Designing A Game Like An Amateur [Part I] – When Combat Sucks

There’s an old expression in the English language which reads, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and you sure as hell can’t please C³ most of the time.” Whenever I pick up a new story, I, like every other human being on this blue marble, am hoping to gain something from said story, whether it’s a romance to distract me from my forever aloneness or a thrilling epic to make me forget about the mundanity that is our contemporary human society. Sometimes, I get what I set out for. Most of the time, I’m left with a big fat sensation of meh. And then there are the times where the story coerces me into a dark dank alleyway with the promise of candy but then rips open their trench coat to reveal, to my horror, string beans and Brussels sprouts. Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon falls into this last category, except its vegetables are rotten to the core and home to numerous species of insects entomology has yet to identify.

In Fragile Nightmares: Farewell Good Nights of Sleep, you play as Seto, a fifteen-year-old boy raised in a post-apocalyptic Japan by a grumpy old man, whom he finished burying nine seconds before the start of the game. He pokes around the observatory he lives in and finds a letter the grumpy old man left instructing Seto to head to Tokyo Tower, because there maybe quite possibly perhaps may be survivors there, maybe, but it’s hard to tell when settlements don’t hang up giant signs reading Survivors Here. So at call to action, Seto, with his handy-dandy flashlight, embarks on a journey in search of other survivors, maybe. Also, there’s a giant demonic floating mask that attacks him, and by attacks him, I mean makes pompous remarks before buggering off. The game can’t be bothered to do more with this sort than to toss it in every now and then so that the poor, underpaid graphic artist who made it doesn’t feel like his or her efforts were flushed down the septic tank.

Act II kicks off as Seto begins his tour across the ruined Japanese landscape via copyrighted J-Pop music video. While he soaks in the sights and sounds, it’s important to note that Seto, though everything beyond the observatory is new and unknown to him, is resolute in his journey, letting nothing distract him, and ninety seconds later, a girl who calls taking two blankets and tying them around her body a fashion statement distracts him. Finding survivors turns out to be a cakewalk, but when he tries making conversation, she runs off because stranger danger. So Seto, being the fifteen-year-old boy that he is, lets his hormones do the guiding, and he spends the rest of the game chasing after this girl so that he can tell her how pretty the moon is and how pretty she would look with no clothes on.

Ordinarily in my blog posts, I talk about story and how certain aspects of them can be tweaked or improved upon to hopefully make for a better overall storytime, but I’m not planning on discussing the story of Fragile Night Terrors: Farewell High School Sweetheart of Mine. It’s not the greatest story in the world, but there’s no one topic in particular in regards to its narrative that stands out to me where I feel I need to bash my forehead against my keyboard until I have 3,000+ words of my thoughts down. I find more fault with individual scenes than anything the story does as a whole, and the common thread running through those scenes is a giant sign reading Logic Need Not Apply.

For example, late in the game—which translates to spoilers—Seto comes across a functioning radio, and while tuning it across multiple channels for kicks and giggles, he hears, lo and behold, the shouts of multiple survivors alone and crying out for help. It’s a moment of repose and new hope for him, until you realize all of these people are apparently shouting “Help!” and “Is anybody out there?!” on a 24/7 schedule and aren’t bright enough to realize that if they turn their dial slightly to the left, they would have someone to communicate and eventually meet up with. Then they could find more survivors over the radio, build a community, and broadcast a message on repeat stating that all humans should come to the settlement at x, y, and z coordinates, and that could be the human society that Seto’s in search of, but I’m letting my inner editor get carried away. Point is, this scene was included to strike an emotional chord in the player, not for any solid narrative purpose.

As good as it feels in the moment to nitpick this game’s story beats, the end result ultimately wouldn’t make for a comprehensive, compelling, or pedagogic read (which was why I scraped the previous draft of this post). However, there is something else this game botches pretty badly pretty consistently, which should make for a more comprehensive, compelling, and pedagogic read, methinks, and that is its game design philosophy of mechanics over experience.

