Micropositioning: Another Source of Depth

Editor’s Note: I have slightly edited some of these conversations to be slightly more clear in the absence of context, and to elaborate more on details.

Um, Contra is deep? Always thought of it as very constrictive rather than “deep.” Is your argument that the (slightly) different weapons add depth?

Yes, it’s deep. No, I don’t mean the slightly different weapons, I’m more talking about the movement around enemies and the enemy variety and attack patterns. It’s about micro-positioning, same as Zelda 1.

Depth doesn’t just mean the explicit technical stuff. I defined it as relating to tiny game states because I wanted to capture the difference between say Mario’s jump and a castlevania jump, but acknowledgement of redundancy is necessary too, otherwise more restrictive sets of options like the castlevania jump are ruled out completely because something like mario’s jump can totally dwarf it in complexity, and castlevania’s jump works really well in the context of the game it is, allowing certain types of challenges to exist that could not in Mario. So Mario’s jump is invariably deeper of the two, allowing for a massively larger range of expression, but it shouldn’t be judged as exponentially better just because it can produce exponentially more measurable state. A lot of those states are different but achieve similar results.

Also I meant the Contra series, not just Contra 1.

By your own definition, I’m not sure how these don’t qualify as “redundant states.” Can you give an explicit example to illustrate your point?

Here’s two asks related to this, I think the first one is probably more relevant here.

I count them as partially redundant. I can’t get an exact measure of how redundant they are or are not, it’s a matter of interpretation.

Different games emphasize the differentiation between these tiny state differences more than others through the way they set up their movement, they design their enemies, they design their environments, and other dealies.

Probably a great example would be street fighter versus smash bros. Looking purely at how many moves are possible, it would seem obvious that street fighter is plainly deeper. You have 6 standing, 6 crouching, and 6 air normals, plus 3 versions of each special move a character has, their unique attacks, and target combos. In Smash bros you have 4 ground normals, 5 air normals, and 4 special moves that sometimes vary between the ground and air version.

However Smash Bros has that factor of DI and midair movement control. Even though on the surface it might seem simpler in terms of sheer variety, you have these factors that make every single hit many times more complicated than the equivalent in street fighter. Some of these state differences won’t lead to significantly differing outcomes, and can said to be redundant, but identifying which is practically impossible.

Analog board games have a tougher time simulating these factors, so state differentiation is more easily determined.

I think the key to classic games, such as those on the NES, is micropositioning. They can’t model a large number of animation states for characters, so they made the games deep by making it so there are a lot of different ways to move around enemies. Lots of different places you could shoot enemies from, that projectiles could fly across the screen, ways you can weave between them. That’s depth on some level. Offering a greater granularity of movement is depth, having that fine granularity be regularly stressed by the player, requiring the player to move well in different ways and offering them different options in movement through the level design.

It’s unfortunately something that can’t be neatly interpreted like all the possible combos in street fighter can, which I admit is a limitation of my philosophy, and renders a lot of judgments about these types of games open to subjective interpretation. Like, how much are these states really differentiated when they all seem to overlap all over one another?

Though if you look at good NES games and bad NES games, the difference seems a lot clearer.

Here’s a page with really good platformer TAS on NES, and a page with all the less entertaining ones (doesn’t necessarily mean bad games, but usually it does, I find there’s a decent correlation which is kind of interesting, but may also reflect the tastes of the users who vote on which rank a movie should hold).

I think it’s really clear that there’s a lot less going on in say Cheetahmen II than Contra 1, or Castlevania 3, or of course Mario 1.

Same for say Jungle book, which happened to catch my eye.

Here’s their Warpless Walkathon of Mario, which I think conveys much more complex concepts than either of the above games could hope to.

If these subtle state variations were truly redundant, then the differences between the different jumping systems that I elaborated on in my 5 games 5 jumps article would be pointless. We need to acknowledge the range of fidelity available and judge it more favorably than a lack of such fidelity. However we also need to not let ourselves run away with pure state size as the determiner of quality and actually examine the complexity of the interactions as they pertain to player behavior.

Sorry if this is kind of an abstract problem. I’m both setting up a way to measure quality as a factor of state size, then implementing another check to regulate weird upper bound issues.

Games with micropositioning do things with their enemies and environments to ask the player to meaningfully consider the fine range of actions (you could call these things, like jump height modulation, sub-actions even) they have access to. This is why having fine control over a character is important, as opposed to “coarse” control (coarse as opposed to fine) or “gross” control (like gross motor function, as opposed to fine motor control).

