The Irony of Levels

So, I went out and picked up a whole bunch of other games, focusing on JRPG-type games that I haven’t played. I started playing one called “The Awakened Fate: Ultimatum” and while it’s okay, I found it a little unforgiving in the first dungeon; it was relatively easy to win the fights, but if you ever did anything wrong you were toast, and since when you die you lose your items that was, well, really bad. But in theory with higher levels, I’d have more HP, and so be better able to withstand screwing up and getting, say, swarmed. And that reminded me of something that’s bothered me for a long time about RPG-style leveling.

When you use the leveling mechanic, you start the hero off relatively weak and they grow in power as they gain more experience and thus more levels. If done well, this is a nice mechanism, as it gives you a reason to get more XP and can really make you feel like you start out as a novice hero and through your trials grow in strength to becoming a legend. Of course, the way to do this is to balance the encounters, and thus to make encounters early in the game, when you’re low level, weak enough that they’re a challenge but don’t kill you while ramping up the power of the encounters later in the game so that, again, even though you have massive abilities and lots of hit points it isn’t just a cakewalk.

When you don’t do it well, it’s a disaster.

I think that the Icewind Dale/Baldur’s Gate type of games have been the worst for this that I’ve ever seen. You start, especially if you’re a fragile mage-type character, with so few hit points that you die if you get hit once or twice. They do a semi-real-time combat system, so often you can’t react fast enough to save someone who manages to get hit twice by, say, archers. You have very limited healing abilities, even if you can react in time to save them. And worst of all, the ability to raise dead characters is only really feasible at higher levels, when you either have the ability yourself or have the gold on hand to buy it from NPCs. This is a recipe for frustration and reloading.

The irony of this comes in when we consider the context of the player instead of the character. Because one hit can kill you, the game is more tolerant of mistakes later in the game than early in the game; you can survive one mistake and even if you fail you are likely to have abilities or items that will restore you to life. But the beginning of the game is when you are learning to game, its abilities, your abilities, how the combat system works, and so on, and as you’re just learning you’re more likely to make mistakes than later in the game when you pretty much understand it. So the game is more forgiving of mistakes when you’re less likely to make them and less forgiving when you’re more likely to make them. Something’s not right here …

Many games do this at least reasonably well, but there are a number of games that really fail to do this well, and so walk themselves into that strange irony of tolerating mistakes when you likely won’t make them and not tolerating mistakes when you’re likely to.

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