If you don’t have the slightest idea on game design, let me explain.

A mechanic is a feature in your game. It’s Mario’s jump, Link’s sword swing, Pikachu’s thunderbolt. If you need a metaphorical analogy for comprehension’s sake, think of mechanics as the tools in a toolbox for getting a job done. You’ve got your hammers, your screwdrivers, your saw. Just as you can’t build a house without tools, you can’t get to the end of a level without the proper mechanics in place.

Experience, on the other hand, is how the player…well, experiences the game. It’s the emotions the mechanics are eliciting as the player moves through the levels. Call of Duty and Portal are mechanically similar games, but they’re vastly different experiences, just like how there’s a distinct difference between using a regular screwdriver and a power drill: one is tedious and time-consuming, and the other is actual fun.

There are loads and loads and loads of design issues in Fragile Night Moves: Farewell Last Shreds of My Dignity, and I can explain them all by making the blanket claim that the designers were focused on the mechanics they were inserting rather than the experience they would give the player, and if they were focused on the experience, I wanna know what the hell kind of sick, twisted people worked on this game. If I wanted to keep you here all day, I would go level by level and point out the problem with each individual room, because it is that bad sometimes, but out of respect for your time, I’ll try not to get too carried away or else my inner rage demon will start poking out.

If there’s ever a place to start, I suppose it should be the minute-by-minute gameplay. It’s divided into two main actions: finding goodies and beating on ghoulies. Like in almost literally every game in existence, you can find healing items and weapons littered about the ground, but something more unique to this game is your ability to listen to people’s final thoughts, which they’ve helpfully recorded in old loafers, and I’m only half-joking.

Throughout the game, you’ll find random doodads and knickknacks that you can take back to a bonfire, where you get to hear about someone’s life, sometimes across multiple types of footwear. They can be quite loquacious, and some of those people are real chattermouths, but there’s a charm in relaxing your bones and listening to some campfire stories, and whenever I found a new maccasin, I would drop whatever I was doing and make it my life’s mission to run back to a bonfire so that I could have storytime. My only gripe with this mechanic is the logic behind it. The reason the game gives you for needing to return to bonfires is because a lot of the areas are dark and you need the light of the flames to be able to see what you have, which makes sense, that is until you remember you’re carrying around a bloody flashlight.

I can summarize combat in Fragile Nights in White Satin: Farewell Last Slice of Pizza I’ll Never Get to Eat Because I Dropped it on the Floor using three bulletpoints:

-It’s got no depth.

-It isn’t that interesting.

-It doesn’t stand very well on its own.

In this regard, the game’s combat is analogizeable to a cardboard cutout.

Let me give you the complete comprehensive guide on defeating 90% of the game’s enemies: run up to a baddie and mash the A button. If the baddie is a flying one, just stand still in one spot and it’ll come to you so you can mash it in the pecker with the A button.

There’s this timing mechanic, I should mention, to your attacks where if you time your button presses just right, your follow-up swing will do more damage. Neat, except none of the baddies make it a skill pressing to master, so its only benefit is to save yourself seven seconds. In fact, none of the baddies across the game demand any sort of strategy to defeat. It’s not like in Zelda, where some enemies demand that you remove their shell before you can hurt them or can only be attacked at their head. Enemies in a Zelda title are frequently their own mini-puzzles that require you to both stay on your toes and on top of your head. The best you get from Fragile Night Fever: Farewell Weekend Spent Binge-Watching Naruto Shippuden are floating ghost ladies who want nothing more than to show you their generic enemy weakpoint. But that’s only if you’re within a 1.7 meter radius. Otherwise, they’ll float there till the moon crashes into the Earth.

There is a redeeming factor to baddies, though. Most of them are genuinely creepy and will have you checking that you’ve got your brown breeches strapped to your buttocks before charging headfirst at them.

