Video Game Umami: Accounting for Tasteon August 16, 2012 at 7:00 am
The word “Umami” is of Japanese origin, but it’s used worldwide for identifying our fifth taste. Umami – along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour – helps us enjoy our food. Unlike our other tastes, which populate distinct sections of our tongue, umami is present everywhere on our tongue.
Umami isn’t palatable on its own… instead, its purpose is to enhance the flavors of a dish. To take a dish and make the taste more intense than the sum of its parts. You can easily eat something and never even realize why it was so delicious. Video games have their own umami; their own unsung hero that makes players fall in love with them.
Good video games have very obvious things that make them what they are. Whether it’s fluid controls, an appealing art style, or amazing gameplay, a good game always excels in all of the standard areas of game design. In fact, you would think that you could just follow a formula and create a great game. It doesn’t work that way… does it? No, extremely similar games can vary wildly in how appealing they are. This is where the umami factor comes in.
Umami in games is the stuff you don’t notice. The thing that subtly blends those elements together into a cohesive whole. The things that dig into your subconscious and elevate the game to new heights. Umami elements are always small but usually very thoughtful. They usually come from developers that actually give a shit, who actually understand the art they’re creating.
Small things like recurring sound effects, the crunchiness of hit detection, the way a character moves or how fluid their animation is, the certain rhythm that some games have; these are all umami elements. Things that are always unnoticed when they’re there but it’s obvious when they’re not. You may not know why you just can’t get into a game, especially if everything about it calls to you.
“Oh, ‘Skyward Sword’, I feel like I want to do such naughty things to you. I want to take you downtown and go hobo hunting with you. We’ll lure them in with gallons of Wild Turkey and I’ll brutally murder all of the hobos and gently wash all of the diseased hobo blood off your pale skin. Then we’ll make love but I’ll wear a full body condom because I know, deep down, while you can wash off hobo blood, you can’t wash off the shame it brings… and I don’t want those cooties. That’s how much I feel I should love you. I don’t though…”
Ok, maybe I went a little too far there. “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” is a poor example. It’s already riddled with a bunch of poor design decisions that weigh it down. I would never give it the opportunity to drown in hobo blood. While I love MANY Zelda titles, “Skyward Sword” – though it has all the great hallmarks of the series – lacks umami. It has nothing that satisfies other urges like previous Zelda games have.
Ok, let’s back up a little bit.
Umami has been present in gaming since its inception. The original “Pong” was dripping with umami. It’s not something you could ever experience unless you were playing it in the arcade or on an original console, but there was a reason this simple game was so magical. It does an incredible job of making you feel the ball hits. That blip sound the game makes when paddle smacks the ball resonates in your body. It’s because that controller, that wonderful analog knob, became an extension of your body. It was so fluid and so precise and it felt so good. It’s something many imitators couldn’t replicate and it’s something you can’t experience with an emulator.
“Tetris” is, without a doubt, one of the most popular and prolific games of all time. Almost everyone that has grown up in the era of video games has played it. There have been over 100 versions of “Tetris” released. That includes cross-platform titles, but the number is still staggering. What’s interesting is that not all of these “Tetris” games are the same. Hell, a lot of them probably aren’t even good.
How is that? I mean, they’re all “Tetris”… right? They all feature the exact same premise. Blocks fall, make solid lines of blocks, blocks disappear, repeat until blocks overwhelm. So, a fan of “Tetris” should like them all, right? It’s so stupid simple but only a few “Tetris” titles have gotten it right and only one has gotten it perfect. Why? Well, umami is the answer to that question. There is more to ”Tetris” than just the game by itself. Yes, you’re a fan of the game and the rules and the goal but umami makes those things compelling… it makes those things addictive.
In my mind, the perfect “Tetris” is the one for the original Game Boy. For me, it’s the one that pushes the most buttons, it fires on the most cylinders. Yes, it controls well but there is an element to the control, an umami element, that makes it feel amazing. The process of slotting blocks into place feels great. I can feel myself actually pushing the straight piece into a gap to create a Tetris. In those moments, I’m pushing that block in myself. I’m taking it with my hands and shoving it into place. It goes in smooth. I can feel it when I fuck up and put a block in the wrong place. I can feel the resistance, the pressure from trying to push down but it doesn’t go anywhere.
