Heat came on TV the other day which meant much like Goodfellas and the Godfather, I had to stop whatever I was doing and watch it. Eventually, I get to THAT scene. Yeah, you know the one
. I’ve seen this one scene a stupid amount of times, and it’s still thrilling after dozens of viewings. This time though, struck me as a bit different. There was a familiarity--a kind of deja vu of the entire setup, and there’s where it hit me. Heat’s heist scene feels exactly like playing Left 4 Dead. This made me realize there was something timeless between the two, and perhaps examining them a little deeper I could discover why they are so effective at what they do. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main things that all video games could learn from Heat and L4D: rhythm, immediacy/flow, and danger.
There’s this great blog on Kotaku by Kirk Hamilton named The Rhythm of Play
. In it, it describes how many great games have an intrinsic tempo and feel, one that compels you to keep playing. Watch that shootout again, or a video of Left 4 Dead for a few minutes. You’ll begin to notice a rhythmic beat underlying every encounter. RAT TAT TAT, aim, RAT TAT TAT, aim again, RAT TAT TAT, run, reload, and repeat. The sheer numbers of enemies allows for you to remain engaged, and keep the beat going indefinitely.
This rhythmic aspect is present in countless games, but you may not have noticed it until now. Ever notice in classic beat-em-ups like Final Fight are founded upon that old gaming trope: the three hit combo. Princesses have been rescued, kingdoms toppled, and galaxies saved all by this simple three button sequence. But haven’t you ever wondered why it’s so ubiquitous? Sure, it’s simplicity makes it the logical option to introduce new players to a game, but the fact stands that by the time you’re at the last level, you’ll still be using it, and having a blast. The true greatness of the three-hit-combo lies in its rhythm. Punch punch, punch. Punch, punch, kick. Punch, kick, slam. Easy, effective, and deadly, but it’s the rhythm that keeps it from becoming unbearably repetitive.
But acts of violence aren’t the only way rhythm presents itself. You can find plenty of satisfying rhythms in the act of simply getting around. Take Assassin’s Creed or Mirrors Edge. There is a visceral enjoyment to be had in the run, the jump, and the landing
. There’s a hypnotizing quality to it. Over and over again, you do this until you’re locked in a kind of rhythmic tango with your surroundings. If the rhythm is particularly enchanting, I’ll even tolerate a “bad” game to get my fix. I can’t count how many questionable spider-man games I’ve played just for the awesome web-slinging.
The problem is, some games today seem to be in love with elements that obliterate a game’s cadence, grinding it to a halt. Cliffy B seemed to be acutely aware of this when he designed Gears of War. Here you have a game where you are up to your eyeballs with chest-high walls, but ingeniously maintains a driving rhythm with active reloading. Kirk Hamilton describes it as such:
The rip and spray of a Gears weapon is like a snare-drum roll, and the active reload is the cymbal crash at the end. Waiting the perfect amount of time before jamming the right shoulder button to slam in a super-charged round is so viscerally, rhythmically satisfying that I don't know why the mechanic hasn't been copied by every game since.
Immediacy/flow is also a vital component of a game that serves to retain the player’s interest and level of excitement. At any given moment in Left 4 Dead, there’s always something going on. You’re actively being pushed to progress through the level as it was designed, keeping the player’s adrenaline high, and unable to become bored. I don’t care if it’s a scrolling camera, a mob of enemies, an imposed time-limit, or an avalanche, the player needs to be encouraged to not drag their ass through a game. Even in games that focus on exploration or being methodical should still have moments of high tension to prod a player.
One of the great things about flow is that a lot of times you have just as much control over it as the designers do. Have you ever been in the “zone”: that magical moment of perfect confluence of ability, awareness, and timing. Time slows down for you, and it’s as if every encounter is divinely scripted: one, two, three pulls of the trigger, and three bodies fall at you feet. This, my friends is what perfect flow looks like, and boy does it feel good. Of course this is an exceptionally rare occurrence, especially for people who aren’t named Johnathan Wendel
, but the job of a designer is to create environments and situations where the player has the opportunity to feel this as often as possible.
