Monday, August 9, 2010

What Game Are We Playing, Anyway?

I was (briefly) embroiled in a conversation on the Forge regarding the interaction between rules and fiction. (Truthfully, the conversation was fruitless for my conversation partner, who essentially stated "Rules win every time, what you mean rules aren't the rulebook, you don't get what I'm saying, la la la I can't hear you.") The conversation did, however, spark some reflection in my mind. When you consider your favorite tabletop RPG system -- D&D 3rd, White Wolf, Traveller, BESM, 3:16, doesn't really matter -- how do the "fiction", the story situation as it stands, and the "rules", the system by which the story is played out, interact?

The "conversation" I had involved the often nebulous dilemma that isn't really approached in most rulebooks; if the rules say you can accomplish some particular action, does the GM have the right to say that the fictional situation your character stands in makes that action impossible? The example I saw repeated most frequently involved a fighter in close combat with an ogre. The ogre slams the fighter with a tremendous club. Okay, fighter loses a chunk of HP, no problem. But then when the fighter's turn rolls around, and he announces his counterattack, the GM states, "The ogre's attack knocked you too far away. You can't get to him to attack this round." Wait, what? When was that established? Was it in the rules?

As written, combat like this in a D&D-style system (and I'll move forward assuming we're playing D&D, but probably without a grid) says no. The attack simply beans the fighter for 2d8 + (1.5 * STR mod) damage, and life goes on. That said, I'm not trying to imply the GM was wrong in stating that the fighter was SOL this turn on attacking. I'm sure this statement seems incongruous -- it's a violation of the rules to say the fighter was knocked back, but the GM wasn't wrong to say he was. How does that make any sense?

We can start with a bit of an off-the-wall question: How do you define "the rules"?

The easy answer, of course, is the stuff that's written in the rulebook. I don't, however, think that tells the full story. I mean, consider a couple of friends of mine, whose system of choice is first-edition White Wolf. For those unfamiliar, the resolution mechanic for most actions is as follows:

Add together the number of points ("dots") your character has allotted in an Attribute and a Skill. Roll that many ten-sided dice. Now, count up the number of dice that show a number equal to or greater than the established "difficulty" of the action (six is standard, but it's variable). Then subtract the number of dice showing ones. If your character has at least four dots in either the attribute or the skill, and he has selected a specialty in the action being attempted, reroll all tens as if they were bonus dice, and add them to your total. If the total is positive, the action was successful; zero, the action failed; negative, the action "botched" (snarl), resulting in complications.

The group in question, however, doesn't use these rules as written. They instead apply the following modifications:

  • Always reroll tens.

  • Having a relevant specialty decreases the difficulty of the roll by one.

These modifications are what are referred to as "house rules". Quite frequently, GMs and gaming groups as a whole will make modifications to the rules of the game in play, in order to better facilitate their style of play, overhaul perceived imbalance in the system they are using, simplify mechanics, or add complexity to increase depth.

All right, so let's consider the impact from that tree-trunk club again. Let's assume the GM states the fighter can't get to the ogre, and the group as a whole is okay with that. Now we have a house rule, theoretically speaking: particularly strong physical blows can knock characters back, even if it isn't specified in the monster's stat block. Fine, I don't see a problem with that, assuming the GM applies the rule consistently to both player and NPC actions.

The reason the debate on the Forge even began was a situation like this, in which the GM decreed the same thing (once again, fighter hit with tree trunk, blasts off again), only the player did not agree; the GM said "tough", and the next time that happened, the player wasn't knocked around and could fight as normal. The player, in this instance, has a right to get pissed, because the decision wasn't made as a house rule; instead, it was an attempt to facilitate the direction of play that the GM wanted, using "the fiction" as an excuse. A compromise, therefore, is necessary to resolve two diametrically opposed (arguably straw-man) viewpoints: the rules in the book should always win, or the fiction should always trump the rules. Neither is right, but not, in my opinion, for the reason you might think!

I argue that there is no compromise necessary, because both schools of thought want nothing more than a consistent interpretation of both the "Shared Imagined Space" and the rules or system by which the action therein is adjudicated. In essence, the "fiction", interpreted correctly and uniformly by all participants at the table, is part of the rules, just the same as an explicitly defined house rule would be. Therefore, the rules in play are NOT what is written in the book, but the rules explicitly or implicitly agreed upon by all players at the table as a consequence of consistent play.