For me, no other ”Tetris” does that. It’s cathartic. The NES version of ”Tetris” and “Tetris DS” come close. They’re great. Then there is “Tetrisphere”, which is a whole different animal and I love it for different reasons. However, they don’t illicit the same feelings, the same physical reactions that the Game Boy version does.
Street Fighter series
Next, let’s look at one of my absolute favorites, “Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike”. My, how I adore this game (I was supposed to sound like a southern belle there. Did I pull it off?). I’ve been playing this game for a long time and I just never tire of it. I still play it religiously, thanks to last year’s online release. I don’t have an addictive personality. There aren’t many games that have me going, “Just one more,” but this game does. Oh, this game does.
See, “3rd Strike” is just packed full of mouth-watering umami. Would the game still be good without the umami tsunami? Yes, it would still be great. However, it wouldn’t be special. It wouldn’t be the same. The same gameplay would be present and everything would control the exact same, but it wouldn’t feel the same. That’s what is important about umami – it transforms the ingredients into something more. The umami aspects take what is already there and turns it into lightning made of Doritos and Skittles. It makes it AWESOME.
“3rd Strike” still has some of the best 2D animation in a video game. The fluidity of character movement and the attention to the little details bring the game to life. Newer titles, like “BlazBlue” and “King of Fighters XIII” certainly look prettier, but “3rd Strike” moves with much more grace. If you play the first two “Street Fighter III”s, you’ll notice the animation is totally different. Character design, special attacks, movements, they all seem to look the same but “3rd Strike” tweaked it JUST enough to make it perfect. Elena’s idle stance can mesmerize a blind man. It’s a sight to behold.
Second, there’s the impact of hits. I’ve never played a fighting game where scoring a hit becomes such a satisfying experience. Completing a combo feels even better. Connecting with certain moves becomes a visceral desire. Whenever I connect with Sean’s tackle, I feel like I’m doing the hitting. I don’t think I’d get the same feeling if I’d knocked a punching bag to the ground and started hitting it. The attack has a powerful effect on me.
Last, parrying: the greatest skill mechanic ever introduced into a fighting game. A true test of one’s worth in 3rd Strike. Something that truly provides endless amounts of umami goodness. Not only does parrying flat-out feel good, but it also sounds good. The sound effect they use for parrying in “3rd Strike” lets you know that you dunn good. It’s ridiculously rewarding to pull off. What’s even more umami about parrying is that I don’t even have to be doing it. I can watch match videos and get all fuckin’ jazzed and worked up over great parries. Evo Moment #37, the one with Daigo being clutch and parrying that entire super (OMG SO DREAMY!), yeah, that literally makes me tingle… and maybe gives me a half-chub.
One final point I’d like to bring up about “Street Fighter”, as a series, is its controls. Like “Pong”, “Street Fighter” also has very umami controls. It’s not how well they function that makes them umami. It’s the subtle psychology of how they were designed. It’s the way they attempted to make fighting using a joystick and buttons feel like an extension of your body. See, “Street Fighter”’s control scheme was designed with an incredible amount of intuition in mind. The kind of intuitive design that you don’t even think about, it’s very natural.
Capcom tried something very gutsy with the original arcade release of the first “Street Fighter”. They used two pressure pads for punches and kicks. Depending on how hard you hit the pad, you would execute stronger attacks. In theory, this was fantastic. What could be more natural and umami than buttons that recognized how hard you actually wanted to hit your opponent? Regardless of their intentions, the pads were notoriously inaccurate and they were always breaking. Capcom needed another solution… they created a legacy in umami design: the six-button layout almost every other imitator ending up adopting.
This layout was purpose built for the player to adapt as quickly as possible. There were three buttons on top and three buttons on the bottom. The buttons on top were your punches, corresponding with your upper body, and the buttons on bottom were your kicks, corresponding with your lower body. The strength of the attacks was ordered from left to right, weakest to strongest. This turned what was a fairly ambitious and complex control scheme (at the time) into something that became second nature almost immediately after picking up the game.
Then there was the joystick. Obviously, there was nothing special about it. It was your standard 8-way stick. However, it was the specific inputs for certain actions and the special moves that set “Street Fighter” apart. Of course, blocking was as simple as holding back. It imitates someone in a tightened defensive position, steeling themselves until they’re ready to counterattack. Special moves are a different beast, however.
