Rhythm Games - Part 7: Learnability
Part 1: The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Part 2: Establishing My Rhythm
Part 3: The Interface of GH2 and EBA
Part 4: Approachability and Learning Curve
Part 5: Song Selection
Part 6: Presentation
One of my best friends (whom I've known since high school) and I spent a good amount of time and effort getting good at Dance Dance Revolution. .. and got good at it we did. And one day, we met up with a bunch of old friends that we hadn't seen for many years. We all decided to goof around the same way we always did way back when we used to hang out: by playing video games. We went to a Dave & Busters and, while there, my good friend and I decided to play some DDR.
And while the two of us weren't super experts at the time, we could pass 9-foot difficulty songs (which were much easier then than they are now, though we've both gotten even better since then, him more than me). One of our old friends, who was always very competitive when it came to gaming and always wanted to be the best at every game, watched us play. When we both passed a difficult song, it was obviously unexpected for our friend. But, thanks to his competitive nature, he quickly dismissed it with a simple, "So how long did it take you to memorize the steps?"
In one fell swoop, our friend tried to discredit any skill the game required. "Memorizing the steps" was all that was needed to be good at DDR, apparently. But my good friend and I shrugged it off because we knew memorization won't get you anywhere in a game like DDR, contrary to what our old friend believed (check out the steps to a difficult DDR song to the right and see if you can memorize that). But... you know? To be truthful, he's probably not the only person to have ever made that assumption. In fact, I have to admit that I wondered it myself. A year or two before that above incident, I watched an expert play. After he finished, I had to find out for myself. I asked him, "So... do you memorize the songs?" There was no other way, in my mind, that the player could have passed the song he did (which was, coincidentally, the same song my friend and I passed at Dave & Busters). And the player told me he did not memorize the steps, and I could hardly believe it myself.
But now that I've played the game so much, I've come to learn that there is indeed very little memorization. No, what actually happens is that you learn to read and process the notes very quickly, almost similar to just being able to speed read a book. And then you also pick up on any essential skills needed to react to the notes in time (as an example in DDR's case, one such skill is proper footwork to maintain your balance). And it is an actual skill, an actual talent, that you learn. In other words, the difficult songs in DDR are not something you can ever pick up and immediately do well on without practice and dedication.
And it is this very facet of rhythm games that I believe is what, at their core, makes rhythm games so much fun. I mean, nobody likes to play easy games -- it's often a complaint from critics when a game is too easy. Obviously, it's the challenge of games that appeal to us. And when we beat hard games, it is very rewarding to the player. And learning how to "beat" a rhythm game is more rewarding than most gaming accomplishments. And that's because you don't end up beating something like a boss or a stage. No, you are actually learning something, and learning that intangible element is the only way to "beat" a rhythm game.
You see, whenever you defeat a tough boss in a game, oftentimes it's a tribute to learning the boss's attacks, memorizing their patterns, finding their weaknesses, and executing properly. And when you defeat it, there is no denying that it took great work and effort to defeat it. But, really, did you have to learn anything to defeat it? If you run into a particularly difficult boss, you can probably go to GameFAQs and find a strategy to beat the boss and defeat it on the first or second try afterwards. But with rhythm games, there is no FAQ that will help you pass a song on Hard Mode in Guitar Hero II. They can give you as much advice as they possibly can, but no matter what you read, no matter what anyone tells you, there's no way to get better at the game than to learn it. And because of that, it feels that much more rewarding the very first time, in Guitar Hero II, you make it through a fairly difficult sequence in a 5-key song where your brain processes the notes correctly and you feel your fingers move perfectly.
And the icing on the cake is that the skill you've learned is your greatest weapon in tackling harder songs and new songs. So unlike what my old friend assumed, memorization isn't required in these games. It's one of the only genre of games where you don't need "prior knowledge" to pass a particularly difficult challenge. If you become the greatest Gran Turismo player in the world, someone can still easily create a track that will throw you for a loop the first time you play it. But if you are the best Guitar Hero player in the world, anything that isn't physically impossible to play can probably be passed convincingly the first time you try it.
I want you to think about this carefully and see if you can realize how crazy this really is. There isn't a need for a learning curve anymore. There is no need for memorizing patterns. There is no need to figure out a "trick" or solve any puzzles. There is no need for playing a song over and over again to "learn" it because you don't learn songs, you learn the game. And what makes it even more compelling is that it's still challenging and fun. If it took you 50 tries to beat a boss in Ninja Gaiden Black, it'll probably take you another 25 tries the next time you try and beat him. But with a rhythm game, if you've finally managed to get through a difficult song after 50 tries, you can probably get through it again on the very next try. You simply can't pass hard songs by catching a friendly pattern or a lucky break. When you pass the song, it means you've learned the skills needed to pass it. And this is the true mark of a good rhythm game. No other gaming genre gives a player this type of "learnability."
And, honestly, this is what makes Guitar Hero I & II so much more popular than other rhythm games. That 5th key is magical, lemme tell you. The leap in difficulty from Normal to Hard Mode is so huge, but the leap in the feeling of reward you get once you learn Hard Mode is just as huge. And it's all thanks to that 5th key. By the time you reach the point where your hand on the frets is blazing up and down without missing a beat, it just feels so good when you play it all correctly.
And it's this aspect, I think, where Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents deserve the biggest negative mark. While Ouendan and EBA are undeniably fun, there is almost nothing to "learn" in the game. It's this element that separates them from other rhythm games. While playing the game a lot does improve your skill in the game, it doesn't have that same impact as, say, Guitar Hero II. If we go back to my Gran Turismo analogy from before, Ouendan and EBA suffer the same problems. It's very easy to create a sequence in Ouendan/EBA that can trip up even the most veteran players. So, like Gran Turismo, Ouendan and EBA require a level of memorization to pass new stages, especially in Insane mode where the notes appear only a fraction of a second before you need to tap them. This makes Sliders much more difficult to deal with, as they look just like regular tap circles until the right before you need to hold the stylus down and start dragging. So oftentimes, in Insane mode, I would tap my stylus down and realize a little too late that it was a Slider, and lose some valuable health as a result. Only after playing the stage a few times through and memorizing where the Sliders come from can I get to a point where I can pass the stage effectively.
I believe learnability is a very important factor of rhythm games. But there are definitely many rhythm games out there that are extremely enjoyable despite missing that element. Ouendan is a perfect example of this, as is a hidden gem of a game called Rhythm Tengoku (if you are a fan of importing games, make sure you pick this up for the Gameboy Advance). But as they stand they definitely do not fall into that category of pure rhythm games.
Regardless, it's hard to deny how enjoyable rhythm games are, and it's a genre that definitely should not be overlooked by most gamers, particularly if your excuse is that you are embarrassed to look foolish while playing or that you are afraid there is no chance you can become good at the game. My good friend that I mentioned earlier spent the first day he ever played DDR with severe coordination problems with the game. But it's a testament to how fun and how learnable rhythm games are that my friend was able to become such an expert at DDR. Learn from my friend: don't shortchange yourself when it comes to rhythm games.
And I leave you with an old comic from "For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston (click on the pic below to increase its size), simply because I was very amused when I first saw this comic. It really does convey how much fun rhythm games are for just about anybody.