One Finger Death Punch & the Art of Gaming Zen

OFDP1

If you put your conditioned intellect to rest for a long time, suddenly it will be like the bottom falling out of a bucket–then you will naturally be happy and at peace. – Yuanwu

Now, I’m not going argue that One Finger Death Punch will actually help you find inner peace – as fantastic a review headline as that would be – but I am going to put forward the notion that gaming has the potential to do so and that OFDP is the best example I’ve seen of this in some time. And I’m going to spend around 4500 words doing so. Gather round.


There’s a certain purity to rhythm based games. When you think about it, regardless of what they dress themselves up as, be it Parappa the Rapper’s bewildering cartoon rhyme busting, Guitar Hero’s Rock with a capital R or sadly forgotten dance ’em up Bust a Groove’s aliens vs giant robots dance battles, all they are is an exercise in pressing the right buttons at the right time. That’s it. And if you want to reduce gaming as a whole down to it’s bare bones you could say that’s all any game is, isn’t it? It could be argued that something like Donkey Konga is gaming at it’s purest, with ever last bit of fat trimmed away, the gaming experience presented it in it’s naked reality: press the buttons on at the right time and win. As the levels get harder you’ll need to press more complicated combinations of buttons in increasingly narrow time windows. Success and failure are reduced to hitting those buttons just when you need to. If you do cool stuff happens. If you don’t awful stuff happens. At the end of the day, when you get right down to it, really, for the vast majority of games, the rest is just window dressing, right?

A gross oversimplification? Well, perhaps. But there’s an unavoidable truth to that.

One Finger Death Punch is a rhythm action game with a fighting twist, with the formula simplified even further by utilising only two buttons. Red goes right. Blue goes left. When enemies are within the attack zone, you press those buttons. Some enemies take more than one hit: either they have a sequence of red and blue button presses for you to run though or they initiate a more traditional rhythm action moment with a button sequence appearing up on screen scrolling down past a line. There is some other window dressing on this, such as power ups and a few level variations, but that’s basically it. What do you expect for 69p from the xbox indie store?

Well I wouldn’t expect a drug-like state of gaming nirvana for that price myself. I’d pay quite a bit more for that.

Zen often seems paradoxical – it requires an intense discipline which, when practised properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.

Believe it or not kids this was once the Cutting Edge of graphics
Good lord, I’m old enough to remember this being the Cutting Edge.

There is a state all gamers know that I call Gaming Zen. I imagine it’s similar to what sports players feel when all those hours of practice are taking effect, when muscle memory takes over and the mind can relax and just let the game flow. Talk to, say, a tennis player and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about – the feeling of being slightly outside yourself, the movements happening automatically, instinctively, with no input from the conscious brain. That feeling of being slightly distracted and yet at your most focused. Most games that involve any degree of visceral action, that require taut reflexes and split second adjustments, are best played in this state.

I first remember being conscious of it on Super Mario Kart. My cousin, who was babysitting me at the time (I must have been about 9 or 10) had got a pretty damn fast time on Ghost House 1 and bet me a fiver I couldn’t top it. Challenge accepted. It was, of course, just a cunning ruse for him to be left in peace to watch TV as I spent the rest of the evening trying to earn that five pounds. And it worked; I spent hours repeating that course, beating the ghost of my own best time by fractions of a second every now and again, inching towards the top of the leaderboard and my prize. I’d have 5 or 6 runs in a row where I’d hit precisely the same spot on the wall, developing a strange seemingly insurmountable mental block. Then out of nowhere, for reasons I could frustratingly never pinpoint, I’d zone out, become one with the track. I’d take each corner perfectly, gliding around as if I were on rails on my ideal racing line.

Most of the time on racing games however, when Gaming Zen is achieved, there’ll come a moment when I’ll realise just how well I’m doing and my conscious brain, nervous of messing up a perfect run, suddenly takes the reigns. And then everything almost invariably goes horribly wrong. I never play nearly as well when that happens, often making the very mistake my conscious brain took over to avoid. The longer I’m in that zone, the faster my time becomes. But I can’t go into it at will. It’s that old zen conundrum of how to clear the mind. You can’t willingly drift off – it’s like falling to sleep. Focusing on the act, the of dropping off and trying to pinpoint the exact moment sleep takes hold is a guaranteed route to insomnia. It’s impossibly illusive and so frustratingly difficult to discern what exactly causes it. So I just keep playing. Eventually I have The Moment, a run so perfect I take down my cousin’s time by the best part of a full second. Being the hilarious joker he is he duly gives me my reward: a shiny 5 pence piece.

