Like Ancient Egypt

Sixteen-year-old Tanto would be shocked to hear me say this, but… I’m pretty much done with leveling up.

Not in any specific game, mind. I’m talking about leveling up in general.

A long time ago I — and everyone else — thought that I liked gaining experience and raising levels. This isn’t true, though. The actual appeal of any sort of character level system is the sense of tangible progress it gives you — the feeling of starting with a weakling and gradually building him up into a god-slaying machine. That’s something that, if it were lost, I would feel sad — but there have to be better ways to implement it than experience and levels.

Experience levels, you see, are essentially a simplification. They’re a way of abstracting organic character growth in a way that games, and more specifically players, can easily grok. It’s such an effective device that even games outside the role-playing genre that originated it appropriated the idea.

We thought this was good, once, when RPGs were the most complex genre and anything that made other genres more like them was a godsend. I quickly found myself disillusioned on this count. When you’re raising levels, what you’re basically doing is watching numbers go up  — and numbers just aren’t that exciting, I’m sorry. A character who can swing his sword at level 2 is probably still only going to be swinging his sword at level 3. That’s not real advancement — only the illusion of it. Levels can change how much damage you’re dealing and taking, but they don’t really change what you can do, and that’s the part of character progression that I’m most interested in. It used to be that you’d get new skills and magic at various points along the way, but most games have segregated their character development into subsystems these days, which may or may not have anything to do with experience levels. I’ve been replaying Glory of Heracles in fits and spurts recently and in that game, you earn your skills by praying at altars, which you can only reach at certain preset points along the plot. Leveling up, then, happens every so often, usually beneath your notice. It’s not really serving any function except to gradually even the difficulty the longer you stay in an area.

I kind of feel that’s a problem, really. In games with levels, there’s usually a “sweet spot” that you’re expected to be at during each stage of the game. If you’re not there yet, you have to grind. If you’ve long since passed that point, the game retains little of its intended challenge. Neither of these are ideal. I’ve been fiddling around with Final Fantasy V recently, and while I’m having fun playing around with raising my characters’ job levels and learning new skills, I’m afraid of doing it too much, lest my characters’ experience levels grow too high. That would rob the game of its challenge and, worse yet, make my experiments with different job combinations fruitless. If your levels are so high you could win with a rusty fork, why bother with anything more complicated?

It grows worse in games that aren’t even RPGs. The RPG-style Castlevanias have been well-noted for this — once your character’s level is high enough, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad you are. I’ve spent this past week polishing off Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and experience levels there are beyond pointless. Since enemies scale to your level, you can’t even grind to make fights easier — the game is of similar challenge whether you’ve maxed out your level or are lowballing.

There are a couple arguments in favor of experience levels that I’d like to address. One is that, without rewards for fighting, the player has no incentive to fight. I’m going to go ahead and call that one bullshit. In every RPG I’ve played, I fight my battles if battles are fun to fight, regardless of how rewarding it is. If battles aren’t fun, I’ll avoid them as much as I can, and suffer the consequences of being underleveled. I’m of the opinion that playing a game should be its own reward. Games should be structured in a way that the player will want to experience everything in them, rather than having to be driven to it. (I believe I’ve talked about this at some length before.) If your battles are fun, players will fight them whether they get anything for it or not. And if they’re not, why are you forcing them to? The RPGs I’ve enjoyed most are the ones where the leveling curve is stable enough that, if you fight everything you come across, you’ll be at about the right place. That way, I can play the way I want to, and not have to worry about fighting so many or so few enemies that the game stops being the one I want to play.

The other argument in favor of levels is that they allow the player to control the difficulty to some extent. If the player is having trouble that no amount of tactics can help them with, they can go grind and come back with a better chance. If he’s breezing through the game and wants some added challenge, he can stop fighting the mooks for a while, and the bosses should start giving them a run again.

The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t necessarily imply experience and levels. It’s true for literally any form of character development you could imagine — it’s how you get three-heart runs in Zelda or minimalist runs in Metroid. I’m all for giving players the ability to adjust their gaming experience to suit their taste — but there’s got to be a better way to do it than monitoring arbitrary numbers. How about a character development system that borrows from the aforementioned Zelda and Metroid and makes characters stronger based on exploration and questing, rather than endless fighting? Or a game like Paper Mario — it’s got levels, but they’re a lot less all-encompassing than in other RPGs, and you could probably strip them out without affecting the core game much.

I’m not under any illusions that experience levels are going away any time soon — people seem to have accepted them as part and parcel of the RPG experience, and I like RPGs too much to abandon the genre entirely. The games which have experimented with removing experience have mostly been regarded as just that — experiments — and their innovations ignored… Chrono Cross raises your levels automatically at certain points during the plot; Final Fantasy VIII’s Junctions, any Kawazu game. I really do feel that the genre could be rejuvenated if people were willing to abandon some of the things that “everyone knows” are just part of the genre, though.

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