[Behind Nekomura Games' deceptively cute, IGF China-winning adventure game ButaVX: Justice Fighter lies an experiment that challenges players' gaming patterns, the studio explains in this interview with Gamasutra contributor Jason Johnson.]
ButaVX: Justice Fighter
is cute. Very cute. It's so cute that it won the Excellence In Visual Arts award at the Independent Games Festival 2010 in China, a country whose culture is renowned for being cute.
Nekomura Games, the small studio who developed it, has a cute name (Nekomura means "cat village" in Japanese). Most of all, the black-and-white, sketchbook-style graphics are cute. Justice Fighter
looks like it was cut out of children's manga.
The setting, story, and characters are likewise cute. The fable of a young pig who sets out on an adventure to retrieve his soccer ball is endearing. Yet underneath the cheerful facade of cartoon piggies, a thoughtful experiment is being performed. Behind all this cuteness, a subtle play on psychology unfolds.
"It's a joke at the expense of how the brain uses patterns to read the world – with all the funny stuff that results from this approach," says Raymond Cindric, the artist, designer, and programmer who developed Justice Fighter
alongside his wife Linda in Singapore.
The first hint that something strange is afoot comes in Justice Fighter
's opening cinematic, when the player is introduced to young ButaVX, the self-decreed hero of the game (His name is a hodgepodge. Buta is Japanese for "pig," the "X" is an allusion to Mega Man X
, and the "V" was put in between so the name wouldn't be mispronounced as "buttocks.").
Buta is playing soccer in a sold-out stadium. The crowd is cheering wildly. Cheerleaders chant his name. But when he accidentally kicks his ball through an old lady's window, the stadium mysteriously vanishes. Buta is no longer on the field. He's stranded in wasteland. The old lady looks like an evildoer. And her house looks like a castle. The change occurs quickly, and the player might not notice the broken continuity, nor that the game takes place in an entirely unstable reality.
"The game is set in an environment that the pigs see as something completely different," Cindric says. "Buta is pretty explicit in his diary about how he sees it, and what of it he sees at all."
In fact, there are no stadiums filled with adoring fans and no nemeses in their layer. The plot holes are filled by the reveries of a preschooler's egomaniacal thought, constructed from equal parts superhero comics and solipsism. An undetermined portion of the game is Buta's own fantasy, but the implications go further than the power of pretending. Justice Fighter
is critiquing the way people see the world around them.
"If we want to understand something before our eyes, we use [things we already know] to construct its meaning," Cindric explains. "What actually happens is we assemble prefabricated parts that already exist in our brains."
Cindric likens the thought process to a movie reel, and the brain to a film projector. The brain is constantly replaying old tape, which contains thought patterns learned from previous experiences.
According to Cindric, when a person encounters a familiar situation, like the Dragon Quest
-styled battle system in Justice Fighter
, the brain automatically pulls up a matching scene for reference. And when a person comes across an unfamiliar situation, well, the brain is still working from its repository of tape. It shifts and rearranges scenes, trying to piece together a competent model of its surroundings.
His view, which is compatible with leading theories on the way people learn, such as cognitivism and constructivism, is illustrated by Buta's warped outlook on the world. Buta is a child, and his knowledge of life is extremely narrow. He likely hasn't traveled outside the village, nor experienced direct conflict.
Consequently, he hasn't developed the regions of thought necessary to deal with these aspects of life. So, when he is confronted with adversity and visits distant places, his mind improvises, filling in the blanks with the only reference he has: comic books.
As a result, when the old woman refuses to return his ball, which Buta has kicked through her window, Buta sees her as a villain. He casts himself in the role of the hero and vows to retrieve the ball at any cost.
He embarks on an epic adventure to find a legendary sword, which is actually a piece of junk he finds in the scrapyard, battling disused electronics like busted television sets and wireless telephones -- things he believes are enemies -- along the way. Buta's conclusions are so far off-base that it's funny. Yet players should use discretion when laughing.
While Buta is busy constructing his reality out of fantasy, players are engaged in similar mental acrobatics. They are scanning various strands of logic, reflecting on other games they've played, and forming an outlook that holds true to the game at hand. When sizing up a game's numerous variables and conditions, players are prone to make mistakes. And many did as they played Justice Fighter
"The original idea was that people would have fun when they discovered they couldn't die, but most players played the game in a way to avoid death at all costs. In the end, we had to put it in the description that the player couldn't die," Cindric says.
Cindric had unearthed a conundrum. The reflexes of the mind were revealed to be both helpful tools and a handicap. Thanks to mental reflexes, when a player encountered the familiar turn-based battle system, they immediately knew how to play. But when they encountered something unexpected, like a game without death, old ways of thinking became a burden. Players regarded the classic role-playing formula as dogma, and they ended up grinding through a supposedly carefree game.
If, as Cindric suggests, the brain adapts to new situations by comparing them to old ones, the player is bound to experience cerebral jet-lag when moving from one game to the next. The disparity could be as simple as mixing up the A and B buttons on a 360 controller after playing a DS (since the cancel and confirm buttons are inverted). Or the discrepancy could be more complex, like mixing up game rules.
The dilemma helped me understand why I have trouble figuring out some games, such as the match-three and rougelike hybrid Dungeon Raid
. I have plenty of experience with roguelikes, but little with match-threes. I tended to approach Dungeon Raid
as a roguelike instead of a match-three game, and my miserable rank on the boards reflected it. Once I parsed my old mentality, my scores picked up.
The quandary, that the mind tends to develop certain ways of thinking and stick to them, doesn't only pertain to my difficulty learning certain games. It's a concern for game designers who are trying to hook a player on a game's line of thought. And it's a boon for the players who sink dozens of hours into a game and memorize its language.
The highs and lows of how people learn reach beyond the gaming sphere into the education world, where students are typically polarized as left-brained or right-brained, and grouped in math and science departments, or congregate in language and liberal arts halls. Yet the mind's stingy temperament trickles down to the smallest things. It affects how people play free online games like Justice Fighter
. And it affects Justice Fighter
's satiric everyman: Buta.
Buta is so immersed in his misguided interpretation of reality that, by the end of his adventure, he has become a typical hooligan – albeit a very cute one. Buta makes some very questionable decisions as the result of his untamed thoughts. Indeed, comic books prove a poor substitute for actual experience.
However, the habits of the mind aren't necessarily a detriment. Cindric is quick to point out advantages to the way people learn. "It's very demanding and creative. The point is, the more thinking patterns one has, the easier it gets to assemble a solution to the problem at hand. Despite being a bit blocky, thinking in patterns is the best anybody can do in deciphering the world."
For every example of one tripping over their own brain, there seems to be a counterexample outshining it. Cindric's brain's insistence to cling to old ideas enabled him to develop the skills needed to program Justice Fighter
and to draw its adorable art. The secret ending in Justice Fighter
even suggests that Buta's own tragically misguided thoughts can be redirected for good. The layout and construction of the mind may not be perfect, but if people are aware of its tendencies, it can be gamed.