Encircle me

Platformers are dead. I mean, you’d think, right? On one end of the spectrum, Super Mario Maker is an explicit acknowledgement that there’s nothing left to do in the genre except keep cranking out levels. On the other, the puzzle-platformer trend is an implicit argument that platformer gameplay isn’t meaningful unless you weld another genre on top of it. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are new things under the sun; anyone saying otherwise is just rationalizing their own lack of imagination. What I’m getting at here is that Circa Infinity is an original platformer.

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The game’s hook is that it takes place around the perimeter of a circle rather than on a flat plane. This seems like a gimmick, the difference being simply a matter of visual transposition, but it’s not. It has a substantive effect on how the game plays. You start on the outer rim of the circle, and you progress by first “warping” into the circle from a specified point, thus positioning you on the inside of the perimeter, and then jumping from there onto the outside of another circle located inside the first, “zooming in” in this fashion until you reach the goal. Generally speaking, the outside of each circle is safe, while the inside contains enemies that you have to avoid (you can’t attack in any way). Thus, the time when you’re on the outside functions as a sort of scouting phase, allowing you to see everything that’s going on on the inside: where the monsters are, how they’re moving, and where you’ll need to move relative to the warp point. Once you dive in, then, you’re fully prepared. You’ve already seen everything that you’re going to have to deal with, so there’s no trial-and-error effect.

This solves one of the big problems with platformers: you have to be able to see what’s up ahead in order to play effectively, and this isn’t always possible. This has always been the critical flaw of the Sonic series, which is focused on speed, and which therefore necessarily makes it difficult for you to know what’s up ahead in time for you to actually do something about it. It’s a common experience in Sonic games to be blithely running along and then suddenly have some spikes show up right in front of you, and this is stupid (also, why are spikes used as an obstacle in a game where you play as a hedgehog?). There’s nothing interesting about failing like this; it might as well have been a random event. The series has tried to resolve this problem in different ways, and none of them have really been satisfactory. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is actually not very fast, it’s much more of a standard jumping-across-obstacles platformer. Whereas Sonic Rush offers a mechanic that lets you blast through anything that you hit while running, which solves the problem by trivializing it. These are just the most blatant examples of a general problem; even Mario games have the same issue. You’ll often be unable to see where a long jump leads or where an enemy is coming from, turning the gameplay into guesswork. Circa Infinity offers an approach as correct as it is simple: you first show the player what they’re in for, and then you let them have at it.

It also offers a novel approach to the checkpoint dilemma. This is a fundamental conflict between two theories about how to manage the failure loop. One school of thought holds that, once a player has “solved” an obstacle, forcing them to go through it again because they failed at a different obstacle merely enforces tediousness; ergo, you place a checkpoint after each significant challenge. But action games aren’t about solutions, they’re about performance, so it makes sense to require the player to be able to navigate obstacles consistently, rather than allowing them to just get lucky once and move on; this implies that checkpoints should be as infrequent as is reasonable. Mario games split the difference by offering one checkpoint halfway through each level, preserving the arduousness but not being a dick about it. Circa Infinity has a more dynamic approach: failing sends you back one circle, forcing you to replay exactly one previously-completed obstacle each time you fail. This might not sound like much of a difference, but what makes it interesting is that it allows failures to cascade. If you get frustrated or impatient and you screw up a circle you’ve already completed (or if you lucked your way past a circle the first time and now have to solve it for real), you’ll get knocked back again, and this will keep happening until you calm down and start doing things right (there’s a limit that prevents this from becoming completely obnoxious: some circles are completely safe, so they function as “hard” checkpoints; once you’ve reached one, you can’t get knocked back any farther). Thus, the game does not merely use checkpoints for the sake of player convenience – it uses them to enforce a specific approach to its obstacles.

But these are just minor technical points, you’ll say; they don’t change the fact that this is the same old get-to-the-goal gameplay. True, but the final effect of a game is determined by its individual design choices. So the reason this stuff is important is that it makes Circa Infinity feel like something more than Aestheticized Action Platformer #644. Giving the player advance information and encouraging them to use it makes the gameplay thoughtful in a way that even complex action games rarely are. But execution still matters; some levels have rigid solutions, but this isn’t a puzzle-platformer. So what’s really notable here is that this game achieves a rare synthesis: it requires you to observe and analyze and come up with a plan of action, and then to execute that plan with focus and physical precision. It connects the animal to the cerebral in a way that is not just “fun” but is, frankly, a significant part of what it means to be human.

circa_infinity_trainwreck

Each level also has its own specific conditions, and their progression builds towards the overall effect. The first is a simple introduction, setting up the framework with standard run-and-jump gameplay. You get an idea of what the game is like, but you can pretty much finish it by just flailing around. The second level is more rigidly designed, forcing you to take what you learned in the first and apply it more seriously. You can’t get out of jams by dodging frantically around them; you have to think before you act. In the third level, you control two characters simultaneously on opposite sides of the circle, which requires you to account for both perspectives when deciding how to move. This is when the planning aspect really hits home: the correct path for each level becomes non-obvious, so you really have to keep a sharp eye on the layout of each circle and execute your actions with a plan in mind. Even the basic task of entering the inner circle requires conscientiousness: if you enter from the wrong place or at the wrong time, you might be unable to avoid getting hit.

