Friday, June 28, 2013


Yet another game I intended to play way earlier. I think there is actually a reason why I rather consistently fail to play any of these more experimental games in any decent time. My gaming is generally directed with various cravings and - here is the reason - these cravings are towards certain types of game mechanics. Experimental games on the other hand are often unfamiliar in this sense - can't crave for something you don't even know to exist. This means that these games get pushed into some unknown future time when I am free of my frequent craving gaming streaks and often when that happens, I start from cheapest games on the list. After all I often don't have any particular preference for any of these unfamiliar games over another, so might as well use availability as a metric.

Enough with the self-reflection though. Catherine was a PS+ freebie last month so I guess it was definitely the cheapest unfamiliar game at the moment. A weird game from the creators of Persona, to me that pretty much makes it a necessity to play. Especially the first trailers raised a lot of questions, but primarily this: what's with all the sheep? If the game would have been less explanatory with what was going on, it could have as well been written by David Lynch. I mean the weird stuff in Lynch's films is usually a metaphoric way to process what is going on in the characters' heads or between them. In many ways, Catherine is like that too, and the weirdness factor is definitely in Lynch category as well. Because of the game's nature, I will once again delve into the story for a bit. So here is your general spoiler warning. 


First let's take a look at Catherine as a game. I would draw comparisons to games like Heavy Rain for a couple of reasons: first, both deal with more mature issues that games typically do; second, for different reasons, the both raise the question whether they should be really called games or not. In Catherine this results from the high contrast between the game's two interactive modes. The game mechanic is in a way isolated from rest of the game to the point that it could be anything - although the tower climbing mechanic is a successful metaphor to overcoming personal challenges. This part could be a game in itself so it is definitely interactive.

However the rest of the game is highly non-interactive. A lot of time is spent watching cut-scenes, and hanging in the bar has less gameplay than social links in Persona 3/4. Not that it really matters, a lot of games have their gameplay disconnected from storytelling and I wrote about it earlier. Although Catherine is a puzzle game with heavy storytelling components, it is actually very comparable to Persona. I would go as far as to claim that despite all their differences, Catherine is a Persona with smaller scale. I'll do the comparison to P4. In both, there are two very different modes of gameplay: the nightmare and the bar in Catherine, the TV world and the real world in P4. Both games also have two story layers: one of personal growth, and one of what actually happens.

One big difference is how these two layers interact: in Catherine, the nightmare builds Vincent's values, and they affect what choices he makes during the day. They don't directly affect what the player can do in the bar though - the bar actually serves the same purpose because that section also includes choices that affect Vincent's values. Nothing done during the day affects the gameplay in the nightmare. On the other hand in Persona 4, actions taken in the real world have impact in the TV world, because social links literally strenghten the protagonist. In this sense, the disconnection between the two layers is stronger in Catherine because they do not affect each other in terms of game mechanics. On the other hand though, in Catherine the player's choices affect the story whereas P4 only has one story.

Another aspect that these games also share with Devil Survivor is the protagonist's role as a paragon. In Catherine however Vincent does not really have any special powers, whereas in P4 the protagonist is unique with his ability to use multiple personas. What they have in common however is that throughout their story, they both become a source of inspiration for people they meet. Their influence inspires other people to solve their problems and find their inner strength. Both games also deal with mundane issues, in the real world. Just like in the real world, ultimately even the hero cannot solve others' problems for them because they cannot be solved with any standard issue heroics. Vincent in particular inspires others through his own growth and progress.

Personal growth in both games is heavily related to the other world. In P4, each of the protagonist's allies has to quite literally face themselves. The TV world makes them painfully aware of their darker sides that ultimately manifest as dungeon bosses. In Catherine, Vincent and other men initially don't know why they have been trapped in the nightmare but as they are chased by manifestations of their worst fears, and as they learn the nature of their plight, it becomes a possibility for them to grow. Conquering the deadly tower of blocks becomes a symbol of conquering their own doubts. Through their struggles they come to reflect their life situation, and finally get their life on the right track.In both cases it's both a very literal fight for their lives, and also a fight to gain control of their lives.

If we look at Catherine purely as an artifact of game design, it's not very good. Stripped of everything, you are ultimately solving puzzles to be rewarded with cutscenes and while the story-as-reward is a common trope in Japanese RPGs, it is not a particularly laudable game dynamic. Catherine demands us to look beyond though, because reducing it in this way is a disservice to its true strength.

2. Storytelling

Catherine is all about the glue. Not the kind you sniff, but the kind that keeps different parts of the game together. The glue in Catherine is the way it has been directed. The game builds suspense with the best of them, and it is a very gripping experience. There are a lot of individual effects I can name, and one of them is the iconic clock that ticks between cutscenes. The audiovisual design of that simple screen is magnificient, and it always feels as if it is foreshadowing something nasty. Of course, the player will quickly make this association because what follows often is nasty. Especially the mornings after Vincent awakens from his nightmare became some of the most dreaded moments. What was the cause of this dread? The fact that Vincent found himself waking up next to a pretty woman. I swear, monsters in games are very rarely this dreadful.

The player bears witness to Vincent struggling in his life, trying to resolve his situation. However it is not quite similar to watching a movie. The fact that player choices affect how Vincent tries to deal with his problems creates a sense of responsibility - is everything going to hell because of my choices? There is never a direct choice involved in the situation itself, the player can only influence Vincent's values by making choices in the nightmare and in the bar. I would probably bash the hell out of this idea if this was any other game, but the concept fits Catherine exceptionally well. The story deals with emotions, where causality is very hard to predict or even see afterwards in the real world, so it is fitting that we cannot predict how Vincent will act either.

It's hard to put a finger to the exact reasons why the game's directing is so powerful. You just know it when your heart leaps every time Vincent gets a text message at the bar, and how hard it is to write replies even though there are not that many options. Otherwise the bar is the most relaxing portion of the game because the player and Vincent can take a break from the nightmare and from the two women who are at the heart of the conflict. Scenes with either of the women on the other hand are sharp like knives and I have very rarely been this anxious while following a fictituous conversation. It helps that all dialogue in the game is written really well, and voice acting is quite solid. Of course, I would not have expected anything less from the developers.

