Friday, June 5, 2015

Persona 4 Golden - part 2

While part one of this two post series was all about Persona 4 Golden as a story, this part covers it as a game. Ultimately its success doesn't come down to anything drastically surprising. It simply has damn good implementations of important game design principles.

1. Day by day

Here we ask a simple question: what enables Persona 4 to be a game of meaningful choices? Answer: time, or more specifically, time as a limited resource. Most things in the game require the player to spend their precious in-game time. These choices are made on a day-by-day, basis, with most days taking just a couple of minutes. Occasionally the game hijacks some days away from you due to scripted events and they usually take more time but that's fine too - these events move the plot forward after all (or in some cases they are just hilarious character buildings events). What's important is that no matter what you do, your days with the game are numbered. If there was a way to somehow get more days, the day-to-day routine would lose its meaning. At the same time, time is the most elementary resource in the game: it can be converted into anything else, but nothing can be converted into time.

To put all that in another way, it's not possible to grind to undo choices. In most RPGs if you misspend your resources, you can correct the mistake by farming more. In P4 you can do this for money and experience, but every time you make a choice on how to spend your time, there is no taking back. There are ways to save time of course - most of these available to players who have high understanding of the game and a strong sense of overall strategy. For instance, being able to complete dungeons in one day each requires some planning and preparation, but pays off by freeing days for other uses. Overall, the entire game is one huge optimization problem, where individual parts are small but interconnected. Fortunately you don't need to solve the entire problem before launching the game. Figuring out your schedule can be done as you go which is what ultimately makes the game interesting.

Of course, there are other ways to play the game. In truth, the first playthrough is more likely spent exploring what the game has to offer and getting familiar with stuff. However, given that this was the fourth playthrough for me, solving the optimization problem through day-to-day decisions was the biggest appeal. Whether it is for exploration or optimization, it remains a fact that the game has an extremely high frequency for meaningful choices. Considering that each day takes only minutes and most of them contain two time slots you can fill with whatever you want, you are very highly involved almost constantly. Ironically enough, I actually consider the player being more involved outside dungeons, even though they are touching the controls way less. Although you seemingly do a lot in dungeons, the stakes of actions taken are much lower. This doesn't mean the dungeons are boring. It just means your strategic, long-term decision-making is put on the backseat while in them - or you could consider them tests of how good your strategy is.

I have another example where limited resources lead to more meaningful choices when overall strategy is concerned. There is one major difference between Fire Emblem 7 and 8: the latter has random battles spawn on the world map, and also a challenge tower that can be attempted as many times as the player likes. Meanwhile, 7 is just a series of battles, each with a set amount of enemies. This means that experience is a limited resource in 7, and infinitely available in 8. Distributing experience to characters in FE7 is extremely important whereas in FE8 you can always put in more hours to correct your mistakes. The temptation to use your highest leveled characters to kill tough enemies is much higher if you can make up for the lost experience later whereas in FE7 you need to plan more carefully so that your weaker characters who need the most experience get the killing blow. Well, I did that in FE8 anyway because it saves time. Still, moral of the story: if at least one central resource is limited, choices regarding that resource are more meaningful.

This discourse gets quite close to one popular argument: are respecs good or bad (Diablo 2 is a central game in this argument). However, I don't want to go there as it is quite far removed from the topic. Just to wrap up, it's not just the limited nature of time as a resource in P4 that makes it so amazing; it's also due to the fact that choice frequency is staggeringly high in the game. One factor that also contributes that I haven't mentioned yet is that all days are not created equal so you don't have the exact same choices available each day. However there aren't too many unique days either, so for almost everything you can do, there will be multiple opportunities. So overall, the day-to-day structure gives the game a rather unique appeal and is a huge contributor to its charm.

