Playing the System

So, I’ve been thinking. I’ve written at least two hundred articles on this here blog. Assuming that the average length is about six hundred words, I’ve written about two small novels on video games. And these numbers are conservative.

I think it’s time I leveled up!

Tom’s leveled up!
CLA +2 points!
INS +1 points!
IDA +4 points!

AUD +12 points!

From now on, expect much more enjoyable blog entries! …Aw fuck, it doesn’t work like that, does it?

Our knowledge of how people learn has expanded dramatically in the past few decades, and it bears absolutely no resemblance to how our avatars improve in video games. In real life, we learn by doing, and doing lots of times (as per Malcolm Gladwell’s pop science in Outliers). In video games, we fight monsters, get some experience, and then we level up in arbitrary steps by reaching specific, discrete thresholds.

The mythical “RPG Elements” of modern video games spring directly from old tabletop games, Dungeons and Dragons specifically. In Dungeon and Dragons, you level along a linear chart, filling in your statistics based off of what some writer thousands of miles away said you should be getting. Every level two warrior is going to get an increased base attack bonus, even if he didn’t punch a single thing on the way there.

This system makes a lot of sense for pen and paper: you have a human brain, rather than a computer, making all the calculations. We don’t want to have to record how many times we hit an enemy with a sword to figure out how much strength we’d gain upon gaining a level. That sounds terrible. We want everything figured out for us, because there’s loot to hunt and dice to roll!

In video games, it makes about as much sense as a whale inside a lunch box. The earliest video games directly aped this system: gain five hundred experience points, get one strength and two int (never intelligence. If you don’t have enough int to know what it stands for, you probably don’t need it). But, even in video games’ nascent stages, developers realized they could construct much more organic systems. This led to two other “mother” systems emerging: the first tried to simulate real life by calculating how much we did things to determine our statistics, and the other gave us some sort of currency we could reinvest into our character’s development, usually down one of two or three different paths.

Let’s start with the second one, in part because it’s the one most resembling how we really learn, in other part because it just makes me so angry. The first game I’m aware of that tried to level players up naturally, as they did things, was Final Fantasy II for the NES. Obviously, we didn’t play that game until around 2000 in the West, so our first experiences with “organic” leveling are different. For me, that game was the oft-forgotten SaGa Frontier, a game with good grammatical sense that you had to play through seven times to get the real ending.

Here’s how you leveled up in SaGa Frontier, in theory: you took character A (let’s call him “Lute”, and make him a frustratingly underpowered musician with a cool character design) and decided to make him a wizard. “He is a wizard!” you call to the heavens. You give him some spells, a useless healing spell and an equally useless attack spell. They’re useless because he doesn’t have any MP. You use one of them, and then, at the end of the battle, he spins around five times: MAG UP! VIT UP! INT UP! CHM UP! WP UP! Suddenly his spells are a little less useless. Sounds really good. He learned by doing.

In reality, it didn’t work like this. You took Lute out to fight an enemy, and because he was as dangerous as a wet dog, he died before he could cast a spell. If he managed to survive, he didn’t cast anything, and he didn’t get any stat raises for doing nothing. After three hours and only meager returns, you replaced him with a better character you recruited off the street, who learned more by sitting around gyrating in place than Lute did fighting a hundred battles. We think nothing can be worse.

Well, until we play Oblivion, which is even more infuriating. Oblivion has become, for better or worse, the poster child for terrible leveling systems, and it does so by taking the worst parts of the D&D system of “LEVEL UP!” moments and the worst parts of organically developing skills. Oblivion lets you learn by doing, which is a fantastic mechanic up until the point where you realize if you level up your main skills too quickly, you’ll gain a lot of terrible levels, and the enemies will scale past you like you’re a nobody.

So it’s important to not level too quickly. That’s the entire problem with organic leveling: you can do it wrong by playing the game.

Here’s an actual, true story of me playing Oblivion, which I’ve recently decided to replay: my lovely level three Dark Elf is one skill away from leveling. She needs to level up two points of blunt or blade so she can get five points of strength upon leveling up, because otherwise she’ll only get three or four points of strength and will fall behind the leveling race with the rats of the world. I’m in a cave, surrounded by monsters. My relevant skills (Blade, Restoration, Conjuration, and Destruction) are all major skills and all very close to leveling, which they can’t do because then I wouldn’t get very much strength. I find a sort of boss enemy, a wizard, and, for the sake of leveling up properly, I go at him with my rusty war axe of incompetence instead of, you know, doing anything I’m actually good at. All so I can level up properly.