Special move inputs weren’t arbitrarily chosen, they were carefully crafted. Take the most recognizable special moves from the series, the Hadouken. In order to use it, you have to input down, down-forward, forward. This simulates the animation on screen. You see Ryu plant his feet, bring up his arms, and then push the Hadouken forward. It perfectly coincides with the joystick motions. It’s also present in Ryu’s Dragon Punch, the Shoryuken. The input is down-forward, down, forward. Ryu starts to duck down, lowers himself, then shoots up from the down position. This attention to detail made the experience of learning these motions seem almost effortless. It made a connection with the player’s subconscious.
Of course, the original “Street Fighter” was an incredibly clunky game. Even with all of its umami, the game just didn’t work. Special moves seemingly came out at random. The controls, in general, were unresponsive, and the hit detection was wonky. Luckily, Capcom gave it another shot and “Street Fighter II” was born. This is where all of the umami finally had a chance to do its job. The umami Capcom had created finally had good ingredients to heighten. It finally had something worth enhancing.
All of the control issues were worked out. The game was butter smooth. Capcom also had a chance to experiment and add more umami laced special attacks. Characters had special attacks where they leapt from defensive positions, input by holding back or down for a period of two seconds and quickly forcing the joystick in the opposite direction. Everything just felt right.
Phantasy Star IV
When I first played “Phantasy Star IV”, I was 13 years old. My only experience with RPGs, at that point, were “Dragon Warrior” when I was 5 (hated it at that age), and “Beyond Oasis” a little bit before “Phantasy Star IV”. So, I had yet to even dip my toes into the world of turn-based RPGs. I saw just two screenshots of “Phantasy Star IV” in an issue of Gamepro and something drew me in. I knew I had to play this game.
So I played it… and it was fucking glorious. My friends were all playing “Final Fantasy” II and III (IV and VI.), and “Chrono Trigger”, while I was left to my Genesis to enjoy a game they couldn’t play, that continues to enthrall me even now, eight playthroughs later. Well, nine now, because I literally just played through it again a couple of weeks ago.
During my last run, I really thought about the umami in “Phantasy Star IV”. There are more obvious umami elements like the speed of the battles, the sound effects of attacking, the victory music, even the way the menus handle. That’s all great. The big thing in this game, an umami element that is shared throughout great games, is the rhythm of the gameplay. I’m not talking about pacing, as that’s an entirely different concept that deals with balancing story and gameplay. I’m talking about the specific rhythm you can get in when you play certain games. The kind of rhythm that hooks you and never lets go.
This “rhythm” is the hardest umami element to explain and pick out but I think it’s also the most common and powerful across all great games. The best games have this certain rhythm to them. It’s like a metronome and it never falters and it never stops. It’s persistent and it wants you to play along. It’s like when you tap your foot to the beat of a song but you don’t realize you’re doing it. Games do that too and some can do it for LONG periods of time.
Now, let’s go back to my “Skyward Sword” example. It has all of the familiar Zelda trappings. It’s full of dungeons, puzzles, quirky items, simple combat, and exploration. It also has some problems like persistent backtracking, fetch quests, iffy motion controls, a shield that breaks, and dull flying sequences. The game also forgets you’ve ever played it once you’ve turned it off, so it treats you like you’re a child every time you boot it back up by re-explaining what each and every item does when you pick it up. You already have fifty of them? Too bad, you’re getting the breakdown. Objectively, those things are relatively minor and it’s still a good game.
What “Skyward Sword” doesn’t have, is much umami. It doesn’t have anything that really brings out the good in the game. Swinging your sword in the original “Legend of Zelda” was a treat, even better if you were shooting. The pop of a defeated enemy is as pleasurable as popping some bubble wrap. Killing an enemy in “Skyward Sword” doesn’t feel good, at all. It feels like work. The game also lacks any real rhythm. It has nothing driving me to proceed. It just all feels like you’re going through the motions and you’re in a relationship with someone you love but just aren’t in love with.
Think about all of your absolute favorite games and really think about why you like them so much. I think you’ll find that you will always be able to find some little quirk they have, a mood they put you in, or some power they have over you. Dig deep and discover why a game satisfies so well and try to find the source of the umami. It may be different for everyone, but every game is going to do something for you on a subconscious level. It’s about recognizing those hidden things and how they heighten your experience and make you feel the things you love to feel when playing games.