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Hustle and Flow: Why Games Need to Keep it Moving

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. Iíve seen this one scene a stupid amount of times, and itís 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 thereís where it hit me. Heatís 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. Iíve 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.

Thereís 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. Youíll 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 havenít you ever wondered why itís so ubiquitous? Sure, itís simplicity makes it the logical option to introduce new players to a game, but the fact stands that by the time youíre at the last level, youíll 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 itís the rhythm that keeps it from becoming unbearably repetitive.

But acts of violence arenít the only way rhythm presents itself. You can find plenty of satisfying rhythms in the act of simply getting around. Take Assassinís Creed or Mirrors Edge. There is a visceral enjoyment to be had in the run, the jump, and the landing. Thereís a hypnotizing quality to it. Over and over again, you do this until youíre locked in a kind of rhythmic tango with your surroundings. If the rhythm is particularly enchanting, Iíll even tolerate a ďbadĒ game to get my fix. I canít count how many questionable spider-man games Iíve played just for the awesome web-slinging.

The problem is, some games today seem to be in love with elements that obliterate a gameís 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 playerís interest and level of excitement. At any given moment in Left 4 Dead, thereís always something going on. Youíre actively being pushed to progress through the level as it was designed, keeping the playerís adrenaline high, and unable to become bored. I donít care if itís 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 ďzoneĒ: that magical moment of perfect confluence of ability, awareness, and timing. Time slows down for you, and itís 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 arenít 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.

Iím not a big fan of Modern Warfareís rather pedestrian single-player campaigns, but Iím 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 ďepicĒ paint by the numbers battles or BS scripted events in the rest of the game. Itís 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, CODís usual plodding flow gets thrown out the window, and itís like youíre playing a different game. Now, if you get hit by a bullet you donít 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 isnít about back breaking Dark Soulsí level difficulty, itís about respect. A player that has a healthy amount of respect doesnít run into rooms blindly. No, heís always paying attention to his surroundings and wondering whatís 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 canít sit back and safely take pot shots at every cop for an half hour. Their butts are in the fire, and theyíre operating purely on instinct and adrenaline. This is exactly how you craft an engaging sequence.

My old-school sensibilities canít 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.

Iíve got them just where I want them

But danger doesnít 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 3ís Nemesis. You didnít see him often, but when you did, youíd 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 wasnít recommended. So letís 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 didnít 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 ďsurvival horrorĒ games look like someone set a bomb off in a gun shop. Thereís no need to ration, plan, or run from anything because baby, youíve got a NRA membership card, and youíre 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. Whatís 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 2ís final level, the bridge. The stage is essentially the ďend bossĒ of the entire game, and boy is it a doozy. Itís 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.
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About konaone of us since 10:16 PM on 10.21.2011

Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.