But the second easiest and fastest way to making something less horrifying is by constantly bombarding the player with it. I honestly had goosebumps the first time I came across the Kakurenbo Ghost—legs cleaved from the body of a child, with wispy tentacles floating from the incision, who skip around, taunting you with their presence. I would have a moment of terror whenever I would waltz through an area and hear their signature giggling coming from my Wiimote speaker, and my next thought at that point would be, “I gotta get outta here!” But, as the introduction sentence to this paragraph suggests, by the 94th time these ghoulies showed up, they were more of a minor nuisance than a macabre horror. The easiest and fastest way to making something less horrifying, in case you’re curious, is by giving the player the ability to slap it across the cheekbone.

One final inclusion to the combat I should mention is that this game has a level-up system. Don’t get too excited if RPG systems are how you get your dopamine kicks, because it’s shallow as a street puddle after a five minute sprinkle. Your only two stats are HP and Attack, and leveling up just increases them slightly. I can’t wrap my head around the madness applied when incorporating this level-up system. Weapons have their own attack stats, and you find plenty of stat-boosting supplements scattered about on the ground, so the addition of a level-up system feels gratuitous, like the developers only tossed it in because a lot of great games have RPG elements to them. In fact, combat as a whole feels like an afterthought that the developers inserted only because they thought the player would grow bored of running down its countless, monotonous, grey corridors during the second half of the game.

Combat is very stiff, tricks you into believing you have more options than you do, and isn’t that engaging when most of the ghoulies just hover there and let you bludgeon them back to death.

“But, C³,” I hear some of you saying. “Seto isn’t Dante from Devil May Cry. He can’t wallop a demon into the air and juggle them there with his guns. If he could, he wouldn’t be an average fifteen-year-old boy with isolation issues.”

And you’re absolutely right, hypothetical, nameless individual. Combat is a reflection of the playable character. Link is a swordsman, Red is a Pokemon trainer, Samus is a bounty hunter, and Ness is a kid with whatever kitchen appliance he happens to be holding. They each possess the talent for going toe-to-toe with whomever wants their face set on fire, and they have to be powerful in order to navigate their environments. James Sunderland of Silent Hill 2 fame is an unremarkable man with no combat experience whatsoever. Therefore, when he picks up a pipe or a pistol, he’s unwieldy with it, so combat in Silent Hill 2 is, put in a simple term, not fun. But that adds to the game’s overall experience. If he were able to pick up a shoulder-mounted bazooka and blast sexy, faceless nurses to smithereens, it would simultaneously blast the heavy atmosphere weighing down on the game.

So it makes complete, total sense that Seto can’t pick up a stick and do with it what Vlad the Impaler did to the Ottomans. It’s more fitting that all he can do is swat at apparitions like they were houseflies. But the disconnect comes with his ability to hurt them in the first place. As I mentioned at the top of this topic, Seto can run up to ghosts and bust them back to the afterlife, which gives him power, and when he has power, he doesn’t feel like an average fifteen-year-old boy struggling in a world that’s no longer friendly to humans.

“I have to admit, C³, that you made some excellent points just now.”

Aww, why thank you! I love when hypothetical, nameless individuals standing in for read, named individuals compliment me. May I have another?

“No. I was going to snobbishly ask, since you know soooo much about game design, how do you suggest we fix this game’s combat? Make the enemies absurdly strong?”

There are several possibilities, but that is a good one.

One of the cruxes of fashioning horror games into horror games is to make the player incredibly weak. In Yomawari: Night Alone, you can’t hurt the yōkai chilling around the neighborhood. The best you can do is distract them with stones and hide in bushes. Same deal in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Remember that one part of the game when you’re in the cellar archives and you come face-to-invisible-face with the Kaernk? You know, that thing that follows you when you’re wadding through water, and the only reason you know it’s following you is because of the slow splashes it makes as it slowly steps closer and closer toward you? That scene alone makes it into many people’s Top 10 Moments I Shit Myself During A Game list for a plethora of reasons, but the player’s lack of power is a biggie. You can technically kill it by launching a barrel at it when it’s nine centimeters from your face, but a.) that’s not obvious in the slightest and b.) barrels are in short supply, so it’s not like they’re lined up, ready and waiting to become airborne. Imagine if the player had a sword and could slice that invisible whatsit in half. Wouldn’t need an adult diaper to finish the game, would you?

