Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gaining ground on Gain Ground: a Duologue

at 4:02 PM
Duologue. Diatribe. Dissension. Declamation. Double Talk. Double Talk. It's alllll talk. So is this feature, captured from some of the secret email archives of co-bloggers Greg (Yourself) and Greg (Golem).

Yourself: If you would care to make a case for Gain Ground being a strategy game, I think it might make a good duologue. Sorry the Mario/Wario one didn't go anywhere, you kinda took it in a different direction than I intended (I wanted to talk about the characters - the series as a whole compared is a gigantic subject). Not to mention I got real sour on Wario Land II.

Golem: The easy way is to put Gain Ground next to a strategy game and eyeball it. 
Well, eyeball away
It reminds me of strategy RPGs/Shining Force in particular. You directly control one character at a time. The space you can attack is important; can you attack directly in front of you, or can you only hit things at a range? Can you attack to the sides, or can you only shoot straight on? Even the choice between two weapons reminds me of swapping primary weapons on the fly in Shining Force (equipping a throwing dagger for a turn where you can't quite get close enough to hit an enemy by sword). Finally, there's the satisfaction of building a complementary party, and just like Shining Force (or most SRPGs, really), losing a single character is a big deal.

The hard, although more satisfying, method would first find a definition for strategy game by the goals and opposition method. I think you could say there are two possible goals, either A) felling everyone in the opposing force or B) taking out a lynchpin (a boss). Or is that too specific? As for opposition, you'd at least start by saying your army faces another army. The other army also takes advantage of space against you, with strategies like flanking. Actually, maybe your goal at any given point in a strategy game is to occupy the advantageous ground.

Yourself: "Strategy" is hard to define, because it can be both a type of gameplay OR a characteristic. Often it falls into the same category as "action", being a modifier rather than a mode unto itself. Like I was saying last night, you can have a strategy FPS. This seems to be the sense most applicable to Gain Ground, which I'd call a strategy shmup. Strategic gameplay is characterized by improvised rules, non-obvious methods and goals, and recursive strategy (yes, strategy is built from smaller strategies).

As an actual mode of interactivity, "strategy" probably refers to the chess-derived army-puppeteering that we see in, well, strategy games, as diverse as Pikmin, Shining Force, and StarCraft. I wish we had a different word for it - "tactics" perhaps - to make a distinction from the adjectival mode, but I think we both agree that nothing fits better in either case than "strategy". I don't feel like defining it in terms of goals/opposition right now because I think it's tangential to this conversation.

It's a stretch to put Gain Ground into this strategy genre, simply because it's more obviously a shooter. Its gameplay is comprised of shooting things. Calling it a strategy game is the equivalent of calling Super Mario Bros. an action game - yes, it bears the appropriate traits, but is further distinguished. That said, it certainly does fall under the strategy umbrella. It's a strategy shooter, no doubt. It presents the player with a static challenge and allows them to develop, test, and refine their own methods of approach, providing a variety of tools to allow for individualization and improvisation. Simply watching how differently the two of us approached each level evidences the non-linearity of the challenge.

Yourself (7 hours later): Well, I take that back a little bit. Gain Ground could be viewed as a true strategy game. The fact that you only control one unit (or at least that only one unit exists at a time) doesn't preclude it from that style, even if it simplifies it significantly. And of course, when multiple players are introduced (up to three in the arcade version), the player squad starts to resemble an SRPG battalion.

I was originally approaching Shining Force from a strategic combat paradigm, thinking of the entire game as one drawn-out fight. If we instead understand it as a marriage of combat and tactics, separating the unit face-offs (combat) from the overarching army / battlefield management (tactics), it becomes clear how it relates to Gain Ground. Swap in shooting for automatic turn-based battles and hit the real-time clock on the tactics (a la Ogre Battle), and you're pretty close. Keeping in mind that, again, the tactics are relatively simple because of the limited number of independent units.

Golem: The comparison between Ogre Battle and Shining Force bugs me because in Ogre Battle, attacks don't take up space, units do. Ogre Battle is a more macro experience, while Shining Force happens on a per-soldier basis. But then, I don't know how meaningful that difference really is.
Ogre Battle: A More Macro Experience. Wait a minute, there was never a Queen song by that name!
Actually, I like that distinction. If I had my way, strategy would refer to more macro games while tactical would refer to more micro games. Like Wario Ware.

Also, even though you only control one character at a time in Gain Ground, you still face off against an army. Is all-Ike mode in Fire Emblem: The Gamecube One not a strategy RPG? This is what prevents Mega Man from being a tactical platformer, too, since you don't face off against armies. Or, if you do fight armies, like in Contra, you're not interested in occupying any single space.

