Joy in Repetition

 

Sometimes I find playing video games to be hard work, there’s often a lot of set up to the story, a lot of dialogue to get through and you’re lucky if the level of attention needed to follow the story is worth it at all. You have to learn the controls, in Skyrim on the PlayStation 4 for example, jump is on the ‘Triangle’ button, sprint on the ‘L1’ button. In front of me there is a gap I need to jump over, so I attempt to run towards to gap and my brain makes me hold in the ‘L3’ button so my character is now crouching and not running, then I press the ‘Cross’ button which isn’t triangle and instead of jumping I fall off a tower and die. In terms of time spent on a game, it’s a lot to ask. I recently finished Persona 5 and it took me around 100 hours to finish, I think the game is great, I loved almost every aspect of it but just thinking of doing anything for 100 hours makes me want to give up instantly. Watching a film that’s 3 hours long is often a slog and that’s a passive thing. You don’t have to ensure Don Corleone has eaten enough Tagliatelle when watching The Godfather so he doesn’t die in the assassination attempt where all the oranges spill into the road (what a mess), although Fredo fumbling with his gun as the assailants flee sums up my most of my firefights in games.  

I’ve decided to try something out, and that’s to force myself to play things over and over and see if I can find enjoyment from repetitively playing something. There’s a genre of video games that lend themselves to this style of play and that’s ‘Roguelikes/Rogue-lites’ which are ‘run’ based. A ‘run’ being your attempt at beating the game before dying and having to start over.

The genre of Roguelikes/Rogue-lites get their name from the 1980 video game ‘Rogue’ a dungeon crawler where the game’s visuals were created entirely in ASCII, your character was an ‘@’ symbol just to give you an idea as to what it looked like. Modern day examples of the genre contain some (to varying degrees) of the following elements of game design: Random environment generation, permadeath, exploration, dungeons, tile-sets, etc. RPG elements are also a staple of the genre along with the game generally being single player, if you want a more comprehensive run down of the definition of Roguelike games google ‘The Berlin Interpretation’ and have at it. There’s still a lot of discussion as to what is a Rogue-lite or Roguelike game, how I perceive it is, if the game is like Rogue it’s a Roguelike and if it has some elements of Rogue but not all of them it’s a Rogue-lite and the two basically mean the same thing, I just want to stop typing ‘Rogue’, ‘lite’ and ‘like’. Thank you.

I’ve chosen a game I know well, then a game in the same genre which I’ve never touched and then finally a game which doesn’t really fit in with the other two ‘run’ based games.

 

Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

 

Binding of Isaac is a top down, dual stick shooter with procedurally generated elements, you play as Isaac (there are other characters to choose from) and you’re tasked with escaping from your deranged mother by heading into unknown depths only to find a world full of hideous monsters and bosses.

First I’m going to talk about my repeated runs of Binding of Isaac, knowing what I know about the game, the times could vary greatly so I’ve chosen to do 8 runs, I feel as though I can get the full gamut of the experience in these parameters. Here’s what I found.

Run 1. 09:58mins Run 5. 02:46mins
Run 2. 36:20mins Run 6. 34:58mins
Run 3. 37:56mins Run 7. 37:59mins
Run 4. 03:25mins Run 8. 35:12mins

After my 8 runs using Isaac at the normal difficulty, I found the experience varied a little each time, generally things moved slowly at the beginning and difficulty was steady up to the “Mom” boss at that point difficulty ramps up considerably.

Generally in each run your aim is to find certain power-ups, these alter the way in which you play the game, for example some change the shot type splitting the tears that Isaac cries (which act as a gun) into a spread shot, another variation you could find is a charge shot in which you hold down a direction and then let go at the apex to unleash a more powerful attack, the downside is that you have to be more focused in the way you attack rather than the normal continuous firing mode. Other changes can bring protections to standing on spikes or acid, some can make you plough through bricks in a level, bricks can sometimes contain money or hearts and even secret areas. Accumulating these power ups can create some powerful ways to beat levels. In addition to power-ups there are items that build up your stats, luck, shot speed, health, damage etc. All of these things need to be built up to increase your chances to beat bosses, clear levels and head further down to the end game.

