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I was in Los Angeles and I saw Candide. It had Kelsey Grammar and was generally a great show, but I’ve always had a bit of a hard time warming up to Candide conceptually. I may actually have a hard time with satire generally speaking – there’s an extremely fine line between highlighting the absurdities of a worldview and creating a straw man to represent it, and the genre frequently runs afoul of it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Candide, it’s a novella written by Voltaire, of “I may not agree with what you say but would die to defend your right to say it” fame – he may never have said it, but many will nevertheless die for the right to declare that he did. It was written primarily to lampoon the theory of ‘optimism’ proposed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a theory that suggests that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Of course, a million awful things happen in this stupid world every minute, so Voltaire understandably considered this to be a tough pill to swallow and wrote a story about infinity terrible things happening to some happy-go-lucky kid and everyone around him to illustrate that point.

The thing is, optimism was a proposed solution to a pretty tricky pickle of a problem: How can an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god allow all the shitty things that happen to happen? Optimism is just the proposal that “well, maybe we don’t understand the entirety of the problem, and God, who we must assume does, is optimizing (or has optimized) the system that is the universe in the best possible way – which is unfortunately still not that great, at least for us, at least much of the time.”

As with most god stuff, this just raises further questions. For instance, we assume that god is benevolent, but how much are we actually covered under his benevolence? The Christian deity is generally considered to be a big fan of humanity in general, but he still may have a lot else on the go such that he occasionally has to put our well-being on the back-burner. As an analogy, is the most benevolent boss the one who treats you individually best, the one who treats all the employees best, or the one who ensures the future stability of the company?

Trick question, the most benevolent boss is no boss, which is why capitalism is bad and I’m an atheist. This neatly sidesteps the question of how a kind and loving god allows bad things to happen to good people, since I believe that god is neither kind nor loving nor existent. I also have my doubts about good people – bad things I retain faith in.

In a sense, though, we do live in at least one of the best of all possible worlds – we live on a planet that sustains us, for now, in a universe that has mostly consistent laws of physical reality that we can be born and prosper in. It seems normal to us because we live here, but it really is astoundingly unlikely. However, being a creature with the capacity to observe the miracle of existence has a one-hundred-percent correlation with being in a place that can precipitate that existence – so, something that is galactically very unlikely is, from our perspective, rooted in a world that must be able to create and sustain the brain that houses that perspective, a certainty.

Similarly, the characters in Candide survive, improbably, over and over. They survive because Voltaire, a just and benevolent author, has decided in His infinite wisdom that they must, because otherwise they wouldn’t be around to deliver the moral at the end about the evils of moralizing when there’s manual labor to be done.

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I’ve been playing Cuphead. If you’ve somehow managed not to hear about this game, Cuphead is a 2D platformer styled after the cartoons of the 1930’s – although I frankly think it manages to realize that aesthetic far better than most of the source material it pulls from. It’s also punishingly difficult. Cuphead is impressive both how good it is and how much worse it would be if it was any less beautiful than it is – I have never seen a game rely on aesthetic quality to this extent, and it is fascinating to me that it does, and that it does so so effectively.

These aspects, beauty and difficulty, lean on each other like a pair of cards, prop each other up to create an incredible experience. This super-hard game would actually just not work if it wasn’t so incredibly beautiful in every respect, visually and aurally – the losses and restarts, the trial and error, cheap shots and bullet hells, would quickly become tedious. Some people would still enjoy it on those merits, but it certainly wouldn’t have found the huge audience it has now. At the same time, if the beauty was all there was, if there wasn’t this sort of punishing difficulty, the game would feel like fluff, would show up and disappear in an instant and would leave no lasting impression – though, of course, this version of the game, too, would find its own following. However, because the game is so brutal, you’re forced to really look at it, really closely look at everything that’s happening on-screen, lest you be caught off-guard – and, because you’re forced to look at something so damn lovely, it’s hard to actually be mad at what happens next – which is usually that you get your ass kicked by a medusa or a bird or something.

I find that idea, that sheer aesthetic beauty can be a core component of a game’s design, very interesting, because that’s not how we tend to think about the audio-visual component of games. There’s a lot of discussion over exactly how and how much the narrative and the design of games are discrete from each other, but it’s largely taken for granted that the aesthetic quality of the experience can be evaluated more-or-less on its own merits.

