Currencies

September 11, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Currency. Every single game operates in exchange of various currencies, whether they’re obvious or not. The most immediate ways we see it exchanged with games is in things like points or coins, but it extends to less obvious types like lives and health and even into figurative currencies like available time. That is to say, not only things like in-game timers affecting a variety of mechanics, but how you, the player, choose to spend your time and emotional energy invested in a game. Every engagement with a game involves an exchange of your resources (figurative currency) for the desired form of entertainment, and you manage your expectations in real time by choosing to continue to play the game or put it down.

Although we typically tend to think of resource management as something more specific to things like RPG’s, even older, more actively-engaging action games operate in currency exchange on sometimes rapid levels. The classic FPS, Doom, is often considered to be the father of action-oriented FPS design, but you are still operating with fluctuating resources at a heightened rate. Things like your health and armor levels, the current ammo you have available, the health of your foes, and the actual number of foes you’re forced to deal with are just a few. While searching for secrets and ammo become an obvious form of management, you’re forced in real-time to weigh the value of various currencies and how to spend them every second that you’re engaged in combat.

For example: unexpectedly taking hits reducing your health to almost-nothing in the middle of a level immediately flares the value of your health to an extreme height, and this also directly effects the perceived value of your remaining munitions. Those plasma cells you were hoping to use to easily take care of an upcoming trouble spot suddenly become very attractive to use immediately. Snap decision? You switch to your BFG and take care of the immediate threat, a horde of lesser enemies that you’d underestimated.

In the moment you decided to blow through those plasma cells, you made a judgment that they were suddenly less valuable than the meager health that you had left. Previously, 10 health was nothing to lose and you wantonly strutted about the level, unafraid to spend it in exchange for your privilege to be reckless. Conserving those plasma cells was paramount for ensuring a swift exchange of currency in your favor when you hit that problem room, so you used weapons with better ammo efficiency and more suited to taking care of the small fry. Now? You made a mistake on a horde of small fry, and 10 health was suddenly all that stood between you and a fail state.

Although you didn’t consciously recognize it as such, your brain was very quickly, very actively measuring the value of a variety of resources and choosing to exchange them at a rate that would get you through the situation with desirable circumstance. Sometimes it makes a bad decision in this heightened state, and that ammo you waste drastically effects how you’ll handle the upcoming room. Every hit you take and every shot you fire – whether it hits or misses – actively adjusts the value of each individual currency in your arsenal of currencies and forces your brain to readjust what the desirable circumstance is. To even further complicate matters, you’re dealing with even more subtle metrics like timing and spacing available between monster movements and attacks.

This exchange of resources is exciting not only because of the aforementioned variables, but because the end goal dictates how you’re forced to engage. You want to make it to the exit, so you’ve got to get there safely: which means outsmarting all the enemies and obstacles along the way. Currencies exchange at rates that your mind cannot attach number value to, and therein lies a lot of the fun of action-oriented games: engaging with them on your terms and processing the abstract situations they put you into.

A huge part of what makes Doom, in particular, so much fun is how much these values change moment-to-moment and how they tend to fluctuate across the particular map. Doom’s mechanics and individual maps are carefully engineered to leave these exchange loops (e.g. collect resources, encounter enemies, assess values, repeat) open until the end of the map, thus making each encounter play into a larger scale operation. Success and failure in one instance of combat bleed over into the next one and the next one, thus making the currency exchanges far more exciting than if they simply existed only within the encounter.

Doom 2016 (the latest installment) fails to understand core elements of the original’s design and tends to operate on fewer, simpler loops. Enemies spill so much health and ammo that collecting and managing is significantly less important, and you can get through huge portions of the game using only a single weapon and simply milking a few enemies for health when necessary. The high-stakes currency exchange that the original Doom operated in is reduced to picking a favorite weapon – as they all maintain surprisingly similar levels of ammo efficiency and ability – and making sure to manipulate the situation to get health or ammo out of enemies when necessary. If you feel you’re dipping on health, do a glory kill. If you’re running dry on ammo, pull out the chainsaw for a free kill and watch ammo spill out.