And that’s where the game peaks. The fourth and fifth levels have the same structure as the third, but simply pile additional requirements on top. These fail to add anything significant to the gameplay; on the contrary, they detract from its effectiveness. There gets to be so much accumulated mechanical cruft that navigating each level becomes simple tedium. Any of the additional mechanics may or may not have been interesting on its own, but piled up like this they just become a mass of annoyances. The experience starts to feel less thoughtful and more mechanical, like filling out a checklist.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the outer rim stops being safe, so planning becomes both more important and less doable. This might have been a great twist if it had been allowed to exist by itself, but nothing introduced in the later levels is allowed to do so; everything being crammed together makes the levels hard in a boring way rather than challenging in an interesting way. The individual mechanics are all viable, but they aren’t taken anywhere. If one level had, for example, been about not having time to plan, and if the stages had been designed with the intent of creating an experience based on this dynamic, then this could have been an interesting effect for the game to explore. (An important aspect of the now-standard Braid framework is that each level has a characteristic mechanic and they don’t overlap; this allows each level to focus on creating one specific effect.) As it is, this failure points to the real heart of the problem: Circa Infinity does not appear to have been designed with any particular intention at all.

I’m not referring to the intended goals of the designer; as a rule, I don’t care about people’s intentions. I am referring to the fact that the game itself evidences a lack of purpose. Each stage records your time and your failure count, and displays these to you when you finish. This is actually quite annoying, because it makes you feel like you’re being graded on your first run through the game, when you’re still experimenting and trying to figure out how things work. More importantly, it strongly suggests that the game is geared toward achievement-heads who only care about getting The Best Score, rather than people who want to have a good experience playing a game.

It’s also entirely typical: in order to compensate for the fundamental hollowness of the basic level-completion goal, players have long been setting extra challenges for themselves, and winning without damage or in the shortest possible time are the two most common examples. In other words, what Circa Infinity is doing here is, lacking any goals of its own to offer, simply falling back on established genre procedures – despite these procedures being directly at odds with how the game actually plays. Remember that stuff I was saying about planning and execution? Well, implicitly rushing the player through the levels via an omnipresent timer is a great way to get them to ignore that dynamic. And remember how well the checkpointing in this game works? Well, treating mistakes as failures rather than opportunities to learn makes that a bit of a moot point.

There are also some ideas that just aren’t utilized wisely. The enemy types are for the most part very simple: some run, some jump, some hover overhead, and in combination they define which routes are feasible. This simplicity aids the game’s planning aspect by making it very clear what you have to deal with. But there’s one oddball, which is, fittingly, the ghost. Ghosts persist through two circles each, though, strangely, the reason they do this isn’t because of ethereality, it’s just because they’re bigger than the other enemies. The point is, ghosts can still get you even after you’ve passed the circle in which they first appear. Once again, this is a potentially interesting idea that is not actually used for anything. It could, for example, have been used to require the player to plan out an approach to multiple circles at once. But because ghosts don’t move, and because getting past them just requires performing an arbitrary action, they’re basically just an annoyance during the planning phase. They become just one more thing to add to the pile of obstacles you have to worry about; they don’t actually require you to play differently.

About that arbitrary action: because ghosts are so big, you have to duck under them instead of jumping over them (because they float above the ground. Look, it’s fine. Metaphors don’t have to be coherent). And this is bizarre, because Circa Infinity does not actually have a duck move. Pressing down causes your character to sort of melt into the circle beneath them, which is how you activate the warp points to move to the inside of each circle. But when you encounter your first ghost, you suddenly have to realize that this move can also be used while you’re not on top of a warp point, and also while you’re moving, which allows you sort of “slide” under the ghost. This is stupid. It looks stupid and it feels stupid. I’m inclined to leave it at that, but I’m also already here, so I guess I might as well explain why this is an actual substantive gameplay problem.

