Anyone who’s been playing games for a while has probably, by now, encountered the concept of experience points and leveling up in a number of different contexts. I find nowadays that I’m enjoying this design trope less, that I’m less comfortable with gaining experience and leveling up, than I used to be – and I think that’s partially a slow shift in who I am, and what I value in games, and how I see the world, but also represents a shift in how games use exp systems and what the priorities are that lay behind that usage.

Of course, the satisfaction is still there. Every moment, every action, making you better, stronger, more effective – intoxicating, really. Becoming learned without learning, becoming strong without exercising, discovering one day that, to your surprise, you know kung fu. How delightful, to feel we have earned our power fantasies, not through the specifics of actual work done to develop a particular skill or capability, but through the application of genericized soylent work product. Plenty has been said about and against this aspect of unearned reward – and, indeed, part of what divests my interest in experience systems is that I’ve come to find it much more rewarding when a game demands I actually practice and learn rather than merely grind. In this context, however, what interests me more, what has increasingly begun to unnerve me, is the form of that reward.

It’s strange, and almost a kind of body horror, to find yourself slowly and inexorably becoming a more effective killing machine. RPGs have had many kinds of leveling systems, and in the past most of them allowed you some degree of control. Sure, the end result was usually to make you more effective at fighting, but you at least chose how and why – and, though I never thought about it much at the time, you also chose whether to level at all. You could, if you’d rather, remain exactly who you always were – you could, if you chose, remain weak. This option is not available to us in most games with leveling systems: Now we level up the way we breathe, rather than the way we eat.

And, man, it kills me that everything I write goes back to Dark Souls, but that’s a game where you get to make that choice. And, man, it also kills me that everything I write goes back to Undertale, but that’s a game that actually explores the subtle horrors that are implied by experience systems. Having played these two games, it’s hard to ease myself back into the classic experience of classic experience points without feeling a bit of discomfort.

Maybe, though, this is the realer system. We change, uncontrollably. We go through puberty, become physically stronger whether we want to or not, learn things we were happier not knowing. Experience accumulates, and the numbers that describe us go up and down, mostly up at first and then mostly down as they describe our arc. The lie of the exp system is that it pretends we always become better and more capable, which is never true. Every moment something is gained, yes – every moment, as well, something is lost, and we change. We do charge forward, uncontrollably, but we never level up.

Most games are power fantasies. It would be nice, perhaps, if games focused on providing more diverse and interesting experiences, but, still, there’s nothing wrong with a good power fantasy… right? However, sometimes creating that fantasy of capability involves undermining the actual ability for the player to express their personal competence. Sometimes we create a fantasy that no longer has a place for the player.

Let’s look at level-up systems for a moment. Originally, in the Pen and Paper role playing games where they originated, they were a way to create a sensation of character growth and progress, increasing their agency within the world created by the dungeon master (sometimes to the DM’s dismay). Later, in video game RPGs, they maintained the sensation of growth but without really adding to the player’s agency, since they were still constrained to the sandboxes the developers had devised for the player. Later still, in MMORPGs, levels became a way to restrict the player, hiding game content behind challenges that were beyond them and drip-feeding that content to the player as they slowly grinded up.

All of the above may seem similar in concept and in practice, but the slight differences – from having challenges constructed for your un-mighty character, to having challenges constructed to funnel your un-mighty character into becoming mighty, to challenges constructed to keep you busy until might was, inevitably, in the due course of things achieved, end up creating a vastly different experience. The difference is in the goal that is presented. In the classic pen and paper RPG, the goal is to complete the adventure: Experience and treasure are things you accumulate along the way to ensure that you are prepared for a bigger better adventure next time, but the current adventure is always your primary concern. In the classic video game RPG, the goal is completing the grand adventure, ensuring that you tackle the game’s challenges in the proper order to complete the quest that is the game. In most MMORPGs, the goal is to get to the maximum level, which is where the real game starts since you’re finally at a high enough level to hang out with the big kids. Now, once you actually reach that level there are other goals that are dangled for you – PvP arenas, high-level dungeons, mini-games, and so forth, but these are mostly gated behind reaching that maximum level.

We’ve created a collision between min-maxing mentality of creating the best adventurer that can do the best adventures against the role-playing mentality of trying to create the most interesting adventurer that can have the most interesting adventures – and, sadly, and the former has decisively won. Higher level characters are more powerful than low-level characters – therefore you should always prefer having a high level character – therefore any low-level game content is, by definition, there to be rushed through as fast as possible so you can get to the biggest, therefore most impressive, and therefore best, part of the game.