In my previous post, I pointed out how simulationist players, to once again borrow the GNS terms, wouldn't be particularly fond of the White Wolf system, since a substantial amount of detail is abstracted away in favor of (relatively) simple mechanics to facilitate roleplaying. In the comment thread, "Lynne" pointed out the fact that she and a few of her friends tend to lean more toward simulationism, and make modifications to the application of rules in play to explain the idiosyncrasies between the abstractions made by White Wolf and their own particular interpretation of the "Shared Imagined Space". Does this mean that White Wolf is a good system for simulationists? I don't believe so. I do, however, believe that the changes they make in play yield a ruleset, based on White Wolf's framework, that is useful as a hybrid of simulationist and narrativist play. The instant they make a rule change, they're no longer playing White Wolf as written -- well, that's not entirely true, since the first line of the "rules" chapter in White Wolf texts is usually "Ignore these rules". But the point stands.

Let me bring up a point in OneShot's design that isn't entirely apparent; when I first set to work on building OneShot over a lunch break, I intended to create a simple, simulationist game that enabled players to roleplay cool gunfights in a mafia setting. I failed catastrophically in that attempt. What I created, instead, was a framework with which to build that concept, or to build a really cool story, or to just set to work in an encounter and see who wins. OneShot is not a simulationist game, but it's also not a narrativist game or a gamist game. Hell, at some level it isn't even a game at all! It's tools to build a game. That fact is more or less true of nearly any tabletop RPG system devised. Some, of course, make this easier than others.

So, to bring this back to the point with which I started this post. Properly defined, the rules and the fiction are one and the same. Used capriciously, they're a tool, crutch, or excuse by a GM who wants to railroad or confuse his players, or play his story, his game. If he hopes to keep his players satisfied and help his players tell a story, he'd do well to at least try to interpret everything as consistently as possible. Given that, who cares how closely he follows the rules as written? Those aren't the rules he's using, and more power to him.

Don't play D&D, don't play White Wolf, hell, don't play OneShot. Play your game.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why D&D Sucks

You'll have to excuse the somewhat abrasive title of this piece; it'll be explained momentarily.

I've been working on OneShot for a while, a project which has been enormously fruitful. I've participated in or set up no fewer than five campaigns/settings in the system, each of which has been a resounding success. I'm still working on coalescing the various documents I've generated into a single concrete "first edition" rulebook, complete with a campaign setting called OneShot: PSICOM. The purpose of this entry, however, is not to toot my own horn.

I've done a significant amount of research on RPG theory, mainly via the efforts of Ron Edwards and Vince Baker at The Forge, a progressive forum for independent tabletop RPG design. The site began, it appeared, as a dual-purpose device, hosting both the forums proper, and a series of articles published by Edwards and others. The one thing that I admired the most was the (apparently outdated) GNS Theory. Those letters stand for Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism. There's an impressive level of detail on each of those terms within the Forge articles on each, but I'll attempt to sum up each one here for the purposes of this discussion:

  • Gamism: The concept of "playing a game" comes first -- that is, being principally concerned with figuring out the variables and optimizing both actions and character setup in order to win or lose.
  • Narrativism: The story comes first. The purpose of roleplaying is to tell a story; game mechanics and character sheets are a means to that end.
  • Simulationism: A main focus on simulating a world, whether real or invented. Rules exist for exactly how a laser beam interacts with a blast door, or how your sword damages a character protected by different types of armor in different locations.

Nowhere in any of the articles does Edwards present any of these design foci as wrong, though he expresses a fondness for Narrativism above others -- this can be seen in both his and Vince Baker's works.

So, let's get back to the title of this entry -- why does D&D suck? Depends on who you ask. A common misconception among RPG players is that games, and people, who don't cater to their style are either bad or are missing the point. Simulationists decry Vampire: The Masquerade (or, honestly, any White Wolf product) as too vague. Gamists can't understand why "winning" conflicts in Dogs in the Vineyard might still kill you or do you more harm than good. Narrativists don't appreciate the obsession in D&D 4th edition on the concept of "builds" and "cooldowns".

