The Combine

February 14, 2011 // Published by Stephen Keating

Today is a time talk about bringing disparate elements together and how to do that with various mechanics, including the two games reviewed today. After having played Magicka for some time, I’ve begun to think about what games use combination mechanics. There’s actually a surprising number of games that use them and realistically, the mechanic has shown signs of aging. The original combination games were typically situational, where the environment plus something you have combines to be “greater” than the original. The more modern examples, games like Two Worlds 2 and Magicka tend to have the mechanic built into the playstyle itself. Combine spells to create certain abilities, each of which is adaptable to the situation. Playing these games however, I’ve noticed that they are flights of fancy. Interesting wastes of time, systems you could get lost in forever, and in the case of Two Worlds 2, a world that’s also far too large. They are for the experimenter, or perhaps, for the person who wants a neat toy and stuff to test that toy on. Polish is not really either of these system’s strong points.

The original combination ideas started off as rough ideas, or oftentimes were things that were completely unintended. Perhaps some of the best examples are the various combinations of weapons and armor available in Final Fantasy VI creating weird effects. The same could be said of the game’s spells. These things which were initially bugs then became part of the game’s greater mechanics. They became important, for the sake of experimentation, more than for the sake of practicality. “Ah,” as one mage says to another, “if I add this arrow to this fire, I get fire arrows!” says somebody somewhere in Ocarina of Time (note: this conversation is made up). But the problem is that combinations tend to become the quick fix to many of these games. The entirety of Final Fantasy VI is trivialized with various combinations of spells or equipment sets, many of which are acquired at a fairly early point in the game.

Magicka and Two Worlds 2 are rather same-y in regards to trivializing encounters in such a way. Any boss, any fight, probably has a fairly simple hammer-and-nail response. Options are a great feature of modern games. Being able to approach a boss with fire or ice, or both, or wind, is cool. It’s a fun idea. But execution is the problem here. Giving a person a ton of tools to work with, and keeping the pace at a sort of similar level throughout the entire game, as in Magicka, or with constant, strange difficulty spikes, as in Two Worlds 2, is an exercise in tedium and frustration, respectively (and collectively). At the same time, I cannot say objectively that the mechanics or bad or that things aren’t working. The games are complete and finished, but the skill ramp does not flow at an even pace for either of them, or often at all. There are many times where enemies will just be mowed down, making you feel like a botanist picking out particularly aggressive weeds.

Combinations need as much subtlety as any other mechanic in a game, and these really do feel heavy-handed. A readily available, but great combination is actually the concept of wall-jumping from Super Metroid. It is a skill that takes not only ability to perform, but leads to a number of interesting scenarios in how to approach the game world itself. In the case of Super Metroid, it also causes weird sequence-breaking effects, but due to the nature of the game, it’s probably more forgivable than sequence breaking in either of the games being reviewed, given that they have a focused narrative structure. In the case of Two Worlds 2, learning combinations often makes otherwise impossible scenarios winnable, but once such a technique is discovered, much of the game is then trivialized. Magicka is somewhat similar, though a hammer-and-nail approach is typically available to most situations in Magicka. The idea of putting pegs in holes is less than appealing to me, even with its lovely aesthetic.

The aesthetics of these games aren’t bad either. Each is beautiful in their own right, the levels are constructed with a clear amount of care, but there is a distinct feeling of running down long hallways after a certain point, particularly with Two Worlds 2. Watching the hand-drawn swaying of a tree in Magicka is really a sight to behold, and seeing colors other than brown and grey in videogames is a welcome change of pace. Getting over the apocalyptic hump that we’ve seen in videogames lately seems to be a losing battle right now, but I’m sure at some point we’ll manage. There’s a smoothness to the animation that gives it a feeling of being right out of a painting, and for that alone I might recommend it to somebody who loves a painterly style to their games. Never being overly-serious about the world helps paint a “kinder, gentler” dungeon crawler as well. Which the game is obviously going for with its thin-but-bemused writing. Two Worlds 2 has objects that are actually amazingly lifelike, they respond to pressure, they sway to wind, and they have variances due to light and tone. The number of different potential places the player might find themselves in is staggering, and each one has a well-conceived style. The writing is par for the course in terms of actual interaction, sticking mostly to boring one-liners and poorly-written, sarcastic sexual innuendo. The music for both games is nothing to write home about, it’s fantasy-ish. It’s elevator-music quality.

The reality is that neither of these games really has a story worth caring about. Each game is a fetch quest-a-thon with characters who exist more as vessels to play with rather than care about. Which is fine for Magicka, since it really has no pretense about being taken seriously on this front. In the case of Two Worlds 2 though, there is a strong narrative component, though it’s equally difficult to take seriously, due to every character essentially being either a high-school jock (the main character is one), or bored with existence. As a result, the writing seems to exist to take up a lot of time to ultimately tell you where to go. Where to go is code for “who to kill.” There’s not really a lot of options about this either. You can’t really be upstanding to pass through the game, the main character kills a lot of people and seems to be able to dramatically swing his moral compass at any given point, per your instructions.

The problem with directional association in talk-trees, by the way, is that there’s no point where a character is actually affected by your actions. Essentially, the fact that you act like a prick some of the time doesn’t affect the character. If, say, a character had a “point of no return,” the character would have some agency without the person losing any say in how or why. Effectively, the player pushed them down a certain path and the character changed because of it. Consequence is something a player can relate to. The other problem is a question of obfuscation. Good guy and Bad guy systems, such as those in Mass Effect 2, should not tell you how “good” or “bad” you, in fact, are. This relates to subtlety, and while people hate to admit it, not knowing is far more compelling than knowing every aspect of the character. If a player does not know how to read a character like a book, that’s probably better than info-dumping every aspect of the character into their lap at the beginning, or at some pre-determined time in the game. While to some extent this is unavoidable in sequels (and thus another reason why the industry should stop doing them), it is nevertheless something that could easily be handled better through systems which obfuscate the actual system under which it operates. Yes, some will be methodical and code-talk the game down through a FAQ so that everyone can be a saint or an asshole. But most won’t use a FAQ unless the game is too confusing to figure out how to navigate, and if there’s one thing that fetch quests do, it’s give the user a reachable, ready-made goal.

Fetch quests can be useful in that they give an immediate reason to journey forth, but even they can be obfuscated simply. Tell a player to cross a bridge and then destroy the bridge is a common, simple method that readily obfuscates (granted, this is no longer subtle because it’s been done so often, but the idea is simple). Rather than simply telling a person to go a hundred yards to some determined point, telling them to go talk to somebody who will tell them to go can be more interesting (or equally frustrating, if the conversation is boring). These are questions of game flow, and whether or not the player is willing to have to interact with the environment or simply wants to kill x number of beasts. Players who are still playing single-player games today aren’t terribly interested in the latter anymore, however.

These games are average mainly because they fail at places where what they do really counts. There’s not a lot of subtlety to what’s done in these games, and therefore they aren’t terribly interesting on that front. Though they both share beautiful aesthetics, the music is unfortunately clunky and the story leaves more than a little to be desired. These are games more to see how obvious mechanics can be when they are done poorly, when features help and hurt the gameplay, breaking it and fixing it at odd points, where one traces a game down along a line of paths to reach conclusion. These are engines that could probably make great games, but perhaps the creative flame simply sputtered out after the aesthetics had found their space. Writing and direction is oftentimes the death of longer games, and perhaps a good reason why so many older games, technical limitations aside, were shorter.