When we discuss the cross-section of aesthetic and game design, it’s usually about how the art style of the game realizes the core goals of the game’s design – not about how the game’s design enables the core goals of the game’s aesthetic, or in how the sheer quality of that aesthetic presentation can make the design goals click. Despite being a tremendously conservative game in many ways, Cuphead has thus exposed a huge gap in how we talk about the intersection of visual and mechanical design in games – or, at least, a huge gap in the way I’ve seen people talk about them – as, rather than a gaming experience enabled by an aesthetic layer, being an aesthetic experience enabled by a gaming layer. It’s an inversion of the way we usually think about what a game is.

I am curious to see what sort of impact this game has, a few years down the line – on video games in general, but also on the way I think about games. It’s strange to me how a game so straightforward could contain such revelatory implications.

I have been spending the last 10 days or so playing way too much Slay the Spire. They say write what you know, and right now my brain knows nothing but the pleasures of building a badass deck to kill monsters with in a video game, so here we are.

Slay the Spire is one of the newer games of the roguelike-like-like-like-etc set, still in Early Access, which uses a card game for all of the combat. Go through a dungeon, which is set up as a series of nodes with various type of encounters, fight enemies, and pick one of three cards after each battle. Along the way there are potions, which are helpful one-shot boosts that can get you out of a tight spot, and relics, which provide powerful passive benefits. Usually, from your first few cards and relics, some sort of theme begins to emerge which will define the rest of your run, whether it’s intentionally damaging yourself to become more powerful, drawing a bunch of cards and using something to play all or most of them, or stacking up huge amounts of defense and either letting your enemies beat themselves to death against your defense. Or something else! I’ve beaten the game 7 times now, and each run still feels extremely different from all the others, based on its own synergies exploiting different game mechanics.

Currently there are two character classes, with a third to be added, and each character class has a unique pool of cards to draw from which the other cannot use. Unlike other card games with a similar class system, like Hearthstone, the main purpose to the classes beyond theming is to firewall off cards which would have game-breaking synergies together while pooling together those which have more moderate synergy. This greatly increases the consistency of each individual run, ensuring you mostly get cards that play well together, keeping the overall experience from degenerating into just finding one killer synergy to break the game.

The connected-node map reminds me a great deal of FTL, another rogueish-like-ish game, and I think there’s some basis for comparison – not just in the map, but in the multiple-choice encounters and in trying to scrape together the components needed to build something powerful enough to last until the end. However, in FTL I very frequently felt there was only one path to victory with minor variants – many offensive options became useless against late-game defenses, and certain defensive options were almost strictly necessary in order to stand a chance against late-game offenses. In Slay the Spire, everything is far more contextual, and I’ve had cards that would have been borderline worthless in one deck become completely game-breaking in another. I’m sure that once in a while, by random chance, there is the occasional run that is essentially unwinnable, but these occurrences are far rarer than they were in FTL – in every run I’ve lost so far, I can point to some poor decision, some key overreach, that precipitated my failure. Usually choosing to fight an elite enemy instead of resting, because I’m greedy like that.

On successive playthroughs you get points, based on how far you got, which contribute towards a bar that unlocks new cards and relics. I’m not a huge fan of this particular implementation, since it feels a bit grindy, but the unlocks themselves are very interesting, the cards usually themed towards some particular game mechanic which opens up new types of decks to experiment with. In this way its structure is similar to The Binding of Isaac, where each playthrough unlocked new items, enemies, and encounters, gradually opening up the design from something fairly simple and straightforward to something bigger, weirder, and more complex. Though, unlike Binding of Isaac, all of the unlocks are things you probably want to have, they also increase the odds of making a misplay as it becomes more difficult to consider all the available strategies. Something I’d like to see the developers approach, as it comes out of Early Access, is both unlocking these things in a more organic way, through special encounters and achievements rather than a grindy EXP bar, and increasing the range of things that can be unlocked to include new enemies and random encounters. Still, despite the less varied nature of these unlocks, in some ways their impact is more notable than in Isaac, since they open up entirely new ways of playing the game.

