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Games Without Frontiers: Complex Gameplay Saves the Day in 'The World Ends With You'

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Old 05-19-2008
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Games Without Frontiers: Complex Gameplay Saves the Day in 'The World Ends With You'
Sometimes, a game is so ridiculously complicated it just begs you to throw it away.
That's how I felt after an hour of playing The World Ends With You, the hot new role-playing game for the Nintendo DS. In TWEWY, you're a classic Square Enix hero: a surly ****ager who comes complete with mysterious secrets, a broken emotional life and spiky anime hair. Everyone gasps in astonishment a lot, and you're thrust unwillingly into a cosmic conflict with creepy monsters.
It's the "conflict" part that drove me crazy. TWEWY offers a combat system that is incredibly innovative and brilliant -- but also impossibly, annoyingly convoluted. It defied me to hurl my DS against the wall.
And yet I didn't. I actually wound up loving the game. And therein lies a very interesting lesson, which suggests that even in our age of superaccessible, EZ-games like Wii Sports and Guitar Hero and Bejeweled, there are rich delights to be had in videogames that are more complicated than a moon landing.
First off, let me explain just how bonkers this game is. In TWEWY, you fight in a cooperative duo, with one fighter on the top screen of the DS and one on the bottom. But here's the thing: You control both fights simultaneously.
You start off fighting on the bottom screen, where you execute attacks in several DS-unique moves -- swiping the stylus to perform a "slash," dragging it to produce a trailer of fire or hurl objects telekinetically, and tapping it to summon lightning or bullets. (Sometimes you also blow or shout into the DS microphone.) Meanwhile, on the top, it's a Dance Dance Revolution thing: You follow button-pushing sequences to initiate attacks.
To make things even more obtuse, you're trying to coordinate the actions of the two fighters. If you pull off a really good combo with one, a glowing green orb will float over to the other fighter -- giving him or her a power-up. Pull off a combo with that player, and the orb floats back to the first fighter. Keep it up, and your power grows to thermonuclear proportions.
But this means that your attention is not only flitting from screen to screen -- it's shifting from one control scheme to another. Gamers are familiar with the sense of flow that comes from repeatedly working with a single tool. Here, it's like the game is actually trying to disrupt that flow.
Oh, and yeah, I almost forgot: There's this nutty three-card monte game going on in the uppermost portion of the top screen. If you execute the attack at the right instant, it'll uncover one of the cards and release yet another power-up. Now you have to zip your eyes up to the very top of the screen every few seconds in addition to everything else.
"Oh, come on," I muttered after about 15 minutes of this. Seriously, TWEWY felt like some sort of information-age joke -- a grim metaphor for interruption-plagued office work. I couldn't keep pace. As the enemies piled on, I'd completely lose track of what was going on, and my team would either die or limp away from a battle.
Now, Square Enix clearly realized the madness it was unleashing on its audience. Thankfully, the developers offered a way to opt out: You can let the top team member fight on autopilot. Needless to say, I quickly opted for autopilot, heaving a sigh of relief.
Yet here's the interesting thing: I kept on getting lured back into the embrace of the dual-control system. Why? Partly for tactical reasons. I discovered that the autopilot AI is a good fighter, but not a superb one. If you use it, you won't achieve really spectacular, ground-pounding combo attacks. If you want to bring in the really big guns, you have to roll up your sleeves and wrestle with both screens.
At that point, it becomes a matter of pride. You're handed a really hard-to-control race car, and you've been dared to drive it. Sure, you're going to crash it at first -- but just imagine how much fun it'll be when you're in control.
Oddly, that's precisely what started to happen. I learned to control the game. Maybe I'd ambiently absorbed some dual-screen strategy from hours of watching the AI fight. Or possibly my nervous system went into a Darwinian panic and rapidly evolved some fresh muscle-memory wetware.
Either way, I suddenly hit my stride after a few hours of playing The World Ends With You. My brain began to shift effortlessly from screen to screen. I entered a new flow state, where the stylus-swiping and the button-mashing stopped fighting for control of my prefrontal cortex and became one elegant, ninjalike motion in the serene pool of my mind. Presto! I pulled off my first spectacularly long-chained sequence of attacks, unlocking one of those intergalactic, superultra-anime-death combos for which Square Enix is famous. When the dust settled, I stood amongst the seared remains of my enemies and basked in the angelic glow of a level-up.
Let me tell you -- it felt excellent. It's fun to excel in any game, of course. But when you excel in a game with such an aggressively challenging control system, it's more than success: It's like you've grown a third eye. I felt like some cocaine-jacked Wall Street trader, surfing my multiscreened Bloomberg terminal while reducing the U.S. economy to a cinder with millisecond subprime-mortgage gambits. I think I went about 40 minutes without blinking.
All of which brings me back to the Wii, Guitar Hero and the idea that simple control systems are the way of the future for videogames. Obviously, on one level it's true that there are tons of people who are turned off by complexity in gameplay mechanics. The huge success of the Wiimote and simple, casual games attests to that.
But there will always be a particular joy that comes from a game that asks you to rise above yourself. It's a steep hill, but there's a promised land on the other side. The World Ends With You is a game that kicks your ass, and then invites you to kick back.
- - -
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to Wired and New York magazines. Look for more of Clive's observations on his blog, collision detection.

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