The nightmare is also masterfully directed. Although I do not agree with all the gameplay decisions (more on that soon) concerning it, audiovisually it is very successful. The boss levels in particular are very distressing, with the boss often almost literally breathing down at Vincent's neck as the player tries to find a route upwards in panic. The normal levels are more relaxed, but audiovisually they too are quite disturbing. Even the fact that the nightmare world is populated by sheep somehow adds to the atmosphere. Even tutorials have been perfectly integrated into the game's fiction. Vincent exchanges climbing techniques with other men trapped in the nightmare, which is a convenient time to also show those techniques to the player. Coincidentally the player might just need some of those in the next level...

I personally think of Catherine in much the same way I think of Heavy Rain: I will probably never play it again. It is one of those games that I just play through without expecting any particular outcome. I will take whatever the outcome is, and label the story as my individual experience of the game. I think another run through the game would just break many illusions. I might find out how little the game changes with different choices, and ultimately it would not be able to give me anything that even closely resembles the first playthrough. Although I know there are other endings, I have no real desire to experience them because I kind of what to think of the one ending I got as the "true" ending of the game. I don't even want to go back to try and change things.

3. Dat difficulty

Catherine was notorious by the time of its release. Why? Well, the game was freaking difficult is why! They added an easy difficulty later to alleviate the problem. These days I normally play my games on hard difficulty but after hearing how "well" my friends had fared in Catherine, I chose to start on normal. After a couple of nightmares I switched to easy, which is the first time I've done so in a very long time. I did find the block puzzles quite fun, but the challenge rubbed me the wrong way. It's not that the difficulty itself is the problem, it's the mechanisms that create it. While I liked the time limits in boss levels, they felt a bit artificial in the rest. In a way I understand that having the blocks fall off under Vincent's feet if I take my sweet time does make the atmosphere in the game stronger, but it made the game more frustrating.

One thing in puzzle games I don't like is redoing sections I have already done, because it is nothing more than punishment to do the same work again. The levels have checkpoints, but from time to time they are a bit too few and far between. What makes it even more frustrating is the fact that for some god-awful reason I'd rather not know, there are limited retries. Sure they are given out quite generously but if you ever run out, it's back to the last save point - that's the start of the level, unless you forgot to save. It was actually this that made me switch to easy. Well that, and the fact that the controls are very annoying from time to time. For instance, you can move behind the blocks, but cannot rotate the camera enough to actually see what is there. Dafuq? Oh and when you are behind a block, the controls are reversed. Why?

My final gripe with the controls was one button. It is used for grabbing blocks for pushing/pulling, but for some reason it also causes Vincent to let go of a block when he is hanging. There is also a separate button for letting go, so why on earth another button also does that? Finally, although the audiovisuals were very successful in creating the nightmarish feeling, sometimes camera drives and visual effects made it very hard to see what the hell was going on. This mostly happened in boss levels. Since the game already has an undo button that allows you to take back moves far into move history, the same button could have been used to just return you to wherever you fell off. At least in the normal levels I would have really appreciated this.

4. Chickening out

This here is the major spoiler warning. You will ruin the game for yourself if you read this before playing. 

Catherine is a game about problematic romantic relationships. All the men caught in the nightmare with Vincent have one thing in common: they are dealing with emotional damage from their past or current relationships, and somehow that is what brings them to the dream. Vincent himself is dealing with two problems at the same time: his girlfriend is talking about getting serious, while at the same time he finds himself cheating with another woman. We never truly learn how Vincent ended up cheating because that information is kept from us - and Vincent too, because he seems to never remember what happened. He just wakes up next to the other woman morning after morning. The situation is uncomfortable to say the least, because both of the women are emotionally attached to their relationship with Vincent.

Catherine is a compelling human drama with a hint of supernatural. I always find stories involving cheating quite uncomfortable, because I just know that the women (in this case) will eventually find out about each other while the man is lying through his teeth to both. It is uncomfortable because from the start it is clear that at least one heart will be broken, and possibly all three. I cannot speak from experience, but it feels like Catherine does portray the difficulty of such a situation in a very vivid fashion. As I mentioned one part in this is the player's almost involuntary involvement in the drama. The really "funny" thing? At first even I was not able to decide which woman I wanted Vincent to prefer. It is quite common in games with romantic relationships to not know from start which one to go with, but Catherine forces the player into a situation where they are already involved with both.

The last few hours of the game feel a bit cheap though. Up until then, everything supernatural has felt much like the weird stuff in David Lynch movies - a metaphor to stress the gravity of the situation. Towards the end though, we learn that there is actually quite a bit of supernatural going on. The other woman is not real, and was purposefully sent to seduce Vincent because he seemed unwilling to commit to his girlfriend. He was also put into the nightmare to die with the other men. This lifts a massive burden off Vincent's shoulders, and also the player's because they are no longer (fully) responsible of the conflict. Instead we have a divine power - not evil, just twisted - and finally something for the player to fight and defeat to resolve the drama once and for all. Although this turn of events doesn't surprise me, and is actually very well written, it feels cheap.

The reason it doesn't surprise me is that it's actually very consistent with stories in other Atlus games - especially Persona. There is always some higher power that is the root cause of all problems in the game, and defeating its manifestation releases the heroes from their strife. But in Persona it feels much more symbolic - in P4 for instance, what the players defeat is a manifestation of people's desire to hide their selves behind masks so that they never need to face their weaknesses. In Catherine the antagonist is a more direct actor in the events which makes it all the more easier to pin everything on him. His word becomes proof that Vincent did not really cheat on his girlfriend, which dissolves the problem quite a bit and makes it easier for his girlfriend to forgive. This is what happened in my ending anyway, I don't know how things will turn out if Vincent goes with the other woman (or neither!).

Some of the moments during these final scenes were some of the best in the entire game, but I still have mixed feelings about this. Are we still not adult enough to make a game about problematic relationships without having some monster as the cause? At least in this game Vincent not relieved of all burden (after all, he did fail to fes up early).