Because you construct a deck with a series of discrete decisions, each run feels much more something that belongs to the player, that was constructed with found parts, rather than something that the player just uncovers by happenstance. While each Isaac run feels unique, very little of the way the run develops, past mere survival and getting into the treasure room, is in the hands of the player. With every card you take and relic you find the context of the game shifts, and influences every future decision you make along the way. Perhaps it’s because of this that I regret having to give up my deck, the deck I fought for and with for two or three hours, when I succeed on a run. It doesn’t feel right for this beautiful machine I’ve constructed to just fade away and be forgotten. Maybe, though, that’s what keeps me coming back: I have nothing to keep, so the only thing left is to build another beautiful machine and let that, too, fade away. There’s probably some sort of life lesson there. There usually is.

Most of all I appreciate that Slay the Spire demands I pay attention to what I’m doing, in how even when I know the game well it’s easy to make a huge misplay that kills my run, just by carelessly playing cards in the wrong order or forgetting to use a potion. I have little patience any more for games that demand nothing from me. I don’t want to do things anyone could do without paying attention, in doing busy-work, in grinding away. Art that demands nothing gives nothing, and when nothing pushes back against my touch I can’t feel anything. It feels like there’s more room for that now than there was ten or twenty years ago, more room for art that demands attention rather than merely eye contact, but maybe it’s just that I seek it out more now.

Slay the Spire is a great game, which is especially exciting when it’s not finished and there’s still room for interesting things to be added. Aside from the things mentioned, there’s one other thing I’d love to see added: Some sort of hall of fame for winning decks. Even just being able to look back on your winning decks would be cool, but why stop there? What about some endless gauntlet challenge mode to play those decks in? Or a PvP mode for winning decks? A boss rush? New Game+? The idea of the game being not just an end unto itself but a method of building decks that could then be used for other purposes seems like something that could be explored in many interesting ways.

Anyway. Slay the Spire is currently $16 on Steam. If any of this sounded good you should go check it out.

Among other ways to think about games, one that I rarely hear spoken of is their capacity as attention engines. Among the many social and emotional needs we have as human beings is our desire to be heard – even more than to say anything specific, we just yearn to be able to jam a flag into the dirt for people to see. Having someone listen to you, even passively, can be hugely rewarding, emotionally and even intellectually, as you feel connected with the world.

Before most games, we had ELIZA. ELIZA is a simple chatbot made to emulate a psychotherapist, one who answers every question with a question. “What are you thinking of?” “How did that make you feel?” “Why do you say that?” Despite being created with an almost parodic intent, to show the superficiality of human-machine communication, people felt a genuine connection with ELIZA, and sometimes even a degree of therapeutic benefit. Now, in 2017, there are lots of ways to be listened to by machines. Most of us have a machine in our pocket who will answer our questions as best as it is able, and will listen and respond to anything we say no matter how inane – though, perhaps, not in a very satisfactory way. Still, unsatisfactory answers are not necessarily too different from what we’ve come to expect from genuine human social contact either.

A lot of what we want from games is for them to just respond to what we say to them. a game lives or dies on its ability to react to us, to listen to what we are trying to say. Because real artificial intelligence is a very long way away still, our methods of communication are usually greatly restrained in games to enable them to react in a satisfying way. A game’s controls are the language we use to speak to it: Frustration ensues when a game misunderstands what we are trying to communicate, or when it doesn’t allow us to communicate the thing that we desperately want to. We describe these sorts of problems as control issues, which I suppose says as much about us as it does about them.

This is what people really want a lot of the time when they ask for non-linearity. They don’t care about replay value and they don’t care about getting the sex scene for the character they like, they just want the sensation that they are being listened to. They want the video game equivalent of someone nodding along and saying “Mm, wow. Interesting. Huh. I see.” That those multiple branching paths and endings and romantic partners are available is chiefly valuable because it reifies that sensation, makes it feel solid and responsive – that there is, indeed, someone listening. And, perhaps, there was, 18 months earlier, a designer who listened to them by way of the player proxy voice who lives in his head, who he designs for.

