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Instant Replay: Geometry Wars 2, deeper than Braid?


Geometry Wars 2 might be a pretty new game, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less addictive than older games. It’s pretty easy to explain what makes it so addictive, but it’s harder to see through the game and find out what it really means (if anything). After Braid, which trains you to actively look into meaning instead of just consuming the gameplay, it’s worth trying the same thing with Geometry Wars 2.

Surface beauty
Let’s start with the gameplay reasons for addiction. I have to say that while I liked Geometry Wars 1, I never played it "hardcore". There was just not enough to make me keep trying it again and again, even if it was fun to play from time to time. Once you died, you had to start all over again. And after surviving for 5-10 minutes, it felt like too much effort to retry it just for the reward of a highscore that didn’t even come close to the top leaderboard scores. With Geometry Wars 2, the addition of using your friends’ highscores changes all that. When you die, it’s usually a matter of just you sucking at the game, which makes you want to try it again and not suck. Having a friend’s highscore in the top-right of the screen, taunting your inability with the game, only makes it all the worse. He’s only a million away from your highscore and you got that highscore by dying 5 times! There’s no reason you can’t beat his highscore by dying less right? And you can get back at your friends for looking at their blasted highscore for hours on end.

Even then, lots of games have leaderboards so why would it matter if this game has it? It’s basically the same, right? Well, not exactly. Usually leaderboards are full of random people you don't know, with scores that you may never beat to start with. If the game would just put the highest score on screen while you are playing it, you would probably get more demotivated than anything else. Having the closest highscore of someone from your friends list who you actually know, somehow changes the entire experience. The game may not have online multiplayer, but the highscores fulfill that role. You’re not just competing against yourself, you are competing for a place among your friends!

This is the real beauty of the game: it brings the oldschool Arcade mentality to your living room like no other XBLA/PSN game has done until now. Sure, playing an arcade-perfect port of a great arcade game from your couch is awesome. But part of the Arcade experience was having your name in the highscore list, giving you a sense of achievement even though it’s *cough* just a game. Now you're not just throwing in coins to get that higher score than your rival, you are playing against your friends while they can be playing the same thing at the same time! Without friends with insane scores, the game becomes a lot less interesting. I can live with the fact that I will never surpass Conrad Zimmerman’s 462 million score on Pacifism, but damn it if I can’t try to score at least 200 million.

To score, it doesn’t matter if you think of ways that would make more sense to do. It always ends up revolving around your skill with the dual analog sticks and the way you 'connect' with the game. After a lot of practice, you can feel yourself getting better and better. At some point, you even stop thinking about it at all and enter an almost Zen state of mind. While your brain continues to steer your hands, you are free to think about all kinds of other things. Important life questions such as: "What color is Chad’s amazing underwear today?" or "How many Korean puppy butchers has Reverend Anthony visited in his town?" What’s more, the game gives you a glimpse of a hidden meaning deep inside the gameplay mechanics.

Through the looking glass
So let’s cut away from looking at games review-style and use Braid’s method of looking past what is given to us. I’d say introspectives should be the new retrospectives in 2008!

Pacifism is the main mode that gives glimpses of hidden meaning in the game. If you are unfamiliar with Geometry Wars 2, this mode requires you to mob together groups of enemies that spawn in the corners of the field, who will always follow you around the screen. The only way to destroy them is to fly through ‘gates’, or lines that hold two explosive cores at their ends. Hit an enemy or a core and you die. You have one life. Enemies that get destroyed drop multiplier geoms (little diamond shaped things) that you need to pick up to make a decent highscore. But that’s just what it is on the surface. Beneath it all, this mode is a metaphor for life itself.

Just like you may plan your future in life, you can do so in Pacifism. It won't get you very far if your plans are rigid and if you are unable to adapt to rising situations though: everything is constantly in motion and your rigid plans of hitting 3 gates in a row 5 seconds into the future will only get you killed by hitting the wrong spot, as it has moved by the time you get there. You also can't assume everything will be set for you in the near future. Playing it conservatively means you might last a bit longer in the (game)world, but in the end it will also mean you don’t get a lot of multiplier geoms and your final score will not be sufficient. Besides, the core element of this and almost all modes is that death is inevitable; you just have to do the best you can in the time you are given. Playing it more risky could yield you more points in the short and long term, but you might make a mistake on the way and lose everything. Yet in the end, risk is something you’ll have to take. You can’t just play it safe throughout the one life you have, or you’ll always wonder what might have been if you just took that one chance.

Of course if you die in the game, you can just try again. But without taking risk and doing things that may have looked unsafe at first, you’ll never learn from your mistakes. "Why do we fall Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up" as Thomas Wayne once said. Don't be afraid of making mistakes, the game seems to tell us. And yet, even if our plans are flexible and allow for all the things we might have anticipated beforehand, accidents can always happen. Perhaps you'll plan to lure a mob of enemies to a corner filled with gates just sitting there as a perfect opportunity, but it will all be in vain if you end up in the middle of an enemy spawn. Such is life, you can't anticipate and control everything that happens around you, you can only learn from the accidental mistakes and add it to your repertoire of experience. Maybe it won't happen the next time, or you'll be a bit more careful? Maybe you just have self-destructive tendencies hidden deep within?