I’m not a big fan of Modern Warfare’s rather pedestrian single-player campaigns, but I’m not afraid to admit I absolutely loved the Mile High Club mission. It only lasted a couple of minutes, but it was far more exciting than any of the “epic” paint by the numbers battles or BS scripted events in the rest of the game. It’s just you and your trusty MP5 versus that accursed clock. Without the usual luxury of being able to pitch a tent safely behind cover as long as you like, COD’s usual plodding flow gets thrown out the window, and it’s like you’re playing a different game. Now, if you get hit by a bullet you don’t turtle up, you push harder because you know your only choice is kill them before they kill you. You feverishly run from encounter to encounter because the only thing more deadly than a bullet from an AK-47, are the seconds on the overhead clock.
Last but not least, we have danger, which is tied in closely with the first two elements I mentioned. Danger is the carrot on the stick, or rather the stick you beat your players with to keep them from getting cocky. Spare the rod and spoil the gamer, as they say. This isn’t about back breaking Dark Souls’ level difficulty, it’s about respect. A player that has a healthy amount of respect doesn’t run into rooms blindly. No, he’s always paying attention to his surroundings and wondering what’s going to happen next. It means that sometimes, shit gets real. With all the hand-holding going on in games today, it seems that devs forget how fun it is to be in over your head. Dangerous situations get people thinking, and asses in gear. Check out that scene
again. There is very little cover to be had, no corners to hide until their health and shields regenerate; they can’t sit back and safely take pot shots at every cop for an half hour. Their butts are in the fire, and they’re operating purely on instinct and adrenaline. This is exactly how you craft an engaging sequence.
My old-school sensibilities can’t help but bring up another one of my favorite games: Bangai-O
. Bangai-O forces you to forgo all instincts of self-preservation in order to be most effective. That means jumping headfirst into the teeth of the enemy and then not pulling the trigger until milliseconds before death. This was a game that rewards you on how big your balls are, not how good you are at hiding behind cover, and it was fucking awesome.
I’ve got them just where I want them
But danger doesn’t always have to be about being in bullet-hell. The entire survival horror genre USED to be based upon fear, helplessness, and the unknown. Every time you reached for a door handle, you never knew what was waiting to greet you on the other side. Suspense and the absolute lack of a feeling of safety makes for a truly immersive experience.
One of my favorite examples of this will always be Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis. You didn’t see him often, but when you did, you’d usually let out an audible scream, followed by hastily making your way to the nearest exit. Sure, you could attempt to stand your ground and exhaust all your precious ammo in hopes that he would drop before he ripped your spleen out, but it wasn’t recommended. So let’s say you made it to the door and into the next room. Time for a breather, right? Wrong. You hear the door open behind you and a familiar voice: STAAAAARS!
You were never allowed to relax outside of save rooms, and frankly, you didn’t feel too safe in those either.
Sometimes the simple act of needing to run for your life makes a situation all the more thrilling. You have to ask yourself would Pyramid Head have been nearly as memorable if James could have just emptied a machine gun into his face the first time he saw him? Nowadays, most “survival horror” games look like someone set a bomb off in a gun shop. There’s no need to ration, plan, or run from anything because baby, you’ve got a NRA membership card, and you’re not afraid to use it. This short-sighted approach obliterates every iota of danger and suspense in many games. Yawn.
Put simply, a lot of games today (particularly first person shooters) are suffering from an extreme case gameplay constipation. What’s the remedy? A healthy dose of rhythm, flow, and danger. If you want to see an example of a game that does it right, look no further than Left 4 Dead 2’s final level, the bridge.
The stage is essentially the “end boss” of the entire game, and boy is it a doozy. It’s actually very disorienting the first few times you play it. You are given the task of traversing the entire length of a dilapidated suspension bridge all the while fighting through an endless stream of brain-thirsty zombies. Once you figure out that being overwhelmed is inevitable, you begin to settle into a groove. You discover the feverish tempo the game wants you to operate at, and you match it. There is no thinking to be had, there are only footsteps and gunshots. You can feel the relentless grasp of death creeping in from all directions; you fear it, but you will not succumb to it. You push ahead, not only because you are fighting for your life; but because you are having the time of it.