Ah, I got sneaky; I mentioned D&D a little early. Well, the problem is that D&D simultaneously caters to and frustrates each type of gamer. That's why D&D "sucks"; not because it doesn't work for players of various ilks, but because it doesn't do any of them particularly well.

Let me digress for a moment -- there's a concept in software development (my principal occupation) called "breaking changes". When a new version of a program is released, any change significant enough to cause documents, saved games, or code generated with an earlier version incorrect or incompatible is a "breaking change". For example, when a game releases version 1.2, and tells you that saved games from 1.1 don't work anymore. In general, breaking changes are a bad idea, because it causes users a significant amount of strife in dealing with modifying, converting, or simply recreating their work.

D&D got its origins from a game called "Chainmail"; it was a tabletop wargame, dealing with maneuvering armies in battles. One of its scenarios involved moving through a dungeon to access a castle from underground; the setting was so well liked that it was expanded, bringing the focus from masses of units to individual heroes, and adding the conceit of hit points so that beloved warriors didn't die on a single failed roll. As the game expanded upwards from its wargame roots, into a first, second, third, and eventually fourth edition, it carried with it a lot of baggage. You couldn't leave "Armor Class", or Vecna, or "Magic Missile" behind and still call the game Dungeons & Dragons. Just the same, you couldn't leave behind the exhaustive rules for unarmed combat and grappling, nor the immense realism in certain spots, nor the narrative aspects. They're all expected. (Well, that's not entirely the case in D&D 4th edition; I've heard it best described as "D&D: The Boardgame"; but that's neither here nor there.) The bottom line is, since D&D has been around since the very origins of tabletop roleplaying (and is arguably the forefather of roleplaying in general), the fact that it carries so much baggage is almost expected.

That's simultaneously the charm and the curse of D&D, sadly. Everyone sits down at the table to play their version of the game, and no one gets what they want.

My friends and I lean narrativist, generally. We like to tell stories, and D&D is a fine vehicle for it. That said, there are a good thousand pages of rules, not to mention rule supplements, to digest before you really understand how the game works; if you don't have a character concept, race, or whatever that's present in the system, it's a herculean feat to try to create it. And then, even if you do, you're stuck with a huge quandry with respect to game balance.

Simulationists kind of like D&D, because spells, materials, and items all have statistics that allow them to interact with each other. You'll know exactly how a sword or axe will break down a wooden door. But you'll be disappointed if you try to figure out how explosives work, or how fireballs affect grass or other items; the rules for the fireball seem to contradict each other, as the damage comes from an explosive burst which is gone in an instant, and doesn't set characters on fire, but does fire damage, not concussive, and sets flammable objects on fire. What?

Gamists love D&D because there are a laundry list of options. That list expands tenfold (at least!) if your unwitting DM allows races, classes, and spells from external supplements, not all of which are official. There's simply so much material out for version 3/3.5 that a sufficiently wily player will, given time, find a game-breaking combination that makes him win every encounter.

Here's where things get difficult -- all of these players have reasons to love D&D, but if you put members of each group in the same party, bad things happen. So, Gamist sits down at the table with his buddies, Narrativist and Simulationist. The GM starts to tell a fantastic tale, when we encounter the party at the local tavern. Suddenly, a squad of goblins busts down the door, axes at the ready; who'll save them but the local party of adventurers? Narrativist describes in exacting detail the process of slamming his drink down, pulling out his rapier and lute, and the soulful yet aggressive tones that fill the air with magic. The Simulationist wonders aloud whether the tanglefoot bag he's carrying can create a web across the door to clothesline the goblins as they pass through the doorway. But who cares? The gamist took Cleave and Great Cleave, Two-weapon Fighting, and is dual-wielding Greatswords using Monkey Grip. Oh, and he's a half-ogre so he has reach. They're all dead before they get a turn. The other plans are wasted; they're clever and may work, but they're suboptimal, and don't kill the most punks per second. They're shunted to the sidelines. Simultaneously, the gamist complains that his allies aren't putting their best foot forward, while the narrativist laments his well-crafted description gone to waste, and the simulationist wonders aloud how this jerk can kill six enemies in two seconds using weapons that can't feasibly function in a room that small. For that matter, how'd the ogre fit through the tavern door?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Exclusive Unlockables -- or, Get a Free Gun to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

I purchased Splinter Cell: Conviction recently, and played it to completion in about three days. I haven't played with the side modes or the co-op campaign yet, so I can't pass judgment on them yet, but the main campaign plays very well. It's not the old Splinter Cell you remember, but as a stealth/action hybrid, it accomplishes its goal with gusto.