In Mario games, doing a high-bounce off of an enemy gets you more height than jumping normally. This doesn’t make physical sense, but it does make intuitive sense. Bouncing off of an enemy is a more complicated action than simply pressing the jump button, so it feels like you should get more out of it. This is sort of like how in movies there’s a big poofy sound effect whenever someone gets punched in the face. In real life, getting punched doesn’t really produce much of a sound, but it’s kind of a big deal (in that it breaks an implicit barrier), so it feels like there should be a big distinctive sound associated with it. “Enhancements” like these aren’t bad because they’re unrealistic; on the contrary, they’re good things precisely because they’re better than reality – they make more sense. Art is, after all, largely the attempt to make sense of a senseless world.

The problem with Circa Infinity‘s ducking mechanic is that it doesn’t make any particular sense. As mentioned, the way it’s tacitly introduced makes it seem like an unintentional consequence of a completely different mechanic. Which could work, except that this is an abstract game and everything about it is completely arbitrary. This isn’t a case where you’re experimenting within a game world and you find a way to combine your abilities to do something new, or anything like that. It’s just an arbitrary required action that happens to occupy the same button mapping as a different arbitrary required action. Specifically, ducking doesn’t get you anything that jumping doesn’t already provide. Functionally, it’s the same action: you move past an enemy while pressing a certain button that allows you to avoid it. You can duck in Mario games, too, but there ducking is a different type of action than jumping is: you stay still while avoiding an obstacle that’s moving above you. This increases the number of ways in which you can interact with the game world and gives you a different strategy for avoiding certain types of obstacles. In Circa Infinity, ducking is just another dumb thing you have to remember to do every once in a while. It’s also completely static; the only thing it’s used for is getting past ghosts. It doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with a structure, it feels like you’re bubbling in the answer on a test.

There are other problems; the boss battles, for one, are just sort of there. Because the game’s effect is dependent on the aforementioned aspects of the level design, the boss battles don’t really add anything; they feel obligatory (especially because there isn’t actually an attack mechanic; “ducking” is repurposed again for damaging the bosses). But all of these things are “problems” only in the sense that Circa Infinity doesn’t appear to have been trying to get them right in the first place. This is a video game, and video games have boss battles at the end of each level. Why would anyone ever try anything else?

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When I talk about “purpose,” I am not claiming that Circa Infinity should have had some kind of story or message plastered on top of it. I meant what I said earlier: the mindset that the game creates in its best moments is meaningful; it is an effect that goes beyond a simple “message.” This distinction is related to the problem a lot of people have with abstract art. People have the idea that a painting is supposed to be “of” something, and can therefore be judged based on how well it represents the thing that it’s “about.” The Mona Lisa, to take an obvious example, is appreciated for the way it captures a subtle emotional state. Whereas something like a Rothko is “just a bunch of colors”; it doesn’t “represent” anything. But of course every painting is “just a bunch of colors”; even a photorealistic portrait isn’t actually real (neither is a photograph – and neither is the image that you actually see with your eyes). Art doesn’t have to be be representational; what is has to do is affect the viewer. (Really, everyone should understand this point very well, as the most popular art form, music, is almost never representational and almost always operates by creating a direct emotional effect.)

The point of a Pollock, for example, is to get you to look at visual art in a different way, to change the mindset you use to understand paint on a canvas. Circa Infinity works in much the same way: it takes the standard components of platforming and puts them in a new context where they operate differently. It changes the way you think about planning and performing actions in a game – and maybe even in life. Platformers do not require Braid-ification in order to be made meaningful; that’s certainly one option, but a game no more requires a pretentious short story layered on top of it in order for it to mean something than a painting has to represent something in order for it to create an emotional reaction.

This isn’t really a defense of abstract art. A lot of the stuff that winds up in art galleries is made by and for a tiny audience of art weirdos and is only understandable from within the set of expectations and assumptions that constitutes their milieu. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that everyone else is correct to point out that, from their point of view, such art is entirely pointless. It isn’t even a matter of preconceptions; most people simply don’t understand what they’re supposed to be looking at when they see a big blue square in a museum.

Indeed, this is the same problem that almost all video games have: they target only the audience that already understands them. (This is the actual significance of Braid: it challenged people who thought they knew how platformers were supposed to work.) They’re like the opposite of Wittgenstein’s talking lion: they cannot communicate because we already know everything they’re capable of saying. By making tiny adjustments to a conventional framework, they convince themselves that they are moving forward when they are merely pacing around a preestablished perimeter. It is into such a framework that Circa Infinity retreats from its potential. Its focus on pointless challenge, its formulaic structure, and its tabulation of meaningless statistics ensure that everyone who encounters it will either understand it as a typical “hard” platformer or dismiss it as something that is not for them.