All that said, while buffing up the game’s ghoulies is certainly one fix for the combat, I don’t think it’s the best. See, everything else in the game revolves around people, the lives they live, and how their loved ones bring importance to their lives, so nailing on combat is a huge contrast to this narrative focus. And it’s for that reason why, in my unprofessional opinion, that Fragile Endless Summer Nights: Farewell Comfort During the Winter After I Forgot To Pay The Heating Bill would have been better if it didn’t have combat.

Before we can go asserting bold claims like that and not have people snubnose us, we have to place a mirrors across from our favorite chair so that we can have a sit-down and ask ourselves what the combat as it is brings to this game, besides a 17% increase in my drowsiness levels.

In such a bleak setting, combat slips in a sense of hostility to the world. Without it, the post-apocalyptic Japan would feel dead. Lifeless. Like you’re nothing more than a cockroach scuttling across a ruined topography. But throw baddies into the mix and suddenly the world becomes like a haunted manor with a cranky ghost who doesn’t want you there, so it gently nudges you and pushes lamps off nightstands.

The thing to note here is how combat doesn’t automatically equal the world trying to murder your guts. Baddies in a Mario game feel freighters different than baddies in Silent Hill. But Fragile Lonely in the Night: Farewell Hopes And Dreams I’ll Never Fulfill Because I Had Kids wants to straddle both sides of the spectrum at once, with enemies that make us regret living alone and the power to bitchslap them if they so much as look at us funny. Sure, it can feel good to put down three-legged abominations slobbering for a licky-lick of our entrails, but that creates this juxtaposition in how we’re supposed to react to such creatures. Are we supposed to run and hide in the nearest broom closet, are we supposed to charge at them headlong like some romanticized war hero, or are we supposed to just walk past them, because we’ve already killed ninety of these things, and killing another ninety more will be fun as drinking a pot of boiling water?

The best way to answer questions like these is to ask ourselves what’s the purpose of the enemies in our game, and how are we supposed to react to them? Our interactions with baddies in the overwhelming majority of games are the meat and potatoes of the entire product, and most games are able to get away with a they-shoot-me-I-shoot-them-type of relationship. But take a look at Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey. He turns baddies into new modes of public transportation, so the player begins looking at them with a new set of glasses. Stealth games don’t make the average enemy that much more powerful than the player, but you’re generally put at a disadvantage if you go running in headlong, guns a-blazin’, so stealing around them (while also stealing all their useful equipment) becomes the go-to best option for dealing with them.

Bringing the topic back round, what’s the point of all the baddies in Fragile All Night Long: Farewell Favorited YouTube Video That Has Been Blocked In My Country? Does combat really add to the core experience the developers were trying to sculpt? If you watch a trailer (in either language), there’s not a single baddy in sight, so if they’re not important for the marketing, why are they important to include in the first place?

I’m not just niggling this game because the combat’s bad (though I also can’t honestly admit that I would be making these points if the combat was good to begin with). When you add something to a game, especially a mechanic as persistent as combat, that changes the overall product in some manner, big or small. Imagine if Dark Souls didn’t have all those baddies hiding behind doorways or acting as bait to distract the player from a murderous skeleton standing just outside the camera’s reach. That’s not much more than changing their x, y, z coordinates, but it goes a long way in impacting how players approach the game and traverse its settings.

When you get down to it, though, I feel as though Fragile Hollywood Nights: Farewell TV After I Flung My Controller In A Fit Of Rage is a victim of the default thinking on the developer’s part (and the player’s part) that a game can’t be proper game without some sort of combat system. The topic of the game’s sticky association with combat and competitiveness is its own can of worms too massive to crack open here, but this video should do the job nicely of cluing you in to where I’m coming from. The developers, I bet, were afraid that players would get bored with nothing to do but find old cleats and read cryptic messages on walls, so they patched together some ghoulies, gave Seto the capability to swing his arm forward in an attacking motion, and called it a day.