5. The players

In closing, I want to make some observations that might be entirely inaccurate. The game presents a bunch of questions to the player and afterwards they can see a pie chart of how other players answered on their first playthrough. Although I have no way of knowing why players chose what they chose, there is a very clear preference for the girlfriend on first playthroughs - I think it was about 75 to 80% of players. I can come up with two different explanations as to why it is more likely to choose the girlfriend on the first playthrough. First is the fact that, although they might not have intended it so, ending up with her seems like the "good" path through this game. Even though the choices affect Vincent's preference between order and chaos, visual cues do suggest that going with order is the "good" path.

I don't have statistics, but I'd put my money on "good" paths being generally preferred on first playthroughs. This is in part due to bad design of "evil" paths, which makes the "good" path seem the experience players were intended to have. Many games with alternative paths or endings often do include one that is implied to be canon. As players we often aim for the optimal experience, and because of this history of choices, it is a general assumption that the "good" path is the one we are intended to take. Furthermore, if the player is a completionist and wants to get all eight endings, they have to answer in certain ways throughout the game. You can get three endings in one full playthrough (by altering the final choices), but to do so Vincent's values need to be fully order, fully chaos or fully neutral. Which means you would choose every answer accordingly.

The latter doesn't explain why most players chose to prefer the girlfriend, but it does explain why they would answer consistently after making up their mind. On the other hand, it is also possible players answered based on their personal preferences instead of intentionally trying to stay on the "good" path. If that is the case, it kinda looks like gamers make pretty good lifetime partners because they prefer stability over excitement. I would not be surprised if this was the case actually. Of course it's a bit far-fetched to draw this conclusion from game statistics but it's kinda consistent with real life observations. Enough with the guesswork though, let's wrap this thing up.


This post was a bit weird because there is not that much game design in Catherine to analyse. I have probably written stuff I'd like to take back one day. For the record, I didn't intentionally read any analysis about Catherine before playing it or writing this piece because I didn't want my observations to be affected by someone else's. Which means I may have just written the exact same thing that someone has already written. I think Catherine is a strong argument to throw at anyone who claims that games are not for telling stories. Catherine tells a very powerful story and uses the medium's strengths to its advantage. Catherine the movie would never be as powerful. The game succeeds in involving the player in its drama in a rather clever way, and the entire experience feels very personal.

I am done here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dead or Alive 5

Landmark! 50th blog post in this blog. In celebration I offer thee a wall of text.

I have quite a bit of background in playing fighting games. I started out as a casual player like most but eventually evolved into a tournament player (unlike most). I have mostly played 3D fighters - most 2D fighters I have ever played have simply been way too hard for me to learn because of their bigger focus on technical skills. Of the four big 3D fighter series there's one that I have not really played: Dead or Alive. The series has a stigma in the fighting game community - and I mean on top of its already questionable reputation. The stigma has more to do with gameplay than boobs though. The series has generally been considered quite mash-friendly and at some point the hold system was just way too strong which made the game stupid.

Another reason for skipping the series was platform. DOA was an Xbox exclusive for a long time. However with its return to PlayStation 3 in the fifth installment, there was also talks of finally getting more serious by the developers. Again, I am not talking about the fanrage-worthy decision of generally making breasts smaller and more realistic. More serious as in more tournament-worthy is what counts. The timing for the news was also good because I had dropped Tekken when Tag 2 came around, and my main game Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown doesn't enjoy a very large community. I had also given up Soul Calibur because they kicked all my main characters out of the fifth installment.

So I was actually open to the idea of trying out a new game. Did I ever get around to it? Nope, not until I got DOA5 as a PS+ freebie last month. I've been practicing it a bit this month and played some matches, which gives me a perfect excuse to write about fighting games in general and some observations about DOA5 in particular. I will, also, eventually get to the boobs, so you can go ahead and skip to the last section if that's what you wanted to read about. The remainder of this post will contain some fighting game jargon, which I'll try to explain as I go. If you understand the concept of frames in fighting games, go ahead and skip to 3.

1. Fighting game primer

If you are ever designing a game with real time hand-to-hand or melee combat mechanics you should study a fighting game or two properly. From my perspective this is obvious because - as the genre name suggests - these games are all about the fighting mechanics. Before you can truly study though, you need to recognize that there are two vastly different ways to play these games. Most players are casuals who play for fun. From their point of view, mastery of the game means knowing the moves of all characters, and they show off their mastery by playing random characters. They may have their own honor codes like "juggles are unfair" (juggle being a situation where you hit an enemy who is floating in the air).

Playing casually is fine, even fun. Much like playing intentionally "bad" decks in Magic the Gathering, it can be a blast because when everyone is just throwing moves without much consideration to higher level strategy, matches can be quite even. Casual players can also enjoy the single player modes and mastering them. I know I did before becoming serious. You can play a fighting game for hundreds of hours and consider yourself pretty good as you are most likely beating all of your friends who don't own the game. When I hear someone's good in a fighting game, I usually assume they are using the casual player metrics. Why? Most serious players don't claim to be good.

This miscommunication becomes rather apparent when two players using different metrics for mastery face each other. The "good" living room champ will get a severe thrashing from even a "bad" serious player. They are playing two very different games and it won't be much fun for either. Where the casual player sees cool moves, the tournament player sees numbers and properties. For the former, different moves seemingly exist to create more variety while for the latter, each move is a tool with a specific purpose. Certainly even casual players can deduct uses for a move from its visual properties but the game they play is still vastly different.

In case it wasn't clear, your job is to study tournament play. The biggest distinctive factor is a tournament player's understanding of one concept: frame advantage. Frame advantage is a universal concept in fighting games and understanding it is the key to reading situations in the game. Frame of course being a measure of time inside the game's engine (usually 1/60 of a second). In its most basic form, it tells who has the advantage after a move connects or is blocked. In a slightly more accurate form, each move has impact frames and recovery frames, although the latter is only measured in relation to the hit (advantage on hit) or block (advantage on block) stun it causes.

A move's impact frames tell you how many frames it takes for the move to hit from the moment the animation starts. This number tells you explicitly how fast a move is. The recovery-related numbers on the other tell how many frames one of you will be "disabled" after the move connects or is blocked. The math is really simple. If a move is +5 on hit, it means the opponent cannot do anything for the next 5 frames. On the other hand, if a move is -12 on block for instance, you are unable to do anything for 12 frames. If the opponent has a move that comes out in 12 frames or less, it is guaranteed to hit you. This by the way is called punishment.

