Tomorrow marks the Nintendo Switch release of 2D shooter Graceful Explosion Machine, a title that’s carried my interest for a few weeks now. As a long-time obsessive for Geometry Wars games and someone who will drop coins in Raiden any time I encounter the cabinet, it should be a no-brainer. Still, watching videos of gameplay gives me a sort of stress I don’t hear vocalized much in the gaming community beyond just “eh, not my style of game.”
I’m talking about the anxious feeling many action games provoke in me. A game that demands quick reflexes and nimble fingers stresses me out in a way that seems strange for a long-time game player: I can play all types of games, I have played every genre I’ve encountered, so why should I doubt my ability to adapt?
For one, I haven’t been able to play all of those games successfully. Despite being a very advanced F-Zero player, there’s something about the few WipeOut games I’ve played that really throw me off. Is it the coloring of the level making it tougher to distinguish road details? Are turns not broadcasted ahead of time? Is the camera angle just slightly lower or higher than it ought to be to make the game readable?
This readability, it turns out, is one of the most important elements of creating an action game — racing, sports, brawler, anything — because whether you need to react in a fraction of a second to an upcoming sharp-left turn while racing or read the subtle broadcasting an enemy swordsman gives before striking, a game should present feedback as part of its response system. If saying “not my kind of game” is the symptomatic interpretation, breaking things down into readability and comprehensible controls should reveal more about the root cause.
One of the main reasons I’ve always struggled with 2D fighting games highlights both aspects of this. First, I have (apparently) slow visual acuity for spotting move tactics and feints. Second, there is an inherent unintuitive nature to combo attacks and memorizing half- and quarter-rotations that reminds me I am wrestling with a piece of plastic, not completely immersed in the game. In this case, these aren’t failings of the game, but a high threshold for player skill, reinforcing the value of technique; it’s not that the game isn’t broadcasting the necessary information or that the controller is the wrong tool for this attempt (though, it could definitely be true that an arcade pad would be better), but that I haven’t learned to swim, so to speak. I have the equipment, I know what the goal is, I understand the sorts of movements needed, but have no muscle memory for it.
Which brings us back to Graceful Explosion Machine. And Geometry Wars. Related or not, I may just have to assure myself that if I only saw a game of Geometry Wars midway through, when dozens of enemies swarm around you with unique behavior I didn’t know outright, it too would seem impenetrable. Maybe this sort of apprehension doesn’t come from a type of game but from seeing it under the wrong circumstances: I’ve never been able to get into Bloodborne by watching friends who are midway through the game. This means I’ve missed the beginning of the game which, if designed correctly, should facilitate the player’s entry into the world. Put another way: someone telling you what each button does isn’t as effective as learning them gradually with necessity. On the other hand, maybe it stems from bad game design, where playing a game that doesn’t adequately make room for a learning curve can leave you struggling through your whole playthrough.
In any case, even if I know I’m fast enough and observant enough and familiar with the controller enough to play Ninja Gaiden doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to play Ninja Gaiden. It’s just much more useful to break down the elements of this play gap — which is no different than being unable to write a stage play even if you can write a novel — than to simply say it’s beyond you, not your style, or not your kind of game.