I don’t even need to explain how shitty this is. I’m going to stop before I stab myself through the eye with a trowel. Let’s move on. Please.

The third system of leveling, incremental increases bought using fun bucks, is a more modern invention, created so that RPG elements could be added to any game. It’s probably the best, too, if we don’t consider hybrids. You kill enemies, collect moon currency, and then use it to make dynamic choices in how you specialize your character. Usually you have two or three paths to choose from, and you better specialize in one, or else you’re going to be useless later in whichever game it is.

It’s a decent system, though, despite how utterly arbitrary it is. For one, it emphasizes player choice, which is the foundation of a compelling leveling system. Something throwaway like inFamous can be exciting because it lets you take agency in how you develop your abilities. You get to make choices, and you feel empowered in your self-improvement, instead of a slave to some arbitrary, hateful system.

With those three principles in mind, we’ll attack another question: what’s the best leveling system? Have we seen the best yet? What qualities do they possess?

The best systems, in general, mix these elements up into their own brand of delicious experiental stew. Two, in particular, stand out in my book, and they are both quite different: Digital Devil Saga 2 and Fallout: New Vegas (Fallout in general).

Let’s start with Digital Devil Saga 2 (part of the Shin Megami Tensei family), because it presents one of the more complicated looking, yet extremely elegant systems of character improvement. At its heart, it presents us with a fairly traditional system where you gain experience, level up, and then put points into one of five statistics, of which only three are of any use. Pretty traditional so far. But then you add this:

That’s the Mantra grid. Here it is in full. As you played the game, you could buy specific tiles on this grid to level up. When you bought them, you had to eat enough of your enemies to unlock it; what this basically meant was you had to fight a lot of battles, managing what your characters should devour. This move lets you give one person more Mantra experience, but could also result in them being unable to get any Mantra experience for the fight.

Effectively, DDS’ greatest success was in creating two synergistic systems, one of which let you define the character’s role in the party, while the other determined what specific moves the individual would have access to. They coupled this last system with a risk/reward mechanic which added significant complexity and a dynamic nature to how battles themselves played out. Simple battles could be made more complex by allowing the player to use specific moves to get more experience. The game blended together a lot of different elements to make a system that made you want to grind, because you were always a step away from something much more powerful.

Contrast this with Fallout’s much loved leveling system, which takes the straightforward leveling nature of tabletop games and runs with it as far as it will go. Fallout’s system is a recreation of the GURPS tabletop system, where you level up and put points into different skills, but made into a fun, dynamic thing. In New Vegas, specifically, all the skills you could get were valuable, but you didn’t get enough points to develop all of them. You had to make tough choices about which sorts of paths you wanted to walk down, whether to be a lover, a fighter, or someone who repairs robots and lets them love and fight for you. This, coupled with the ubiquitous perks system, which lets you take new, game changing powers and skills, led to crunchy level ups.

That’s the thing we’re looking for in experience systems, what we’re looking for different from real life. In real life, there’s no satisfying moment where you realize you’re brilliant at something. It just…happens. One minute you can’t make a piece of toast without setting the house on fire, and the next you can make crème brulee. There’s a process, but you never realize it until you’ve gotten to the end. In video games, there are satisfying moments of crunch in the middle, where, suddenly, you have an extra point of strength and can one shot those enemies. There’s a point where your hacking is good enough to solve this computer puzzle, and there’s a point where it’s not. That point, however, is strictly delineated, and we can find it and define it, and that makes us feel good about ourselves. It gives us goals we can figure out how to surmount.

This is what we want from our leveling: we want the crunch of improvement and the ability to plan out our futures. We want to feel like the problems we face are surmountable, but only if we’re better, more experienced. We need to see problems we could solve, and then we want to go out and find the ability to solve them. There’s a moment of satisfaction to it that greases the hinge of leveling, and turns it from something pointless into something fantastic.