While the game is relatively tuned to at least make these individual encounters exciting, they tend to exist in a vacuum free of overarching consequence and quickly lose a lot of the edge that the exchanges in the previous game had. Each room becomes a contained arena, thus devolving every encounter into a very repetitive routine. While the monsters might now ostensibly feature more complex behaviors, removing health and ammo as pressing concerns lowers the stakes, and turning individual rooms into locked-in battlefields funnels the design to only knowing how to exist in these arenas. Punishment is more swift, but the consequence is less intense – you’re only sent back to a checkpoint, rather than the beginning of the map (please don’t talk to me about quicksaving in the original, which is widely considered a learning crutch). Your objective goes from “reach the end of the map” to “reach the next checkpoint,” which is typically the end of the encounter.

By containing every encounter, focusing on making every arena large (and typically circular), and offering full means of recovery in nearly every enemy, they strip the game of its identity and turn it into a repetitive mess. Every firefight boils down to a nearly identical routine of running laps around the arena and occasionally switching up to get health or ammo back. If you screw up, your mistake is mostly felt within that individual fight. Excitement in Doom 2016 doesn’t even last until the end of a single run through the game if you’ve tightened how to exercise your routine before that point.

What makes the original Doom so much more exciting are the variables that its pacing, map design, and monster design allow. Despite being technologically rudimentary in comparison, it taps into a type of design considerably more cerebral and complex. The better the map is designed, the more unique the values of its various currencies become, and it’s part of why the game still has a dedicated map-making community decades after its release. Running out of health or ammo in the classic game is a constant threat, and how to treat each new situation with your available resources requires surprisingly intricate thinking.

Comparatively, Doom 2016 attempts to add complexity in one of the most tired, banal, and modern fashions available: metagaming objectives and rewards. Kill certain numbers of enemies in certain fashions or complete other tasks (some of which exist in a literal void, entirely divorced from the rest of the game) and you’re able to gain permanent upgrades that increase your killing efficiency or ability. On a superficial level, this sounds like it has the capacity to make the game considerably more complex than its predecessor, but in practice, it only makes it even simpler and more routine.

The effect that most of these upgrades have is linear. That is to say: they strictly make you more effective, strictly make you better. Most of them only act as increases to your killing ability, and it often requires busywork or playing the game in unintuitive (and largely boring) ways to earn them. The original Doom’s enemy and weapon set promise a near-endless amount of interesting combinations due to their vastly different uses, subtleties, (such as enemy pain thresholds causing flinching with different weapons) and limited munitions. Doom 2016’s weapons all upgrade linearly and into multi-purpose carnage machines that become suitable in almost any situation.

Many might assume that more active thinking went into their completion of metagaming tasks for rewards to make their particular favorite weapon into a prominently efficient tool of destruction, but it’s only on a surface level that any thinking went on. There’s no complex thought done under the hood or in the moment: there’s simply menial, plainly-spelled-out work done to reward you with thinking less. The player sees the exchange of currency going on, watches as they kill enemies to fill checklists to increase strength, and they tend to assume that they’re being active, clever agents in this world by making active strides to reduce the risk in these exchanges. They spend their time and energy, they get a tangible reward in watching their weapons become more efficient.

In another game, the very point of it might be to do this: manipulate systems of numbers, work to reach maximum efficiency, master the system. But in Doom? Not so much. The appeal, even in the new one, is typically described as being in the combat encounters – a place where currencies become abstract and intuitive, where your brain is actively thinking faster than it could possibly explain. Values rise and fall, and failure to comprehend them quickly results in failure. This kind of excitement is what brings people to these types of games – Doom is not about slowly, consciously making the best decisions to get rich through stacking the cards, it’s about doubling down on a bad hand because you’ve just worked out how to intimidate everyone else at the table into folding. It’s simply what it excels at, and to capitalize elsewhere is to make a worse or fundamentally different game.

If this is true, why settle for closed-arena combat and tedious upgrades? Why not simply play the old game on new maps with new and more complex variables? The most important thing to consider, here, is what you’re looking to get out of these games. Every game you play is an investment of your resources, an expenditure of your time and energy. I feel like it’s important to ask yourself when you spend these if all you want is superficial engagement and cheap outlets for easy player empowerment.

