ONE MORE GO: GOD HAND, OR WHY HARDCORE GAMES RING MY BELL


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5.6.2009

Margaret Robertson

14 Replies

Videogames are sometimes disparagingly described as mere wish fulfillment power fantasies. If we accept that for a moment, then here’s what I learned about my psyche today. Sometimes, you have days bad enough and journeys home stupid enough that all you want is to be able to boot someone in the nuts so hard that they ring like a bell. Hrwah! Pow! DING!

Thankfully, since videogames are all just wish fulfillment power fantasies, I can do exactly that. And, while I’m at it, sate my secret, Freud-perplexing lust for midgets, cigars, chihuahuas and robots. Capcom’s majestic God Hand (pronounced, gloriously, ‘Goddohando‘ in Japanese, preferably in a screaming crescendo of plosives) is a game designed purely to meet the needs of your inner unreconstructed badass, the part of you that calls people douchebags under its breath and gravitates naturally towards leather overcoats.

It’s not as if beat’em ups have ever in their history been a source of mundane, minimal restraint, but God Hand takes all the excesses of the genre and amps them up to eleven, dresses them in spandex and spanks them on the arse.

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It’s a game that does a lot of things that we often think games are bad at, and does them brilliantly. It’s funny – properly funny – in all kind of ways. It surreal, satirical and self-aware, and full of elegantly conceived jokes: musical, verbal and visual. It is, on its own terms, a credible romance, as Gene’s feelings for Olivia morph between adoration and exasperation, with occasional bouts of flat-out terror. But it’s a game with a secret – a very surprising secret for a game conceived from the off as a purely hardcore experience.

It gets harder the better you are at it. The corollary is true, too, and I’m going to type it out because it’s a sentence which gives me goosebumps. It gets easier the worse you are at it. We’re nearly 40 years into commercial videogame design, and it’s still one of the rarest things you can say about a game. Most games get harder the worse you are at them. You burn through ammo and potions and resources. You miss secret power-ups and fail to access short-cuts.

The need to meaningfully reward players means that successful play is usually met with prizes which make you more powerful, one way or another. Which feels great if you’re doing great, but leaves poorer players going up against the boss with a pea-shooter that’s low on ammo and no health-packs – circumstances which would tax even an expert player, not that an expert player would ever encounter them, because by the time they hit the boss they’ve already got two rocket launchers and an overshield.

Here’s what God Hand does: as you deal more damage and build your combo, your difficulty meter goes up. This affects things like how many enemies attack you at once, and how much damage you can sustain. The better you do, the harder the game gets. Do well enough, and the difficulty maxes out at Level DIE. Manage to sustain it at that level and you get showered in points, but decide that you’re not having fun any more and all you need to do is drop the combo, take a hit, and let the game settle back to an easier state. It’s elegant, transparent and user-controlled. The perfect middle-ground between set-in-stone challenges and invisible adaptive difficulty.

What’s surprising is it’s often in the most hardcore games that you find the nicest solutions for how to support weaker players without changing or diluting the play experience. Shmups that reward bullet-grazing, or which have a smart bomb powered relative to how much shit you’re in at any given moment (like Bangai-O) are neat examples. Letting you tweak credits and continues lets novice gamers get the most out of experience without threatening the purity of the high scores chased by the pros.

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Think about it, though, and you’ll realise it’s not surprising at all. It all comes down to that power fantasy. For it to work, succeeding has got to be hard, or there’s no sense of achievement, no sense of douchebag-crushing victory. But for it to be secure, failing also has to be hard, lest you become the douchebag yourself.

The sterner the challenge, the better the safety-net you need, or you risk producing in your players the exact feeling they’ve come to your game to escape from. Turns out the ultimate test of the perfect hardcore game is how easy it is. Although the booting-in-the-nuts-till-they-ding thing is a pretty good rule of thumb.

[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]

Previously:
One More Go: Wipeout, or The Single Best Games Console You Never …
One More Go: Rittai Picross, or the One-Word Secret of Good Game …
One More Go: Majora’s Mask, or How to be your own hero of time – Offworld
One More Go: Werewolf, or why playing games can give you hairy palms – Offworld
One More Go: World of Warcraft, home is where the hearth is – Offworld
One More Go: Rhythm Tengoku, or Why plucking the hairy onion makes …
One More Go: Disgaea's quest for numerical orgasm – Offworld
One More Go: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat – Offworld
One More Go: Ikaruga, The Big Enemy Is Approaching – Offworld
One More Go: Ranarama – Offworld
One More Go: New York Times Crosswords – Offworld

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COMMENTS

  1. Inverse Square

    Isn’t a power fantasy empty unless you’re actually achieving something though? By setting a bar of difficulty, which you achieve by understanding the game and thinking about what to do under pressure, there’s a sincere reward. There’s something being taught. There’s improvement. By lowering the bar, to a player who knows how much they could be learning, there’s a denigrating feeling. And, surely, a cheapening of the experience for the people who do learn it?

    This is a real question, because I’ve not played God Hand. I intend to, mostly because I have heard it is extremely deep (gameplay-wise), and I feel I’ve not played enough Brawlers. But damn, to give in to the desire for a power fantasy is a terrible thing to do. Escaping from reality is nice, but it’s indefensible. To flatter it, to trade in it, to treat it like it’s useful is wrong. It’s helping no-one; it’s teaching you nothing.