It’s an experience that’s difficult for me to get excited about. To me, becoming strong is far more interesting than being strong, doing important things is more worthwhile than being an important person. Thus, what should be the most interesting part of the game, the story of how your hero became heroic, becomes a rote exercise, becomes an extended tutorial. But what is the appeal of ultimate power, when it comes to playing a game? It’s much harder to make a good Superman game than it is to make a good Batman game, but MMORPGs presume that we’d rather play Superman than Batman.

It’s saddening that, in a genre full of so many possibilities, this is what has become the industry standard. Why have leveling at all? Why have a journey to reach mastery if all that happens on that journey is trivial and unimportant? If the real story of the game is about the struggles of demi-gods, why even bother making the player chew through a 50 hour preamble about the birth of those demi-gods? In the end, we have a genre of games which are all uncomfortable compromises between the many things they are assumed to be, paying tribute to all and committing to none.

Games, as a medium, have been rediscovering the art of the secret, of the hidden. For a while, around the mid ’00s, it was incredibly rare for games to be anything beyond just what they appeared to be – and no more. The major studios didn’t want to pay for work that wouldn’t go directly into selling a game on day 1, and smaller indie games hadn’t really emerged into the market enough to fill the void left behind. Everything was exactly as it looked like. Surprise was dead.

It wasn’t just cowardice that made games so boring and averse to surprise: A substantial problem emerges when you make a game not what it appears to be, which is that, naturally, it no longer appears to be what it is. The problem with hidden depths is that they’re hidden, and many people who would love to explore those depths will never know there is anything to be explored. How can you sell a game like that?

Fortunately times have changed. Now that there’s a scale for game development below the nine digit development cost, we have a lot more leeway to make games that play with expectations. There’s room now for games to be strange and surprising, for them to have big secrets or sudden shifts.

One of the games most well-known for not being what it appears to be is Frog Fractions – and, at this point, if you have any interest in the idea of secrets and discovery in games and haven’t played Frog Fractions, now might be a good time to check it out Frog Fractions is, to first appearances, an educational game – this is, of course, just a facade. Underneath the surface, Frog Fractions becomes a series of strange, divergent mini-games that tell a surreal story about a frog’s adventures through space, with detours for a fanciful description of the invention of boxing and an exploration of the economics of bug pornography. One of the criticisms of Frog Fractions is that it fails to maintain plausibility as an educational game, being obviously absurd and lacking in educational value from the first moment. How, though, could this problem be fixed? This absurdity is necessary in order to signal that there’s something off about the situation, something to be uncovered, something to be found.

So we find we run into the same problem as before: How can you sell a game that is other than it appears to be? Not just in the sense of getting people to pay money, but even just getting people to pay enough attention to actually see the game for what it is. Holding something in reserve is an act of tremendous confidence as an artist, because it necessitates withholding the most special and exciting aspects of your project so that they can emerge later. Yet, still, you must have some way of signaling that something has been withheld, that something is hidden beneath, otherwise your audience continues sailing along the surface, unaware that anything unknown might hide within the depths.

A number of strategies seem to have emerged. Frog Fractions, as mentioned, is just a little bit too absurd, too out there to be quite what it appears to be. Dark Souls has messages from players scattered around, ensuring that those hidden things which a few players stumble across by pure chance can be found by other less observant or lucky players. Games like Axiom Verge, Anodyne, and Problem Attic signal that there’s something off in the world through the symbolism of video game glitches. Other games, such as Candy Box, just ask you to spend enough time with the game that the weirder elements of it will eventually become apparent to you just through exposure. Undertale uses all of these tricks to tell a stranger, scarier, and sadder story than it at first appears to.

Secrets are wonderful, but the only secrets we know are the ones we find – others fade away, merge into the vast sea of things we don’t know and never will.. It doesn’t help anyone if we squirrel around, hoarding nuts for the winter, only to forget where they have been buried and have all our work come to nothing.

I feel like these monthly devblogs have been getting away from me a bit. From now on I’m going to just nail the date down here and say I’m going to always have these up by the 10th, since that gives me plenty of time to recover from the traditional rent panic and wrap up whatever loose ends I want to have before the post goes up.

Anyway.

I guess the first thing that should be said is immediately after spending last month’s DevBlog complaining about being unable to increase the framerate, I went and did the extremely obvious thing that I mentioned in that post and that,  unsurprisingly, boosted the framerate massively. It’s still not a stable 60 frames a second, but it gets there on some of the more bare-bones levels and is stable above 50 on some of the more complex ones so it’s fine. Of course, I immediately tanked that framerate back down to 30 or so by engaging in a month-long project to add a sweet water effect to the game. In fact, the entirety of the last month has been spent on working on this sweet water effect.