But I didn't post to discuss this game. On the contrary, I saw a few exclusive features attached to it that I'd like to discuss. It seems like a few developers make deals with electronics and game stores, particularly GameStop, to bundle extras into the game if it's purchased or reserved at that particular store. It's actually a very sound marketing tactic, isn't it? Come get the game at our store and get early access to the F2000 rifle, one of the best in the game!

I say, the developers are very, very carefully shooting themselves in the foot with tactics like these.

Balance is a very strange concept in gaming. It's almost Zen-like in its steadfast refusal to be described in terms that aren't vague or nebulous. Balancing weapons, as I've discussed in posts before, is a very challenging task; we discussed the "no duplicate function" method, the "quantity over quality" method, but games like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter subscribe to a third process. Since you can only carry one primary weapon in either of these games, they make things interesting by allowing you to select better and better devices as the game goes on; we'll call it "quality ramping".

On level one, you might be stuck with a couple of basic pistols, gain a shotgun or SMG on level two, a mediocre assault rifle on three, and eventually find better examples of all of these as you progress. The pace of weapon unlocks is often tied to the difficulty curve, keeping your equipment level generally on par with that of the enemy; depending on theme, you may be consistently behind, and trying to make up the difference with your skill; be a bit ahead, representing your funding and support level; or, if pace is tied to a currency like money or some performance metric, in a constant arms race to stay one step ahead of your foes.

The GameStop exclusive pre-order for SC:C gave you instant access to the MP5-SD suppressed SMG, the SC3000 assault rifle, SR-2M machine pistol, and SPAS-12 automatic shotgun (which is also freaking suppressed). All of these are very strong weapons; the MP5 doesn't come along until about halfway through the game, and the SC3000 comes in level ten of thirteen. The SPAS-12 isn't normally available at all.

Do you see the problem yet? By introducing these weapons early, the player's arsenal quality is well above that of his enemies. This effectively blunts two of SC:C's best design qualities: first, the constant tension produced by keeping pace with the enemies' equipment level; second, and more importantly, the old "progress bar" reward system where the player is eagerly waiting for the next piece he can try. If he already has all the good weapons, who cares? The fleshed-out, interesting selection becomes little more than picking the best gun in the game from minute one and then forgetting the selection menu is even there.

Pardon the extrapolation, but imagine playing Super Mario Bros. -- the first one, before the formula expanded into world maps, inventories, and so forth. Can you imagine an exclusive version that enabled you to start each level Super, with one additional hit-point? It'd break the game's difficulty entirely. Marketing probably wants some kind of nifty new exclusives, but they don't realize they're trying to do the developers' job for them -- and failing. You're asking your players to plunk down five or ten extra bucks, or go to your preferred outlet, for the privilege of playing a game that's less fun.

I'm sure there's a wide swath of gamers who love this concept; next to cheat codes, it's a great way to get that elusive "edge against the game" that has sold millions of Game Genies and strategy guides. (Or maybe it's just elitism: "I have the SPAS-12 and you don't.") Companies who throw in these extras make a killing extracting a tax from their players; this fact is slightly less true now that the online era has brought about the advent of GameFAQs and CheatCC, so it doesn't terribly surprise me that the next step is this bundling process, alongside releasing six collector's editions of every game that's come out in the last ten years. If I sound bitter, I apologize; I just can't quite wrap my head around the mindset of these people. I generally avoid Collector's Editions, particularly the ones with these downloadable unlocks, mainly because I have a preference for playing the game as it's intended. It's not quite Horse Armor (though the avalanche of DLC for games these days is another post), but it does bug me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kindling the Fire -- Game Design in Another Arena

So, a large gap of real-life induced silence has occurred. Truth be told I've made little progress on any of my various projects, and my creativity was stifled and stunted by amazing amounts of drama and life-altering events. I'll spare you the details, as they're completely irrelevant to the point of this blog.