If we go back to the situation where you have +5 advantage, it means that if you follow with an attack that comes out in 15 frames and the opponent also attacks but using a 12 frame attack, your attack will still hit because the opponent's attack starts 5 frames late, effectively becoming a 17 frame attack in that situation. Frame advantage is of course symmetric, so -5 for you is the same thing as +5 for your opponent. Knowing who has frame advantage is crucial because otherwise you cannot know what your options in the situation are. Usually moves give frame advantage when they hit, and disadvantage when they are blocked. Of course if they miss altogether, the recovery will be substantial because the opponent is neither hit or block stunned.

Just to give you an idea of how this relates to other genres, we can go back to stagger immunity. Basically having frame disadvantage from getting hit is stagger. Therefore if we grant someone stagger immunity, it means they will never be at frame disadvantage from getting hit which means the best any attack against them can ever be is +0 frames advantage. However, this would require an attack with zero recovery frames and they generally don't exist. Effectively stagger immunity would mean that against that character, every attack could be considered whiffed for purposes of determining advantage. Just for the record, most moves in fighting games are punishable if they are whiffed.

Quick sample math: you have a move that comes out in 15 frames, stuns the opponent on hit for 15 frames and recovers for 10 frames. Normally hitting with this attack puts you at a +5 advantage but against a stagger immune opponent, it would actually put you at a -10 disadvantage. Which means if they have a 10 frame attack, they could hit you for free every time. However they can also start an attack during any of those 15 initial frames with no risk of being interrupted, so every time you do this attack you potentially open yourself to a 25 frame attack. Since slower moves are usually more powerful, it is easy to see how unfair the situation is.

Being aware of frame advantage is therefore quite important for game designers and there is no place to learn them better than fighting games where frame knowledge is essential to all tournament players. As a game mechanic it's a pain in the ass because the only way to really go about learning frames is to memorize them. Some games are kind enough to actually show frame data in their practice mode which makes the entire system more accessible to even casual players. Otherwise frame data needs to be found from depths of the internet, and often it has been compiled by testing and might contain errors. It's not perfect, but it's a necessary practice if you want to be a tournament player.

Frame data can tell a lot about a character's strengths. For instance, characters who get a lot of frame advantage are strong in offense whereas fast moves with bad disadvantage when blocked ("unsafe moves") indicate a punisher type character who excels at defense. It can also reveal stupidities like infinite loops from moves that are faster than the advantage they give on hit. Once you understand how to use frame data to your advantage in game design, all sorts of things become easier to grasp. Besides, they are numbers, and game designers should love numbers.

2. Beyond frames

Of course if frames were the only property there would not be much need for many moves in a game. Obviously moves have other properties, like damage which is about the least interesting stat from our point of view. Fighting games usually involve a primary rock-paper-scissors system of strikes, guard and throws where guard beats strikes, throws beat guard and strikes beat throws. So far so simple, but of course it is never so. Guarding has two options: standing and crouching. In every major 3D fighter attacks come in three altitudes: high, mid and low. Standing guard blocks high and mid attacks but is vulnerable to lows while crouching guard blocks lows, is vulnerable to mids and avoids highs. Because crouching guard beats both low and high attacks, the basic mixup is between mid and low.

This makes high attacks sound rather useless, no? Being high is indeed a weaker property than being mid or low but this is redeemed by other qualities. Of the three altitudes, high attacks are generally fastest and more likely to give advantage even when blocked. Although you will never hit an opponent who just guards with a high attack, they are useful for interrupting slower attacks. Overall, high attacks have the best combination of other properties be it frames, damage, range or tracking. Low attacks on the other hand generally have the weakest properties because standing guard is much more common than crouching. Low attacks are very unsafe if blocked and can leave the attacker at a disadvantage even if they hit. Strong low attacks are slower, and can even be seen and blocked on reaction.

The usefulness of lows depends on the game because throws also beat standing guard. Lows are generally more used in Tekken, because in theory all throws can be escaped on reaction (a feat I am definitely not capable of, and therefore am quite disadvantaged in tournament play) whereas in Virtua Fighter throws are impossible to escape on reaction, and you always have to guess between three throw escapes. They also do more damage. So, depending on the game, the basic mixup is either mid/low or mid/throw. However, guarding is not the only defensive option. All games have movement options, and as we may have learned the best defense is to not be there at all when an attack lands.

In 3D fighters, as the 3D there suggests, characters can also evade moves by depth movement. Evasion generally beats linear attacks. Tracking moves beat evasion, but are often generally weaker. Tracking moves, especially those that give full tracking, are also very often high attacks. Likewise, range determines how easy it is to avoid an attack by moving back. Although all games have movement options, it gets different emphasis. Tekken is the series that emphasizes movement most for a few reasons. Most throws do not track in Tekken for instance, and movement is overall safer. In VF and Soul Calibur, being hit during movement causes a counter hit (more damage, usually more advantage, can lead to combos). Tekken also rewards movement more with easier whiff punishment.

There are more game-specific special cases for pretty much all of this. All of this stuff is involved in mind games when playing, and move properties define what are your options in each situation. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of every character's move set is definitely helpful. Some characters can have insanely good strikes, but they might turn out to be horribly linear which makes evasion strong against them. A character with good lows and mids can play a nasty mixup game in your face. Some characters have a lot of solid long range moves, which makes them perfect for playing keep-away (especially in Soul Calibur where weapon reach is a factor).

3. Finally, Dead or Alive

Now that we have establised a common ground for discussing fighting games we can take a look at what defines Dead or Alive 5. It is being said that when playing DOA, you might as well forget what you learned in other games. Although I do not find this to be entirely true, I will go through a couple of reasons why this could be the case - especially for Tekken players. The system that defines DOA as a series is its hold system. Some characters in other games have holds (called reversals) but in DOA, every character has a hold for all attack types (high, mid punch, mid kick and low). Holds are defensive moves that do damage to the attacker.

