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Wednesday
Jan072009

A Few Comments on Rhythm and Timers

This article follows Tension: Threats & Timers.

 

"Rhythm based combat."


Like "greater than the sum of its parts" describing gameplay with "rhythm based combat" or "there's a rhythm to it" doesn't say anything specific about the game. What action game doesn't have a rhythm to it? Mario's jumps have a rhythm. Smash Brothers has a beat. Even button mashing in Kingdom Hearts has a repeating pattern to it. Check out the rhythms of Balrogs attacks and the fire ball traps (video above).

If poetry and prose have rhythm despite not being fixed to a particular timing, then turn based/non action games have rhythm too.

Getting into the zone or syncing up with the rhythm of a game is possible with all action games. So, describing Assassin's Creed's combat or Prince of Persia's combat in this way isn't saying much about the quality or the design of either game. Instead of highlighting a feature of the game, this phrase alone merely functions as coverup for some serious underlying issues.

Discussing mechanics and interplay is essential when talking about combat. You can put this statement along with the others from How To Write A Critical Video Game Review.

 

Pikmin 1 vs Pikmin 2


One of the biggest changes between Pikmin 1's and Pikmin 2's level design was the removal of the limited exploration time. In Pikmin 1, players have 30 game days to scavenge the land in search of treasures and ship parts before blasting off for home. This limit functioned as a timer that threatened to essentially end the game for the players. With a limited time to get down to business, every second counted. This pressure, like the pressure from the timer in Cursor*10, influences players to make quick decisions and to multitask on the fly.

In Pikmin 2, players have as many days as they want to explore the planet. Furthermore, when exploring subterranean caves, the in game timer is paused. Instead of creating an organic, cyclical rhythm out of the day to day timers, the sense of time and therefore tension in Pikmin2 is stressed and weakened. Though with two characters (Olimar & Louie/Mr. President) players are capable of executing more complex multitasking maneuvers than in Pikmin 1, why bother? With no overarching limiting factor, instead of multitasking to maximize time, the safer course of action is to minimize loss by doing tasks one at a time with the strength of your entire Pikmin army.

For this reason, I prefer some of the design choices in Pikmin1 to Pikmin2. By removing the pressure of time, player may be able to explore at their leisure. But at the same time, they are encouraged to tackle each task one at a time using the simple strategy "strength in numbers." By playing like this, players are exposed to less of the intricacies of Pikmin's core design RTS design.

To make an analogy, the beauty of Star Craft, Advance Wars, or RPGs for that matter does not come from over leveling/running over the enemy after building an exorbitant amount of powerful units. The beauty and depth of these games comes from working with the limitations of time to create effective dynamic, and flexible strategies to accomplish a gaol.

 

The Great Disappearing Act


A classic type of video game timer that creates tension from the loss of opportunity is the disappearing powerup/item. Kill an enemy and it might drop something useful. But you better grab it quickly. After a few seconds, these powerups begin to blink indicating that they'll soon be gone forever.

  • geoms (Geometry Wars Galaxies): These bits of currency helped to break up some of the static space/repetitious gameplay by encouraging the player to move into the areas where enemies were recently destroyed. Because these golden points add to the score multiplayer, players must balance their current danger with their greed. And they must act quickly. After a few seconds, geoms disappear.
  • energy, life, and megaman head pickups (Megaman Series): Long range weapons are cheap in a world where enemies must run into you to do any damage. Such is the nature of guns. However, Megaman can only fire horizontally forcing players to jump to adjust their aim. When players jump, the gravity dynamic enters the equation. Furthermore, destroyed enemies have a chance of dropping beneficial pickups. Because they disappear in a short time, if the player sees something they want, they have to move over to it. By giving the player incentives to move in new ways, these pickups do a great job of creating variety in the gameplay.
  • force gems, ammo, ruppees (Zelda): I have never fought so hard and so long for something as unnecessary as force gems. I've killed my friends, stalled out the game, and yelled at my fellow traitors (friends) all for these colorful points. And for what? At the end of the game, whoever gets the most has a good chance of winning. Winning what? Honor? Pride? Bragging rights? The hatred of your friends? Wanting them makes me greedy. Wanting my friends to get none makes me bitter. But the timer on these pickups turns me into a frenzy. What excellent game design.
  • points (everyday shooter): Due to the old school design where players have a limited number of lives to beat the entire game, points are highly valuable. Collect enough for an extra life. An extra amount of tension exists when you must fight your way over to a cluster of points because, in this game, shooting slows you down. In other words, you can't get there unless you fight. When you fight, you risk getting there too late. You can read my review & repair of Everyday Shooter here.
  • sonic rings (after getting hurt). Just one hit, and there's goes all of your rings bouncing and dancing away from you like a host of angels. And as sonic recovers from being hit, players must reflect upon the situation with their inward eye. Players must ponder how to go about recovering as many of the lost rings as possible. Soon, all the rings will disappear leaving you to wonder if you ever had so many in the first place. Or something like that.
  • honeycombs (Banjo-Kazooie): These tasty buggers bounce down hill somewhat realistically according to physics. Give chase if you need to. You may find yourself running head long into danger only for the comb to disappear.
  • CDs!/items/some special attacks (smash brothers): CD! If a CD drops in a match, nothing is more important that grabbing it. This item has the shortest timer of al the items in the game. Players only have seconds to nab it. The promise of a new song is more important than the life of any character. At least, that's how I feel about it. Items come and items go. If you really want one, get it before it disappears forever. Diddy's bananas and Rob's spinning top are examples of two attacks that will disappear from the field like items.
  • coins/starbits (Mario Galaxy):
  • point bubbles in LBP (when set on a timer/emitter:
  • etc.
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