Almost 10 years after the release of Blizzard’s StarCraft, the exclamation “kekeke Zerg rush” still causes gamers familiar with that finely honed horror of micromanagement to cringe. Similarly, mentioning the button combination “BXR” to a veteran of Halo 2‘s online play will evoke either a gleeful grin or foaming at the mouth. These infamous pariahs of tactics and others like them are gathered under the umbrella term “exploit,” two ubiquitous syllables that echo throughout the gaming world.
I would like to suggest a few more colloquialisms that could huddle under that umbrella, namely “shorthopping” and “wavedashing.” In Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee – a more kid-oriented fighting game featuring multitudes of characters that have appeared in Nintendo games – these are considered exploits of game mechanics that allow a range of near game-breaking abilities, such as abnormal speed, de facto invulnerability and the much scorned “cheap kill.”
Specifically, shorthopping and wavedashing take advantage of Melee‘s jumping mechanics. When you tap the jump button softly enough, the character will jump only half the distance of a normal jump – a “shorthop.” With enough practice, a player can deliver a rapid, difficult-to-counter succession of aerial attacks; this is called SHFFLing, or “shuffling,” and shorthopping is integral to it. Many highly competitive characters, such as Fox, have aerial finishing moves. Shorthopping allows a skilled player to access such moves in a split second, circumventing the game’s balance. Wavedashing calls on the player to perform an aerial dodge into the ground after performing the same slight jump. For many characters, wavedashing is the fastest possible method of movement; they can literally run circles around a character employing a standard run, while retaining access to their full complement of ground attacks and defenses.
The line between feature and exploit increasingly blurs as videogames advance. To make a judgment one way or another on a potential loophole is to enter a losing proposition, and to waste an exorbitant amount of time. What’s most intriguing is how the use of an exploit changes a game’s atmosphere; sometimes predictably, sometimes not.
There’s not much to be done after being “unfairly” dominated in a multiplayer game. Players don’t often expect to have an exploit utilized against them, so they consent to combat on a basis of faith that their opponent will refrain from using a tactic the majority considers unfair. The anonymity the internet affords limits the number of possible reactions and the extent to which an injured party can lash out against those that have wronged him. In conjunction, the social detachment that goes hand-in-hand with internet citizenship lessens the grievousness of the offense; it’s just a game after all, right?
But things change when the source of your unfair defeat is sitting next to you. A group of close friends and I unexpectedly gained firsthand experience with this when we hosted a single elimination two-on-two Melee tournament. It was the fourth in a series of weekly gatherings where reigning champions defended their titles. Respect was gained, and money exchanged hands. Not only did we attract the gamer-academic shut-ins with an amazing sense of self-deprecating humor and superfluous hyphen use, but we regularly wound up with the same people that might band together to watch a sports game on an idle weeknight. It was attractively egalitarian; everyone paid a couple of dollars to get in, everyone had a shot at our meager Grand Prize of 20-something dollars and everyone tried their hand at videogames with a smooth learning curve. Not only were we bringing gaming to the People, but our tournaments had become Something To Do among our immediate neighbors and other denizens of our college residence hall. We were responsible, in some small way, for bringing those around us closer together.
When six local high school students walked in while we were setting up for the tournament and immediately began practicing their wavedashing in a warm up match, it was an opportunity to witness a display of xenophobia on an extraordinarily small scale. That a bunch of high school students – emissaries from the outside world – would just walk into our dorm and start playing our game was already a subtle, unacknowledged affront. Even worse, they were better than us. We had only one regular Melee player that could wavedash adequately, and he refrained from using the tactic in deference to our lesser skills. Immediately, we realized that these six intruders were going to mercilessly beat all comers into the ground. Moreover, there was nothing we could do about it.
The call went out among the organizers to find the proper method of polite expulsion, but all efforts were to no avail; our tournament was open to all and moderately publicized on Facebook. Nowhere had we bothered to clarify that those who did not attend our school were not welcome. A few times, a voice cited some obscure and shaky ordinance that high schoolers were not to be in the residence hall, but it was to no avail. None of us had the guts to try and oust the six arrivals, peacefully or not. And they had paid to play, just like everyone else.
The two most skilled of the six had to leave before the tournament started, leaving the lesser four. They beat all of us anyway. While only one of the four consistently wavedashed, all of them utilized shorthopping in conjunction with mastery of common competition characters. In short, they took winning much more seriously than we did. That ruthless dedication allowed them to win without breaking a sweat, but it left us wondering whether it was appropriate to the setting we’d created. I was torn; we’d been invaded, but it was a pleasure to watch players that could take a classic game like Melee to an unprecedented level of play.
What the victors did was, ultimately, entirely fair; they worked within the game mechanics to stamp out all possible competition and guarantee a win. We were hosting a tournament, and they used techniques that are not only allowed in tournaments, they’re expected. However, our tournament straddled the line between friendly get-together and serious competition; when the six contenders showed up, the tournament automatically took a sharp turn toward the real deal.
In a way, those six were at fault for putting an unwarranted edge on the festivities. But it was just as much our fault for failing to clarify the boundaries of the tournament and for giving in to our xenophobic tendencies. Our incensement gradually faded, and when it came time for the final face off between the four remaining high schoolers, at least some of us were cheering for our favorites. With the indignation a gamer can sometimes experience after encountering an exploiting player on the internet, one might expect a comfortable, couch-based multiplayer environment to be irrevocably tarnished by exploits. But things aren’t so clean and predictable, especially when you can see an exploiter is just another person who simply wants to win more than you do.
Steven Croop writes obsessively to distract himself from his courseload. He was last seen loping off into the forest, shouting “nevermore!”