There is one place my energy did get focused, and it wasn't in the arena of digital gaming. In much the same way as the esteemed Brenda Braithwaite applied herself to board games, so did I enter an offbeat field: tabletop RPG design.

If you haven't seen the work of D. Vincent Baker and are at all interested in tabletop RPGs, you really need to. I won't invoke the tired "stop reading this post right now" turn of phrase, but honestly, if you want to get a picture of the full length and breadth of the concept of a tabletop game, his work really is required reading. I got pointed, I don't remember how, in the direction of Dogs in the Vineyard, a game about enforcers for the Church of Faith in All Things of the King of Life, Reborn -- a thin rebranding of the Mormon Church as it existed in the 1840s-50s. The player characters are effectively religious enforcers in what could have been the Deseret Territory, a wide expanse eventually becoming seven US states, but which was at some juncture proposed to be a single unified territory under the command of the LDS church. There they are judge, jury, and executioner personified in a roving band of priests on horseback, wielding the supreme law of the land while fighting the sinful influences of the west.

This game's importance is not due to its subject matter, provocative though it may be; indeed, it attacks at the core what most people think of when they contemplate RPG design. The strict damage, rate of fire, to-hit or THAC0 tables, hit location tables, and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of spell descriptions, are thrown out entirely in favor of a simple system which places character, interaction, and the plot at the forefront. The Dogs aren't facing insurmountable odds; on the contrary, the game is weighted so that they win most encounters they come across. The question becomes, "how far are [they] willing to go?" Damage is inflicted not in HP loss, but "fallout", regardless of the arena of conflict; personal, physical, gunfighting. It also comes in the varied forms of experience, stunted relationships, or (possibly) physical injury or death. That said, fallout depends on the highest roll of two dice accumulated over the course of a conflict, and lethal injury comes very rarely except in physical fighting, or gunfighting. Death means something.

Inspired by both this game and his series of blog posts, "anyway", I gave myself a challenge, considering how I was foundering in my attempts to both GM a weekly game, and create anything meaningful in the computer game arena. Over the course of a lunch break or two, I had my answer: "OneShot". It was seven pages of rough copy that put together an almost trivially simple game system. Designed for, not surprisingly, one-shot games or short campaigns, its name is a pun on both that and the initial inspired setting: mafia-style or personal scale shootouts. Then I realized the game was more than that, and could be applied to any genre. I'll post a full "rulebook", such as it is, once I've had a chance to edit and format it; it's a little gnarly in its current form. The gist, though, follows.


Characters have 20 points to assign to each of four attributes, or stats. Four is human average; basic characters are therefore slightly better than average.

  • Strength: Used for feats of physical strength, close-quarters combat with heavy weapons or blows, and to represent toughness by absorbing damage or resisting poisons and other physical ailments.
  • Speed: Used for fine dexterity, raw speed, close-quarters combat with light weapons or blows, and dodging and general defense.
  • Perception: Used for both physical and mental perception -- vision, hearing, mental insight and intuition are folded in here. Also used for ranged attacks of all types.
  • Aptitude: Used for feats of mental calculation and endurance. Folds intelligence, charisma, and similar into one.

Each character also has four "specializations", things they're good at. Pistol shooting, longarm shooting, lockpicking, computer hacking, linguistics, cooking, driving, toughness, dodging, cover, shields, are all examples; anything that can be narrowly defined goes.

Boom, you have your character. Simple as that.

Anytime a character wants to do something that he can practically fail (no rolling for tying your shoes, guys), he rolls a d10 and adds the most appropriate stat. If he has a specialization that applies, add 2 (unless it's an attack or defense roll, in which case you add 1). 10s are automatic successes, 1s are automatic failures, otherwise compare to a target number (or the opponent's opposed roll; attacker wins ties).

Combat is resolved with opposed rolls; Strength vs. Speed for heavy attacks, Speed vs. Speed for light melee attacks, and Perception vs. Speed for ranged attacks. If the attacker wins, the defender takes Damage points equal to the power of the attack used, plus half the margin of success.