68000 Heart on Fire: Alien Soldier

August 25, 2017 // Published by Rei

Alien Soldier is one of the best lovers around. It wants to be yours, but it kisses with a sandpaper tongue and its hugs break bones. It’s over-eager, too, so when the direct approach doesn’t work, you both sit down and try to figure each other out. You learn that Alien Soldier won’t do what you want to do, but you’ve heard the sex is so good you’ll do anything for those fabled moments of bliss. So you listen to Alien Soldier and discover what it likes and doesn’t like, punctually rubbing all its special spots just right until Alien Soldier holds you close—taking care not to crack your coccyx—and carries you both into climax. You do this over and over until you know every nook and cranny of Alien Soldier’s mind and body.

Alien Soldier is a harmless, perfect crime of passion. It’s a relationship your friends say isn’t healthy for you, but you’re confident they don’t understand. It’s an on-off affair that you only get into when you’re in the mood.

But Alien Soldier is always ready for you.

The man most responsible for bringing Alien Soldier into the world, Hideyuki Suganami, confirms he wants people to talk about Alien Soldier with metaphors as ridiculous and embarrassingly heartfelt as I have:

Alien Soldier is like my baby. No, strike that, it is my baby. And she’s very cute. It was a difficult birth. In the end we had to perform a dangerous C-section on the mother. So she’s a premature birth…”

Like me, Hideyuki Suganami cannot but help but get amorous for Alien Soldier. As he puts it:

 Alien Soldier. In the two years I worked on creating you, I never once tired of you. I’ve thrown my life away on the Mega Drive, and gambled it all on Alien SoldierThe only one who can love you because of, not in spite of, your various flaws is me. What, is it unbecoming of a developer to say all this? Well, I want to say what I want to say. Should I not put such things in my game? Can you trust the self-praise of the developer? Alien Soldier is mine. I don’t care if you believe me! Am I being… strange? Alien Soldier is my beloved, and I’m madly in love with her. Waking, sleeping, I only think of her… ‘Hey, who do you think you are?!’ Call me Nami-sama.¹

Alien Soldier even has a specific gender for the occasion, allowing Suganami more comfort at the thought of having sex with a videogame.

You may have reservations about anyone comparing Alien Soldier to both a child and a lover. Well, no worries. It’s been over twenty-one years since Alien Soldier’s birth, so it’s okay at this point to talk about having sex with it.

 Alien Soldier tells you their life story as you both sit on the edge of the bed, holding hands. Their life seems to have been pretty traumatic—at one point they were kinda-sorta a little boy named Fou, but the girl they liked, Kaede, was kidnapped, so they fused with the good side of Epsilon-Eagle, a cosmic bird entity whose evil side is terrorizing the universe, but then an asshole named Xi-Tiger murdered Kaede —and you can’t help but feel sorry for them.

If you tell Alien Soldier you don’t want to hear their life story and would rather skip the whole thing, they don’t hold it against you. Bygones are always bygones with Alien Soldier.

Make sure the lights are off when you’re with Alien Soldier, so the entire room is cast in a blue television glow. It’s at this point that Alien Soldier does this cute thing they like to show off: they will turn their back to you and take off their shirt, revealing an amazing tattoo of an exploding nebula stretching from shoulder to shoulder.

“This is my title screen,” Alien Soldier always whispers.

White, photoluminescent words flicker across the nebula on Alien Soldiers back.

VISUALSHOCK! SPEEDSHOCK! SOUNDSHOCK! NOW IS THE TIME TO THE 68000 HEART ON FIRE!
ALIEN SOLDIER
FOR MEGADRIVERS CUSTOM

 

Alien Soldier is that mythic figure you’ve heard people whisper about. Alien Soldier is the 68000 Heart on Fire. As you realize this, you spot an old Motorola phone poking out of the back pocket of Alien Soldier’s jeans.

You tell Alien Soldier that they’re beautiful, that their sprites and action are as big and delicious as Shinobi 3s. They say you’re beautiful, too.

“Are you ready?” Alien Soldier asks with a smile, their eyes glinting in the dark.

You go over your options first, trying to decide if you’re Super Easy or just Super Hard right now.

Either way, you’re ready to jump into it, but Alien Soldier lays down some ground rules first, saying you should practice movements, positions and try out their toys so you can ease into things.

You’re not entirely unfamiliar with Alien Soldier’s toys. The lancer, flamethrower and spread-gun are reminiscent of your lurid nights with Contra and Gunstar Heroes; the mechanics for walking on the ceiling evoke that wild weekend you had with Metal Storm several years ago. Alien Soldier can even hover in the air for you like Magneto in X-Men 2: Clone Wars would a few months later. 