No work can appeal to everybody, nor should one try. But there is a line between reaching out towards people and looking at yourself in a mirror. You don’t have to make a statement or light a beacon or raise a battle standard, but you do have to actually pick a direction to move in. Otherwise, you’re just . . . well, you know.

circa_infinity_running

Every step you take, I’m there

I’ll spare you the suspense on this one: In Between is an attractive, enjoyable, well-made game, and it’s a failure. It has strong, distinctive aesthetics and solid level design, and it uses these things in an attempt to convey a serious, relevant message using game mechanics. The bad news is that the significant word in that last sentence is “attempt.” The good news is that the game fails thoroughly enough to be deeply instructive.

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The story concerns a man with terminal cancer facing up to the inevitability of his own death. The levels you play through represent his mental journey from shock to acceptance, with each chapter using different types of obstacles to symbolize different stages of the journey. At a basic impressionistic level, this is all very convincing. The backgrounds and the music impart a dull, haunted feeling that puts things in exactly the right emotional space. Some levels feature darkness as an obstacle, and this is portrayed with excellent visual precision. You can feel confident moving halfway into the black, as the graphics make it very clear where the actual danger line is without being obtuse about it. One particularly notable effect is the failure animation, where the screen splits into shards before reforming at the last checkpoint. The slightly jarring feel of this is like running up against a painful idea and mentally recoiling from it. It also works really well in terms of gameplay, since it’s a quick, sharp animation that provides a mental reset and is also engaging.

The story is conveyed through first-person narration, which has a lot of positive effects. First, it solidifies the fact that this is a personal journey that this guy has no choice but to deal with in the space of his own mind. Second, it meshes the story with the gameplay, since you’re going through the levels with the voice sounding in your head. Finally, the voice acting itself is convincing and adds an element of gravitas to the proceedings, even though the substance really isn’t there in the writing.

Easy though it is to make this accusation, the game just has nothing to say about its subject matter. The writing is nothing but bland bromides and generic slice-of-life vignettes, presented uncritically and completely unmined for insight, and in the end, having built up nothing with which to actually form a conclusion, the game finally rattles off some new age horseshit about how we all turn back into stardust when we die or whatthefuckever. Apart from its aesthetic offensiveness, this is ultimately uninteresting. That everything dies is just a fact; death is only a problem in the specific case. This is why one death is a tragedy while one million deaths is a statistic. Death is only meaningful if life is worth living, and the game doesn’t actually show us anything that implies that that’s the case.

Crucially, the game needs to make us feel something about the main character, to get to know him at least a little so that his death actually imparts a sense of loss. This doesn’t happen. His story is sketched in the broadest strokes, as a series of disconnected cliches. He has a strained relationship with his father, he’s stuck in a dead-end job, he loves his wife and daughter. That’s about it, and none of these things really gets developed much beyond the basic outlines. In particular, we learn absolutely nothing about the man’s relationship with his wife, and this is a huge problem, because this is supposed to be the most important thing in his life, and she’s the person most impacted by his untimely death. Any detail at all about how these two people got together or what they share with each other would have done wonders, but we get nothing. It’s the heart of the story, and it’s left hollow.

Of course, there’s a sense in which the man’s specific circumstances aren’t the point, as what’s he’s dealing with is the one true problem that every living being has to face up to sooner or later. That’s probably why the writing is as broad as possible: as an attempt at universality. The problem is that’s not how that works. The more you generalize, the less you give people to hold on to. A completely universal story is one that’s completely inapplicable to anyone’s actual circumstances. Paradoxically, it’s by being as specific as possible that you make your work relatable (this is why James Joyce always wrote about Dublin, for example). I mean, it’s not that much of a paradox; the concept of expressing the universal through the particular is like Art 101.

To the point, In Between didn’t actually make me feel anything about death, and I can assure you that I am highly susceptible to emotional manipulation in this regard. I really doubt that anyone involved with this game has ever actually felt the icy hand of oblivion clawing at their heart. I can’t imagine that anyone who had would allow the subject to be treated so bloodlessly.


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As for the gameplay, In Between is a puzzle-platformer, which by itself is somewhat sigh-inducing. The success of Braid has meant that every joker who wants to make a Serious Art Game does so by rigging together a bunch of puzzles and then slapping a layer of half-baked pretentiousness on top of it. See, the fact that Braid chose this genre was not a coincidence: the puzzles in Braid are relevant to its theme in a meaningful way, and so is the fact that it’s a platformer (I’m going to write a big pretentious post about this sooner or later, so get hyped).

