As a group, gamers are strange. Take the hack and slash genre. Take God of War, take Ninja Gaiden, take Devil May Cry. Place it in our hands. No matter what our experience level, no matter how often we're taught, we all have one base instinct in the beginning. It's like a reflux. We find a button, be it 'A', 'X' or 'Square'. We find that button and we mash the ever loving shit out of it until told otherwise.
But Dave Cox, head of Konami Digital Entertainment, is on a one man war against button mashing. If he has his way you will play his latest game, you will play Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. You will button mash... in the beginning. Then you will fail. You'll have a little think. You'll learn quickly. Then you'll come back, you'll try something different, you'll discover that variety works and you'll enjoy the game a helluva lot more.
I ask Dave Cox to describe Castlevania in one word.
Why the hell do we button mash. It's bad for us, we know this. Button mashing can suck the fun out of any experience, but once we've started we can't stop. It's Pavlovian: if button mashing works and kills enemies in our vicinity we're almost certainly going to go with that technique next time. Then we'll do it again... and again... and again. Even if it strips every fabric of engagement from the game we are playing by God we will button mash. It's in our nature. We simply want to win.
So is it a video game's responsibility to stop us button mashing? Dave Cox seems to think so.
"We wanted to create a thinking man’s hack and slash," explains Dave, chuckling at the idea. "We wanted to create a hack and slash game with a bit more depth to it.
"One of the common problems with hack and slash games is that players always end up just smashing the square button! People play the whole game like that. We wanted to move away from that.
"What I mean by that is we wanted to give people a reason to use their abilities."
A reason to use abilities. The best Hack and Slash games do this: provide enemies that are resistant to certain attacks but vulnerable to others. It's good design. The idea, of course, is to force players to use every weapon in their arsenal — basically pry players out of their button mashing malaise. It seems strange, but in the hack and slash genre, we almost have to be taught how to have fun. We have to be forced to take the engaging route.
According to Dave, the original Lords of Shadow didn't do enough in this regard, and the game suffered for it.
"Each enemy has been designed to have strengths and weaknesses against different combos in the combat tree," he explains. "That’s something we didn’t do in the previous game.
"We've developed the mastery system, a system where the more you use a combo the more it builds up the gauge for that combo. You can use that power to level up your weapons, make them more powerful. You sort of think to yourself, why should I care? But if you don’t use those combos and you don’t level up your weapons you’re not going to get very far. It’s about making players use combos and try different things."
At one point during my hands-on time with Lords of Shadow 2 I come across an early boss. The fight is fairly extensive. It starts simple, then expands throughout a seriously expansive sequence of events that encompasses action, hack and slash, platforming. It's an early showcase; Lords of Shadow 2 encapsulated in one isolated sequence. God of War meets Uncharted meets Dark Souls. It ends with a gruelling one-on-one duel that showcases everything Dave has been discussing: a duel that forces me to use the different weapons at my disposal. Dave Cox wants every battle to feel like that.
"One of my favourite games is Street Fighter 2," explains Dave.
The idea, he says, is to make every encounter feel as though you're fighting with one single combatant. A combatant with his own weaknesses and strengths — a skill set you must adjust to if you want to succeed.
As a crash test dummy for Lords of Shadow 2's combat, I felt the difference. I felt that frustration and the need to adjust. It's been a while. Lords of Shadow 2, very quickly, forces you to use a set of skills most hack and slash games introduce much later. It's a brave decision. It breaks the habit before it has a chance to form. Within an hour I'm parrying, I'm strategically switching weapons. I'm thinking.
I'm not button mashing.
Dave Cox may have succeeded. Lords of Shadow 2 may have succeeded.