Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Solution is Fisticuffs

This feature is also available at n-Europe, found here.

The Menu-Based RPG. Iconic for the games that come under it, the way it changed perspectives on game design, and the impact it had on gaming culture. It's also a genre that's fallen almost entirely out of favour with the present gaming scene; all due to two common design features.

The first is grinding, a concept that - if you're reading this - is most likely known to you. The process of doing a task over and over until you're in the condition to progress. It could appear in subtle fashions, but because grinding can lengthen a 10 hour game into 20 hours, the games of old used it to make the title worth the high sale price, and the games of today use it to keep you firmly glued to your screen.

The second is something I call 'Stats as Progression'. It's something also familiar to RPG players, but it's less commonly discussed. Since the classic definition of the RPG is based around concepts of pen and paper games like Dungeons & Dragons, RPG characters have their abilities quantified. I'm talking about Health Points, Defence, Agility... Let's just call them your 'Numbers'. As a shorthand for your character growing stronger, these Numbers increase as you fight and win battles. The player can feel as though progress is being made, but in games without an action element, they can remove 'agency' from the player a little. It's frustrating to have an attack miss, just because a hidden calculation dictates so.

Final Fantasy
Combine these two ideas in one game, and you have a system where progression through the game is dictated by how high your Numbers are. And to get your Numbers to a level where progression is possible, you need to grind – most likely through killing enemies. But if this was just a flat proportion of Numbers Required to Time Playing, the game wouldn't feel like it's increasing in difficulty. So to combat this, the time grinding to get to the target Numbers gets progressively longer.

Does this sound like a game you've played before? I'm sure you can name a few. The thing is, when that's all that there is to a game's progression, the only aspect of a player that's being challenged is their patience. In an action-oriented game, to progress requires a steady increase in skill. Here, the player's skill need never improve.

Honestly, it's the number one reason why I, personally, will stop playing a game. Grinding is not fun by itself, and if the process isn't made engaging, or the reward doesn't feel worth the effort, then it's time to move on to greener pastures.

To avoid a game where winning is simply a matter of having the biggest Numbers, game designers need to look at what exactly their barriers to progress are, and how they can give the players more agency. It's almost like... a puzzle.

Puzzling Punch-Ups Performed on Paper

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is my favourite title on the GameCube. Its aesthetics were top-notch and would be enough for me to love the game alone, but it was the gameplay that sold me. PM:TTYD turned combat into a performance, figuratively and literally. To defeat enemies by just selecting your strongest attack was inefficient, and in some cases outright impossible – success came to those who mastered the infamous 'timed hits'.

And it wasn't just about attack execution – many enemies were designed with a puzzle-solving element. Beyond Mario's skill-set of stomps and hammers, he gets an entourage of partners who each have their own special skills. Koops the Koopa Troopa is immune to damage from spikes. Vivian the Shadow Siren can pull Mario into the ground, avoiding attacks that would otherwise be unblockable. As your partners are introduced to you, the fights get more demanding, requiring you to use your new abilities effectively.

To have battles be 'perfect' puzzles, the abilities of the player have to be known at all times. This can be a hard thing to incorporate into the normal RPG style. While this works for Zelda games, where access to every weapon is carefully timed with what dungeons and bosses you'll be fighting; imagine if Pokémon limited the monsters available to you for Gym battles! It would definitely be more challenging, but a lot more restrictive.

Examples off the Beaten Path

Puzzle QuestSome titles get around this by making the method of combat puzzle-like, rather than detailed strategies to defeat specific enemies. Puzzle Quest immediately comes to mind (though I find it a bad example, as the computer tends to cheat), but if you take a dip into the esoteric there are some good examples.

The 2009 DS title Radiant Historia was, in many respects, generic. The setting, characters and writing were entirely uninteresting (at times painfully so). However, it had a fascinating battle system. Enemies you fight hang out on a 3x3 grid, and can be repositioned by your party's attacks. Consecutive attacks will chain together, so with some careful planning you can force all foes onto the same panel, taking heavy damage with every attack.

Baten Kaitos was a beautifully weird GameCube game that featured cards as your means of attack. While each card had its own ability, they also came marked with a number; creating 'chains' of cards with incrementing numbers was vital to dealing good damage. As such, building your deck of attacks was a very involved and careful process.
Final Fantasy XIII (forgive me for not using a Nintendo example) was heavily criticised for being linear, but that meant the game ensured that each fight would be a worthy challenge – and its battle system (which revolved around changing team tactics on the fly to keep up with fast and vicious enemy strategies) made for some of the most intense fights I've played in a main-series Final Fantasy.

The Paper Mario of the Present

With the release of Paper Mario Sticker Star, fans everywhere fiercely compared it to the lofty heights of Thousand Year Door. Unsurprisingly it doesn't hold up, but not because it's inherently bad... just different.

With the sticker gimmick that Sticker Star is based around, it takes the idea of battles being puzzles to extremes. The puzzles outside of battle have direct impact on your progress in battle, and vice-versa. For those who aren't familiar with the game, Mario's abilities are taken from an inventory of stickers. Solving puzzles in the field and attacking in battle uses the same resource, and stickers are single-use.

Paper Mario Sticker StarThis turns Sticker Star into a giant resource-management puzzle. Every battle forces you to decide between using your best skills now or later – but hoarding stickers results in dead weight. Running out will cost you time and money to replenish your stocks (so failure isn't crippling), but you're gently encouraged to collect any stickers you find – even if they appear useless.

This is all well and good on paper (har har), but for those expecting a more tried-and-true RPG experience, the different approach to battles has proven a little off-putting. Still, this shouldn't dissuade any Paper Mario sequels – or the Menu-Based RPG genre as a whole – from getting wild and experimental with their enemy slaying. 'Solving' a battle brings out a sense of satisfaction wholly different from sweeping digital vistas or satisfyingly chunky gun feedback.

In a gaming climate where the big-name RPGs are action-oriented, open world affairs; the Menu-Based RPG is slowly being forgotten. While no one will be too sad to see rigid, grind-heavy affairs fall by the wayside, there have been innovative puzzle-like experiences through the console generations. Who knows, maybe the next big RPG title of 2013 will challenge our minds in unforeseen ways.

A Professor Layton RPG, maybe? Hmm.

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