Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ninja Gaiden 2 and random thoughts on defense in brawlers

at 7:23 PM
It's been a while, so let's get lazy. I figure the way I got into a writing groove in the first place was to kick out half-assed ideas, so maybe that's the way to get going again. The slowdown in posts has been partially by design (in that I was starting a new writing project), but I never expected to stop writing altogether as I have since March. There were hiccups with the new project, but the bigger problem is that I somehow got the impression at the beginning of this year that I had a quality standard. The brain was all "you're becoming a better writer because you're making a conscious effort to improve!". Unfortunately it came to the point where I felt like I couldn't post just anything because I had (personal) great expectations to uphold. That's the point at which I should've realized that the only reason I ever enjoyed writing was exactly the lack of standards. Getting less terrible wasn't moving me toward any goal, I just liked the feeling that I was a better writer. But I don't like it more than I like the freedom of being able to write whatever I want. 

So I'm going to start writing again, and it's going to be just as bad as it was in the first place! This post will have absolutely no point except to connect some really high level ideas without any explanation whatsoever.

While you're at it, be attitude for gains
I've been playing some Ninja Gaiden (2) recently and realized it's a really nice example of a modern (non-beat-em-up) brawler. I've always noticed that the series is extremely tense and gives me a heart attack to play, and revisiting the combat after coming up with my now-famous definition of a brawler it's clear that exactly what makes it so tense is how brawlery it is. That is to say, every single enemy is a serious threat. Even once you've whittled a group down to the last werewolf, you can't just stun-lock him with a combo or hold up your guard indefinitely to wait for an opening. You can't tell whether he's going to throw werewolf body parts from afar or bust out a normal combo or get close for a were-hug, and you need to dodge, guard, or counter-attack respectively. You have to watch what's happening and react accordingly with learned tactics - there is no time you can go into a default pattern because the enemies have movesets to take advantage of any static/redundant state. Thus that last werewolf is just as active a threat as a whole swarm of them, and you can never relax. It really drives home the necessity of unpredictability in engaging 1v1 combat. 

The other thing that's really tense and totally off topic is that the camera never shows you as much of the combat as you feel like you need to see. No doubt a lot of people would consider that Really Ass, but it's definitely frantic, scary, and adds unpredictability. Technically there's no reason camera angles can't be part of gameplay. There's just that whole unspoken compact that they're at a level of abstraction above challenge. Which is in place for good reason. Because it's cheating to leverage reality and visual expectations for convenience and then retract that assurance for difficulty. If you want to make a game about it being hard to see things, that's what your game should be about. It shouldn't be 90% about needing to see things and 10% about not. 

Back to brawlers, whatever I just said also makes me wonder if, moreso than the nebulous enemy "well-balance", the key to identifying brawlers is the enemies' ability to defend. All the games I mentally identify as pure brawlers are those with blocking/dodging foes (D&D Tower of Doom, Technos beat-em-ups like Renegade, Red Steel 2, Assassin's Creed) and those that feel fencey (TMNT, Guardian Heroes, No More Heroes 2) have some defenders but not all (and hence could be said to be composed of some % brawling gameplay). The games that made me feel like not all combat was brawling, e.g. Devil May Cry, X-Men, and Shank are extremely sparing with enemies that can block or counter your attacks. 

That makes sense with the alignment of the style with fighting games. In fact, wrapping all the way back to the original (historical) understanding, is there really any distinction between brawler gameplay and fighter gameplay? Seems like fighting gameplay is really just a restriction of brawling to a 1v1 context. Maybe I should've defined them together and made it easier to establish that brawlers are fighting games and other actioners (the DMC type) are not.

Clearly to pursue "the ability to defend", aka "defense", needs a definition to make any of these ideas even remotely viable. Because what makes putting up a shield different than just walking away? Are they different? Are there games where the enemies aren't even capable of so much as walking away? Perhaps Devil May Cry or Arkham Asylum? I think actually my mental distinction between action games and action-RPGs (Diablo II, X-Men Legends, Sword of Mana) is that in the latter games there is no active concept of defense (obviously you might have defensive statistics or abilities) - attacks don't take skill to land.