Whenever you pick up a game, you always want to feel something as you play. Could be that you want to feel like you can go out and do anything in an open world game. Or it could be that you want to feel helpless and a sense of dread in a horror game. Maybe you want something to challenge your mind a little so you play a puzzle game. But sometimes, honestly, you just want to feel cool. You want to feel badass and like you can take on anything the world throws at you with style and flare! It sounds kind of childish when it’s said like that but it’s hard to deny that it’s something we all like to indulge in from time to time. And there really is an art to making a player feel that way. It’s far from a simple art though so let’s discuss some games that do it well and how they achieve it!
Feeling cool isn’t something that’s locked down to one particular kind of game but there are some that really excel at it, namely action games with a good focus on the character you are playing as. Games like Devil May Cry, God of War, Bayonetta, God Hand, Metal Gear Rising and Ninja Gaiden to name a few. While these games are normally referred to as ‘hack and slash’ games, they are also very often referred to as ‘character action’ games. A term I find much more fitting, especially for this discussion. Character Action games often have a heavy focus on their combat and characters. These two things are the main driving force that keeps people playing. But it goes deeper than just the fact that they are games that have combat and also characters. It’s how the combat and characters blend so well together and give the player that feeling of being cool! And even in character action games, there are many ways to go about doing this. With that in mind, let’s start with God of War, as it does differ a lot from the other games I listed earlier.
In God of War you play as Kratos, a man turned god who is out for revenge against the gods of Olympus. Like most good revenge stories, Kratos’ actions start out justified before spiraling out of control until he’s literally destroyed the world. The player isn’t really meant to agree with him and all of his actions. They are suppose to recognize the downfall Kratos himself can’t see coming. But with that in mind, there is still a sense of escapism in his actions. Especially when it comes to combat! The God of War series is known for it’s brutal finishers you can perform on the enemies of the game. Things like snapping a Minotaur’s neck after they try to charge you or climbing on top of a cyclops and tearing it’s eye out with your bare hand. And those are just the common enemies! What you do to the bosses of the series is even more brutal. Such as when you’re fighting Helios, the god of the sun, and stomp on his head before ripping it off and then using it as a weapon for the rest of the game. It’s brutal, gory, and over the top but there is still a sense of satisfaction as you do it. It’s always a cool feeling every time! Kratos, and by extension you the player, are taking out these big imposing monsters and gods no problem, it’s hard to deny the coolness factor of it all. And since you are playing as Kratos, any negative thing that happens as a result you can just blame on him. I mean, you are just playing as him, you’re playing the role of Kratos. So you really had to punch Zeus’ face until your screen is literally covered completely in blood. That’s just what Kratos would do! But being so over the top and destructive isn’t the only way to make a player feel cool. While God of War relies a lot on it’s finishers, let’s look at a game that uses it’s game play to make you feel cool in an all different kind of way.
When I think about feeling cool in video games, Devil May Cry is always the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a series built around making the player feel cool after all! It’s also considered to be one of the first and best examples of a character action game, and it does so in a completely different way from God of War. You can certainly see that just by comparing the main characters of the two games. Dante, the main character of Devil May Cry, isn’t as brutal or revenge driven as Kratos, so you don’t really get that same sense of escapism when playing as him. Dante is more about being flashy, stylish, and jokey. He has a very devil may care attitude when taking on demons. So unlike with Kratos, players are somewhat encouraged to actually want to be like him! But beyond that, I feel like the most important part about Dante as a character, and what makes him such a joy to watch and play as, is that he always seems to be having fun. Even when he’s getting impaled by his own sword, something that happens in literally every game, he is still cracking jokes and having a good time. Well… Not including Devil May Cry 2, but we don’t talk about that one. This goes beyond just how Dante is in the cut scenes, by the way. When it comes to actually playing as him, Dante still carries that personality. Throwing out big combos, styling on enemies as he taunts at them, and just having fun. But the big difference here is that it’s up to the player to make Dante, and by extension themselves, look cool. Which brings up to another big staple of the Devil May Cry series, it’s difficulty.
