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April 17, 2012

Aesthetics: The Grind

Lately I've played a couple of JRPGs which enable the player to grind at any point in the game to improve party stats and make for easier short-term play. It was only this morning, playing a bit of a third JRPG about which I'll blog more when I finish, I came to appreciate the aesthetics behind grinding for experience.

Often, in the first hours of play of these sorts of games is an exploratory time -- the player is just learning the mechanics of combat, whether it has a real-time aspect or contains limit breaks that can be unlocked, learning the most effective attacks or spells of the various party members, exploring the experience and leveling skill trees. This is a time where no single strategy has yet been chosen, and where grinding may not even feel like grinding to the eager new player; it's a time when I'm often excited by and truly getting lots of enjoyment just from the first blush of these encounters. Any extra random encounters here are often welcomed, at least by me, and aren't seen as any kind of chore. There's value here, too, in getting a sense for how frequent one can expect random encounters and the sorts of rewards and challenge they may bring. It's a time of tentative exploration of the basic combat mechanics that the player will face.

As one approaches the mid-game, the grind is a somewhat more practical matter -- the player can modulate his own level of challenge, or develop capabilities in characters who may not have been his initial first choices as primary party members, in an attempt to deepen the bench, as it were. The game is less exploratory at this time, but deeper aspects of play may require more playtime to understand or even to acquire, as with skills that take a certain amount of experience to unlock or use. A certain amount of random encounters will still occur, as is their nature, but fundamentally they can be minimized if the player so chooses since he's more familiar with the map and the controls. Random encounters don't pose much of a threat at this stage, but the player may have unlocked areas that provide a greater challenge, so grinding really is just another tool in his toolbox.

At the end of the game, however, the player has basically exhausted the extents of the combat systems -- he has, at this point, explored every corner of the battle mechanics that has interested him or has been largely required by play. Here the grind is undertaken almost entirely tactically to raise skills to the point of being able to defeat the game's final challenges, those often multi-stage or multi-step battles of increasing difficulty that so often cap JRPGs. Here, the better the player, the better the understanding of just how much extra effort into additional power-leveling will be required to surmount these final challenges.

When the player perfectly matches that growth curve, the final challenges of the game will approach the sublime as the player has just enough power to surmount them. This is when, at its best, the player is judging exactly what the game will demand of him to its thinnest margin -- after hours and hours of play, additional random encounters feel unnecessary and only delay the final payoff of those final moments, those final victories. The truly attentive player will squeeze through these last battles by the very skin of his characters' teeth, so near to death that it seems a humongous victory.

In my recent JRPG play, I didn't quite attain that level of understanding, though in Final Fantasy VII I came close, having only to grind a little bit as I took on that final battle, failing once. Final Fantasy Tactics, though, I completely misjudged, returning out to the world's map to grind several times to meet subsequent challenges. Both grinds will stick with me for a long time.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:12 PM | Comments (1)

April 10, 2012

Sustaining Interest in MGS

I spent a little more time thinking about how Metal Gear Solid worked its magic on me recently; my post yesterday didn't really capture how the game worked its aesthetic on me, so I thought I'd try again today. I stand by everything I said in that post, but it just doesn't really get at the rhythm of the game that worked so well for me.

What really made MGS so effective wasn't just the pacing of its elements, but the rhythm and interplay between stealth, boss battle, exposition, and communication with the team. Although this last is really just another form of narrative, it's nonetheless generally initiated by the player, and provides a mechanism for slowing down the pace and also looking for suggestions or hints as to enemy weaknesses.

I felt the most appreciation for this rhythm in the battle with Gray Fox. I had had the lead-up animation to set the stage (complete with quivering dead guy in the hallway, and then Otacon getting chased into the closet). Next up was the beginning of the battle with Gray Fox, which stymied me for a time -- while I learned his methods and got pretty good at avoiding him, it felt like my shots on him were doing next to no damage. So I called up "The Master" on my Codec and got some tips -- switch to hand-to-hand! Eventually, through many attempts, I bested him, using the opportunities of him regrouping in the corner and talking at me to try and think about what I'd do next. After the battle was at last won, I had exposition with Otacon to work through to think about the next step. Terrific, terrific rhythm of combat.

