Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Arbitrary Objective!

So it's no secret by now, but I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. The game's retro sensibilities, combined with it's purposely pixelated sprite art look and 8-bit soundtrack won me over in a way that many games that attempt to be "retro" fail to. I mean it without a shred of hyperbole that I've literally been addicted to the game since its release, and while I can point out any aspect of its design in bullet points as the reason for this (great fighting engine, wealth of secrets, addictive leveling system), it wasn't just the graphics, or the gameplay that really brought out that old-school feel in me.

It was the return of the completely out-of-left-field institution that dominated most of my early gaming life:

The arbitrary objective.

We've all been there. You love a game to death, you play it to death. Somewhere inbetween purchase, mastering, and fondly archiving it for good, players go through this phase. A game gets completed, mastered, and because we don't want to let go of it just yet, we start making up new rules in our head. Racing games can be beaten without nitro. A fighting game can be beaten without special moves. These pointless, unnecessary, dare I say..arbitrary tweaks to a game's established formula can extend its relative value long past is shelf life, and it's exactly what happened to me here.

The funny thing was, I didn't even need to finish the game in question. It happened while I was playing through the game by myself as Scott, I realized that essentially, aside from some very unique attacks, everyone played the same, and because they had openly customizable stats, simply powering them all up to maximum would just make them homogeneous. The gears in my head began turning almost immediately. I knew I was going to play through the game with each character, but how could I indulge my hardcore sensibilities and still keep the game fresh 4, maybe even 5 playthroughs later? I thought of one of the game's many inspirations: Streets of Rage.

I remembered how each character, despite having the exact same moveset, had different attacks, and not only that, but they also had stats giving them all a distinct feel in addition to this. Axel was a power character with great moves, Blaze was the balanced type, Max was slow but powerful, and Skate was small and fast, if lacking in stamina. I wanted something like this for this game. After all, what better way to highlight each character's individuality (and give players something to call dibs on during multiplayer) than to give them completely differing strengths and weaknesses?

It took a bit of time, but I got it. Thinking of each character's personality/ability in the comic, I went about balancing them all out, albeit in RPG-grinding fashion:

Scott became an all-rounder, given his reputation as a fighter (and his uncanny ability to adapt), Ramona, being the "American Ninja", became the fastest character, yet relatively low on strength and high on defense. Kim, resident drummer (and situational damsel-in-distress) became above average on technique, strength, and speed(drummer qualities!), but has absolutely no defense, and Stephen, aka "the talent", became a tank, sporting relative strength, but maxed technique (talent, natch) and defense (he did date Julie, after all) at the cost of speed.

If the stats seem kind of high, it's because I balanced them all to be used on either medium, or hard difficulty..and for the most part, it worked out wonderfully. Scott is as powerful all around as he should be, Ramona's speed goes well with the range offered by her weapons, Kim's strengths go well towards a solid offense that masks what she lacks in defense, and Stephen is the strangest feeling one, having the lowest speed but a wealth of special techniques at his disposal.

The funny thing is, none of the hours I spent doing this felt wasted at all. I just finished the game with Scott yesterday, and now I can't wait to go through it again with Ramona. She's much faster, with much lower attack so her juggles are a lot more fun to indulge. I singlehandedly introduced character balance and an extra layer of strategy to this game, and while I didn't have to, the experience for me (and the people I've played with) was that much richer because of it.

Labor of love as it was, It brought me back quite a bit. I remember my tenure in Sonic 3& Knuckles, having separate files for having completed with or without all emeralds. I'm still proud of completing Super Mario Bros without touching a single fireflower (never touching a mushroom was beyond me). This sentiment extended past "old" games as well. In high school, action games like Ninja Gaiden weren't spared, as a friend and I finished the entire game on "very hard" without upgrading ANYTHING, and my girlfriend, notorious for her Need for Speed exploits, did everything short of finishing Most Wanted by driving backwards before she was satisfied. The arbitrary objective knows no genre, and no limits, being clearly defined by a gamer's ability, and imagination.

Hell, I've even become fond of what I named "stock mixing" in DJ Hero, playing a song through for 5 stars with no (extra) multipliers or modifiers.

If any of this sounds crazy, it's because well...it is, but it's something we gamers are well acquainted with. Microsoft may have capitalized on this old art by giving it a mainstream name in the form of "achievements", but at the end of the day, they have no real value, and it's the pride that we put into them that defines their value. Putting a score on it doesn't really change the fact that we've been assigning arbitrary objectives to ourselves since the beginning, and it'll continue as long as we have the drive to push the limits developers have assigned us.

Now if you'lll excuse me, I'm off to practice M.Bison in SSF4 by beating arcade mode on hard using only his normals.

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