Holds are the reason why DOA has been disregarded because they (used to) make attacking very risky. If you guess what attack the opponent will go for at any time, it can be countered for guaranteed damage. If I recall correctly, in the past holds were a bit too powerful, which made attacking a losing strategy. That makes for a weird game as you might guess. While some holds on some characters are still very powerful, most holds have reasonable damage numbers. Throwing holds randomly is also a bad idea, because it is a four-way guessing game (whereas guarding high or low is a two-way mixup).

The dynamic created by holds is that being predictable is very easily punished in DOA. Especially strings that do not have many variations are very risky to throw out because they are very likely to be held. It is not the holds themselves that make the big difference though. DOA5 has a somewhat different approach to the frame game. In general, attacks give less frame advantage on hit and are more often unsafe when blocked. Especially since in DOA5, the fastest throws are 5 frames, which means a move that is -5 can be punished with a throw. Fastest strikes are 9 frames, although most characters have to do with 10 frame attacks. Sounds like attacking sucks again, huh?

Well, not so fast. DOA5 has a stun system quite unlike anything else. The less frame advantage on hit applies only to attacks that do not stun you see. Attacks that do stun can grant massive frame advantage, so that the next attack becomes guaranteed. Stuns are not uncommon in games either, but in DOA5 every character has a ton of stunning moves. It is very rare to not get stunned in a match because even basic mid attacks can cause a stun - hell, even low attacks sometimes do. Unlike other games however stun doesn't make a character entirely helpless - you can get out of a stun by doing one of the four basic holds. Stunned characters cannot be thrown either.

With each stun we enter what is called the stun game. It is an ongoing mixup, typically between highs, mid punches and mid kicks because lows generally don't give enough advantage to continue the chain. However, if the defender holds out of the stun, they can be thrown for increased damage. After being hit for enough damage, the defender will go into critical stun after which any attack knocks them down, ending the stun game. This is however a chance for the attacker to land a critical burst, which leads to an unholdable stun and therefore a guaranteed combo. There is only one CB for each character though, so the defender can avoid it every time by holding against it but this leaves them open to other attacks.

The stun system basically creates a mixup that is more disadvantageous to the defender than a normal frame advantage mixup. They have to choose between 3 or 4 options for their defense, and they cannot even try to attack until the stun ends. However it is clearly more advantageous than a stun combo which is entirely guaranteed. Furthermore, the attacker's options are also somewhat limited because the only attacks worth doing are ones that can continue the stun or launch the defender to a combo. Air combos in DOA5 do less damage than in other games too. When the defender does guess correctly and holds an attack, damage is always guaranteed (unlike other games where you might only get a mixup).

Because every other attack in the game engages the stun game, getting hit can very often lead to a serial mixup that has the potential to take over half of your life bar. This has the potential to create quite huge swings and makes the game generally somewhat faster than at least Tekken. It definitely does not make the game more buttonmash-friendly because stun chains require a lot of thought and experimentation in practice mode. Ideally, you want to find as many variations as possible for your stun chains to keep the opponent guessing. Some otherwise good moves might push the enemy back too much and so on. It's also kind of a greed game: how long will you continue the stun before launching.

Guarding is quite strong in DOA5 largely because not a whole lot of moves outside slowish guard breaks give advantage on block, and a whole lot of moves are punishable on block. However, throwing is also more powerful then usual because basic throws aside, all throws are unescapable. Fastest of these throws are 6 frames I think but attempting a throw is also very risky because it opens you to attacks. Remember that you don't get that much normal (non-stun) frame advantage in DOA5 so the mid/throw mixup is somewhat harder to get into. Throws can also do a ton of damage, but powerful throws are always slower.

Admittedly I have not fully explored the system, and I have not played against any tournament players (the game is not very popular in Finland) so these are my still somewhat initial impressions. It does feel like a legit tournament game though, and is fun to play. Whether the stun game makes it better or worse doesn't really matter, because at least it indeed does play very differently. I have also enjoyed coming up with stun chains for my main characters because unlike learning combos, there is more room for experimentation.

4. About the girls...

Normally there would be really no reason to draw attention to how women are represented in DOA because that's pretty clear. I do however need to update a particular opinion. Earlier I stated that I do not mind skimpy impractical dresses and impossible physique of female characters in fighting games because it's not like there is any character in them to ruin with unnecessarily sleazy appearance. Especially since fighting game plots tend to be... yeah, pretty ridiculous. Read a few character biographies for some serious facepalming if you haven't already. That being said, DOA5 did make me somewhat uneasy.

I guess Tekken and Virtua Fighter have gotten a free pass for their treatment of girls because they don't overdo it anyway. Soul Calibur, a series that I think might have actually passed DOA in sleaziness at some point also seems to get away with it, perhaps because the style is so far-out anyway. So what is it about DOA5 that makes me change my mind? Although I'd hesitate to call the new and improved boob physics realistic, the fact that girls do look more natural overall somehow makes all those jiggling breasts all the more embarrassing. So although they don't really have much personality, the fact that they look more natural likens them to real girls more.

On top of that, some characters have costumes where they are actually dressed to fight with the very important exception of forgetting to wear a sports bra (or whatever you would wear to get enough support there). It highlights the problem even more. With impractical dresses these things are kind of easier to dismiss because the entire notion of fighting in a gown is stupid anyway. But the actual fighting gear brings the wearer one step closer to being more real and suddenly the jiggly bits seem to send a very different message. The message from the designer seems to be that no matter how sensible and ready to fight, this girl still secretly wishes for male viewers to undress her with their eyes.

So here's how I see it: there exists an uncanny valley for video game girl sexiness. It seems that usually as long as the girl in question seems unrealistic anyway (i.e. they are not a person), it doesn't really matter how absurdly sexualized they are - they will be considered what they are: escapees from someone's fantasy. Likewise, when they are very realistic to the point that any sexiness actually feels to belong to the character, it also is acceptable - after all, sexy girls and women do exist. However between these two is the valley: girls that are made to feel realistic but then oversexualized - and this is where suddenly the treatment they get just feels wrong. It is here where everything the person is, is violently reduced to a sex object.