Yourself: "in Ogre Battle, attacks don't take up space, units do" doesn't mean anything to me. Are you referring to the fact that units in OB must make contact to engage, while Shining Force units are often able to attack from two spaces away or use area-of-effect spells? If so, that's just being nitpicky between individual games. We picked OB to be the example of tactical action because it's the most SRPG-like RTS, and we picked Shining Force to represent the other side because apparently that's the only tactics game you've ever played, but it'd be easy to pick two that sync up better and hold just as true for the rest of the comparison. Units have range ("attacks take up space"?) in RTSs like Starcraft and Command & Conquer, and in some turn-based strategies like Romance of the Three Kingdoms units have zero range ("attacks don't take up space"?). So... what's your point? Both mechanics clearly exist across the real-time/turn-based barrier. It is not news that Ogre Battle and Shining Force are not perfectly identical in every way.

I think spatial control is certainly key to what we're calling the tactics (chess) gameplay mode. As I said (or at least thought) before, one of the things that keys us off to Gain Ground's tactics predilection is that it takes place in static, one-screen environments. Contra is pretty immediately thrown out as a parallel, because - as you said - there's no urge to maintain space. The environment is in a constant state of change. A more revealing comparison is with Smash TV or Robotron 64, which similarly keep the setting to one screen. Here the primary contrast with Gain Ground is the mobility of enemies - they render the idea of controlling space a near impossibility.

Golem: I'm trying to think if there's anything more to be said on Gain Ground, but nothing's coming to mind. I don't think anything is left for issues of range and space. I'll have to look back and see if there are any lingering threads.

I also tried to think about a version of Gain Ground where you control multiple units, and I got Syndicate. Can't say the gameplay is all that similar. Definitely a game I don't know what to do with, but I think we've discussed it before.

You just got Syndicated
Yourself: On the subject of armies and where the line is drawn between the opposition in Mega Man/Contra and Gain Ground/Fire Emblem, I think the barrier is largely perceptive. When I mentioned that strategy gameplay is composed of controlling armies, I meant specifically that - there are two (or more) singular forces which each control a span of dumb subordinates. While I realize that the processor doing computations for Mike Mettaur and Phil Screwdriver is indeed a singular force, they act autonomously without communication - simply put, they're independent AIs. Whatever "teamwork" might happen between them is incidental. Even if they are programmed to act as a team (or, say, controlled by two separate players), they're still behaving with selfish interests and internal motivation. And if they do start to form large scale strategies, and strictly adhere to those strategies, and alternate them in turn, well then, um, yeah, it does become a strategy game.

On the player side, an army/force is defined by division of control, be it synchronously or asynchronously. Gain Ground does possess that with its multi-character squad, but I'm not sure it's a necessary element of strategy anyway. Probably a lot of this conversation could have been alleviated by properly defining strategy early on, but whoops, too late now.

Golem: Well, I can't say it was a bad conversation to have. This is vague territory--as you said, some barriers are largely perceptive--so it's good to have something more to go on.

While I don't know that two players make up an army, it did help during Gain Ground when we had complementary abilities. If one person can throw high and the other can throw far, you can assign unique paths to each player. In particular, I think there were times when one of us stayed back as the other person cleared a path. In most games, coop works just fine playing as identical units.

Yourself: As for Syndicate - is that Gain Ground with multiple units? At least, any more so than any other RTS we've already mentioned? I thought it used cursor control. What makes you call it out - do you have to aim and dodge bullets and stuff? Or just that it has little dudes instead of tanks?

As we discussed IRL (sadly not captured in this duologue - until I explain it now!), the main difference between traditional real-time strategy and Gain Ground (besides the number of player units) is that a real-time strategy uses AI routines to determine character behavior, while Gain Ground uses direct input. This parallels the difference between Fire Emblem and Shining Force - in the former, the player controls a cursor while a path-finding algorithm determines units' routes. In Shining Force, the player directly controls each unit during its turn and can freely walk within set bounds (similar to - lol - Quest 64). Of course, in these turn-based games, the difference is completely superficial - nothing can happen until the turn is executed, so all that matters is the characters' final resting place. In real-time games like Syndicate and Gain Ground, the difference between cursor control and direct input is so dramatic that it would lead most to classify one game as strategy and the other as action, despite the fact that they are both hybrids.

Golem: Oh, Syndicate gives you direct control over the little dudes, and you can decide if you want to control all four of them at once or just one at a time. (I say this based on the SNES one.) Control all four at once and hit down on the D-pad, and they all go down. That said, I just meant it as an offhanded remark, since I can't claim to understand anything more about that game. I'll double check that when I have access to it.

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And that he did. Happily ever after.

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