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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.

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.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a very silly name for a very strange game. The oddness of this game isn’t apparent at first: It looks and sounds like the most generic first person shooter ever made, where a hundred players are dropped into an island arena scattered with weapons and whoever manages to be the last person (or group) standing wins. PUBG is only the latest of what seems to be a burgeoning genre of battle royale games, and improves upon its predecessors by consolidating and simplifying boring mechanics while adding a lot of interesting and (sometimes) useful items to find, along with a few choice subtle nods to realism that mostly add new ways for things to go hilariously wrong.

None of this sounds strange, of course. No, what makes this game strange is that it’s incredibly popular while being blatantly, overtly unfair. This is so interesting to me because the idea of a game like this being successful even a few years ago is unimaginable to me: A game with the trappings of a hard core competitive tactical shooter, where skill can frequently be overcome by dumb luck – who would possibly want such a game? But now people do want it, and I wonder about what has shifted to make this something that we crave.

What’s changed, I suspect, is that people no longer expect fairness. PUBG feels right: It combines skill and luck in a way that feels real in a way that most shooters with more realistic graphics don’t – since most of those games are compelled to hold true to certain game design ideals of skill-based meritocracy. In the battlegrounds, finding good loot early on rolls into ‘finding’ better loot later, as you can easily kill less well-equipped opponents and take theirs. However, clever play can easily make up for an equipment disadvantage, and a well-timed ambush will easily leave an opposing team dead and their resources at your disposal. And yet, as the playable space is closed off, even if you have all these advantages, if you just so happen to be in a bad location you’re still at a huge disadvantage. Resources, skill, and luck: You usually need all three to survive.

It sounds awfully familiar.

It makes sense that it’s a game we crave now. It makes sense to model the gaps and myths of meritocracy, to reify this growing suspicion that the world isn’t fair and all we can do is our best and hope that it’s enough. It feels like we’re playing paintball themed around the collapse of capitalistic ideology – made all the more poignant by the game environments themselves being themed around soviet ruins. And, in the end, whether we win or lose, we’re given a few virtual coins – which we can use on a new coat or pair of shoes, to take away the sting of losing, over and over and over.

Which, too, seems familiar.

To play PUBG is to resign oneself to dying over and over and over again. Even very skilled and experienced players seldom can manage better than a 10% victory rate. We try to do the best we can, and give ourselves to fate.

And, if we can spend time with friends while we do so, so much the better.

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.

 

As someone who likes games, I find the vocabulary that people use to describe games that they didn’t like, or that they found frustrating and infuriating, quite interesting. When you describe a game as mean-spirited, unfair, or disrespectful of your time, you probably mean something different than if you were to use similar terms to describe a written narrative like a book or film. We ascribe malice to the designer, call the game sadistic or cruel or condescending, based on the challenges it presents to us.

This is particularly curious because one of the main reasons we come to these games is to be presented with challenges – and yet, when the challenges prove to be, well, challenging, there’s a common reaction of declaring those challenges invalid. At the extreme end, those challenges may be declared unfair or the game may be accused of cheating – but, just as often, saying that a particular challenge is poorly designed or that the player isn’t given adequate tools to prepare for it.

The common thread through most complaints, extreme and minor, is usually that of fairness. And what we consider to be fair in game design is something that has shifted a lot over time. In the 80s, as the scope of game design rapidly exploded, anything went. People got frustrated, sure, but because their expectations were largely unformed by other games and they were approaching each game largely as a new experience they didn’t feel especially put upon. As the language of game design established itself and came to be understood by its audience, people grew angry when games would disregard those established conventions of game design. Then, on into the end of the 2000’s and beginning of the 2010’s, it started to become clear that a lot of what we had considered ‘good game design’ was really just the most facilely approachable style, that we’d created an industry of the interactive equivalent of children’s books, made with large type and short words to be simple and enjoyable – and there was a backlash.

It is, perhaps, helpful here to distinguish between fairness and game balance. Game balance is not so much a concession to the player, to make sure that they don’t feel put upon, as it is a way to ensure that the different aspects of the game work well with each other, that the player isn’t encouraged to just always pick a dominant strategy and stick with it. The clearest difference is in the intent behind them: The intent of fairness is to avoid frustrating player, while the intent behind balance is to ensure that the player is encouraged to explore the design thoroughly.

A game like Dark Souls, would have been considered fair and fun if it was introduced in 1991, unfair if it was introduced in 2001, and was considered largely fair again when it was actually released in 2011 – though the consensus there is far from complete. Demon’s Souls, its predecessor, came out just a couple of years earlier – and, while people were starting to get on board with what the series could offer, at the time many people still regarded it as little better than an arbitrary and cruelly punishing curiosity.

Thus, while I tend to dislike the approach of selling Dark Souls as the most difficult game ever, as with the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition of the first game, this presentation does serve a purpose. While it may mislead the player as to what’s actually good and interesting about the game, this cues the player to modify their expectations regarding what to perceive as fair. What’s we expect in a fantasy action RPG and what we expect in a fantasy action RPG that says “Prepare to Die” on the cover are vastly different: for one thing, we are prepared to die. Within this framework, we can expect that much of the constraint that many developers take on in the quest for fairness will be lacking. The irony is that in a post-Dark Souls world this kind of signaling is no longer quite so necessary, since these games have redefined genre norms to an extent where, as long as you communicate some degree of reflex challenge and obtuseness of systems in the game’s description, people will largely be on-board with what you’re selling – especially once word-of-mouth about a new Souls-like game spreads to the eternally hungering fan base of the series. If Dark Souls were released now, it probably wouldn’t have such a ham-fisted subtitle – but that ham-fisted subtitle is part of what it allowed it to have the success that now obviates the need for a ham-fisted subtitle.

Another trend away from fairness and towards unpredictability was enabled by the modernized incarnations of the classic ‘Roguelike’ genre. With Spelunky and its ilk, because the game environments were no longer created by the designer but by an algorithm players quickly came to accept that some situations would be unfair and regarded them as opportunities for clever inventiveness rather than frustration. Any challenge was allowed as long as it wasn’t literally impossible to solve. However, some designs realize this more effectively than others: Whereas in Spelunky a challenging level generation is brutally difficult and dangerous in a way that is exciting to overcome, in The Binding of Isaac it’s merely slow and tedious, forcing the player to slowly chip away at opponents a few points at a time for potentially a couple of hours – one of the few flies in the ointment of an otherwise very exciting and interesting game design.

While it may seem obviously desirable for a game experience to be as fair as possible to the player, trying to always present a fair experience will inevitably tie the designer’s hands. A world with no unpleasant surprises, where all choices are equally valid, where nothing is ever out of reach and every problem has an immediate and obvious solution, sounds like a paradise. However, in the context of a medium that thrives on presenting its audience with interesting problems to solve, it more often than not creates a flat, dead, world, so painfully blandly sweet it rots the teeth from your jaw.

Not only does it remove life and spirit from the experience, it also sends a kind of weird mixed message. The plots of video games are frequently about a loner, outnumbered and outgunned, fighting for what’s right – and yet the mechanics of these games are tortuously dedicated to fairness, to making sure the player never actually feels endangered and alone the way their character does. To put it in the words of dads everywhere: Life Isn’t Fair. Creating games whose main purpose is to create worlds that are merely fair, at the expense of creating worlds that are challenging or interesting, is one of the least rewarding ways to use the resources we have as designers.