We can argue about the width of the valley, but if we accept this theory, the correct place to start hacking at the problem is at the bottom of the valley. Trying to destroy all oversexualization at once (the entire left side that is) will simply be met with too much resistance. I don't have much attachment to the left side of the valley; however I do like to have realistically cute/sexy/beautiful girls in games, so I will rise to defend the right side of the valley. Besides, we like to look at attractive things so it makes bloody little sense to have a crusade against them.

On a lighter endnote, I have to wonder: if breast sizes were generally made smaller in DOA5, how massive they were before?


Wall of text, done! After what I have experienced, I do think Dead or Alive 5 is a welcome addition to 3D fighting games on PlayStation 3. I really cannot say whether it is more friendly to beginners than the others, because the stun game does require quite a bit of studying. I think it actually puts slightly more emphasis on knowing every character's move set than the other games because of the four-way hold system. Most importantly, it is different enough. In hindsight writing the fighting game basics was perhaps a little bit excessive but then again, it does seem to be quite arcane knowledge for many gamers. It is just one of those genres where each title is really two very different games - where the "real" game is hidden from casual eyes lest they be frightened by its complexity.

Right now there's not much activity around DOA5, sadly, so I cannot say much about how it plays as a tournament game. Perhaps with the release of DOA5 Ultimate there will be a burst of activity that lets me get into the game a bit more. There will be a free-to-play version of it, so that might attract more people to try the game. I somehow feel that they are not going to add the option to have the girls wear more supportive bras, but if they did that would be awesome.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

A lot of mixed reviews have been floating around the internet about this game and I have considered trying it on a few occasions. Although I expected it to quite mediocre, swords are always a plus. When it came available for free through PS+ in June, I decided to give it a spin. As expected, there was nothing revolutionary about it but nevertheless it was quite enjoyable to play. I'll explain how in just a bit. Let it just be said that this game lacks original ideas and its plot is the usual nonsensical teenage fantasy crap (well, R. A. Salvatore was involved in writing it so no surprises there). I am not above enjoying such plots every now and then but the one in Amalur made less sense than most. Anyway, story, not the point.

1. Busywork gaming

Amalur is the perfect excuse to write about busywork gaming. Unfortunately I have forgotten the source for the term but the concept is interesting. It explains the popularity of a lot of genres including a bunch of Facebook games and of course MMOs. Being an offline MMO, Amalur definitely employs a lot of busywork gaming. The appeal of busywork gaming is in stark contrast to what is usually understood as good game design. It is, roughly, progress without challenge. It is totally stress-free, and more or less comparable to watching television. Although Amalur has some degree of challenge on the highest difficulty, much of the game is about constantly doing some small tasks to improve your character.

As such it is a power trip much like Borderlands, but Amalur offers even less variety and space for creativity. Instead, it offers several different systems of busywork. Sidequests are just the start. As usual, there are a) too many of them and b) they are too boring. They don't really provide much of anything either - most of the rewards are just money and experience. The crafting systems are what actually hold more appeal to them because of their more immediate rewards. Amalur is a game ruled by equipment so it is quite easy to see how crafting your own has high appeal - especially when the crafted equipment is actually better than stuff you can find most of the time.

There are actually three different crafting systems, two of which kind of overlap a bit, and one that is entirely separate (alchemy, for potions obviously). This means a lot of collecting, and that is more or less what the player does all game long. Most found equipment goes into the grinder to see what components drop out. Surprisingly there is no grinding involved because stuff is abundant and naturally encountered while going through quests. As some readers might have noticed, I have mixed opinions about crafting systems. Amalur falls mostly into the light side, because crafting doesn't work with recipes. The outcome is the sum of components used, no mystery involved (well, except alchemy, that works with recipes).

It is indeed the fluidity of systems that make busywork in Amalur strangely relaxing. Basically everything is guaranteed to grant progress, be it experience (levels come with new crafting skills) or components. This is what makes it somewhat different from recipe-based crafting systems where new components are only useful if they are part of a recipe the player wants to make. In Amalur each component creates new crafting options - although they are not always actually useful. Customization also grants a greater sense of ownership over the created piece of equipment - and hey, you can name it too. In contrast, recipe-based systems always feel more like obtaining a piece of equipment in unnecessarily small pieces.

So although I do often bash various games about their busywork aspects, I do indeed enjoy it when it is done correctly. I can even somewhat enjoy large grinding efforts if they are done for a greater purpose. Busywork gaming is, all in all, still guaranteed progress. It is suitable for times when even gaming stress is not particularly welcome. We all do all sorts of meaningless things for the sake of progress in meaningless efforts to take our mind off other things. It is my belief that to work, busywork systems indeed have to guarantee progress. Grinding for items with super low drop rates (F U, Demon's Souls) doesn't fit the bill.

I'll try to find the book section or article I used as the source for this, it is more interesting than my rambling about the subject.

2. Sidequest, man, what happened to you?

Another sidequest rant, yay. They are a freaking plague though, someone has to stop the madness. As a concept the sidequest has existed for god knows how long, but somewhere along the line something happened to it. It has become a bureaucracy of faceless tasks. While some games like Borderlands 2 grant a great deal of personality to their sidequests, the whole thing is now a system. You have your quest log with its completion ratios, milestones and cute little check markers for done quests. Every corner of the world has some helpless or ten in need of your help (while you should be busy saving the world).

I don't have a problem with sidequests as a concept. The problem is their modern "quantity over quality" design philosophy. I would not be surprised to find out that some games have generated sidequests and sadly, those would not be that much worse than what we have now. Every RPG seems to want to provide 100 hours of gameplay, regardless of the length of its main content. The most disturbing thing about this pandemic is the flood of new quest logs entries upon entering every single new area. It's just overwhelming. At first you might try to do all just to be sure, then be on the lookout for ones with nice fat rewards and in the end it's just fuck-all, I want to finish this game.

Some sidequests in Amalur are however reminiscent of better days - which is why I included this section in the first place. Remember Baldur's Gate 2 where most sidequests would actually take you to an entirely new place or in the very least have an actual plot of their own? In comparison, modern sidequests are mere tasks at best. Every now and then though, there are ones that make an effort. Amalur has faction quests, a set for each of the game's six or so factions. Unlike your bread and butter tasks, these quests actually form a side plot of multiple quests. Although the quests themselves are equally bland as the rest, the continuity does go a long way toward creating better experience.