I’m still bitter.

The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.

...
I was going to put up a screenshot of the Alma boss fight but the memories are still too raw..

Now, I’m not going to convince you a 2d stick man beat ’em up that uses two buttons will help you discover the meaning of life. Nor any other game for that matter. But I’ve done some of my best thinking whilst playing games in those ineffable moments. Turned on, tuned in and dropped out – whilst floating around the bold, bright, beautiful world of NiGHTs or locked into the brutally visceral combat of Ninja Gaiden, some of my favourite gaming experiences have been those that were only partly to do with the game itself, when I had moments where me and the game became one and my mind drifts off to think about other things. As a teen I’d come up with angsty poetry whilst trying to beat time trial times on F Zero X; in my early 20s I’d ponder essay titles while topping high scores on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Even now half of the music reviews were pondered over whilst playing The Binding of Isaac or Geometry Wars 2 (which is in a nutshell the super-hero origin story for Wanton Dilletantery itself – the sudden epiphany that a gaming/music blog could be fashioned from the disjointed thoughts that occur whilst mentally reviewing music during my gaeing).

And it’s more than that – I’ve pondered life, love and the meaning of the universe whilst gaming. I’ve made vital life decisions whilst lost in the mental mists of hypnotised gaming. I’m not saying they were the best decisions, but that’s another story..

As much as I like to give myself over to a game, to be absorbed in a narrative and pulled along a set-piece filled rollercoaster, as incredibly exciting as it is to witness gaming evolve and emerge as a legitimate narrative artform, I keep coming back to those games that eschew all that and are content to just be a game in it’s purest sense. When it’s done right and your thumbs just snap into the games rhythms and you’re suddenly one with a game…it’s is a unique feeling.

Shooters and rhythm games are particularly good for this. Bullet hell games or twin stick shooters are good – they primarily involve cleaning up more than they do violence. Things appear, you shoot them, they disappear. The goal is to reach the end of the level where the screen is empty and the work is done. Performing such rote tasks is good, but of course the insane difficulty of these games often breaks the spell. And often complex power up systems require engagement of the conscious brain – do I stick with the homing rockets or switch to the mega-powered lasers?

In many ways rhythm action games are purer still. Take Guitar Hero – you hit the buttons as the corresponding notes float into the relevant section. That’s it. As you get better and fixate on colours your play evolves so that when you see the blue note coming the relevant finger clicks. The information passes through the eye and straight to the finger, bypassing the brain, allowing it to go off on whatever it wants. Usually your thoughts just bounce around from thing to thing – what you fancy eating, random memories, films or music you like, how comfortable your chosen gaming chair is. Some zen practioners call this ‘monkey brain.’ It’s a state that, when you least suspect it, the answer to a question that’s been bugging you pops up, unbidden.

And whilst many games require it to get better at it, it’s a rare sort of game that can induce such a state.

Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer – William S Burroughs

arkham
HIT HIM! HIT HIM IN THE FACE, BATMAN!

Despite my rhythm-action-as-pure-gaming theory,  I never actuallygot into them all that much (with the exception of Donkey Konga, back in my often missed Nintendo fanboy days). I’ve always been a little bit snobby about them – they weren’t proper games at all, I reasoned (I realise that going from this to rhythm-gaming-as-pure-gaming is a bit of a leap). They’re too casual, too simplistic. And frankly if you’re spending that much damn time mastering Hanger 18 on super-crazy-hard, why don’t you just learn the damn guitar instead? Strangely the appeal of them only dawned on me when playing a game that was very much not a rhythm action game:  Arkham Asylum. Specifically the challenge rooms.