Now, In Between‘s level design is actually very good. The central mechanic is the ability to change the direction of gravity at will, which is clever (though meaningless), and the controls are surprisingly fluid considering how potentially awkward it is. There are a few obstacles where it’s just a matter of dodging past them at exactly the right time, but for the most part the solutions are logical rather than twitchy. Though the gameplay is based on the typical challenge/failure/retry loop that is endemic(/pandemic) to the medium, failure is usually a matter of not thinking things through rather than accidentally running into a obstacle. In this particular case, though, the use of the failure loop is a bit of a strange choice. Consider: isn’t it odd for a game about facing death to use death itself as a mere convenience mechanic? Doesn’t this convey precisely the wrong impression, that death isn’t a real thing? Doesn’t it feel wrong to be playing a game about a man afraid of death and to constantly be throwing that man into pits of spikes, only for nothing to actually happen? This is where the problems with the story start to worm their way into the rest of the game: since In Between doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say, it has no basis from which to choose relevant mechanics.

There are a couple of early clues as to what the fundamental problem is here. First, the game has spikes in it. Spikes are the archetypical Meaningless Video Game Obstacle, dating back to at least Mega Man, where spikes were somehow the ultimate weapon against a robot. The reason spikes are used to fill this role is that they’re obvious: they’re simple and pointy, so they connote “bad thing” at the lowest possible resolution (the game VVVVVV, as the title indicates, deliberately exploits this fact for aesthetic purposes). Hence the problem: “avoid bad thing” is not enough of a framework for meaningful action, and it doesn’t work at all if you’re making a game specifically about a bad thing that cannot be avoided.

The other clue is the fact that the chapters are based on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I mean, for god’s sake. You can’t possibly expect to be able to say anything meaningful using perhaps the single most overplayed bit of pop-science dumb-downery as your framework. The only explanation for the fact that this is the horse the game chose to hitch its wagon to is that it has no idea where it’s going.

So, while the game makes a decent attempt at tying its mechanics to its theme, the fact that it has nothing to say means it ends up being excessively literal-minded. Each chapter has a few lines of narration implying the relation between the mechanics and the theme, but they’re always a stretch. For example, a level where you have to use switches to open doors has the narrator say, “Things change. Pathways that were open are now closed.” Which is a literal description of the gameplay that also kind of sort of seems like it maybe has some deeper meaning, except that it doesn’t. I mean, the whole point of the story is that there isn’t actually a path for this guy, right?

This is actually really important, though, because this attempt gets to the heart of how video games can be made meaningful to people. Designing mechanics with thematic significance in mind, such that the gameplay actually does the thing that it means to express, is exactly the right thing to do, and too few games are doing it. So it’s not enough to write In Between off as being “not good enough” here; we need to understand exactly why and how it fails in order to figure out how to get this right.


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Denial

Each chapter of In Between introduces a new mechanic that serves as a metaphor for the chapter’s theme. “Denial” is represented as a big wall of darkness that advances on you when your back is turned, and recedes when you’re facing it. As a metaphor this is coherent enough: the truth will eventually overtake you if you turn away from it, so you have to “face the darkness” in order to be able to resist it.

But the actual gameplay here doesn’t really work. All you have to do in each level is get to the goal, and the darkness doesn’t actually get in your way or anything, so all you really have to do is move fast enough so that you can turn around before you get overtaken, which . . . is really the opposite of what’s supposed to be going on here, right? Rushing through something is basically the opposite of facing up to hard truths. Conceiving of denial as an obstacle that you have to overcome on your way to something else is exactly wrong: the point of denial is that the thing itself must be faced.

This is the first symptom of the fundamental problem that all the levels have: the game is about trying to come to terms with things, and navigating a level to avoid the obstacles and get to the exit is a totally incoherent metaphor for this. Because, you know, you actually win each level, which is not at all what happens when you’re actually dying (i.e. always).

So, okay, this can be fixed though. What would make sense here is if facing the darkness were the actual goal. First of all, it never really feels like you’re “denying” anything, so it would actually make more sense for the darkness to not be a threat in the early levels, so you can start out by ignoring it. Then, in order to convey the theme of “facing the darkness,” the later levels would have to change things such that facing the danger becomes how you complete the level rather than merely something you do on the way to completing the level. For example, you could have to explore each level thoroughly in order to banish the darkness from every corner, and doing so would expose you to dangers that you could otherwise have avoided. As the game actually is, though, the way you finish these levels is by ignoring the darkness most of the time and just focusing completing the level normally, only turning around at certain points where the darkness becomes a problem. The gameplay actually encourages you to remain in denial.


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Anger

“Anger” is by far the laziest chapter, thematically speaking. Anger is represented as big red orbs that kill you if you touch them, and that’s about it. Unlike in “Denial,” there’s not even any new behavior required here. The anger orbs are just another obstacle, and you avoid them just like you avoid the spikes. As a result, the levels create no emotional impression relevant to what the chapter trying to convey.