I call for a sidequest reform. If a quest doesn't involve any sort of joy of discovery, be it a side plot or, a new area or an exciting enemy, it should not be in the game. Want to add gameplay hours? Make the quests longer, without increasing their number. I take one long quest any day over ten small ones. Of course we all know that creating new content is expensive, which is why they don't do this. So here's a radical idea: don't have sidequests at all if there's no real budget for them. I know the reply will be "but you don't have to do them!" but there never is any indication how optional they really are. Games set different expectations, but it is usually not implied in any way.

This puts the player in a weird position. In one hand, they want to of course get any advantage they can in form of rewards - but, on the other hand, doing too many sidequests is going to make the main quest a cakewalk. BG2 actually had a good indicator for what is enough: once the player had enough gold to proceed in the main story, they were likely to also have enough levels to have an enjoyable challenge in the main quest. Of course a lot of people probably did most of the quests anyway because, you know, they were actually interesting.What purpose do sidequests serve in your game? Perhaps it is something the player would also like to know.

Another thing to consider is sidequest density. The further in the game the player is, the more likely they are bored to death with repetitive sidequests so maybe new ones shouldn't be popping as frequently. It's easy to say "don't do them", but the fact that they are there, in your quest log, is always nagging you. We don't like unfinished business after all. So consider this: after doing sidequests by the bucket, do players really feel like being showered in even more? The busywork appeal only lasts for so long, and after that there's just the nagging. At first there's the excitement of exploring a new world, and sidequests can be good guides - but this does not last forever. 

It feels like this sidequest business is for RPGs what multiplayer is to other genres. You just have to have it, says the publisher. I don't see anyone bashing a game for not having enough sidequests.

3. Ability trees and combat balance

Although an offline MMO by design, Amalur does have a surprisingly decent combat system. As far as action RPGs go though, it is fairly standard. You have your strikes, blocks, dodges and spells - the latter not too many in number, even when playing a mage. It's not a revolution, but it works. At leats on hard difficulty there's even some challenge. This is created by following the basic principles of stagger and recovery mechanics. Everything has a longish recovery time, which opens a careless player to enemy attacks. Enemy attacks stagger, so the player has to go on defensive mode. All in all, a functional system. Now let's talk about abilities.

I have talked about over-conservative skill design before. In general, it means that the designers have been too afraid of imbalances. The end result is that all abilities in the game are rather unremarkable. I did not fully explore the other two trees of course, but at least the Might tree (for warriors, obviously) had mostly abilities that were truly bland. You have your passive number bonuses and a handful of actives. You won't see the effects of most abilities. One active that is supposed to be crowd control has such a long casting time that it becomes almost useless. Another ability doesn't even work as described (which would have made it useful).

What usually happens though is that there is one ability that outshines everything else. It may sound unremarkable on paper, or it might even be disguised. In this case it was disguised by making it look weak on level 1. You can't actually see the upper levels beforehand, so there is no way of knowing. Actually my alarm bells should have rung though, even with the -50% armor penalty on the first level. You see, the ability makes the player immune to stagger. On highest level, the armor penalty is gone too. Now, stagger immunity is huge. The meaning of stagger (aka hit stun) has been discussed before, but let me remind you.

The biggest threat in games like this is often not the damage from a single attack, but the stagger. Groups of enemies are the most dangerous because they can engage the player in a stagger chain. Since being staggered typically prevents and intercepts attacks, it is a big deal. A huge deal really. Stagger is what gives fighting its dynamic and prevents it from becoming a DPS mashfest. Being immune to stagger is a massive advantage to the point that I still consider poise to be broken in Dark Souls. See, if your attacks cannot stagger the enemy, they lose all of their threat. The opponent has no reason to respect your attacks, and attacking becomes a loser's game.

Poise in Dark Souls had drawbacks and it could have been balanced with more consideration. Too few things in the game punished having high poise, and too many rewarded it. Poise made you slow, because only heavy armor granted it. Being slow was not big enough of a deal in the game but it could have been. Fighting in melee against someone with high poise in online was a game you could only win by not playing. Whenever you attacked, they could also attack and possibly follow up with more while laughing your stagger off. The best way to fight them would have been to wait for their attack and parry it, but they had no reason to attack really. So, basically no one had incentive to attack.

Back to Amalur though. So if poise, which wasn't always full stagger immunity mind you, is broken, how would you think of full stagger immunity with no drawbacks? Okay it had a 20 second duration, but that also is quite a long time. However with two linked abilities, this one became absolutely game-breaking. Here is what you can get on top of full stagger immunity, from the same skill: a chance to reflect damage back to the enemy and a chance to steal health. Not only is the threat of stagger gone, you don't actually need to care about most damage either because your uninterruptable attacks will constantly heal you.  This is honestly so ridiculous that I do not see how it got through playtesting. After obtaining this package the game does become a trivial mashfest.

This ability is so dominating that everything else in the tree becomes redundant. It solves every possible situation in the game, for free (practically at leat - there's a mana cost but you can regen it between fights). Furthermore, there is nothing interesting in the ability tree so it's not like there are even any cool alternative ways to play a fighter. There are no drawbacks, so it is impossible to design around it - anyone with full stagger immunity will be at least as good in every situation as  those without, and often better (in Amalur, always better). As I said I didn't try the other two trees but I somehow doubt their ability to compete with this insanely broken ability. It is simply impossible to die with this ability.

In closing, I want to stress this: never ever give stagger immunity to the player for free. Even if it has a cost, make sure the cost is steep enough, because stagger immunity is very likely to break your game. It's good to throw on some enemies if you want to make them really nasty though. Stagger immunity in a nutshell: Enemies yes, players no.


