Friday, December 20, 2019

Editorial: Shaggy Dog Gameplay

TV Tropes defines a “Shaggy Dog” Story as a plot with massive buildup and action, only for its resolution to consist of an anticlimactic reversal that renders it meaningless. The term originates from an archetypical tale of a man who finds a shaggy dog looking similar to one in a lost dog poster. He bankrupts himself trying to return the dog to its owner, only to be told it “wasn’t that shaggy” and have the door slammed in his face; the end. Cinematic examples include Indiana Jones films Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, both whose conclusions render the struggles over their eponymous MacGuffins meaningless and would have had similar outcomes if Indy just stayed home.

The term could possibly apply to videogame mechanics, especially those where the player can invest significant time, only for their efforts to become pointless with things such as death in a battle, a consequential game over, and trip back to the title screen without progress or levels retained. Tactical RPGs, especially those with lengthy battles, in particular tend to suffer most from this in my experience, and are in fact one of my reasons for my disdain of the subgenre. Titles in the main roleplaying game genre can feel this way as well, especially if they utilize save points spread far apart alongside grueling difficulty with no progress retained from death.

Some games do make efforts to counter shaggy dog mechanics, among the earliest being the Dragon Quest series, where death results in half the player’s money lost and trip back to the last save location, albeit with acquired experience and treasure retained, later entries allowing players to bank their money to reduce the sting of financial loss and decease. Other titles such as Riviera: The Promised Land allow players to restart battles with part of the enemy’s health depleted if they die, giving them a fairer chance in their next attempt. A few even apply this to non-combat mechanics, such as Tales of Phantasia, where failing a switch-pressing puzzle a few times results in the game doing it for the player, at the minor cost of not getting a title.

Notable games that take shaggy dog mechanics to the extreme include the Soulsborne series, where death results in the loss of all experience necessary to empower the player’s character. While they do allow players a chance to recover their lost progress, subsequent demise makes the loss of experience permanent, with this cycling continuing throughout the games. RPGs that feature a heavy emphasis on puzzles and minigames can feel this way at times, since regardless of how powerful the player’s characters are, such progress is meaningless in the face of these diversions that could potentially drive them to use a guide.

I’ll admit I almost gave up on the revered Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic due to a mandatory minigame where the player has to shoot down attacking spaceships, where I was unable to advance until finding the tip of firing where the ships were traveling instead of at the vessels themselves. Its sequel features a similar minigame, but luckily, if you fail, the game continues at the expense of needing to fight foes that invade your ship. Some titles, however, such as Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep feature mandatory and difficult minigames that the player has to win to continue the storyline.

Some series such as Wild Arms have heavy emphasis on puzzle-solving, where the player’s levels from fighting battles are pointless in the face of some riddles that can potentially leave players stumped for significant chunks of time without the aid of walkthroughs. However, titles such as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow counter this by making puzzles completely optional, at the expense of not acquiring items that luckily don’t have much significance in completing the game. Other games such as the Golden Sun franchise tie puzzles in part to combat mechanics, and have in my experience haven’t tended to suffer harshly as a consequence.

Some RPGs such as later Etrian Odyssey and Persona games appeal to gamers of different skill levels by making shaggy dog mechanics optional. All entries of the former franchise would allow players to keep their cartography in the face of defeat, while later titles would have difficulty settings determining how they handled death, with easier settings transporting players back to town in case of demise. Easier settings of Persona games starting with the third allow players a certain number of “continues” in case the protagonist falls in battle, while higher settings maintain the harshness of defeat.

A game’s save system can be a factor in whether its gameplay one could consider to be of the shaggy dog variety. Titles that utilize standard save points akin to most Japanese RPGs and feature harsh death penalties tend to fall under the umbrella, especially if save opportunities are scarce. A few take this to the maximum, such as Grandia Xtreme, which features lengthy enemy-infested stretches between teleportation back to town and bosses, with one’s demise resulting in an unceremonious trip back to the title screen. Games such as Final Fantasy III and its DS version also have drawn-out endgames with no save opportunities during their concluding stretches at all.

Apologists for save points argue that they add “tension” to games, and in the case of unpredictable things such as power outages and game freezes, they are absolutely right. Being a resident of part of the world that is meteorologically-inconsistent, I’ve lost significant progress due to the former, and have had games such as Star Ocean: Till the End of Time and Arc the Lad II freeze on me without having being able to record my progress for an hour or more. Happily, some contemporary games such as Secret of Mana’s PlayStation 4 and Vita versions feature autosaving during transitions between areas that reduce the potential for wasted playtime.

As I’ve stated, shaggy dog gameplay tends to affect tactical RPGs most of all, given the potential for their battles, especially harder ones, to take a significant chunk of the player’s time. My first strategy RPG was the original Shining Force on the Sega Genesis, and surprisingly, it had a safeguard against wasted playtime, specifically the hero’s death returning the player back to the last town with half their money lost but experience retained from battle preserved. Some contemporary simulation RPGs that feature shaggy dog mechanics do attempt to shorten battles such as later Fire Emblems and various Disgaea games, which allow for animations that would otherwise drag out fights to be turned off.

In summation, developers should definitely consider the potential for players to spend significant wasted time with their games and thus implement features to alleviate shaggy dog gameplay in whatever they create, an easy solution being adjustable difficulty settings that determine whether they sport all-or-nothing mechanics. Such implementation would pacify gamers of most skill levels, from casual gamers such as I that believe playing videogames should never be a chore to those who bemoan anti-frustration features and yearn for more challenging gameplay, cheap or not. Titles with those kinds of accommodations would definitely be accessible an enjoyable by any audience.

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