The other time I most appreciated the rhythm was when it seemed to be gone -- fighting Liquid Snake atop the Metal Gear, there was a fairly brief cutscene after and no opportunity to consult my Codec. Then it went straight to another big action scene as I tried to escape the building as the gunner on the Jeep driven by Meryl. While I wasn't really bothered by this section, as I knew I had to be approaching the end, the rhythm of environmental stealth/comms/cutscenes/battles was nonetheless noticeably different to me, and highlighted the importance of that rhythm in maintaining my excitement throughout the game. This is how it plays out in my memory, in any case, though I know it's not entirely accurate -- that last Jeep ride out of the building felt far too long after the hand-to-hand battle which preceded it.

Other modern games do a good job maintaining a similar rhythm; I've seen it in the Uncharted series and God of War as well. But the agency of being able to step aside for a moment to converse with your team isn't something that I've seen in many other games, and it's a great tool to allow players to moderate their own gaming rhythm, not to mention a low-cost one. I expect it to return in the sequels, but I'd love to see similar mechanisms elsewhere in games, both to widen the cast and to give me an opportunity to make my own breathing room.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:28 PM | Comments (0)

April 09, 2012

I Should Have Finished... Metal Gear Solid

When I received a PlayStation 2 for Christmas from my then employer, LucasArts, there weren't a lot of launch titles that held my interest, save SSX, so I asked around for recommendations from the last generation that might be of interest, since the system was backwards compatible. Many suggested Metal Gear Solid as one of the finest games ever made.

When I first tried it out a dozen or so years ago, I really didn't care for it -- I really enjoyed the systemic stealth aspect, but I complained to friends about the individual boss battles, and they made it clear to me that there would be more of that coming. I stuck with it for a while, though, until I had an encounter with Sniper Wolf I simply couldn't surpass. I got frustrated, put the game down, and never returned to it.

A few years ago my friend Tim Longo wrote up his playthrough of the series¹. I can remember being there when we all first saw the game... I was working on what would become Star Wars: Starfighter at the time. His return to the whole series was in some ways an inspiration for me returning to unfinished games on my shelves.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about the plot, though my overriding feeling about it was that I truly appreciated both its detail and its ultimately anti-war stance. (The bit about Decoy Octopus impersonating the DARPA Chief, and the three-day-old body was particularly inspired, because I puzzled over it just as Snake did.) In a way, the nuclear paranoia intersecting with a terrorist act is particularly prophetic of the paranoiac society in which we now live; these themes resonate even fourteen years on, even if modern players would be put off by the low polygon models. With regards to the narrative, I also appreciated the idea of a team of people backing up this lone agent, giving the sense that he wasn't alone in there. I found the frequent focus on Meryl's polygonal hip sway and "wiggle" a little less endearing.

The play holds up terrifically -- doling out elements at a reasonable pace but making them really pay off by reinforcing them with the narrative. Although certain parts felt like unnecessary lengthening (such as returning back through most of the first half of the game to retrieve a sniper rifle to face Sniper Wolf, or the second torture session with Revolver Ocelot), I generally felt propelled forward even when I was dying frequently.

Around the time I was finishing up with MGS, the New York Times Magazine had a "riff" lamenting the fall of the Hollywood action movie, which reached its greatest heights in the 1980s, and which has been supplanted by unsurprising CGI-laden films for the most part ever since, in a long decline². But an audience looking for those sorts of films should instead turn to games: when Solid Snake downs Liquid Snake's Hind helicopter, he quips, "That'll take care of the cremation." Pitch perfect, as is Liquid's frequent return, just like Die Hard's Karl (Alexander Gudonov). Hollywood action films didn't go away... they just went somewhere we can experience them more viscerally.

I have the Metal Gear sequels on my shelves, and I'll get to them eventually. I'm very much looking forward to them.

¹I had to track down Tim's posts via the Wayback Machine, which makes me think he's abandoned his blog (or at least, forgotten to pay off the domain name registrar or whatever). I hope he'll come back to blogging at some point, I enjoyed giving him a hard time.

²I think this winter's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a welcome counter to that, but even so, it was no Die Hard.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:07 AM | Comments (0)