The problem is the random nature of the game. You can start a run, progress at an even pace but ultimately don’t really build your chances of beating the end game. Playing the game well doesn’t really reward you in a meaningful way either, the things that really aid progress are things like keys and bombs, as these allow you to enter rooms that could potentially contain some power-up or stat increase, however the way in which you acquire them is down to chance. I found myself playing early parts of the game knowing full well that when I get past the ‘Mom’ boss I won’t be powerful enough and no amount of skillful play will help me achieve my goal. When I play normally I find myself abandoning runs early because I’m just not picking up anything useful, this game can be punishing too, many times you find yourself worse off with some power-ups, one item I picked up would warp me out of an room whenever I got hit, resetting enemies so I would have to clear the room again, only to be hit on the final or so enemy and having to repeat the room again.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the game I’m almost certain I’ve put over 100 hours into it maybe more considering I played the original version on PC. Some runs make you incredibly powerful and clearing rooms and subsequent areas a breeze. It’s just that it happens so rarely. However you can change that by using other characters and even changing the difficulty, what might seem more difficult initially can lead to better drops and increased chances at better power-ups, even then you’re not guaranteed a good run which is kind of the rub with this game, if every run made you incredibly powerful, you wouldn’t feel powerful anymore and you wouldn’t have ‘good’ runs, they’d all be the same. When everything comes together, it’s bliss.  

 

Sublevel Zero: Redux

This is the first time I’m touching Sublevel Zero, I watched the trailer and I knew it was a six degrees of freedom shooter and because I knew what Descent (1995) was, I felt like I knew what I was getting into. Descent and its successive 6DOF games put the player in a spaceship, within the confines of a sprawling structure, the game is played in first person and allows movement in six degrees:

1.Forward and back  2.Up and down 3.Left and right 4.Pitch 5.Yaw  6.Roll

Sublevel Zero in addition to being a 6DOF shooter is a procedurally generated roguelike, levels, enemy placement and rewards are randomly generated based on their ‘Sublevel’. There’s also a crafting component, adding blueprints is a permanent addition to the game and they can be accessed through all playthroughs. Found that a certain weapon works with your play style, find the materials you need then craft it, there’s no need to find the weapon in the environment and due to the random nature of the game you wouldn’t be sure you’d even find it in that playthrough. Anyway here’s an overview of my ‘runs’…ew.

Run 1. 26:57 Run 3. 45:29
Run 2. 12:35 Run 4. 1:09.56

Initially I found it difficult to find my bearings, being in first person and needing to be aware of things that were not in my field of view took some getting used to, enemies can attack you from anywhere. Also just getting used to the menus which aren’t the most intuitive if I’m honest, from the menu you can eyeball your picked up loot, hulls for ships, guns, missiles etc and while you’re doing this the game continues in the background, so while you’re dropping excess loot (because you can only hold so much) you’re also being shot to bits while you do it. So it helps to have menus that are easy to parse. The music is good, the weapon variety is fine and after my first run I felt like I got it, make your way through this facility which contain tight corridors, caverns and slightly more open areas for fighting multiple enemies, eventually you’ll reach this big ‘thing’ that looks like a round disco ball that shoots beams out everywhere, the disco ball  fills the role of a boss, the difficulty of each boss gets harder adding more attacks etc, within the ‘thing’ is a ‘flux drive’ and with these flux drives allow you to escape the facility and win.

Things clicked in my third run, I unlocked a new ship called the ‘Hulk’ I picked up quite a few upgrades and some new blueprints, I was being rewarded for playing and I felt better about how I performed, I finished a ‘sublevel’ and had 2 pips of health out of 100 or so, at that point it dawned on me that being more careful would’ve meant I could progress further than I did (bit of a simple thing), on starting my fourth run I decided to switch the difficulty to ‘Normal’ I was playing on ‘Classic’ to see how different things would be on a more forgiving difficulty. This lead to a mammoth session lasting just over an hour, because things were a fair bit easier I saw more of what the game had to offer, I felt like I could take in my surroundings more, I started to enjoy the act of playing the game, even switching up the movement in the options from the more fragmented rotation to a smoother analogue rotation which allowed me to freely spin around (do a barrel roll!) and out maneuver enemies, and out of nowhere I was having fun, the music was now great and was sort of falling in love with the big chunky sprites and pretty much all aspects of its presentation. I beat the last boss and saw credits,I unlocked 2 blueprints and two additional ‘Sub-levels’ also the game suggested that although I had escaped there was more story to see. Looking through the various menus lead me to believe there was quite a lot more to do. The game really grew on me in the end and I look forward to playing more of it.

