So I’ve been playing One Finger Death Punch 2, which is basically the exact same as One Finger Death Punch, but it’s got a 2 on the end. I kinda want to write an article about, like, video game sequels, actually, and how sometimes it’s literally just more of the same with barely any significant difference. It’s not a complaint, right, it’s just – it’s a bit different to how other mediums do sequels. If you go see John Wick 2, it’s got Keanu fucking people up, sure, but it also has this whole new story going on. There’s not really a story in One Finger Death Punch. It’s kinda antithetical to the whole ‘stick figures punching each other’ premise. So what the fuck is a sequel supposed to do? Anyway – that’s for another day. Point is, I could be writing this article about One Finger Death Punch, and not One Finger Death Punch 2, but I’m trying to inflate my list of games that I’ve written about so I feel justified in buying new shit.
So I talk a bunch about video game space, and how that space is used to tell stories. You could think of environmental storytelling, or how architecture communicates things about the spaces you inhabit. You could think about space in terms of how the player-character relates to it – I’ve talked about that both in terms of sustainability, and in terms of this slightly weird concept of your embeddedness or permanence in the fictional world. Today I want to continue with that basic topic of space, but from a slightly different angle again. We’ve been talking a lot about how we read meaning in game space. It’s cool stuff, but one of the more basic things that’s worth thinking about is how we actually perceive game space in the first place. The space that we perceive in video games isn’t necessarily everything that’s on the screen. In some ways that’s kinda obvious, right – nobody notices every little detail. But it also goes further than that. In a high-intensity game like One Finger Death Punch 2, you’re barely even noticing most of what’s happening in the broad environment around you. I noticed when I was playing that I was mostly only watching the little button areas below each stick figure. I didn’t have time to appreciate all the other stuff going on. That dude flying up off the top of the screen – I didn’t notice that when I was playing, I was busy chomping up all the other guys.
In a sense, because of the speed of the game, your perception of the space becomes limited along operational lines. That is, you see the stuff that you need to see to win the game. It’s important to recognise incoming dudes, and to know that you might need multiple buttons to kill them (left left right, left left right). All the other stuff becomes filtered out. It’s kind of a shame, in some ways, because One Finger Death Punch is all about those great stick figure animations, and you don’t often get the opportunity to sit back and appreciate the carnage. You get a couple slow-mo bits here and there, but by and large you’re just clicking like a madman. I’d even consider arguing that the game is in some ways more satisfying to watch than to play. There’s a spectacle to watching that really just isn’t accessible to players.
So maybe we can use One Finger Death Punch 2 as something of a model for how we perceive space in games. There’s operational space, which is space that’s relevant to your gameplay, and there’s… maybe non-operational space. So for instance the background in this image below is all non-operational space. You don’t operate in it in any meaningful way – it’s kinda just there as background, as representation rather than play-space. As the difficulty of the gameplay increases, maybe your attention zeroes in on the most relevant parts of the game – those located in operational space – while the less important parts fade into the background. It’s a type of tunnel vision attuned to the conditions of the game. If we use that framework, maybe One Finger Death Punch is actually designed in a poor way. Once you’ve clicked on an enemy, they’re no longer of interest, and so you stop paying attention, so you can focus on whoever’s next. But from a visual perspective, the most interesting part is precisely when you’re clicking, because that’s when you murder your enemy in some graphic way. You’re booting them in the head, or slicing them in half, or decapitating or punching or chopping or whatever other cool animation is queued up. Point is, it’s only after your click, and therefore only after you’ve moved on to focus on another enemy, that the cool visual shit actually happens. It seems like a missed opportunity, like all the best parts of the game are getting missed. I know I don’t spend much time looking at the animations. I’ve got shit to do.
Let’s treat that as a design challenge, then. If a player’s vision is linked (and maybe even largely confined) to the operational space in a game, how do game designers encourage players to move back into that observational mode? One option that you see a bunch is the melee kill, where the violence is paused for a little cutscene close-quarters murder. You see it in DOOM (2016), famously, where the melee kills involve the gameplay pausing so you can have some spectacular violence. The melee kills, called ‘Glory Kills’, always reward the player with health, making them a tactical maneuver as well as a visual spectacle. So there’s one option – loop the visuals into gameplay, so that the player is rewarded for the pause. We see something sort of similar in One Finger Death Punch 2, by the way, with the special firebreathing kill in the image above murdering all the dudes in that direction. A second option might be to have quieter moments in your game, where there aren’t a lot of demanding gameplay requirements, and so your player has time to appreciate the visuals. If you put the two side-by-side, we’ve got incorporating pauses into the gameplay loop, and relaxing the intensity of gameplay to give the player time to zoom out into that broader, non-operational vision. But are there other options, beyond those two? Almost certainly. Just a matter of finding them.