I did enjoy my trip to Amalur for most of its duration. Although the game is really nothing special, it does have enough appeal and can be rushed quite quickly once it starts to get boring. As far as offline MMO experiences go, it is not bad at all. It's got nice scenery. Very lazy dungeon design though, as I was able to recognize certain "building blocks" that were present in many dungeons, looking exactly the same. Should you play it though? If you don't mind the potential time sink factor, you are probably better off playing a solid MMO for much of the same appeal. Likewise, if you are looking for some good sword and sorcery action, there are the Souls and Witchers. However if you are like me and have actually played most of the important titles already and yearn for some heroic, light adventure then go ahead.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

Primarily Revenvengeance is just another swordplay action game. Granted, it combines the familiar gameplay mechanic to a series mostly known for stealth and crazy plots. The latter is of course intact in Revengeance as the plot makes very little sense at any point. As a game it follows most of the tropes in its genre, including the bad ones.

1. The camera problem

Indeed the biggest issue I had with this game was its camera and honestly I cannot recall a fast-paced action game where camera would not have been an issue. In slower games like the Souls series camera works just fine most of the time (some bosses in at least Dark Souls made the camera go batshit though). I do find it curious that developers insist on making games with very fast-moving enemies while keeping the camera very close to the protagonist's back. If the enemies move slow enough, there is no issue because they cannot suddenly strike from far beyond vision range. Fast-moving enemies also make all kinds of locking systems a pain, because once you lock onto one, it's going to get rather nauseating.

The camera issue is quite simple: in real life, when fighting with melee weapons, people are perfectly able to glance quickly at their sides/behind to see what is going on there. So far there has been no viable way to do this in games. The thumbstick, your friendly neighborhood camera controller, cannot do both accurate and fast. If the sensitivity is fast enough to allow quick glances, you can bet it won't be accurate enough for anything else. It is also far more disorienting to do quick perspective changes in games because the player lacks body sense in the situation. The situation is worst in first person action games, which I think I discussed in my analysis of Dishonored. Moving the camera behind the player's avatar does, in a way, simulate peripheral vision and also the ability for quick glances by showing what is going on the sides.

The situation is somewhat remedied by game mechanics in some games. Devil May Cry has fixed camera angles but experts find it quite playable because of two features: one, all enemies make a sound before attacking; two, jumps and dodges have invincibility frames at the beginning. This means that even attacks from out-of-view enemies can be dodged at all times if the player is careful enough. The system in Revengeance is a bit problematic in this regard because its primary defensive system is parrying and the player is required to press the left thumbstick in the direction of the attack and time the parry correctly. The game assists in this by highlighting when enemies are about to strike, but this is of little help if they are out of view. For this reason Revengeance is somewhat more infuriating with its camera problems than most games in the genre.

One way to deal with camera issues I believe Revengeance should have taken would be to move the camera further. The downside of this of course is that as enemies become smaller, they attacks are harder to discern. However, the game already uses rather blatant highligths and discerning those should not be a problem. Unless it is a technical limitation, I don't think there is any acceptable reason for the camera being so close - especially if they are unwilling to make enemies jump around a lot less. In summary: close camera + fast enemies is a bad combination, but especially so when the primary defense mechanism relies on the player being able to discern each attack's direction. It gets even worse near walls, because the camera does sudden resets (instead of, say, making the walls invisible when they would obstruct the view).

Although the camera problem is rather ubiquitous in this genre, that doesn't mean it should be accepted. Here's why: bad usability is a shitty way to make a game challenging. I highly doubt that Platinum Games wanted to make camera control into a central mechanic in Revengeance - and since it's not part of the core gameplay, it should not get in the way. Some people have excused things like bad controls in Silent Hill because they somehow add to the game's feeling of helplessness. I say we should stop excusing things like this - there are other ways that don't rely on frustrating the player.  

2. Feedback matters

If you have not read it yet, this article does a lot to explain Revengeance's appeal. In short, the violence itself is not the source of the appeal. The violence is just a graphical metaphor for the truly appealing force: feedback. The messy headshot is a very clear indicator that you did well. Revengeance pretty much takes this to the extreme. It is indeed hyper-violent, but not for the sake of violence. The most violent stuff happens in cutting mode, where the player is allowed to literally cut stuff to pieces with rapid slashes. This mode can be used to instantly kill any normal enemies. Furthermore, if you make a cut in the right angle and hit the enemy's power core, Raiden will grab it from the splitting body and instantly refill his health and the energy meter you need to do these cuts. That right there is a very powerful indicator of success - a positive feedback loop even.

So the game reinforces your behavior of scoring instant kills not just with a cool visual effect which in itself is rather satisfactory - it also gives you the power to do more instant kills quicker. Perfect parries are similarly rewarded: you get a cool effect, your meter refills and you get an instant kill option right there. Overall, anything that the player does "right" gives satisfying visual effects in the least, and often gameplay rewards that enable the player to do even more cool stuff. Other important things like stagger have been well implemented. All this makes the game a very satisfying experience. The over-the-top attitude shows not just in cheesy cutscenes, but all over the gameplay. Lesser action games could learn a lot from Revengeance. Platinum Games definitely have a knack for making the player feel empowered when they succeed.

Dante's Inferno is one example of a game that could learn a lot. I'd also throw God of War to the lot, although I'm risking a lot of flak doing so. The games share a lot of genes. Most importantly, battles in both of these games feel very stagnant compared to Revengeance. It just feels a lot more like attrition where the player slowly chips life away from enemies. The weird thing is, these games share most of the mechanics with Revengeance. They just do so in a manner that is several magnitudes less satisfying. They have instakills, and they reward instakills too, but the oomph factor is severely lacking. One key difference is pace. Revengeance is wicked fast. The player hits hard, as do the enemies. Enemies fall left and right, often in mere seconds. It feels like the game is constantly moving forward whereas Dante's Inferno in particular feels like you are forever stuck in every single fight.


Revengeance - even with its flaws - is definitely one of the better games in its genre. It's up there in the company of Devil May Cry (original series) and Ninja Gaiden. It doesn't have any revolutionary mechanics. Rather it just does the basic gameplay in a manner that totally reinforces good play. Although I did compare it to God of War, the games are actually in slightly different categories in my opinion. God of War is more oriented towards casual audiences who might not be as interested in mastering every technique in a game. The difference is quite subtle because on the surface these games feel very similar. Revengeance is purely devoted to one thing: fighting enemies with style, whereas games like God of War throw in a fair bit of exploration and trivial puzzles for a more varied experience. Revengeance is much more suitable for the DMC/NG crowd.