2. Musings about chance

Time to go into broken record mode. This may, therefore, feel immensely familiar: enemies should be dangerous, while also quick to defeat. Especially in games where combat is frequent, nothing quite destroys a game like battles that drag. I want to talk about this again because Persona 4 is a good example of how things should be. Much like many other Shin Megami Tensei titles, enemies in P4 are really, really dangerous (at least on hardest difficulty). If you're unlucky or poorly prepared, they can wipe out the entire party. So, unless you want to chance it, it's best to give enemies as few turns as possible - ideally, zero. You don't exactly get to save all that often either, so getting wiped can set you back for like an hour. Saving between dungeon floors does become easier if you get a skill that allows you to go back, but if you go back during a floor, it always resets.

Typically, the entire process is fast. You either kill or disable most enemies in the first round, and usually the entire fight ends during the second round at latest. It may sound like a cakewalk, but it really isn't - it's just that battles are decided and concluded quickly. When there's hundreds of battles in the game, this is more than welcome. It's not as much about the challenge of a single battle, as it is about managing an entire floor's worth of battles (or more) because abilities that allow you to perform those lightning fast takedowns have costs, and those costs do pile up. Let's talk about two costs. The first cost is the cost of learning. In order to know your enemies' weaknesses, you have to try stuff on them either blindly or by making educated guesses. This means that encountering a new powerful foe is especially dangerous because you possess no certain knowledge of how to disable it quickly.

There's a sidetrack here. While I generally like that allies have been given more skill options through social links, some of the things Rise learns when you level up her S.Link are a bit too strong. At some point she can show you every detail about enemies for no cost, which takes away the cost of learning. Of course at that stage of the game you are probably kind of snowballing out of control anyway (see the next section). The second cost is the cost of certainty. As stated, it's not that enemies are guaranteed to kill you, they just have a chance of doing so. Which means you can take things slow and be more conservative with SP, but that means rolling the dice more. Using abilities generally means you don't have to take the chance - so, basically, you pay for the certainty of success. As a bonus you also end battles faster. This is a common design pattern in RPGs.

As such, the cost of certainty comes down to the essentials of game design: meaningful choices. When faced with a combat situation, you have to assess the stakes (e.g. how long has it been since you saved), the risk (how likely it is to actually lose) and of course the cost itself. In some cases there are more than two options, with varying costs and risks. Chance is an important part of this equation - the dynamic becomes different in a fully deterministic game - you would maybe choose between different types of costs, or instead of chance, you are betting against uncertain future (e.g. "do I need this resource more in the future"). In skill-based games, chance can be substituted with player ability (e.g. "can I pull this off"). However, in turn-based RPGs, most of the time such choices are made against the RNG. For an extreme example of how important chance management is, check my boss analysis of Digital Devil Saga's Demi-Fiend

Persona 4 also uses chance to give the player freebies. Most of the time these freebies allow you to use less abilities. The most common ones in P4 are follow-up attacks, which may occur when an enemy is knocked down. These generally knock more enemies down, except Chie's which instantly kills another enemy. P4G adds a few other similar freebies, all of which are welcome. Of course, critical hits are perhaps the most wide-spread general freebie, and in many games you can also manage your critical hit rate in some way (P4 - not an exception). While this may sound a bit like "random shit happens - I have no idea why", let me assure you that it's very welcome. It really helps in keeping battles interesting, and it does feel good to get a freebie - especially if you really needed it.

3. Option expansion

I have touched this topic several times in the past. It's a pet theory of mine that I've never quite put onto paper in full. I use it to explain why I think a lot of games - RPGs in particular - generally get easier and easier the further you are into them. At least if you have like half a clue about what you're doing. As the name suggests, the theory applies to games where the player is given more and more options as the game progresses - which, coincidentally, covers most RPGs as it's kind of a consequence of having all those character development aspects. So, in short, the available option space expands. This also means that the further we are into the game, the higher the discrepancy between choices made by different players will be. So, from the designer's perspective, the later the game goes, the harder it is to predict.