A little while back the game Passpartout: The Starving Artist became a small-scale hit. Passpartout is a game where, playing as the titular starving artist, you paint using an extremely simple art program, and passersby choose to either buy your paintings or not, occasionally giving explanations as to what they like or don’t like about the picture. Now, the engine for evaluating these paintings is seemingly pretty simple, apparently rewarding the artist more frequently for time spent than for technical skill, but it serves its purpose, effectively convincing the player that the game is paying attention to what they are creating, that they’re not just creating into a void – which it all too often feels like artists are.

Unfortunately, Passpartout is quite similar to a prototype made by Jon Blow called Painter. He released this prototype for free on his site, and in talking about it he described it as a failed prototype because it failed to realize his vision of a strategy game where you create paintings to appeal to different gallery owners and curators and achieve success. Some statements made on Twitter suggest that he was dismayed that a game so similar to his failure could be a success – but there was no actual reason for the Painter prototype to be a failure except that it failed to achieve the vision he’d had in mind. The element of trying to appeal to tastes was never actually very interesting. What’s interesting was making a painting and having it be seen and acknowledged, of being told that something you’d made had worth. All the judging algorithm had to do was make it so the game could reasonably successfully determine which you’d worked hard on and which you’d hastily crapped out and evaluate them appropriately, just to ensure that you knew it was paying attention.

This may seem fake or trivial, but this loop of the player communicating something and the game responding is the core of what a game is. It doesn’t need to be a real or detailed response, it just has to be real enough to show the player that someone, or something, is listening.

I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been, for the most part, loving my time with it. Of course, the more I enjoy a game, the more frustrated I get with the few things that stand out to me as issues. I went over this a bit a few days ago, about how difficulty changes which are usually used to push a player to explore a possibility space can, when used without care, constrict that possibility space. Modifying the difficulty of a stealth game can be tricky: After all, there are a lot of easy handles to grab to modify the challenge of a traditional action game, numbers such as damage, health, speed, powerup effectiveness… It gets trickier in a game that’s not based on overpowering force, but on sight-lines and motion, suspicion and awareness. In stealth games, what is difficult or not is often based on intricacies of positioning and movement, rather than whether one number is bigger than another.

Because of this, it’s entirely understandable that Dishonored’s attempts to increase in difficulty over the course of the game, and across difficulty settings, largely boil down to the game becoming more punishing of mistakes. That is, rather than asking you to succeed against a greater challenge, it mostly asks you to succeed against the same challenge but with a smaller margin for error. This is not completely ineffective, since it does add some tension – but since the actual consequences, in a game with quickload, are so negligible, it doesn’t really change the experience of playing the game except to make it more finicky. Heightening the consequences of mistakes just removes any chance to recover from them, any chance to retreat, to improvise, and replaces these with just reloading your last save. Does this incentivize more careful planning? Not especially effectively, when the worst that happens is a quick load screen and then another attempt at navigating the same challenge.

I suppose some might say that this is an issue with the player being able to freely save and load, and I think this is not an invalid perspective, but I prefer to look at it differently. I think the issue is more that the designers approached the creation of more difficult enemies as a way to push people away from the using the exact same tactics that were discouraged by every other enemy, but more punishingly and aggressively. Ideally, each new enemy would add some new factor the player had to contend with, a new and different challenge that forced the player to approach it in a new and different way. The tallboy enemy type, essentially a set of armored stilts, does this quite effectively: This enemy type cannot be choked or easily stealth killed, and also can see into areas other enemies cannot because of its height. However, other enemy types, such as the Music Box Overseers, and even the late-game basic enemy types with improved attack abilities, mostly just serve to make it less feasible to recover from a mistake while still being vulnerable to the exact same tactics.

I thought it would be an interesting design exercise to consider how I would try to improve the game – at least what I would consider to be an improvement, I know tastes vary. What follows are my notes for a fantasy patch for Dishonored, one which would push the player to vary their approach to the game’s obstacles while still allowing for different generalized styles of play. Having not played Dishonored 2, it’s entirely possible that I’ll say something that appears foolish in light of the changes made in that game. Oh well.

Fantasy patch notes:

Cannot knock out opponents using the choke-hold on very hard difficulty. On all other difficulties choking works on any opponent from behind, regardless of alert status

More objects are throwable, including all vases and dishes as well as swords and armor dropped by enemies.