 

Battlefield 1

BF1 is the wildcard in this collection of games I’m looking at, it’s not a rogue-lite/roguelike, it doesn’t have procedurally generated elements, it doesn’t have ‘runs’ per say and it’s multiplayer (There is a single player element but I’m only looking at the multiplayer part). However I’m going to attempt to approach it in the same way, runs could work the same way, each death being a ‘run’, there are unlockable things like weapons, medals and cosmetic options so you are rewarded much like I’ve seen in the two other games I’ve looked at. I suppose the main reason I’m looking at the particular game is that I don’t really enjoy online competitive multiplayer games, at least I don’t anymore. I played Battlefield 1942 quite a bit back in the day but only with friends, I played a decent amount of the subsequent games in the series, I also played a decent amount of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the follow up Modern Warfare 2. The thing I came away with after playing those games is that they’re enjoyable up to a point, far more enjoyable with friends because it can offer some entertainment even if you’re playing horribly and dying a lot, if you stop playing for a few days you lose your knack for it, newcomers will find themselves at a pretty big disadvantage because people that enjoy these types of games tend to play religiously.

Anyway, I booted the multiplayer up and played the mode called ‘Operations’, this appears to combine a few game types into one, and then mix in some story elements. The time it took to get going was incredibly long, and then came what I predicted, absolute mayhem. I did note down my time to death and how many times I died like I’ve done with Binding of Isaac and Sublevel Zero, but I’m not going to post the times, it’s quicker to just say of the fifteen times I died overall I only managed to stay alive for a minute each time. Fifteen deaths in fifteen minutes. Upon spawning onto the battlefield I was greeted with a hail of gunfire from all directions, enemies rushing the shoreline, and airplanes dropping explosives on my head. I had no idea where I was, what the enemy looked like and what I was supposed to do, objective markers showed where to go but as I said, one minute later and I was dead. I changed my player class from ‘Assault’  your average soldier to ‘Medic’ the guy that heals people, and boy was there plenty of people to heal or revive, bodies were dropping all around me and all I could do was leap down next to them before pulling out a syringe before jabbing it into the air, I flailed around for a few seconds pressing buttons at random panicking the entire time before getting a bullet in the head. Fifteen deaths in fifteen minutes. Gladly voice chat wasn’t on, another reason I avoid online multiplayer games is my aversion to being called homophobic and racist slurs for hours on end through a cheap microphone as their television blares in the background, I find it distracts me from dying over and over.

The session soon ended, I was bottom of the leader board and I felt completely overwhelmed by what I’d just seen, it was safe to say this approach to playing the game like the others was not going to achieve similar results. I decided to abandon timing each death and instead do some quick research on how to play the medic class, I thought that if I wasn’t going to kill many people I could at least postpone others dying so quickly. Once I figured out how to throw bandages out and how to revive fallen players, I’d jump back in and stick to playing ‘Conquest’ mode (which is a staple of previous games) meaning I could get into matches a bit quicker. A few matches later I managed to get twenty kills, it kind of didn’t matter that I also died twenty times I was at least improving and I was enjoying my time as a medic, sticking to a squad and providing support. After two hours, things started to make sense and I could then play fairly well.

The learning curve was much steeper than the two other games I’ve looked at and I think that’s because you’re playing against other people, there’s no standard enemy behaviour to observe, you can’t approach every gunfight the same way because your enemy has actual intelligence behind it, for example if you need to take a building your enemy knows that you need to occupy that space, so they can throw a gas grenade into that space, stand inside the gas and you’ll choke, to avoid choking you can put your gas mask on, this makes it harder to see and you lose your ability to look down the sight of your weapon making your attacks less accurate. Your enemy can also destroy buildings, flank you and generally just run rings around you, and the only way to beat them is to play the game over and over and get better at it. So I did play over and over and you know what, I actually got better at the game and as if by magic started to enjoy the game. The game looks really good, the ‘theaters’ of war are impressive and when it comes to scope the Battlefield series is the only one that does it like this, having a large number of players at once (up to 64), then having the ground and air taken up by tanks, planes, motorbikes, cars, boats, battleships, blimps and horses keeps the game from ever feeling dull, it really does feel like a full on battle rather than a reskinned Quake map. Even in the most basic of warfare, running through trenches with your squad in the dead of night as artillery rains down on you is exhilarating. Watching a friendly tank miraculously squeeze down a side street in pursuit of enemy infantry is hilarious as it is impressive. You feel like a small part of a much larger battle which is I suppose what the series has always been about.