Depth of micropositioning unfortunately ends up as a fuzzy judgment that is subject to interpretation, but I don’t think this is avoidable.

Considering your thoughts on micro-positioning as depth, would you say that shmups are one of the deepest genres? Perhaps it’s time to set aside an hour or so to beat Gradius.

Not necessarily. I honestly haven’t played enough shmups to really say. I like shmups, shmups are cool, but weaving through bullet patterns alone isn’t enough. You gotta ask the player to deliberately choose things, through reactive enemies, commitment to attack options, etc. Not all shmups fail at that, most probably don’t, but it doesn’t seem like something the genre is as heavy on as other genres. In many shmups you can hold the fire button down and just weave around targets, barring scoring, bombs, and pickups to name the obvious features.

Like, in say zelda 1, you gotta move for micropositioning, choose your facing direction, and choose to commit yourself to a sword attack (or item) for a period of time, which adds that little extra oomph. Also the enemies are fairly reactive/random in Zelda 1.

Obviously I’m not saying shmups are bad, just probably not the deepest game genres. Fighting games have micropositioning too. A lot of games do.

Why do you think modern (2D) action games have moved so far away from micropositioning?

I don’t think they have, I think we’ve moved away from 2d games and away from games with simple states and lots of movement towards games with a large number of complex states and minimal movement. We’re less directly harnessing the “raw” depth of time and space now, and instead relying more on sophisticated combination states more frequently.

Ori and the Blind Forest has a lot of microspacing, street fighter and smash have a lot of microspacing (in footsies, and in smash’s case combos and setups). I think Guilty Gear has less microspacing, but more complex states and gross movement capabilities (as opposed to fine; coarse might also be an appropriate word). I think Mark of the Ninja has less microspacing than a lot of other modern 2d games (and stealth games in general, they’re very particular about you not standing in extremely large zones, care more about how long you’re in a position than where). Shovel Knight has a fair amount of microspacing (can’t avoid it with a game like this). Doom has a lot of microspacing (moving around enemies and projectiles and aiming). New Doom has less (because projectiles are so fast, you snap to enemies for melee) but still more than a lot of modern shooters (which only really have aiming). Shmups have stayed perfectly consistent in their use of microspacing (gotta move around a ton of tiny and large projectiles, sometimes graze them, and be in position to shoot, plus collect pickups). Zeno Clash 2 has almost no emphasis on microspacing at all (you kinda just stand still and do different attacks or guards). AM2R is really particular about microspacing and a lot of bosses take very deliberate advantage of it. Curse of Issyos loves microspacing, and uses randomization in some boss battles to greater emphasize it (like the octopus in road of scylla). The Ys PSP ports all rely on a lot of microspacing, especially Origins with the way you get more damage out of your various magic skills, and the original Ys games are entirely built on it with their bumper car system.

Metal Gear Rising isn’t very based on position, it cares more about the timing of your attacks and parries, not where you’re standing, unless it’s over a pit or close to a wall. Most stylish action games are this way. Nero has some micropositioning with his devil buster on some enemies, like fausts and mephistos, which he needs to jump at and attack with devil buster directly (unless you just use the charge shot), which is 3 dimensional micropositioning.

Dark Souls and Nioh are very heavily based on position. You’re encouraged to run around enemies because of the stamina system, which penalizes you for using other defensive options. This is also encouraged through the way enemies will get locked attacking in a specific direction instead of attacking straight at you.

Undertale is shmuplike and has micropositioning things in plenty of its fights.

What do you think makes platforming fun?

That jumping is such an inherently flexible and deep action. It allows you to modulate it in a large number of different ways and has a ton of possible uses. You can control how high you jump, at what speed you’re going when you start to jump, where you jump, you can slow yourself in midair, or speed up in midair, or do both during the same jump. There’s a lot of variables that you can modulate very precisely.

These many worlds ones are a good showcase of my definition of depth in a visible way also. Really constrictive levels like this allow for hundreds of slightly different ways to tackle them, so to generate the right level of depth, you need to step up orders of magnitude from this.

All of these should demonstrate how much variety you can put into platforming challenges, even with really simple elements and player mechanics. Sorry for linking an overreacting youtuber streamer dude if that annoys you.

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