When a character takes damage, he must make a Strength roll against the total damage he's taken so far. Success means nothing happens; the hit was a flesh wound or simply harried him, lowering his endurance. Failure means a vital wound was sustained; blood, organs, broken bones, and the like. Each character begins with three Life points; failing a wound roll means they lose one. Lose all three and they're done.

Characters also have five Resolve points; they can succeed at tasks through sheer force of will. Upon failing a roll, they may spend Resolve points to increase their die roll by +2; any number of points can be spent on a roll. If they spend enough to meet or exceed the target number of the roll, the action succeeds instead. The GM must tell the player how many points he needs to spend; the player can then choose to spend them or not. (There's nothing more aggravating than blowing action points or whatever resource the game chooses to apply, buffing your roll by 10, and being told by the GM you still failed.)


So there you have it. It's not groundbreaking, but the main value in the system is twofold:

First, simplicity. There's little that aggravates me more than combat in a D&D system; in fourth edition especially, a simple combat seems to take hours upon hours, because each attack has exceptions, a dozen rules and subrules, sixteen keywords, and umpteen thousand modifiers. Others require you to calculate THAC0, make an attack roll, check a hit location chart, check for a critical hit and its exact effects on two other tables, and god help you if you try to make an unarmed attack or some tactical maneuver.

Second, the applications. I think OneShot is what GURPS wanted to be -- a universal system. While GURPS got mired down in over-simulating things, though, I think a true setting-agnostic game MUST be simple; rules that work in a futuristic setting with psionics and plasma rifles make little sense in a low-fantasy world with barbarians wielding obsidian axes. OneShot, above all else, is a framework; I've run a short campaign in the world of Halo, a dark fantasy with swords and sorcery, a near-future environment with psionic experts (Aptitude rolls for whatever psi power they could think of), and now a demi-hero game with galaxy-spanning races and roles, determined by the players themselves, and using emcee-style narration.

I don't intend to sell this system; use it as you will. The full rules will follow; any feedback or suggestions are appreciated, though I can't promise I will use all of them. If you do apply this system to anything, please let me know; I'm interested in the ways people implement and use it.


If you'll allow me to espouse a bit on the nature of RPG gaming, such as it is, I've found through the investigation of Vince Baker's games, a few other indie projects, and the creation of my own system, that RPGs as published, almost since their creation, are way, way too damn complicated. I loved, for example, the concept of Spycraft, an RPG by Alderac Entertainment Group. The plot involved a stereotypical organization of superspies which thwart world-threatening crisises. Players requisition equipment and gadgets from Control, then go on missions to accomplish their tasks.

But oh, my sweet god, did they overcomplicate the thing.

Your gear requisitioning, for example. You've got a quantity of gear "picks" to apply; they come in Class I through V, depending on the threat level of the mission; and categories include gadgets, vehicles, weapons, "security", and so forth. You can trade three picks of one level for one of another, or back down. You can buy further items with reputation. And each and every piece of gear has somewhere between one and seven keywords, which change how it operates, interacts with armor, affects your skill rolls, causes problems when you use it, and so on. You have to check four or five places in the book to figure out what your MP7A1 with laser sight and suppressor actually does. When running a mission, I'd allot twenty minutes for gear selection; it would regularly take an hour or more. Additionally, there are fully six or seven pages of rules for damage! Damage comes in lethal, nonlethal, fire, vacuum, laser, cold, stress... each with its own half-page of rules and modifiers.

So I'd really love for someone to tell me why we should care about all that detail, when your average player wants to sit down, say "I take a silenced submachine gun, a spy catsuit, and a lockpick set sequestered in the heel of my combat boots" and get on with the action? Simulation-based play is all well and good, but there's a limit. OneShot states the following: "Your silenced MP7A1 has power 5, a 40-round clip, and enemies are at a severe disadvantage (-4) to hear your gunshots." Done. Some games might distill this even further; White Wolf's Old World of Darkness Second Edition distills that into "submachine gun", regardless of model, attachments or other effects. Your average Vampire player cares more about the narrative and why he's pissed off six guys wielding SMGs than the exact nature of the weapons.

