Disgaea 2

I’ve been playing more of Disgaea 2 (for ps2).

I purchased it six months ago, and enjoyed playing for a while, but got distracted with work and other titles. Since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind to go back and play, and when I did over the weekend, it was just as much fun as I remember.
At first it seems very old-skool; turn-based, grid-based squad-level combat wrapped in a fantasy RPG frame. It’s got a well-developed and WEIRD conceptual presentation, plus the whole Japanese cultural point of view, so it’s very mind-bending and challenging to this Westerner. Keep that brain supple, people! But as you get into the game, and as you run back to gamefaqs.com for information, you quickly realize why this game is different.

It’s DEEP. I mean, algorithmically complex. To an unheard of degree.

It’s complexity is layered. You can complete the storyline while knowing and using only 1/10th of the game’s options. The tutorial tells you what you need to know, when you need it, including opening doors to the deeper functionality of the game, but you don’t have to step through.
You have tons of party options; create new wizards and warriors, capture and tame monsters, hire and fire mercenaries. And you have complete freedom to use or save them each battle. But the game gives you enough storyline characters that you don’t have to fool with any of that.

Everything is standardized. A monster, a super-sword and a stick of gum have exactly the same stat structure. You could even wield the gum as a weapon if you wanted. This makes it easy to build simple UIs which result in system complexity. If the gum has a resistance to fire, you can fuse it with your armor, for instance. And since the unit (monster) has exactly the same structure as its equipment, figuring out how much armor or magic points the unit has is a simple summation.

The game design has a wonderful and powerful recursion. Every item in the game has procedurally generated battlefields */inside/* it. If you magically travel to these fields and defeat the monsters within, you can level-up the item you’ve gone inside. You can also collect new items in those fields, which you can go inside, too. Some of the item stats actually take the form of monsters inside the item. You have to travel into the item, and find and defeat these special monsters, to further advance the item’s abilities.

I wouldn’t say it’s well-balanced, but it feels that way. It’s a single player game, your party does the level-advancement thing inexorably, the game gives you timely feedback on whether you do something well or poorly. So (as with many JRPGs) you can defeat the game with enough level grinding. You can even dominate the game with enough level grinding, but the designers understand that play style, too, and offer meaningful rewards for it (you get heroic items for clearing certain battles in one turn, for instance). Although it wouldn’t necessarily work in a multi-player game environment, this design philosophy (you can cheat, hack, grind, and exploit, and we’ll just offer you new, exponentially hard challenges) works for this game.

And grind has a bad connotation (boring, mindless make-work) which Disgaea 2 doesn’t deserve. Every storyline battle is a carefully designed puzzle, with secrets and double-secrets that will make you want to revisit each one. Every procedurally-generated battle has so much /*stuff*/ going on, you never feel you’re doing the same thing twice.

One of the things I think about while playing Disgaea 2 is, "How did they do it? How did they keep the design and production together while assembling this much complexity?" The obvious answer is that Nippon Ichi Software has been doing this kind of game for a long time, so they’re experts. I know that the American development system disperses and crushes such expertise over time, so that a 10 year old company has none of the employees (or their hard-won expertise) it started with. I can only assume it’s different in Japan. It’s also obvious that they didn’t start with zero codebase; I’m sure Disgaea 2 has loads of code from previous games (Disgaea 1, for starters). Also, industry veterans will point out that a strong producer and a strong QA department are critical for large-scale projects. Still, I can’t help wondering if I’m missing some fundamental production techniques that are close-held secrets for building games of this complexity.

Raph Koster’s book says that Fun = Learning By Doing. The fun of a game is finding out all the things we can do in a game, not by reading about it on gamefaqs.com, but by doing it ourselves. He also points out that identifying, exploring, and optimizing patterns is fundamental to gameplay and to life in general. From his standard, Disgaea 2 is a great game, with vast amounts of patterns to explore and optimize.

Nicole Lazzaro wrote a whitepaper a few years ago about her research, which identified 4 basic types of fun; hard fun, easy fun, altered states, and multiplayer. She further posited that, in many games, players quickly yo-yo between hard fun and easy fun. First they clear the room of monsters (hard fun), then search the room for nice art and secret doors (easy fun), then repeat in the next room. In my play experience, Disgaea 2 tightens that yo-yo structure up quite a bit. Because of its turn-based tactical structure, I’m switching between "what attack is most effective right here" and "does that monster have any interesting items" within the space of a single unit’s turn.

Players say "Look at this", and "look what I can do". Disgaea 2, within its presentation framework, can be very pretty ("Look at this"). But it shines like a beacon in the features that make players say "look what I can do". And it keeps on shining, long after other games have been completely mastered.


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