More on experience

If EXP and other RPG elements are so horrible, why do they get implemented in just about every other type of game? From platformers to GTA to fighters to shooters to sports games, there’s no other genre that hasn’t been infected by the RPG virus at least a little, and often a lot. RPGs don’t seem to be dying, as much as growing, in both audience and into other genres. So they must be doing something right, right?

Not necessarily something right, in that it’s ideal for its own sake. It’s simply an easy solution for just about any context. Design problem? Balance issue? Afraid the game will alienate people if it’s too hard? Throw in an experience system, and let the player work it out.

For a topical example, see the discussion on Sigma Star Whatever in the other thread, and the people pissed off that its shooting segments depend on levelling-up rather than on skill. From some accounts, it’s to the point where skill doesn’t really matter, as the game will just throw things at you that you can’t deal with through any means other than leveling up.

Another high-profile example. The only reason there’s an experience system in the Metroidvania games is that Igarashi wants everyone to be able to finish the games, and doesn’t want people put off by the difficulty. This is a design problem with many elegant solutions (see Metal Gear Solid — or hell, Metroid). Experience is the easiest, though. You don’t have to think about it.

It’s kind of a lazy out. Which would be, I’m guessing, the best reason why it’s used so much, in so many games. It’s almost a get-out-of-jail-free card if you don’t know what you’re doing as a designer.

On that note: experience is often used as a way to make the player feel like he’s actually doing something in a framework where he’s not really doing much of anything else. When you win a battle, you feel like you’ve accomplished something because, hey, you just collected 156XP! It’s materialistic in a monetary way, in a system where there is no real ceiling to inflation, therefore no implicit value.

This is even more obvious when you consider that as you progress, the difficulty generally scales to match whatever experience you collect. Some games even cause monsters to level up at the same rate as your characters, meaning there is effectively no point to this game system at all.

And that’s what I think annoys most of us, and sends us looking for alternatives.

Then again: although obsessive-compulsive game design is a plague in a general sense, and you honestly can’t make me care about those last few emblems in Sonic Adventure, not every widget hunt is unfulfilling. It’s all about context.

Similarly, if experience points aren’t an annoying mechanism in, say, Dragon Quest, then maybe that has to do with what they mean both in the context of the game’s objective design and in the psychology of the playing experience.

The question, therefore, is: what’s the difference? Is it in how the EXP are gained? How they’re used? What they represent? What’s the context?

I venture a big factor in Dragon Quest has to do with expanding horizons (on the player’s end), and the part EXP play in the facilitation and regulation thereof.

That is, they are the key objective metric. They therefore have purpose, value, and weight. They have practical representative meaning, even if they remain mere representation.

I can feel the walls closing in on me

So everyone around me kept saying how great the new Zelda was

I don’t know. It struck me as another Zelda game, from what I saw of
it. And. I understand that some of Nintendo’s trends have been worsening. Even though Capcom’s making all of their games, these days.

Zelda used to be a thing of wonder. Now it is a template. Metroid is starting to go the same route, too. The series has been stagnating since the third game. Both series have been. It just gets more obvious, the more often it’s iterated. And the more out-of-touch and patronizing each iteration becomes.

Metroid Prime is a nice exception.

Wind Waker brings a lot of nice things to the series, just as Metroid Fusion does. The problems with them are the same, though. They don’t really succeed because in the end, the template rules. They have to answer to it, so they don’t get away with as much as they might. It’s mechanics, not experience, that Nintendo chooses to deliver these days.

I don’t give a damn about the rules. I want to feel something.

Here’s the part where I’m a wiseguy and ask which series has undergone more substantial changes over the years, Zelda or King of Fighters? I suspect most fans of either would pick the other, which is only natural. Fans of something pay attention to the small but sometimes crucial changes between iterations, while non-fans shrug their shoulders and say that they all sort of look the same.

I adore Zelda and Metroid — or at least, what they once stood for. The series have certainly changed; they’ve regressed. It’s pretty sad when the first two games are the most sophisticated, and everything else has just been about weeding away what made the games stand out from the crowd. A process of prolonged blanding. That’s what distresses me. I have come to be dismissive through one mediocre decision after another.

As far as fighting games go, KOF has evolved more in concept, and covered more ground, than any other series I can think of. If you can even compare it to other games; the series operates on its own terms. It’s more a serial novel than anything. Yet it’s a serial that only becomes richer and more rewarding as it unfurls.