  2. …I think you’re thinking a bit too hard about this, Inverse Square.

    It’s about player satisfaction. If, say, I’m awesome at a given game, it’ll get boring in a relatively short period of time, as it’ll provide no challenge. Conversely, if I suck, I’ll just be put off by the inability to access the really juicy bits of the game, or at least the bits beyond the part I’m stuck at.

    Aside from that, are you seriously going to call escaping from reality “indefensible,” on a blog called Offworld, about video games?


  3. Inverse Square

    But the hard part of a game is the juicy part. If it’s anything else, then it isn’t much of a game. If you’re awesome at a game, then you have worked to meet the bar of difficulty, or it is a simplistic game.

    And Offworld has generally had a focus on creativity. Godhand is clearly clever, but power fantasies are rubbish.


  4. Pickup games of basketball have a perfect analog to this: winner outs in which the scoring team gets the next possession versus loser outs in which the non-scoring team gains possession after a basket is made.


  5. Inverse Square, I think you missed a relevant part of the article, the first paragraph: “Sometimes, you have days bad enough and journeys home stupid enough that all you want is to be able to boot someone in the nuts so hard that they ring like a bell.”

    Challenge and achievement in video games drives many of us. But on occasion you may not want to deal with anything more than kicking ass to relieve stress.


  6. This is something Dungeons & Dragons figured out ages ago. It’s not a competitive game (DMs in large part want their players to succeed and see more of the plot and world), and players work together. Yet mastery of the game system through character build choices, success in combat by dealing lots of damage, and the threat of character death remain driving forces of play. On a conscious level, it doesn’t matter how terrible your character is or how poorly you play because the DM is likely going to take down the difficulty level and start flubbing rolls to make sure you succeed—but no one plays that way. We all play with the illusion of meaningful action, and the game is better for it.


  7. Margaret Robertson

    Hi chaps. Thanks for the comments. I had more to say ’bout these jolly interesting points than I thought would fit elegantly in a comment reply, so they’re over on my blog. Basic summary – I think adaptive difficulty, done right, doesn’t necessarily strip a game of its meaty bits, but I do think that the question of whether or not power fantasies are a dangerous, empty seduction is one we should always be open to. Either way, I reckon we should all be playing a lot more basketball.


  8. Inverse Square

    But why not have actual meaningful action? Why not try to do things that are really hard, which games can be. Sure they’re inconsequential to the outside world, but they can still be important to you for a good reason.


  9. But I thought he said it got really hard if you were better at it. Clearly there are goals that you can only reach with a high level of skill, though maybe you don’t consider those to be meaningful. It just doesn’t prevent you from progressing in the story just because you are unskilled.

    In short, it rewards skill without punishing the lack of it.

    Some puzzle games have this sort of thing down. One example is Lumines. When I first played it, I thought I was quite good, which was fun, made the game rewarding and accessible. Then I found out just how high the scores could go when you got really good, which made it that much more rewarding to me when I got better at it.


  10. Inverse Square

    ^^^ That is a better way of putting it. That the reward for being good at a game is the game becoming better is a good idea.

    But I still wonder whether we can trust that to work as a motivation. It’s worth bearing in mind that players are lazy. They like challenges, but they also want to beat the challenges in the laziest way possible. I’m not sure that difficulty level and reward can be melded in this way. Isn’t it paradoxical to have the reward for a challenge being a further challenge?

    Actually, even if that is paradoxical, it may not necessarily be a bad idea. The model most games, sort of including this one, work by is the idea of “progression”. Now that can be read as “plot progression”, but it’s much more like “event progression”, seeing new things happen, because it doesn’t have to be all about the game’s “plot”. Now, “progression” is just a bit retarded. Fundamentally it’s a lie – it suggests your actions make things happen. We need it partially for purposes of difficulty pacing, but most of the reason we use it is that our gameplay isn’t very interesting on its own, as with MGS and Final Fantasy and a load of other games.

    Ideally, perhaps, we would be able to bring out the player’s desire to improve themselves. Most of them do have this desire, at least in part – this was the central idea of Ralph Koster’s “A Theory Of Fun”. Games with really, REALLY good gameplay like Braid and World of Goo manage this. And maybe dynamic difficulty is a step towards applying it to the rest of them. But gamers will not make things more difficult for themselves


  11. You can complete Godhand without ever ticking over into the 2nd difficulty level. You’ll see the cutscenes, most of the spectacular roulette attacks, and the completion of the plot, if it matters. So the lazy gamers that so concern you will get a fun, if standard, game.

    But the gamers who discover that there’s a sort of flow to the game, when to attack, when to retreat, when to pull a baseball bat from the heavens and swing away, will be rewarded with the difficulty ticking up, a cheer from a nonexistent crowd, and a change in the rhythm of the game, the challenge to “flow” once again arising. The real fun in the game is to keep the difficulty level as high as you can for as long as you can– to stay in the zone for as long as possible. The game moves so fast that it’s not a matter of cerebral planning or execution, it’s one of feel, and the zone feels good to the gamer. It is the reward, not some cutscene. The win state is within the gamer, not within the final boss’ collapse.

    This is why it is a great action game, and also why it is an obscure game.


  12. “Sometimes, you have days bad enough and journeys home stupid enough that all you want is to be able to boot someone in the nuts so hard that they ring like a bell. Hrwah! Pow! DING!”

    Awesome. Thank you.


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