This puts the designer in a somewhat tricky situation. Not everyone utilizes the expanded option space as efficiently, and a lot of people play RPGs for their content. Therefore it's important that anyone can actually finish the game but at the same time it also very likely leads into a situation where highly optimized builds bulldoze through everything. Not to mention that - unless the system is quite simple - just predicting all the possible interactions between options is very unlikely to succeed. So, the theory states that it's near impossible to create challenges while at the same time accommodating multiple strategies and skill level. Games generally have difficulty levels to deal with these problems, but often they use some kind of numeric scaling - and as such, numbers don't actually matter that much if the player can completely ignore some of them.

You see, often it's not just that the number of options increases over time - usually the later options are also stronger. This further complicates things, especially in systems where the player has more control about the order in which they acquire their options. The Shin Megami Tensei franchise has one signature breaking point in skill development: Mediarahan - a healing spell that fully heals all allies. Before that point it may take multiple actions to heal your party to full HP, but after that point, one spell is 100% guaranteed to do so (unless someone died). Ultimately you also get a spell that heals all status effects as well, but as a leap it's way less significant than Mediarahan. This one spell completely shuts down any challenges that are designed to whittle down the party's HP faster than they can heal it.

There isn't anything particularly overpowered about Mediarahan, mind you. Many RPGs have some absolutely bonkers, broken shit that, once attained, becomes such a dominant strategy that the game might as well play itself. However, a dominant strategy is just an extreme instance of this phenomenon - it's a strategy that shuts down everything in the game. Usually, slightly too useful skills just shut down certain dynamics from the game. Generally, any options that completely negate something with 100% success rate inherently reduce the impact of certain types of dynamics to zero. It doesn't matter that enemies hit for, say, quadruple damage if all they get is the quadruple of zero due to players entirely avoiding the effects of the attack. There's a cornucopia of examples available (from various games) when it comes to skills that make actual numbers meaningless.

If you look at the toughest boss in Persona 4, Margaret, the first thing she does is to negate any immunities characters may have. This is a recurring theme with optional super-bosses. They simply have to negate some of the player's options entirely, because those options would make it too difficult to create an interesting challenge. Super-bosses are also usually designed for characters close to the maximum level, and access to all options in the game.They are often rather elaborate designs that tend to require very specific things from the player's strategy. In other words, in order to truly create a challenging boss, the designer needs to artificially cut the option space back to a manageable size. While this tends to create rather puzzle-like encounters, it's still welcome as opposed to players being able to absolutely destroy everything in the game with no resistance whatsoever. Of course such encounters should be optional content.

Conclusions

This post has been open so long in my editor that it's time to just release it. Admittedly I'm getting lazier with this blog, and I should probably change the way I treat games. Probably there were more things I intended to mention in this post, but as it stands it sums up the main points I had to say about the game pretty well. The thing about Persona 4, is that it's just incredibly enjoyable to play at every turn. A few sidequests aside, pretty much everything, every single moment, in the game feels meaningful. Although this post explored some dimensions, there's definitely more. There's just this sense of overarching quality that has succeeded in capturing my full attention ever since I started the game for the first time on my PS2, all the way to when I finished my fourth playthrough on Vita.

The re-release has its flaws. Rise in particular gains way too strong abilities if you level up her social link. Likewise the unique, ultimate powers of Chie and Naoto are clearly out of whack. The new very hard difficulty is a bit lazy (it's the same as hard, but you get less experience and money). The new optional dungeon is also quite stupid, and a bit lazy. The original game also had some flaws, like the fact you absolutely had to be on a second playthrough in order to access everything in the game. This is especially annoying for me because they retained this requirement in Golden, meaning I would have to play it once again... but then again, I have already beaten Margaret in the original game in it wasn't really the most challenging secret boss so not a whole lot is lost.

I hope this two part series was useful for understanding why Persona 4 is the perfect fit for me. That way it should also shed some important light on my other posts about other games. I haven't actually played that many games recently, so I have no clear idea what I'm going to write about next.









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