There is a slight complication, which is that some of the anger orbs move around in response to certain actions, so sometimes you have to shift them around in order to open up a path. Gameplay-wise, the problem here is that these behaviors are arbitrary, which makes the whole thing an exercise in uninteresting trial-and-error. But this also fails to elevate the levels thematically. Again, a literal-minded narration cue attempts to tie the gameplay to the theme: “there must be a way to control the anger, or to avoid it.” So having to move the orbs around is meant to represent “anger management.”

But even when you have to move the orbs around, they’re still just obstacles, and an obstacle is not the type of thing that anger is. Anger isn’t something external that prevents you from reaching a goal; it comes from inside you, and what’s scary about it is that it feels right. I mean, even without any analysis, it’s obvious just from playing these levels that they don’t feel anything like anger. This chapter wouldn’t have made it out of alpha if the developers had just listened to their feelings.

So, since anger comes from within, since it’s something that affects your own actions, it ought to be represented not as an external obstacle but as a player ability. It would have to be something powerful, something that feels good to use. Since this is a platformer where you have to navigate around obstacles, the obvious thing would be an ability to destroy parts of the level so that you don’t have to deal with them. You could blow away some spikes, or punch a hole in a wall and just walk on through to the exit.

The other half of the problem is the same as in “Denial”: there’s supposed to be a progression here, the protagonist is supposed to be working through these feelings, but the obstacles remain mere impediments to the goal the entire time. In order to portray the protagonist changing his perspective, the means of navigating the levels would also have to change. Specifically, indulging your anger would eventually have to backfire. The later levels could be more intricately designed, such that trying to break through them would actually make them uncompleteable. The player would learn how to be careful about using their ability, to think before acting, to control their anger, before finally completing the last level without using their anger powers at all, but rather accepting the world as it is.


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Bargaining

“Bargaining” is the most successful chapter, because it’s the only one where the new mechanic is something other than a new type of obstacle. You control two characters at once on a split screen, and you have to maneuver them both to a point in the level where they can come into contact – each level is completed when the two characters touch. So this is also the only level where the actual goal is changed to match the theme. Also, the second character’s controls are reversed, which adds a nice aesthetic touch: the two halves of each level feel like opposing fragments, with a tension between them that you have to balance carefully while moving gradually forward, until you finally achieve a synthesis where the parts negate each others’ flaws and become whole.

The problem is that the thing I just described there isn’t what bargaining is. The struggle to harmonize opposing parts has a different name: reconciliation. Bargaining is almost the opposite: it’s when you’re trying to get something or get rid of something at any cost. But the only thing to say about bargaining in the face of death is that it doesn’t work. You could probably work this into the gameplay somehow, but I think the developers actually had the right instinct here: reconciliation in the face of death is a much richer subject. Again, sticking to shallow pop-science models = not that great for artistic expression. By inadvertently abandoning the model here, In Between comes very close to succeeding in spite of itself.

But it’s that very success that allows the flaws with the game’s story to come creeping in. Even if you’ve got good mechanics, you still need to connect them to the thing that they’re supposed to represent. And if you don’t actually write a story where there’s something there to connect to, you’re just reaching out into thin air. In this case, all we really learn about the dying man is that he feels bad about leaving his family behind. There’s just nothing there to be represented.

When I said that you control “two characters” in this chapter, that was actually a bit of wishful thinking. You control the main character and like a ghost version of him, or something. It’s kind of funny: it’s like the designers were subconsciously aware that they had nothing to represent here, so they put in something that actually symbolizes a lack of representation. What’s less funny is that they had a real solution right under their noses. In the cutscene introducing this chapter, the screen is split between the dying man and his wife, running home to meet each other after his diagnosis comes in. So, since we’ve established that the point here is that this guy has to think about people other than himself, that even in death, there’s no escaping the web of human relationships, isn’t it pretty fucking obvious that the second character here needs to be one of those people? Most obviously, his wife? I mean, you can stick to the conceit that this is all happening inside the guy’s head by making it like an afterimage of the person or whatever, but if the point here is that this guy needs to reconcile his own trauma with the needs of his loved ones, isn’t it thematically required for those people to actually be present in the gameplay?

I’m going to go out on about half a limb here and say that the problem is sexism. Recent events have indicated depressingly that a female player character with a purpose other than adolescent sex appeal is just a bridge too far for some people. Guess what though: sexism isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a quality issue. It is not at all the case that “inclusiveness” is a form of “censorship” that “dumbs down” games. Quite the contrary: games cannot be made correctly until this problem is solved, until the other half of humanity assumes its place as player characters. As In Between itself demonstrates, a man’s story cannot be told without accounting for the subjectivity of women.


in_between_depression

Depression

“Depression” is dishearteningly similar to “Denial”: it’s a big wave of darkness that you have to avoid. When you wind up representing two different concepts in almost the same way like this, it’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your chosen means of expression. Also, I think we can do a little better than representing “dark” things as literal darkness. Anyway, the difference is that to get through the depression-darkness you have to move between pockets of light, just like how when you’re actually depressed you have to find the little things in your life that make you feel better and focus on them in order to keep moving.