The end result of what I created was built with two purposes in mind: first, can I create something worthwhile still, after all this time? And second, can I create a tabletop RPG that strips out all the BS and focuses on characters and their struggles? I'm proud to say that, in my mind, the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes".

Friday, February 5, 2010

Flipping Out -- or, One Mechanic Is All You Need

I had the opportunity to play Terry Cavanagh's excellent VVVVVV just after its release. It was purchased for me as a birthday gift, and it was a fantastic selection. There are a lot of reasons to like this game -- excellent soundtrack, fantastically captured retro nouveau feel, hilariously named rooms, and lots of clever references to games and culture from days of yore.

The real winner in this, however, is the very same thinking that pervades most highly-successful indie games (and in some cases, highly-successful mainstream commercial games as well). The game is succinct and simple; I've heard it compared to the Metroidvania genre, a comparison I'm not entirely sure is valid. VVVVVV does lift ideas from Metroid-style games, such as the map, free exploration with your current powers, and so forth. The difference is in the linearity, or rather the lack thereof. A hallmark of most Metroidvania style games is that areas of the map are closed off to you until you acquire a certain item or power to overcome the obstacle closing it off; in VVVVVV, the only pickups to find are the "Shiny Trinkets", a set of 20 items enabling unlocks.

No, the entirety of the gameplay in VVVVVV comes from the thorough explanation and exhaustion of a mechanic derived from three commands: move left, move right, and flip. Captain Viridian doesn't jump, he flips the direction of gravity locally for himself, moving from floor to ceiling and back again. The game is still at its heart a platformer, but not the standard run and jump fare.

Flipping gravity requires you to think a bit outside the box, both for what you can do with it, and what you can't. A few puzzles rely on the fact that your character cannot move "up" under his own power without flipping. One great example involves a trio of vertically-moving platforms, and a ceiling coated in spikes. The player can't flip, because he would die on the ceiling, so he's forced to wait until the platforms align and walk off one onto the next. Another is a puzzle which puts a Shiny Trinket in front of the player, blocked by a small box. Of course, Viridian can't just jump over the box, he has to flip -- and the only safe platform on the ceiling is *six rooms up*.

In trademark style, each area puts a different spin on the mechanic, requiring different thinking to accomplish. There is a basic area similar to the first mission, which relies on simple (if you can call it that) flipping. Another scrolls vertically, requiring that the player not be too quick or slow or he'll get killed on the edges of the screen. Still another adds beams which will flip you on contact; tactically moving through them to move through maze-type rooms is a fun challenge. Finally, there is an area in which the sides of the screen don't necessarily link to new rooms; they can wrap around to the other side of the room horizontally or vertically. The "final challenge" adds all of these together to produce a mind-bending sequence of puzzles in the home stretch.

The structure of VVVVVV is oddly familiar; the acclaimed Braid did the same thing with its time mechanic, subtly changing the rules of the world with each broad area to add complications to the player's actions. This is not to say VVVVVV "ripped off" or even referenced that game's structure; in some cases, great minds do think alike, and we find that thorough exploration of a single mechanic, a recurring hallmark of indie games in general, produces titles that rival sixty-dollar titles for fun factor.

Stretching this out a bit, we could argue that the exploration of a mechanic practically defines the genre. It largely depends on your definition of "mechanic", but games like shoot-'em-ups could be considered one-mechanic games; that mechanic is flying vertically/horizontally, attacking enemies firing upward/to the right. Bullet-hell games take this to its extreme, making dodging the primary mechanic even more so than shooting enemies. Interlacing multiple mechanics is doable, but developers always run the risk of stretching too thin, or trying to combine genres that have no business together. (For example, why is there a vehicle dodging game in Resident EVil 4? I'm battling mechanics I'm unfamiliar with, I just beat the final boss, and now you expect me to perform this minigame perfectly or die each time I hit the smallest thing? I swear I died on that sequence more than the rest of the game combined.)

The one-mechanic ideal that makes indie games so succinct and pleasurable in their simultaneous simplicity and complexity calls out to classic games, both video (consider Breakout, Centipede, hell, even modern rail shooters) and otherwise (chess? backgammon? poker?). The success or failure of it depends on the execution, but it's never a bad place to start. And with VVVVVV, Terry Cavanagh has proven he is a master of the concept.