Devil May Cry is mostly known for three things; Dante and his crazy fun personality, the absurd combos you can pull off if you’re really good, and how hard the games can be. All of these features play a big role in making the player feel cool but at first glance you may think that making a game that’s about feeling cool and powerful really hard would be counter productive. In reality though, it just elevates those feelings that much more! You just have to put a little more work in to get that sweet payoff. While the God of War games weren’t designed to be easy, I never felt like they were designed to be particularly hard either. The games gave players enough challenge for it to not feel boring but they were never meant to be about that challenge itself. Devil May Cry on the other hand is the complete opposite. The games were designed to be challenging for players! And it’s when the player overcomes this challenge that they really start to get that feeling of being cool. It’s that sense of satisfaction when you finally nail a hard boss fight or beat a group of enemies without being touched. That’s what the series aims to do with it’s difficulty. It makes you earn that cool feeling. Oddly enough, Dante in the cut scenes makes doing this stuff look effortless, which is not the case when the player actually gets control of him. You could look at this as the game lying to the player in a way but I think of it as motivation more than anything. You get to see how cool and stylish Dante can be, an example of him at his best, and now it’s up to you to make him look that way as you play. The fact that it’s so tough makes it all the better when you actually manage to pull it off. Not only that, it also shows just how cool Dante really is. And when the player gets a handle on things, now they are just as cool too! But you need more than difficult game play to make a player feel cool. If that were the case, everyone would be talking about how games like Dark Souls make you feel cooler than ever. No, you need to look cool as you’re mastering that game play as well. And that’s where the combos and Style System come into play!
Combos are always a big deal when it comes to character action games, but Devil May Cry really prides itself on the variety of it’s combos and just how complex they can be. I won’t be going in depth on them here, their complexity is enough to warrant their own post honestly, but the combos need to be mentioned because they play a big role with the series’ Style System. The Style System is a ranking system for the combat and combos in all the DMC games. It uses a letter ranking system that starts at D and goes up to A before going beyond that with S, SS, and SSS. The system works based on your combo variety with your rank increasing when you change up which combo you’re doing. You can also increase it by dodging attacks at the perfect time or taunting. It basically goes up when you do anything stylish as you might have guessed! Doing the same combo over and over again, regardless of how effective it is, will lower your Style Ranking though. This helps to avoid a problem that often plagues combo heavy games. It gives the player a reason to not spam one super powerful combo and it does this without doing anything too drastic to the game play. They could have very easily made a combo do less damage the more you repeated it or something like that, but instead it’s now the player’s choice to be stylish and change things up rather than feeling like the game is forcing you. After all, you don’t need a certain style rank to continue or anything, the only thing it really impacts is how much you are rewarded at the end of a level. Despite knowing that, it never feels good to see that ranking go down even if it would be way easier to just keep using one combo that is strong and very clearly works well. But it still feels like it’s the player’s choice to change things up and be stylish. Which actually helps them get closer to being like Dante! Dante is shown to be extremely powerful and that he could easily wipe the floor with any basic enemy that comes his way, and even some bosses. But that wouldn’t be fun for him. Instead he enjoys toying with the enemies, taunting them and showing off the whole time. He’s not having fun if he’s not being stylish, and now the player is feeling the same way!
Combining the Style System with the difficulty of the game is a perfect recipe. With how challenging each encounter can be, the satisfaction of getting a SSS rank is something else… I’ve literally shouted “Woo!” out of excitement from finally getting a SSS rank without taking damage on a particular hard encounter that had been giving me trouble. It’s a feeling that’s hard to replicate which is probably why we very rarely see character action games. Their biggest boom was in the PS2 era but you don’t see many new ones pop up nowadays. This is probably because they can be really hard to get right. Designing that satisfying feeling isn’t easy after all. The only company consistently making new character action games would be Platinum Games, makers of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising, and even they have their miss steps now and then. But a character action game doesn’t need to try to be the next Devil May Cry. The reason I compared DMC and God of War wasn’t to show that one was better than the other but rather to show that there are multiple ways to go about giving players that feeling of being cool. It’s a genre that I wish more developers would try as it feels like it could fade away at any minute. Which would be a massive shame since at the end of the day I think that we all have those moments where we just want to feel really cool.
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Thinking about giving some character action games a try now? Are there any games I didn’t mention that come to mind when you think of feeling cool? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
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