Throwing enemy bodies, dead or alive, at an enemy causes a long stagger.

Damaging alarm stations in any way now sets off the alarm.

Enemies are now staggered by attacks that hit them during their attack, but only after their attack is complete.

Enemies sometimes do desperate attacks while staggered, which increase their stagger time but can be dangerous when careless.

Tallboy models revised with heavier armor, drop attack no longer possible, have a blind spot directly under them beneath their sight-line.

Music Box Overseers are visibly armored front and back, though there are enough gaps to make choking and stealth kills possible. They’ve selected elite troops to carry the music boxes, so they’re all visibly taller and the armor has red highlights. Music boxes now, rather than disabling all magic use, rapidly drain mana – once mana is drained, they continue to quickly drain health. This effect is weaker the further away the player is from the music box, and up close the drain is enough to kill the player in about 3 seconds. This drain rate is percentage-based, so the same regardless of current mana/health, and the lost health and mana will regenerate if the music box is removed. Some Music Box Overseers are set to constantly play, and will only stop if knocked out or killed. A new effect has been added to make the range of the music box more clearly visible. Being behind a wall will offer some protection from the box, but it continues to affect the player. Music box no longer slows down player movement.

Armored Butchers no longer have a ranged attack and deal damage that results in near-instant death at melee range. They now always explode on death or knockout, alerting everyone nearby and dealing slight damage. This makes knockouts impossible on non-lethal and ghost playthroughs. However, the player can also pickpocket the oil tanks powering the armor, leaving them immobile, though they can still cry for help. While immobile they can be picked up and moved like any other body.

The intent with these changes to create a game that’s a bit more dynamic. Meticulous planning is still the strongest route to success, especially with the new types of obstacles and complications you have to plan for, but you also have more room to improvise a recovery, both in lethal and non-lethal play. I tried to make the aspects I dislike less obnoxious without actually nerfing them – that is, I feel that these versions of the Music Box Overseer and Armored Butchers are actually much more challenging and dangerous than the extant versions, but also more interesting to play against.

Kaiji is a manga about a young man named Itou Kaiji driven into a series of increasingly desperate and outlandish gambles to escape debt and save his own life. The first two parts of have received animated adaptations, but currently the manga itself is partway through its fifth series. I would highly recommend at least the first season of the anime, which is a fairly well self-contained arc that captures most of the themes of the series. The tension falls off somewhat in the second season, and though it remains interesting, the tone is less desperate and the implications are less dire.

Kaiji is a one-two punch, where the gambles themselves are intriguing and compelling games of deduction, logic, and chance, but the significance extends beyond the momentary intrigues and into the larger implications of being willing to gamble your life, and what could drive someone into that situation. Come for the head games, stay for the heartache – because, while at first gambling may seem to be a relatively frivolous and lightweight topic compared to the grand and bloody conflicts that are often grist for our fiction, for those stuck in poverty, money is often equivalent to life, and the battles over it are seldom bloodless.

While Kaiji’s possesses extraordinary luck, cleverness, and will to survive, perhaps his strongest trait is his ability to see the best in people, which is often interestingly played off against his opponent’s uncanny ability to see the worst in people. He sees strengths and plays to counter or use them, while his opponents see weaknesses and seek to attack or shore them up. Because he wants to see the best in people, though, he is often exploited and betrayed – the debt that originally ensnares him wasn’t even his own, just a contract he naively cosigned on for a friend, and he only gradually learns not to blindly trust those who seem friendly. His opponent’s, perhaps correctly, see this as a huge weakness – but are ignorant when they consider it solely a weakness. His ability to believe in people is also the strength that allows him to succeed, both to trust allies and, perhaps more crucially, to respect his opponents’ abilities to be clever and insightful and to play against the best version of them, rather than choosing his moves based on some simpleminded strawman of his imagination.

