almost failures" often cascade into "I couldn't do anything" and falling vertically onto a star with no dashes left. I'm sure the designers had no idea.

Basically, this article has no point, because really text regarding flow already explains it better than I can. I want to point out games that have no flow, though.

1: Most MMORPGs. Any grindfest will make it impossible to achieve flow. Flow during PvP is not an illusion, but once you get good enough at PvP, most MMORPGs become rock-paper-scissors and winning will mostly come from build choices. Actually, that happens most of the time anyway. Raiding bosses can achieve flow, because they are often patterns that are difficult to execute, but are beatable with the right gameplan. Most raid boss patterns are super easy to deal with, but they still can achieve flow until your skill reaches a certain level.

2: Competitive shooters. Oh boy is this some can of worms. You can achieve flow, but the abrupt start-stop nature of competitive shooters is bad for flow. Even worse is that you cannot really guess the opponent's actions and counter them - you can only make it harder for the opponent to succeed. Dying is also really bad for flow. I shouldn't say that these games have no flow, but they have very little.

3: RPGs. There is no flow if victory is determined by numbers. If you determine the victory, there is flow. If you determined the victory an hour ago, there is no flow.

If you're looking for intrinsic satisfaction, action games and action-oriented puzzle games produce flow in huge quantities.

Also, disrupting your opponent's flow in a fighting game (or in StarCraft) can defeat him outright. Once I get StarCraft 2, I'll talk about that.

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