This effect is achieved with a combination of copying and flipping the screen buffer, overlaying a texture on top, applying a displacement map on top of that to warp the image, and then running that through a color matrix filter. I’ve fixed a lot of the slowdown by cutting the draw area down to just the section of screen that needs to be drawn, rather than drawing the whole screen worth of water and then masking the parts I need out, but it could still use some more optimization. I’m a bit frustrated that this effect is taking so long to get working, during which I’m not making ‘content’, but I’m also pretty happy – this water effect is actually something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and honestly now that I’ve got something in place I can think of a lot of rather interesting applications beyond the obvious. The ripples and displacements might be applied to make grass ripple in the wind, the reflections can be used for other reflective surfaces, and the improvements I’m making to the particle system to allow entities (like the water) to spawn particles for special effects will have limitless applications.

There’s still some work left to be done here. I have the architecture in place to add splashing effects and whatnot as entities enter and exit the water area, but these effects have yet to be tested or implemented. With that major revision done, further work on the water system will probably mostly be in the vein of tweaks and refactoring, which I can do gradually as needed over the life of the project. Some glistening white areas might also be nice, but I’ll probably add that to a wishlist for later. Next, I’ll be focusing on really building out the first few areas of the game and ensuring the first couple enemies function properly. i am, of course, months behind the project planning schedule I had earlier devised, but at this point I’m just trying to maintain morale and make steady progress – I can see about working harder and faster as I gain aptitude with (and slowly improve) my tool set.

I finally got new glasses, after a couple of years of financially-induced nakedfacing. It’s kind of amazing being able to see again. It feels like a superpower. It feels like, within the constraints of a couple of inches of glass in front of me, I can see everything. It’s actually a little bit disturbing to think that all of this was going on all along, there in front of me, like invisible bacteria covering a freshly washed dish.

It’s strange the way we don’t notice how our capabilities shape our perception until those capabilities change. As I became able to clearly perceive things more than 10 feet away from me, my sense of peripheral space became less acute, I began to be surprised when I noticed people and objects to my right and left, things that I previously would have noticed much earlier. Because I am so used to myopia, my relationship to space has become one of vague motions, a worldview of information constructed by inferring the relationships between things I cannot perceive clearly. There’s the classic concept of the blind person who has their other senses enhanced as they are forced to depend solely upon them, and I think the same thing happens to all of us, based on our capabilities and capacities, to lesser or greater degrees.

Our limitations define our aptitudes, and become foundational points of our identities. When I play games, I tend to be the one who notices things – and, lest it sound like I’m bragging, I should note that this is distinct from the one who makes good decisions based on that information, the one who successfully infers what things signify or, even, the one who cares about the things that he notices. What I want to convey, though, is the idea that in this case my lack of long-range focus means that I have a sort of diffuse form of attention which makes it somewhat more likely that I will perceive things that aren’t directly in front of me.

Within this context, I start to wonder about my resentment of time, whether it stems from a conceptual antipathy to things which are distant. I wonder about whether my inability to focus my mind on a single task for very long is conceptually related to my inability to focus on an object very far away. I wonder how much the symbolic logic of focus, distance, attention, periphery, have shaped the way in which I conceive of and understand the world, if this correlation of traits means something, if and how much of my identity has been subtly and subconsciously shaped around this relatively minor, fun and quirky disability.

I wonder, then, if so, what does it mean to put on a pair of glasses, and why accompanying exhilaration and joy at my newfound abilities there is an undercurrent of discomfort. Will it help me look past today and into tomorrow? Do I want to perceive that kind of distance?

We shall see.

I don’t like making recommendations.

Other people seem to be very comfortable with it. For many, the calculation seems quite straightforward: “I enjoyed it, so I recommend it. I didn’t enjoy it, so I don’t recommend it”. I envy the simplicity of this approach; merely contemplating it fills me with anxiety.

Here is a partial sampling of the things I worry about when I am considering recommending something:

  1. Did I enjoy it?

  2. Does the fact that I enjoyed it imply a likelihood that this person I’d recommend it to would enjoy it?

  3. Do I think my enjoyment reflects well on me?

  4. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will I resent them for it?

  5. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will they lose respect for me for recommending something bad?

  6. If they do enjoy it as much as I did, will they never shut up to me about it?

  7. Will they enjoy it for the wrong reasons and I’ll have to pretend to agree with them?

  8. If I recommend it to them, will they resent the implicit pressure to engage with that recommendation and never actually check it out when otherwise they might have done so independently?