I hated that combat system when I first played the demo, precisely because it was too much like a rhythm action game. I was used to the tense dexterity required to pull of combos/not be eviscerated that is necessary to play Ninja Gaiden or Bayonetta. The button presses are slower on the Arkham games, and yet less considered – it seemed horribly simplistic in comparison. One attack button? Telegraphed counters? “Childs play!” I cried. But when the swarms of enemies got bigger and more varied things changed. Knowing when to counter, when to hit, when to bounce and flee and stun – it started to get more challenging. But the slow rhythm of it remained. If the buttons were drums then playing Ninja Gaiden would be some kind of frantic jazz beat – Arkham was more the slow underpinning of a rock song. And during a long battle it became quite mesmerising, like a lengthy psych rock workout. It seemed to lull me into that trance like state itself; it didn’t happen incidentally as I got more used to it. It just happened. I’d jump into one of the more hectic challenge rooms and from the first face punch onwards I was there. Or more accurately not there. I imagine it takes more concentration to get the really high scores, making sure you get all the variation bonuses and whatnot – you won’t find my name on any leaderboard – but when just clearing a room in efficient and unshowy style as possible I’m pretty good. But only because I’m not paying attention.

It’s a rare game that instills this comatose state and keeps you there, not demanding you think harder about your tactics and triggering your conscious brain, breaking the spell. It has to be a pretty simple game to make that work. And as a natural consequence of the evolution of gaming hardware, it’s graphical fidelity and processing power, simplicity is not in fashion in the mainstream AAA arena. The biggest games need to be as complex as possible without alienating the casual fan to justify the hardware these days. People aren’t putting together high end PCs or stumping up silly sums to be first in line for the latest consoles to play something simplistic. They want videogaming cinema, to be as close to being in a movie as they can whilst still retaining some level of control. They want cutscenes where the characters look like people despite having all the personality of a walnut. They want louder. They want faster. They want more.

And above all they want to shoot people in the face.

So thank all that is holy for the indie scene. For Hotline Miami, for The Binding of Isaac, for Spelunky and so many more. And thank you silver dollar for One Finger Death Punch.

Here it is – right now. Start thinking about it and you miss it. – Huang Po

OFDP1
I like how that stickman’s skull has eye sockets BUT IT HAS NO EYES

To do successfully pull off something so brilliantly dumb as OFDP you have to be pretty smart. And Silver Dollar games, well…I’m not sure they’ve ever been accused of being smart before. Shovelware mongers? Puerile smut peddlers? Xbox Live indie arcade ruiners? Absolutely. But not smart. Take a look at their website and have a read through the masses of god awful, meritless novelty titles and despair.Try Not to Fart. Old Spice presents Pick Up Lines for Girls. Who did I date last night? It’s a litany of the worst kind of lowest common denominator guff that makes wading through the xbox live indie store such a terrible experience. I’m sure there must be some diamonds in amongst all that rough – but thanks to Silver Dollar’s insane output there’s a whole lotta rough to get through. They’ve defended their practices before, stating the undeniable truth that they have a right to make these games, but they’ve never quite explained what compels them to do so. Sure, no one can or should stop them, but why would they want to? They’re clearly capable game makers who, even prior to OFDP, made a few worthwhile games amidst all the slurry, but anyone who’s seen the Silver Dollar logo on so much worthless junk would be forgiven for feeling they’re tainted by association. Personally I only realised Silver Dollar were responsible for so many horrible games after playing OFDP – which was a bit like finding out your new favourite band have a side project called Poopmouth who sing ropey lo-fi songs about bodily functions. Could you look at your favourite songwriter in the same way after seeing a youtube video of them singing a song called Fart Percolator while dressed a giant pair of buttocks?

But when these guys want to make a game they clearly know what they’re doing. Exercises in simplicity are deceptively hard to pull off – if you had a pound for every attempt to recreate the success of Tetris there has been since the 80s you’d have enough money to just say boo to simplicity and form a AAA game studio instead. You need to strip everything back to it’s very basics whilst at the same time adding enough depth to compel the player something to keep playing beyond a few moments of novelty. Now that our home gaming machines have become boxes capable of unleashing unbridled spectacle the urge to do gaming in this way has become exclusively the occupation of the niche, the indie.