So this works fine, mostly, except for the game’s lack of specificity again rearing its ugly head. We never actually learn anything about what makes this guy depressed (beyond the obvious) or what makes him happy, so the whole enterprise comes off as hollow. What you actually do in these levels is move glowing boxes around to create lighted areas you can move through, which really doesn’t feel like managing depression. It feels like making whatever arbitrary moves are available so that you can get through a video game level.

I’m really not asking for much here. All that’s really needed is for the light-producing tools to portray something the guy likes, and to behave in a relevant way. Given that this game is about a very practical real-world experience, it’s inappropriate to try to convey it using generic abstract video game objects. A little bit of representation goes a long way.


Acceptance

“Acceptance,” appropriately, is an epilogue rather than a chapter. It consists of a series of trivial rooms that repeat in a loop. One of the rooms has spikes in it, but they’re not in your way, so you’ll never hit them unintentionally. The only thing you can do is “accept death” by deliberately killing yourself.

Straightforward enough, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense. Killing yourself is not the same thing as accepting death. Indeed, because killing yourself is the only way to finish the game, doing so is actually the goal, i.e. the thing that you’re supposed to do, so you’re not actually “accepting” anything. This turns dying into something you do, rather than something that happens to you without your consent. In order for the concept of “acceptance” to actually be applicable, you would have to somehow be required to give up on finishing the game. It really doesn’t count as acceptance if you get an achievement for it. (Actually, there’s also an achievement for going through the “Acceptance” levels several times without accepting death, which I believe establishes a new state of the art in Not Getting It.)

The disease here is the idea that a game must be “finishable,” that it ends when you’ve done “100%” of everything there is to do. So the puzzle-platform framework, where the game consists of a series of challenges and it’s over once you’ve cleared them all, is fundamentally at odds with In Between‘s intended theme. A more appropriate framework would be something like a roguelike, where’s there’s a wide variety of potential things to do, but each playthrough is limited in some way, so you can never get everything at once. The game would eventually end on you of its own accord, while you still have unfinished business.

This would also be a great chance to develop the story. In what little of it there actually is in the game, we learn that the protagonist’s untimely death leaves him with a number of regrets. He never fully reconciled his feelings about his father, he was never able to pursue his dream of being a writer, he’s worried about leaving his wife alone (the wife gets zero character development. I’m telling you, sexism at work), and he’ll never get to see his daughter grow up. So, what could be interesting here is if the later levels in the game gave you the opportunity to explore some of these relationships, but not all of them. There could, for example, be some kind of stamina mechanic that depletes as you play levels, with the game ending once you run out. This would force you to make choices about what to do with your remaining time. It would close off important paths that you wanted to take. It would leave you with regrets.


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I’m not picking nits here. There’s a specific and important reason for all of these problems, which is that In Between chooses a means of expression that doesn’t work for the thing that it’s trying to express. It takes standard avoid-obstacles-and-get-to-the-goal platformer gameplay, tightens the design into the form of puzzles, and then paints over it with a series of shallow, literal-minded metaphors. But even if that coat of paint were more evocative, the actual moving parts underneath it don’t move in the right direction. The gameplay portrays the wrong thing – it uses completionist solution-finding gameplay to portray a situation in which there’s no such thing as completion and there are no solutions. This is as wrong as writing an EDM song about the good old days before technology ruined everything (ignoring the possibility of irony, which is obviously not what’s happening here). The means don’t lead to the ends, and this disconnect, irrespective of the quality of the writing, silences the game before it has a chance to speak.

Again, the reason In Between is a puzzle-platformer is because that’s what Braid was, and everyone agrees that Braid is a meaningful game, so obviously if you want to make a meaningful game you should do the same thing. More fundamentally, the misconception here is the idea that any means of expression can potentially convey any message – that one can communicate as though by Mad Libs, taking an existing design and switching out the words. The misconception is that “story” and “gameplay” are separate things.

A work of art is an aesthetic object; once created, it steps in and the creator leaves. The intent vanishes behind the act. But to suppose that this fact robs art of its ability to communicate is to lose sight of the real good while looking for the imaginary perfect. On the contrary, we’re fortunate to live in an ordered universe, one where specific actions have specific effects, and where intent cannot be directly transmitted. This forces us to engage with reality. In exchange, we lose the ability to inhabit the realm of pure ideas, which is a good deal, because that place is fucking boring.