  9. If I recommend it to them, will I make them feel so pressured that, when they eventually do check it out, it becomes a joyless exercise?

And so on.

Maybe the issue is that I don’t really believe in mass communication. All communication ultimately boils down to a connection between two people: One, encoding a thought process into words and gesture, the other interpreting that through their understanding of verbal and body language. It is so personal: How can a general statement like “You should check out this awesome game” make any sense if it isn’t tailored for one specific person? How can we declare that something is good or worthwhile without taking into account specific tastes?

Most often we just don’t. Critics talk about their personal experience, what worked for them or didn’t work for them, trusting the reader to measure that described experience against their own preferences to decide whether this seems like a worthwhile experience. However, the audience for video games criticism is notoriously hostile towards these sorts of personal experiential statements, which puts game critics in quite a pickle since it’s really the only way to actually evaluate anything in a way that makes sense.

All of this might seem like splitting hairs. It might seem like I’m willing to take every step that one would associate with a recommendation or endorsement – the enthusiastic and specific praise, the testimonial, the frequent mention of interesting and unique features – but detest taking the final step of saying “you should go play/read/see/eat that game/book/movie/pasta.”

God help me if I ever get popular enough to acquire some kind of sponsored monetary backing – my anxious honesty will be my undoing. Actually, my anxious honesty may already be largely responsible for my lack of being done in the first place.

Anyway Hollow Knight is a good game, Colossal is a good movie, 1Q84 is a good book and basically all pasta is good.

They say whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. Everyone knows it’s a lie, but we say it anyway because we so wish it were true. There are probably more accurate proverbs we could introduce: “Whatever makes you stronger is also probably slowly killing you”, or “regardless of how strong you are you will definitely die one day” – somehow these alternative sayings have never caught on. So, when we make games, we tend to make them so that whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. There is no wound that cannot be healed, no trauma that cannot be resolved. It is a story of becoming bigger and better, stronger and healthier, until we inevitably become too great to be stymied by the pathetic obstacles that remain.

We become the strong, crushing the weak. You know: A hero.

The body is a machine. We can do the best we can to keep it in running order, but many of the parts don’t get replaced. There’s no way to fight each grain of sand that might get in the gears. You can exercise and eat right, and probably those will help but also you might get hit by a car or poisoned by a bad batch of kale. On some level we all understand this. However, that’s not how we make our art: We make art in which those who work hard succeed, and those who don’t fail, because no one wants to see the heroine die because she slipped in the shower, and no one wants to play a game where the threats of monsters and enemy soldiers are eclipsed by the terror of heart disease – or, at least, so goes the popular wisdom of the marketers

Nevertheless it remains a lie.

We want to believe it so badly – so badly that we vote for it, vote for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished, where ‘good’ is defined as those who have already been rewarded and ‘bad’ is defined as those who have already been punished. The one thing we could do to really protect ourselves from the stray grains of sand is to create support networks for those whose gears have been jammed – but we don’t, because to do so would be to admit the terrifying fact that whatever fails to kill you will, eventually, one way or another, still see you dead.

But how can we acknowledge this in our work and still make art that is enjoyable? Art that people want to experience?

Perhaps the shift in what people want to experience has already begun. As I discussed last week, in PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS much of your fate is left up to chance and happenstance – and all the more so since right now the game is full of weird bugs which make things turn out even more unexpectedly. No, you probably weren’t supposed to randomly take fall damage walking off that 2-foot high step, but as things stand it makes an adequate stand-in for the accidental misstep and sprained ankle that could easily claim a life in a combat situation.

Or occasionally more exotic scenarios

Maybe we don’t need to be subject to entropy in quite that extreme a fashion, though. Maybe, rather than being constantly menaced by a bevy of invisible health risks, as we are each day in real life, it could be enough just to depict even the most mundane of actions as having consequences – that is, potentially negative consequences, of having costs as well as benefits. There are games like that around, too: In the Princess Maker games, you’re tasked with raising a child, and do so by way of creating a schedule for her to go through each week. It becomes a balancing act: Every action has a cost, where work makes her stronger and earns her money, relaxation becomes necessary to maintain her health and happiness, and study and practice are costly but provide experience that’s impossible to acquire elsewhere. The game ends when she becomes old enough to set out on her own, and depending on the particular balance of skills and attitudes you have imparted on her she finds different paths in life.

It’s just so strange to have a game where the things you gain come at a cost, where you cannot become the best at everything in every way. At least, not in one lifetime.

“We are not dead yet, so we can still become stronger” – perhaps that would be a better saying. The hard part is deciding how to develop that strength – and to know, hopefully before it’s too late, the cost at which it may come.