The exception comes in mobile gaming, of course. On that platform, ever since Angry Birds became an unavoidable phenomenon, it’s become reasonably fertile ground for innovation on this front with games like Cut the Rope and Threes becoming deserved successes. But mobile is a fairly new gaming frontier that feels like the wild west – a wasteland of bandits churning out copycat games and cash-in titles. And where there is a drive there to strip gaming down to it’s core elements, taking it back to what made it special in the first place, it invariably comes along with the urge to tack on as many microtransactions as possible to make it as good a piece of capitalism as it is entertainment. Despite the necessity to make games simple enough to work on the processor of a phone and with a touchscreen it’s seldom encouraging the creation of interesting games – the first casualty of the war to make a profitable model of sale seems to have been innovation. Until a fair and workable pricing model is established and copyright infringements are properly policed it’s more hassle than it’s worth. Also; touchscreens. Maybe I’m just old, maybe the next generation are nimble enough with their fingers to make these monstrosities viable game controllers, but to me it feels like an abomination.

I suppose if you squint hard enough there’s a certain vague irony in the best xbox live arcade game being made by a company that seem so dead set on destroying it as a creative venue whilst utilising controls that seem made for a touch screen.

People are scared to empty their minds fearing that they will be engulfed by the void. What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void – Huang Po

OFDP2
Many have fallen to that classic, ancient weapon – the big stick with a crapload of spikes in it.

It needs to be said that Silver Dollar have done their best to overcomplicate things in OFDP. There are a number of power ups you will unlock as you go along – most of which are either entirely ignorable or will annoyingly disrupt your flow. And there are so. Many. Levels. So many. It may seem perverse to complain about being given too much content for your money but given the simplicity of the game and it’s reliance on aiming for high scores/perfect runs they could have cut these in half and probably half again and lost nothing. The variety in levels is interesting to be fair – whilst the ‘boss fights’ are entirely superfluous, being as they are repeated rhythm action mini-games that the ‘brawler’ variety of enemy provides anyway, the thunderstorm rounds (enemy colours obscured) and black and white round (ditto, but with a cool old school kung fu aesthetic) add an interesting complication, whereas the various defence rounds and knife/bomb only rounds demand inch perfect reactions over a shorter period of time. And the nunchuck and ‘light sword’ (good lawsuit dodging there, Silver Dollar) rounds are excellent fun, stripping the game down even further to just left/right choices and ramping up the speed to heart attack inducing levels. But having so many of them will eliminate the desire to ‘perfect’ all the levels for all but the most time rich player. Just getting through them all is wearyingly time consuming.

And despite the simplicity of the game and the choice of detail-free stickmen it must be said that OFDP is an impressively detailed game visually. But a lot of that visual flair is lost on the player because of that hazy zen, that blurry eyed focus, which doesn’t allow you to take in the details. It’s almost a good a game to watch as it is to play – the work that’s gone into making the different fighting styles of the stickman so distinctive, the staccato nature of the button presses translating to a style that mimics the choreography of low-budget 70s chop socky flicks, where each move in a sequence is done one after the other, stop-starting rather than flowing, obviously choreographed and practiced, is mesmerising. Along with the dodgily accented narration it’s a beautifully written love letter to 70s Kung Fu masters the Shaw brothers and their contemporaries that people unfamiliar with that cinematic era will be able to appreciate. It’s utterly charming to watch – the fights take place before a lusciously detailed backdrop, which contually changes and shifts with cranes dropping in boxes and flower carts and vases to smash your opponents into. Little details, such as the blurred reflection on a river below the line of combat, are completely wasted when playing on your own. If I hadn’t had friends round to play it I doubt I’d ever have noticed. There’s no room to take in all these details. Silver Dollar have created a surprisingly richly drawn stage on which these fights take place considering the stripped back simplicity of their play aesthetic. And further credit must be given for never allowing it to become overwhelming or distracting when you’re trying to kung fu your way to victory.

What is apparent when playing is the surprising weight of the blows. Stickmen hitting each other shouldn’t really have any kind of heft to it, but again the staccato nature of the button bashing works in it’s favour – there’s a crunch to the blows, particularly the finishing move of a short, intense flurry, that is deeply satisfying. And the power blows, where things go slow motion and eyes fly out, bones crack, heads fall off, may seem like a needless attempt to inject gore into stickmen fighting (people who remember Stick Fu on newgrounds will know that’s not exactly a new trick anyway) but they really act as exclamation points, emphasising the feeling of power that comes when in the rhythm. And the feeling that comes from nailing these blows without being hit, reacting to the weapons being thrown, the different combos necessary to take down the more complicated enemies, feeling invincible, really is something special.