Meanwhile, all of Nintendo’s series become more generalized and mathematical, drawing from the same proven design documents.

Metroid isn’t as far along the decay as Zelda, of course. Nintendo avoided the series for nearly a decade after Yokoi died. And Intelligent Systems isn’t EAD. Now Retro is doing some insightful stuff with the concept, fleshing it out in a way Nintendo never did. Zero Mission gets a lot right, especially where it borrows from Retro rather than from Miyamoto. I like the way it prepares the player for how to deal with Metroids, for instance. It is, however, still mired in the same hyper-safe, inbred theory that Nintendo’s been using since 1991. And with every generation, that theory generates more genetic defects

If every chapter of KOF were 2002 or NeoWave, I would feel the same as
I do about Zelda. (Conversely, this would probably please a lot of people.) If a game like Wind Waker or Fusion were allowed to follow through on its own ideas, rather than bow to the Miyamoto machine, I would be inclined to care more.

I’ve not really played Majora’s Mask. It’s the only Zelda game aside from Wind Waker to look interesting to me since the NES. I played for about half an hour, and in that time noticed that all of the models were recycled from OoT. That wasn’t too encouraging, though I suppose it doesn’t mean anything on its own.


>The logic of the fiction in MGS2 is broken to jarring effect often throughout the game. I understand that Tim’s article states that this is the entire point. However, I would argue that that is not a point at all.

Sure it is. Well, not on its own.

The issue at play here is a kind of a meta-understanding. A defamiliarized awareness of the nature of a particular form, as it were. Or a self-awareness within that form (which is itself a form of defamiliarization). This is exactly the way that we understand our world; by taking it out of context or by summing it up in unexpected, yet somehow logical, ways. This is also how humor works.

There is, therefore, a certain built-in level of humor. There is a certain built-in level of insight about the nature of everything that is happening, as it happens. If it all serves to make some interesting observations, then the project is a success.

If you will, that subjectivity is the whole damned idea here. It’s a big part of the process of defamiliarization. It’s a big part of deconstruction. Understanding the nature of that subjectivity, on (of course) a subjective basis.

A game like MGS2 works because of the questions it raises about the nature of the videogame, about our interaction with the videogame, about our expectations of a videogame. On its own, you might consider this obnoxious. On the long term, these are questions that need to be asked — because there aren’t a lot of people asking them. Asking us to look at what our assumptions are.

If all you want to do is be entertained (that is, to have your expectations met), then you’ll have a problem with this. If you are really interested in the medium, its nature and its potential, you will greet questions like these with a certain level of delight.

I, for one, didn’t care at all about Metal Gear until a bit of MGS2 was spoiled for me. Until I began to hear about to what degree Kojima went out of his way to fuck with his audience. Then, suddenly, I was transfixed. I had a new level of respect for the game, and for Kojima. Because he’s using his established power to force his audience to think. It would be one thing if the game were some little-known release with no media attention. Kojima had the limelight, however. So rather than just cash in, he decided to do something useful with that power. That, right there, is a part of the game. It’s not just the code, or even the game’s relationship with the player. It’s the wealth of expecations the player already has, going into the game.

If the game pisses people off, or confuses them — good! Frankly. It should. That means it’s doing part of its job. And that just adds to the experience for anyone who is in a position to giggle at what Kojima has done. To see the implicit humor on all of its levels; to see just what Kojima was trying to comment on; to think about what that might imply about videogames, and our relationship with them, in a broader sense. Some of those people might go on to make other games. Or at least to greet future games with a more critical eye.

It’s games (and stunts) like this which help to expand what videogames Can Be, simply by forcing us to look where we never would have thought to look otherwise. Some of us are annoyed because there’s nothing but a blank wall and a stagehand where we’re looking. Some of us are intrigued for the same reasons. It’s the latter who are targeted, and it’s the former who help to illustrate the idea for the latter. It’s just as well. They serve a purpose, too — in furthering that understanding and in heightening that humor. They just serve to make the joke, as it were, all the bigger and more profound.

It’s the sheer, high-level irreverence that gets me fired up. I get the same sensation out of observing MGS2, and the reaction to it, that I get out of a Marx Bros. movie.

If you know me, you will know that this is one of the greater compliments I can give.