Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Everything is Better with Levels in it


My only problem with profanity is that after repeated use it is no longer suitable for its original function. You run around in life dropping f-bombs left and right to friends and colleagues, and then when you find a situation that really calls for a wholehearted “Fuck your moms, mutherfucker!”, the desired effect has been diluted. Even a “No, seriously, fuck your moms, mutherfucker!” isn't going to cut it, though it's a step in the right direction.

We face a similar difficulty with praise. The widespread abuse of the word “awesome” has deprived me of the one word meet to describe Castle Crashers. Here's the deal: Castle Crashers is awesome. Not “this icecream is really tasty” awesome, awesome awesome. Hitler's-head-exploding-into-pieces-at-the-end-of-Bionic-Commando-awesome. Ninja-Turtles-when-you're-nine awesome. I could go on and on about all the small details the game gets right, how viciously splendid the animation is, etc., but this game just obviates the need for critical analysis. Go buy it. Buy the trial version if you must, but you're lying to yourself if you think you're going to be able to restrain your desire for this game after a level.

One thing I've been noticing a lot recently is the steady infiltration of RPG elements into nearly every game genre. When I first played Symphony of the Night two years ago (I know, I know, I'm late to the party), I remember this distinct shock when I attacked my first enemy and saw a colored number pop up over their head. Here was a franchise built on the solid rock of whipping medusa heads, and now math was thrown into the equation. It works. Konami had done something pretty revolutionary by grafting leveling up and inventory management onto its side-scrolling action.

What Konami realized, I think, is that people don't love the gameplay of classic console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest because they love constant random enemy encounters. The basic problem with these games is that the grind is so stultifying that you end up looking for anything else-- the out-of date issues of Survey Quarterly, Anna Karenina, a cereal box, anything-- to keep your attention during the combat. We submit to the grind because RPGs provide a distinct sense of ownership over your character, because you are given all these tools to selectively shape the character's progress and abilities over the course of the game. This aspect of the genre's gameplay is detachable and can be transposed into genres with entirely different game-play structures.

Over the past few years we've been seeing a double-movement towards the convergence of action and role-playing mechanics inspired by this approach. From one side, you have (primarily American-designed) RPGs-- Mass Effect, Too Human, and so on-- that have incorporated more action elements into their design in place of random turn-based combat

And from the other side we have all these sorts of new action games that build persistent developmental elements into traditional action gameplay. There's nary a character action game franchise anymore-- God of War, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden-- that does not incorporate some element of progress into its combat mechanics. Bioshock and Call of Duty 4's multiplayer have successfully blended leveling into the first-person shooter genre. Even twin-stick shooters, fighting games, word-search games, and Bejeweled have evolved in the last few years by assimilating persistent elements of collection and enhancement into their basic short-form game formula.

Everything's an RPG now, and the clever and selective use of the genre's conventions has breathed a lot of new life into well-worn styles of gameplay-- the constant presence of new meta-goals just out of reach (the next unlockable, the next level, the next item at the shop) keeps you committed to the gameplay beyond the immediate goals of the genre (beating the next boss, winning the next deathmatch, clearing the next screen of gems). The potent compulsion to progress itself, independent of the tangible gameplay rewards, should not be overlooked; show us gamers a mountain and we will climb it. Why else would we want achievement points? Because they are there. We would labor for them even if a dubious sort of social prestige weren't involved.

The conductors of that ramshackle outfit known as the Playstation network have caught on to this and have built “levels” into their gamerscore-aping “trophy” system. It's too late for me, but I can only imagine the fiendish allure of a gaming habit RPG to those not already committed to a competing system of ersatz distinction.

9 comments:

Nelsormensch said...

Public permanence is what makes MMOs such a terribly addictive pursuit. I believe in one of the Penny Arcade podcasts, Tycho commented that WoW is very good at make you feel like an adulterer when playing other games.