And this process of watching is the very alchemy of real religion. Because as you become more and more deeply rooted in witnessing, thoughts start disappearing. You are, but the mind is utterly empty. That’s the moment of enlightenment. That is the moment that you become for the first time an unconditioned, sane, really free human being  – Osho 

OFDP5
One unfortunate genetic flaw in the common stickman is the sudden and inexplicable falling out of the still beating heart. Poor blighters.

This is a game about violence after all. As are, perhaps a little shamefully, most games. As I’ve said I don’t think of rhythm action games as games proper, and yet I do with this. The only real difference is that instead of doing guitar karaoke I’m maiming stickmen. Perhaps it’s the difference of the fail states, the stakes of the game – slightly messing up a guitar solo doesn’t quite compare to getting beaten to death by a faceless stickman scumbag. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by decades of violent gaming. Or perhaps it’s due to the rhythms on offer – playing through a song on Guitar Hero is always the same tempo. Always the same song. You know what’s coming. In One Finger Death Punch you have to adapt – you have to make your own rhythm.

And it’s all about that rhythm. When it is broken, when you miss or get hit, you need to click back into it immediately. Miss again or allow yourself to be hit again and it’s all too easy to lose it altogether. How to do this leads some interesting tactical choices – when a stickman who requires multiple hits from either side comes along some turn the pattern into a quickfire combo, dispatching the enemy as quickly as possible before returning to the groove. Me, I run through their pattern along with the rhythm – switching oppenents to someone closer if any should get too near while I’m grinding down the multi-hit enemy. Both have their merits – in the former you can focus on the nearer character, but lose your rhythm, on the latter you keep the rhythm but risk being distracted and overwhelmed. For a two button game the depth is impressive – and instinctive. No one seems to actively decide which of the two tricks to use, it just comes to them naturally. And switching from one to the other, even after only briefly dabbling with the game, feels alien and wrong.

And when you’re in that rhythm..it’s a special place to be. People often talk about pieces of entertainment they use to ‘switch their brains off’ – usually guilty pleasures like dumb comedies, poor action flicks, trashy TV etcetera. However whilst they may me hiding from being exposed to anything overly taxing that’s not the same as hitting the brain’s off switch. To do that requires something truly trance inducing- and in the absence of Hypnotoad TV can’t really offer anything quite like this. Gaming zen is a state unique in entertainment – and may well be it’s secret weapon when being forced to argue for it’s worth, as it so often does in a culture so happy to blame it for the ills of it’s younger generations. Most forward thinking games makers are trying to hone gaming as a narrative medium, one to compete with the emotional and intellectual depth of cinema and literature – often with exciting and occasionally brilliant results. It’s a noble cause, but one that often falls short because it neglects gaming’s strengths, it’s unique abilities, one of which is to create this zone of unthought, one which allows people to contemplate life, love and the meaning of the universe free from external stimuli, to trick their internal narratives into heading off in unexpected and often illuminating directions. One Finger Death Punch is not a perfect example of this, nor really a pointer as to a direction forward – whilst it’s core mechanics are near perfect there’s too much dressing on top, and silver Dollar seem to have little idea what to do with what they’ve created to make it seem more like a worthwhile investment other than tack on level after level. But what it is is a timely reminder of single player gaming’s potential as promoter rather than a dictator of thought, as a creator of simple gaming mechanics that transcend the simplicity of their chosen medium and offer up a space where the mind can simply be.

Or if that sounds too flighty and pretentious for you, it’s an incredibly well put together and addictive game of stickman-on-stickman violence. Either way that’s got to be worth 69p/£3.99* of your cash, no?

Give up yourself to others. Give up yourself to life. Give up struggling to make sense of it all. Simply, give up. But most importantly of all: play One Finger Death Punch. – T’ao-shan**

*Xbox live/Steam prices

**disclaimer – may be a misquote

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