However, other than the gameplay itself the rewards are few and far between, you have battle chests which act like loot boxes and within these boxes are weapon skins which honestly don’t look all that great, I don’t particular notice my gun and I don’t really care what it looks like. I don’t notice other people’s guns either and I can’t imagine they care what your gun looks like, so all in all you have a lot of superfluous nonsense as your reward. You can also unlock weapons by doing certain weapon specific actions, like get ‘X’ amount of kills with ‘X’ rifle to unlock this other gun, which is fine I suppose and it does force you to use other weapons you wouldn’t normally but I didn’t find it all that engaging, I think I’d have to play the game considerably more to really feel the benefit of other weapons, so far I’ve just focused on my position in the game and my actions, not running into wide open spaces, not rushing to revive other people for them to be killed again, using cover, flanking the enemy, not chasing enemies and instead allowing them to come to me so I can take advantage of their not knowing where I am. I think once you have the fundamentals down, then you can tweak around the edges and really find a weapon to your liking, the weapon to my liking is just which ever one I use the most and am used to. I’m not really good enough at the game to see the benefit, (nor am I ever going to be) but at least I have the option to stick to being a medic, with my one gun that I like and play the game that I’m most comfortable with.

I do think for a game that is set in World War One, it’s a bit fast and frantic, I think a lot of people were worried upon hearing that this game was set so far back in time relative to most shooters, either taking place in the current day, the near future or in World War Two, that the game would be slow and the weapons mostly similar but there’s a decent amount of variety and I think the developers have made sure that the pace of the game stays in line with most shooters, but I honestly would’ve appreciated something a little more considered and tactical. When you play the game everyone is running everywhere, there’s a lot of rushing to different points on the map, dying and then rushing back again. I suspect a bigger departure from the series would risk alienating their core fan base, it does seem that the soon to be released Battlefield V has slowed things down somewhat so it’ll be interesting to see if that improves things or that there’s a reason they keep the game so speedy.

So what have I taken away from this, I think to really enjoy these games there needs to be an even ramping up in difficulty, I found that Binding of Isaac doesn’t really increase in difficulty evenly despite having easily identifiable signifiers for difficulty, the deeper you go down the dungeon the harder it gets, in each new level the chance of encountering more powerful enemies increases, the problem occurs in that you don’t really gain much from overcoming the increase in challenge, in Binding of Isaac your rewards are based on chance so you often feel as though you have good runs and bad runs that aren’t really connected to the way that you play, you can play perfectly, never taking damage, finding most of the secrets, gaining access to every benefit that the game allows but you can still end up feeling underpowered by the time you defeat the ‘Mom’ boss (which is where the game really begins), and knowing that unless you find some game changing power-up (which can happen) you will end up dying soon and having to start over again. In Sublevel: Zero there’s still a random element to what rewards you get but I feel like most of the challenge can be overcome by playing well, however there’s a lack of variation in your power ups and loot which is probably why you do have to rely on your level of skill. In that respect there’s more depth in Binding of Isaac, I just wish you were guaranteed rewards that propel you further, there might be a an additional level of skill or something else that I’m missing but Isaac is obtuse and hides quite a lot from the player, it adds to the mystique of the game but I’ve played the game for Christ knows how long and still can’t reliably explore a lot of the end game stuff.  Where Battlefield 1 is obviously a lot different to these games I think there still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to more permanent rewards, guns and skins for said guns just doesn’t do it for me. I’d be interested in some sort of ranking system which alters your objectives, if you’re a lower rank medic perhaps your objectives could be ‘heal 5 players’, ‘kill 2 enemies’ ‘revive 2 teammates’ and if you’re a higher ranking medic you could perhaps have more difficulty in those objectives ‘heal 6 squadmates’, ‘revive 2 snipers’, ‘kill 5 medics’, ‘help capture 3 objectives’ etc. Still, thanks to the class system you can give yourself roles that suit your play style, the game does have other objectives but they’re not class specific and because they’re not tailored towards me I just don’t want to engage with them.

I have found that the best reward in all of these games is just the gameplay loop, playing over and over gets you into a flow and once you’re in that flow you start to enjoy the small things about the games. There’s a lot of character and variation in Binding of Isaac and it’s breadth of content is a rarity, the chunky visuals in Sublevel Zero are enjoyable and the feeling of flying a spaceship is a joy once you get a hang of it and I don’t think I’d have truly understood why Battlefield 1 is so good if I’d given up after dying fifteen times in fifteen minutes, the more I played the higher I ended up in the leaderboards and that was gratifying in its own way, making sure I was always there for my squad to heal or revive them when they needed me, made me feel like I was doing a good job.

I find that I struggle to get over the initial hump in learning how to play a game and then get good at it, many times over when the story in a game is a let down it’s a deflating experience and the gameplay itself becomes secondary to my enjoyment. Playing a game for the gameplay alone is something I don’t do often, I kind of want a game to do everything and as a preference I will seek out games that tell a good story but honestly playing something because it’s fun can’t be beaten, I’ve found through playing these repeatedly that overcoming a challenge will always be an engaging experience and to not always rely on narrative to get its hooks into me, gameplay is still king it seems, at least for now.

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