Some might consider the way that Kaiji wins games to be cheating: In many cases he twists the rules of the game, changes the situation in ways that shape the odds in his favor. However, since the games he plays in are inevitably rigged in the first place, set up to be almost impossible to win, his opponents seldom feel that he has broken any rules. Can you accuse someone of cheating when the primary thing that their gambit achieves is exposing and undermining the unfair advantage you’ve already given yourself? Certainly, if the game were otherwise fair, taking the advantages he takes would be cheating, but they aren’t and never were. Fairness and honor are fine ideals, but their most common usage in practice is to prevent people who are weak and isolated from usurping power from those who are strong and backed by institutional power. Who created the idea of honor, and who benefits from it?

Money is important to everyone, but the significance it takes on in Kaiji is monstrous, outsized and harrowing. Those who participate in the games do so because they have little choice, because their debts have become so extreme that passing up any opportunity, however dangerous, to make a large amount of money at once would be unthinkable. And, by being forced to participate in these gambles, more of them lose out than gain: After all, the house always wins. The house, in this case, is The Teiai Group, holder of all these debts and runner of all these gambling events. Even those who win these brutal gambles are usually left still deep in debt, still needing gamble again for any hope of escape – and, in the meanwhile, those running the show can enjoy the bloody spectacle while they profit off of it. Because, once you accept that a human life can be measured by money, the rest – death, mutilation, slavery – is just haggling over numbers. Perhaps few people would agree that human life is worth money, stated in those words – however, as societies, we assume it to be so, assume it to be good and just that food and medicine and other necessities for survival should cost, blithely and easily believe, deep down, that what gives money its value is that it can feed us and shield us, but that its power as a magic talisman is lost if no one is out there goes starving and unsheltered for its lack.

It’s sometimes difficult, when making a story about struggling and surviving in the face of societal evil not to, in so doing, accidentally justify that evil – that is to say, most stories we tell are told of heroic characters succeeding despite tremendous odds, and unfortunately this tends to dovetail into the many myths of meritocracy that are used to prop up systems that exploit and abuse. Many of the ongoing themes of Kaiji are about never giving up hope and always figuring out a plan of action instead of praying for luck to carry you through. From one perspective, this could easily be seen as a story about rugged individualism, about being exceptional and rising above your circumstances and winning freedom by any means possible, about survival of the fittest – certainly, this is how The Teiai Group views their games, as opportunities for the strong to prey on the weak. However, the fact that injustice can be struggled against should never blind us to it being unjust: We can plan all we want, be as clever and strong and smart and lucky as possible, but when the deck is stacked against us the best we can ever manage is to somehow even the odds. When your opponent controls the every mechanism of the game, it’s impossible for most people to win – though it can still happen, sometimes, very rarely, and these rare examples of victory serve to justify the game, demonstrate its fairness and equitability, even as it chews up and spits out human lives by the hundreds and thousands.

At the same time, though, as it highlights the vicious abuses enabled by money, this series laments the inaction and poor decision-making that brought the debtors captured by Teiai’s machinations, and places much of the responsibility for their predicaments upon themselves. They were reckless and driftless, treating everything that came their way as though it were a game, never grasping at an opportunity or truly dedicating themselves, and their lives would never go anywhere without taking a risk – a deadly risk – a desperate gamble. But, in the end, everyone ends up worse off for having taken the gamble, for taking the risk, the proffered opportunity, and Teiai profits. It is an irresistible bait: Advancement, safety, recovery, redemption. Placing this bait is an ingenious method of creating competition, division, and violence among those who would otherwise recognize Teiai, and the profiteering in human suffering they represent, for what they are, and strive against them with all their might.

This method of dividing people with petty rewards is extremely common in the real world as well, in ways only barely more subtle than Teiai’s blood sports.

Kaiji recognizes this evil and rails against it, but in many ways he is powerless to resist. As the series progresses, he comes to crave the sense of meaning and purpose he finds in these do-or-die games of wits. Whenever he’s not on the verge of disaster, on the verge of losing everything and dying ignominiously, he feels purposeless, aimless. Though the series has not yet concluded, at this rate it seems that whatever he wins he will never be able to keep, and ultimately it will end up sieving between his fingers and back into Teiai’s coffers, because he doesn’t know when to stop. Is it addiction? Is it post-traumatic stress? In this situation, is there a difference between not knowing what to do with your life when it isn’t in danger and being let go of the grudge and sorrow of past gambles?

Maybe the house really does always win. If so, we need to change the game.

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.