It’s fairly obvious that you and Alien Soldier share similar bed partners.

If anyone spent enough time with Alien Soldier, they’d know their toys aren’t really created equal when it comes to how much pleasure they give you. The only two toys you need to use are the flamethrower and the lancer, and you’ll never find yourself in a position where they’re not the optimal choice. You can carry only four toys, so doubling up on the flamethrower and lancer for even more voluptuous action is almost always the best way to go. For those who have trouble pleasing themselves and Alien Soldier without a little guiding hand, there is always the homing attack.

“VISUALSHOCK! SPEEDSHOCK! SOUNDSHOCK!”—the words on Alien Soldier’s title screen parallel a Japanese commercial that aired around the time of the Sega Mega Drive’s launch. As the three words are coined in the ad, a clip from Altered Beast shows a man transforming into a wolf, mirroring Xi-Tiger’s transformation atop the train in Alien Soldier.

The phrase 68000 Heart on Fire refers to how Hideyuki Suganami was intent on using Alien Soldier to push the Mega Drive’s Motorola 68000 microprocessor core to its limits. The ideal behind Alien Soldier is for the game to be a breakneck, finger-blistering audiovisual explosion of a side-scrolling shooter, a technical marvel that requires a skilled operator to make the bird fly.

how_to_play_alien_soldier.gif

Alien Soldier’s title screen communicates themes of pushing the Mega Drive and the player to their limits. The most powerful move in the player’s arsenal, Phoenix Force, exemplifies this best. Phoenix Force is a powered-up version of the regular teleport move, which causes the player to zip across the screen at high-speed. Phoenix Force is automatically used when the player teleports at full health, and using Phoenix Force always causes a drop in the game’s frame rate. This drop in frame rate is probably artificially produced, since Treasure’s designers loved forcing slowdown for dramatic effect, but using slowdown as an expression of aesthetic principles reinforces the sentiments Hideyuki Suganami expresses on the title screen: The Mega Drive is being pushed to its limits.

The promise is kept. The Mega Drive and the player are both pushed to their limits; the Phoenix Force move is only usable when the player is at full health, and since Phoenix Force always drains health when used, skilled play is required in order to refill health and use the move again.

Alien Soldier is the only game I know of that communicates this way. It embodies a time and feeling about the Mega Drive in the late ’80s and early ’90s as videogames were moving into exciting new territory.

Nothing exhibits the values of this time quite like Alien Soldier—it’s a swan song to a dead era, and its developers did their damnedest to fork lightning.

Legends and in-jokes persist of Alien Soldier being the most hardware-taxing Sega game ever. Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue contains a reference to this with a gashapon depicting a pair of noodly limbs straining to support a Sega Mega Drive connected to a 32X and a Mega-CD. Of course, the joke can’t be complete without a copy of Alien Soldier slotted into the top of a Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, which only makes the Blue Sphere mini-game playable, not Alien Soldier. A monument to folly and ingenuity.

Ryo Hazuki’s thumbnail will haunt you forever.

The rise of Sega’s slick black Mega Drive in 1988 was the first time you could call a videogame console sexy and confident and not feel too much like a tool. The makers of the Mega Drive knew it looked good, and stamped the phrases AV INTELLIGENT TERMINAL and HIGH GRADE MULTIPURPOSE USE inside the curve of a halo that surrounds its cartridge slot. Resting inside the halo like a crown of thorns is a reflective emboss that reads 16-BIT. Sega wrote the Bible on sexy videogames, and the Mega Drive was the Book of Genesis.

¹The Hideyuki Suganami interview translation is an excerpt from Shmuplations.com

Tetsuya Nomura’s Batman

July 25, 2017 // Published by Rei

Alfred spent over an hour meticulously adjusting screws and ensuring socket joints would rotate with each flex of Bruce’s neck and shoulder muscles. Bruce insisted that Alfred refer to these muscles as “the trapezes and the delts”. For the duration that Alfred worked on the suit, Bruce had to be wearing it, making Alfred’s job more difficult. Bruce would fidget his fatiguing muscles, causing the socket Alfred was fixing to oscillate, the whole mechanism then threatening to pull Alfred’s fingers into the suit’s crevices to be crushed. Each time, Alfred would jerk his scarred, slender fingers away, sucking sharp slivers of air through his teeth.