Even though I'm an ardent PC gamer when given the choice, a terrible thought did fleet across my mind in regard to Fallout 3. I was watching one of the gameplay demos at PAX and saw an XBL achievement being unlocked. For the smallest of seconds, I wondered if having those unlockable achievements would be worth getting the 360 version. Reason quickly returned and banished such nonsense, but it was still a pretty shocking moment.

dhalgren2882 said...

I'm loving Castle Crashers as well, specifically for the co-op mode. Turning leveling into a competition doubles (or triples or quadruples) the fun.

@nelsormensch: I hadn't even though about making the decision between 360 and PC for Fallout 3. I assumed I would get it for 360, but I have a new computer now...isn't gaming hard enough?

Anonymous said...

Pliskin,

I'm glad you've finally gotten around to discussing the painful "grinding" experience of level-building in those early RPGs. I can't tell you how many times I've been frustrated by it. It was always so painful - like doing sit-ups for hours - and hopelessly out of context in an allegedly fun video game. (And somehow this never stopped me from playing all the way through. Nine-year-old me, there are just so many things I wish I could tell you ...)

Anyways, if you'll excuse me, I have to rob some more Imps in the Corneria castle area. That fancy Rapier isn't going to buy itself, you know.

Alcides Escobar

Pete said...

Thank you for birthing the phrase "Ninja-Turtles-when-you're-nine awesome."

I'm glad you brought up achievements and trophies. Despite all of my attempts to shrug them off as nothing, I always find myself going out of my way to replay things for points. And for nothing than a greater number next to my gamertag. How did they do that?

arne said...

You and Nayan must be on the same wavelength this week, as he just posted something about a similar topic he calls "loot theory" over on HDRLying. I suggest you give it a read as well.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormensch: I don't play games on the PC but I will admit to buying the 360 version of cross-platform games on account of the achievement points. It's shameful but it does enter into your calculus.

@pete: Everyone thinks of the achivements as a kind of brainwashing. Maybe they are, but I think for a lot of games they make things fun by giving you extra little challenges to do. It's all a matter of putting them just beyond you reach so it doesn't too onerous to give it a shot. (like pacifism in the original geometry wars; it only takes a minute to give it a shot)

frakkin toaster said...

I want to write an appropriately thoughtful comment, but I'm overtaken with the need to play 18 holes at the Highlands. I found a cheat to open all the golfers, so I don't have to go through the process of buying stats. Super Tiger Woods has 105% of everything :-)More fun that way, but I did enjoy souping up my weapons and abilities in God of war. I thought the leveling up in GTA San Andreas was a bit over the top, especially the whole food/health/body fat thing. Also it sucked that you had to drive for a while to increase your driving ability. I hit so many cars because I couldn't take a sharp enough turn!

My motto re:gaming is this: If it becomes a chore, stop playing. I'm looking at you, No More Heroes!!

garrett said...

"Collection and enhancement" are definitely more prevalent in action games now than in the past, but it's not an entirely new development. Metroid and Legend of Zelda both felt revolutionary at the time in part because of the levelling up and regular acquisition of improved equipment. I wonder if it's more common now due to improved technology, the growth and relative sophistication of modern gamers, or some combination thereof.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@frakking toaster: for some games you just want to be maximally powerful at the outset and have fun laying waste to the competition. So I've heard you talk about how No More Heroes is mind-numbingly tedious between assassination missions, I kind of think those parts are like this wierd joke on the player. Like, your character travis is this nerdy video-game player whose life in between levels is this mindless drudgery. I mean, the game's creators must have known that collecting coconuts is really boring. Right?

@garrett: right! A couple of posts back I talked about how Zelda and Metroid are really the archetypes for long-form character progression in console gaming. But I think the structure of rewards you get with things like RPG-style numerical XP, levels, and loot drops is different from the type of new-ability-acquisition style progress of those games. And I do think we're going to see a lot more of this kind of thing: everything points that way, in my opinion.