In another way of looking at it, killing the enemies by gates is also a metaphor for general problem solving. The problem of having enemies chase you is something that will always be there, the solution (gates) can seem far away and the race towards it can be stressful. But once you make it and solve the one problem of enemies at hand, you feel all the better for it. Yes, even if it feels pointless when you will never solve all the problems or kill all the enemies in the one life you are given. And then it's on the way to the next solution, since the enemies will never stop hunting you.

Even worse, it can sometimes look like you can kill off a lot of enemies with one gate. Such a clean solution can be appealing, but it tends to happen that a few enemies survive the planned attack and get you after all. Planning ahead to kill a lot of enemies with a few gates in a row, can once again sound like a good idea. However, in practice it just comes down to grabbing whatever gate presents itself to you at the most opportune moment and space, and going through a couple of them can kill all the enemies that were hunting you. The same is true for problem solving: an elegant solution can work in theory, if you know how to pull it off and if you have the knowledge and experience to take the risky undertaking. But it can also backfire, cornering you with problems and making a solution look out of reach, or outside a ring of enemies in this case. Scary as it is, just adapting to the situation at hand and taking whatever looks like the best solution, can make you survive the longest. To survive at all in this mode, you just have to let go of your perceived control and go with whatever opportunity presents itself to you; that perfect opportunity might never arise.

While playing Pacifism, or most modes really, you will wish for a fullscreen option to give you a grand oversight of everything that goes on in the playing field. But that's life, you don't get a full picture of all moving problems and where and when they might reach you. You can only see what is around you for the moment, until you move your ass somewhere else and perhaps shift your perspective. The game pretty much forces you to do this, especially in Waves where you can only learn to anticipate the next incoming wave of enemies by countless attempts of flying around the screen to try and figure out patterns. From one side of the screen, a Wave can seem quite harmless if you can see it spawn and fly towards some direction that can be managed. From another side, it can look lethal as hell, if a wave has spawned outside of your view and suddenly comes bearing down towards your vulnerable ship. You'll never know how hard a situation can be until you've seen it from those perspectives. It seems like it pays off to "fly around" and learn about all the possible ways to look at things, until you can figure out how it all fits together.

Finally in Pacifism but also in King, Waves and Evolved, greed plays a big factor. Since you need as many multiplier geoms as you can, you will inevitably make the mistake of risking it all for just a few more. It can pay off if you know what you’'re doing, but then it's no longer really a risk is it? Most of the time, you'll end up giving up the chance of future reward by going for a short term increase of your multiplier. Even if you could have just given up on those 10 geoms and lived to score 100+ a few seconds later. Trying to want to get them all can ruin your life in the game, learning to give up on some unreachable but tempting reward can yield you a far greater reward later on. Not only that, but you might make that highscore and feel great for having chosen the way you did. Or maybe you were just very lucky, in which case you'll be thankful for your luck in future tries where you never seem match your highscore again.

That's a bit farfetched...
One last thing to cover is multiplayer. It's a shame there are no leaderboards for multiplayer games, since it would make it all the sweeter to take a group effort to a leaderboard online, but ah well. Cooperative multiplayer is nothing more than a metaphor for Cold War economics. Yes, the Cold War.

This is because coop multiplayer is about scoring the most points as a team. Now, you might think that you could get 4 people together and lay down big plans to make them work towards a common highscore, but in practice it falls apart. Plans like that are just no fun. People would have to almost 'work' according to a preset plan, producing overt gameplay that may sound like a good idea, until it doesn't and until everyone starts to die. Opposite that, letting people just do what they want individually and hunt points according to a market system will make your team pretty efficient and most of all: your group of people will have fun while doing it. More mistakes may be made, but in the end the team on the whole will learn faster and adapt faster to whatever situation arises. In the planned scenario, the team will just continue to do the same thing over and over until it works, which is usually after the point where the team just falls apart because the individual members get fed up with the system. See? That's exactly like Cold War economics, 100%

Of course there’s also the option of collaborative group interaction to think of methods that can be more efficient than the greedy free-for-all, while staying within the borders of what is fun for the group. Maybe you can use the geom-collection skill of one teammate to give him the role of Collector, while teammates that have a good eye for anticipating where enemies will come from can be given the role of Enemy Destroyer. But that would be madness, almost implying that people would be best suited at the job they are best at, instead of just letting them greedily sort out their one life as they see fit, even if it destroys the group as a whole. Surely such a work method can't ever work?

In the end, the game is just what you make of it. Scorewhore it, or play it to chill out and gather your thoughts. I keep coming back to this game to try and dethrone someone on my friendslist, but also to see if the game shows me another hidden facet just lying in plain sight, waiting to be grasped. There’s no reason why a game like Braid should be the only thing to make gamers think about what they are playing. After all, Art imitates life right? And games are art, soooooo….

Also I am insane so disregard all of the above.

Can you think of any games that made you glimpse beyond the surface to notice something that may or may not be there?
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About Maurice Tanone of us since 5:41 AM on 07.16.2007

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Hai! You may know me as Professor Pew in older times. If you see a cblog here from beyond September 2010 or something: that's from the cblogging days and not anything editor-related :)