Kneeling behind Bruce on aching knees, Alfred fastened an extra wing to a socket on the suit’s lower back. Bruce sat on a cushioned stool, scowling at the Batcave’s sole body mirror. Bruce’s new mask—or helmet, rather—was resting in the bend of his left arm on his lap.

Bruce cleared his throat. Alfred’s stomach muscles tightened.

“I’m sorry I chased that financier in the office building. Lots of cubicles and narrow doorways. Wings just snapped right off.”

Alfred exhaled softly. “Quite all right, sir. Just remember the limits of your new design.”

Fingers recoiled as a socket oscillated.

“I did it because you accused me of ‘punching down’, of only going after people trying to eke out a living. I had to read through hundreds of pages of bureaucratic nonsense just to make sure I could punch that financier with a clear conscience.” Bruce hung his head. “I ended up having to lodge a batarang into his calf so he couldn’t get away.”

“We all have to compromise at some point, Master Bruce. Might I suggest building up evidence in order to punch a politician next?”

Bruce did not respond.  

Alfred was absentmindedly buffing the shoulders of the suit with a cloth made from chamois hide. He had been so distracted earlier today chasing bees out of the house that he had forgotten to send the suit’s individual parts through the electropolishers and powerbuffers.

“I’m afraid you’re not going to be very shiny tonight, sir,” Alfred said.

“It’s fine. Not feeling very bright tonight.”

Alfred rolled his eyes and then felt a bit bad that he did.

“Friendship is what I need.” Bruce raised a metal fist aloft and then let it drop on his leg with a clank. “Someone to strap on these accouterments of justice and cleanse the streets of evil with me.”

“‘Cleanse the streets of evil’, sir?” Alfred asked.

Bruce did not seem to be listening.

“I get so lonely, but I know my lost friends I haven’t met yet are out there, waiting for me. I think about how we share the same sky, and then the umbrage in my spirit fades. I must be ever vigilant in my search for those who have endured darkness similar to mine, so I can convince them to wear suits and fight crime.”

Alfred tucked the cleaning cloth into his back pocket. He knew not to interrupt.

“My dark heart has always been searching for those with the keys to unlock my cardial secrets so they may then fill my shadowy recesses with light. And then, at long last, we’ll channel our hard-won happiness into fighting bad people together in a place we can belong.”

Bruce smiled as he peered about the Batcave. He had trouble pivoting his head in the constrictive suit.

It was a shaky maneuver, but after a grunt and audibly popping ankles and knees, Alfred stood behind Bruce.

“Is it time?” Bruce asked, looking down at his two-pronged helmet.

“Should I give you a tutorial on how to equip your Pope hat before we proceed, Master Bruce?”

“No way, I’ve got it,” Bruce blurted.

He tried to deftly slip the helmet over his head, only to smart his skull against the metal. He couldn’t let Alfred know. He slid the rim’s connector pegs into the appropriate slots and then rotated the helmet counterclockwise. Something clicked as something secured itself to something, and then the helmet automatically swiveled back into place. The mesh he was supposed to see through settled over his eyes. Bruce had cut it out of one of the screen windows on the mansion’s first floor, near where Alfred practiced his apiculture.

Alfred staggered backward behind Bruce for several feet, always wary of being smacked in the nose again with a titanium bat appendage.

“Let’s go!” Bruce’s shout was muffled by metal. He turned to face Alfred like a glacier bobbing in the ocean.

Alfred bowed, his unfurling arm cordially beckoning Bruce to his mode of transportation.

“Your Gummi Bat-Ship awaits, sir,” Alfred said, lifting his head to add: “Oh, and I’ll have sea-salt ice cream ready for you when you get back.”

“That’s my favorite,” Bruce replied.

“Yes, sir.”

“Make me a cool sword. But make the edges dull and wrap it in bandages and have the hilt shaped like a bat. Like the mammal, I mean.”

“First thing, sir.”

“All right!” Bruce shot a fist into the musty air. “Let’s get going!”

The metal encasing Bruce crashed each time he took a step. Alfred winced in rhythm.

Bruce thundered to a halt. “Alfred,” he began, “do you think all my gadgets and mechanized wonders are enough to match the strength of the human heart?”

Alfred’s expression was flat, his hands at his sides as he said: “Perhaps if you aimed for their chest, sir.”