So then what would replace combat, and what sort of experience would that bring? There’s literally a million different answers, more than 900,000 of them wrong (I doubt this game would fare well as a Need for Speed knockoff), but I think the solution to this dilemma lies tucked deep away within this game’s large intestine.

The very first mechanic of this game I mentioned was Seto digging up old pumps and listening to self-published Kindle titles on them, and while on paper it sounds like a snore to find an item and bring it back to a specific location to listen to somebody monologue about how fantastic the clouds were looking, it surprisingly plays better than you might expect.

Human beings love stories, and if you don’t believe me, go up to a stranger, say to them, “Let me tell you a story,” and watch as their eyes gloss over as you tell them about that one morning your cat threw up in your slippers.

The very first hightops storyline the game has you eavesdrop on tells the brief tale of a mother and child’s unknowing last moments together, and while it at first seems like just backstory, it bleeds into the present day when Seto has to exorcise kid’s ghost by playing the world’s most frustrating game of hide-and-go-seek. This past-present-gameplay merging is neat, but this is the only time Fragile You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Nights): Farewell Childhood Pet Goldfish Of Mine After I Forgot To Feed You bothers with this. The rest of the old clogs you listen to are strictly backstory, so it seems like the game tried being creative with this mechanic exactly once, ran out of ideas, and then slouched back on its couch to watch Netflix. Some of the recordings have you piecing together what exactly is going on and if the narrator is even a proper human being, so why not make this the gameplay, too? If Seto needs a key to get into a room but hears someone from an old lita remark, “Oops! I think I dropped that room key in the toilet bowl,” then that should hint him on where to find the needed key.

As they are, the old brogues recordings are simply entertainment for the player. They listen to them because they want to have storytime. But give them the dual purpose of also supplying hints about how to solve a mystery in a specific area, then suddenly, the player will listen to them with a whole new set of ears. They have a new filter. If a reader is reading a fiction novel and the narrator narrates how they buried their most precious treasure on Milkshake Island, the most you’ll get from them is how neat that sounds. But if what their reading is a non-fiction novel and makes mention of a buried treasure on Milkshake Island, the most you’ll get from them is a trip to the nearest Home Depot and travel agent so they can fly there and start digging.

Same story, yet two vastly different experiences based simply on what the game is asking for via its mechanics.

Okay, this blog post is getting super long, and if I include the other mechanics I want to talk about and the terrible experiences they deliver, I’ll be able to submit this manuscript to a publishing house to retail for $11.99. One more point I would like to dot is that Seto doesn’t need to rely exclusively on old sneakers for solving mysteries in our hypothetical version of Fragile Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever: Farewell Best GameBoy Game That My Neighbor’s Asshole Kid Stole. I mean, he has a flashlight that midway through gets upgraded to be able to reveal creepy messages scrawled in blood. No doubt those could drop one or two hints. All of the ingredients are there for giving the player mysteries to solve, but the game never thinks to do anything with them beyond inserting them just ’cause.

Disclaimer, in case I’m coming off as some prudish boar: I don’t necessarily think nor believe that Fragile Rocking Into The Night: Farewell Computer After I Downloaded Too Much Pornography being reimagined into a mystery is the definitive best version for it. It’s difficult to playtest a game there’s no build for, and it’s even more difficult to discuss the exact emotions behind an experience, since emotions are best felt and not described. Take this entire blog post as a brainstorming exercise to get the creative juices flowing in aspiring game developers. If you don’t agree with me, well, you can’t say I made the claim that you absolutely, positively would.

Go ahead and check out Part II here today and maybe learn a thing or two on objectives like going to do a thing and crossing catwalks without falling down to your death and dying.

2 thoughts on “Designing A Game Like An Amateur [Part I] – When Combat Sucks

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