Of course, reality involves danger, and the danger of communication is that you can make an honest go of it and still trip over your own tongue. One’s chosen method of expression comes in between the intent and the interpretation, and once it’s in position, it takes on a life of its own. Galatea was not an anomaly – any work, once encountered, begins to communicate of its own accord. And unless you’re really sure that it’s something you want speaking for you, it’s going to make you look like a fool.

On the verge

There’s not that much to say about Axiom Verge itself. It’s good. It’s a good Metroid clone. That’s not even a dig or anything; it’s well-designed and it’s fun. And despite the fact that “clone” is the term we use for things like this, there isn’t anything wrong with doing genre work. What’s actually interesting about Axiom Verge, though, isn’t how good of a game it is, but how good of a game it isn’t.

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The first thing that happens in the game is that you’re told to go into a room and pick up a gun. You then use the gun to shoot open the door to the next area. In fact, the next three upgrades you get after that are also weapons. The game proceeds pretty much how you would expect from this introduction: most of the gameplay is shooting things, and the boss battles are all firefights.

Actually, the game is disappointing even in this regard. You get a huge number of different weapons (like seriously way too many. Pro tip: the concept of “minimalism” exists for a reason) with different firing patterns and such, but the vast majority of the time the most effective thing to do is to stick with your default weapon and just mash the fire button as fast as you can. The second boss fight is especially anti-notable in this regard: it occurs after you’ve obtained three new weapons since the first boss, and none of them are useful. You know you’ve got a problem when you’re so into shooting ’em up that you’re failing Game Design 101.

This is especially sad when you remember that what makes the Metroid series notable is precisely not the combat, it’s the exploration. Metroid-style combat that consists of merely shooting at enemies until they go away is boring, which is fine, because it’s not supposed to be the focus of the game. Of course, Axiom Verge is far from the only game to make this mistake; indeed, the Metroid series itself suffers deeply from this problem, which is why Super Metroid is still the only game in the series that’s actually worth talking about. In all this time, not a single game has actually improved upon the aspects of Super Metroid that made it great; few have even competently imitated them.

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And yet, there are two items in Axiom Verge that actually hint at a path forward: the Address Disruptor, which allows you to “hack” certain enemies and objects in order to change their properties, and the Passcode Tool, which allows you to change the basic parameters of the game by discovering and entering certain passwords, which can then be turned on or off at will. Pretty interesting stuff, right? Here’s a fun idea: imagine that, instead of getting a gun first so that you can start shooting things as soon as possible, the first thing you picked up was the Address Disruptor, and instead of merely pointing it at the door and pressing “fire,” you actually had to use it to rearrange the environment in some way to be able to proceed. And then you got the Passcode Tool, and a password that, like, inverted gravity or something, and then you had an entirely different version of the game world to explore. Then imagine an entire game that followed from this introduction.

Go on, give yourself a minute to really think of some neat applications of these ideas. I’ll wait.

. . .

Did you enjoy that? I hope so, because none of the stuff you were imagining is actually in Axiom Verge.

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The Address Disruptor does a couple of neat things. It does not do anything neat with the actual environment, whereupon its only use is to allow traversal though certain passages by revealing platforms or removing walls, exactly as if it were a blue key that opens blue doors. Hacking enemies, though, does provide a few interesting moments. Some turn into platforms, others gain the ability to break through certain walls. There’s even one that directly drops an upgrade when killed in its hacked form. Behaviors like these provide innovative new ways to explore the environment and search for secrets.

Ultimately, though, most of the Disruptor’s effects are combat-based. Fast-moving enemies slow down, enemies that normally chase and latch onto you will instead stay still and shoot at you, armored enemies become vulnerable to standard weaponry. Again, the problem with this is that combat is boring; since your goal is to just get rid of the enemies, their behaviors don’t really matter. You’re merely removing obstacles that are in your path. If hacking them makes them easier to deal with, fine; if it’s easier to just shoot them, that’s fine too.

At least that’s something, though. The Passcode Tool is apparently made out of some sort of alien technology that’s powered entirely by disappointment. There are exactly two types of passwords that you can find in the game: one translates some of the log entries you find, allowing you to read thought-provoking fragments that reveal intriguing details about the game’s complex backstory (sometimes I really wonder why I’m doing this to myself), and the other opens passageways in certain rooms, exactly as if it were a blue key that opens blue doors.

There’s one last point that needs to be made about the aesthetics of these items. They’re both presented as ways for you to “break the game,” and their graphical representations support this. Hacking enemies with the Address Disruptor causes them to appear “glitched,” and the Passcode Tool is basically a Game Genie (remember Game Genie? It’s back, in pog form). Even the game’s own ad copy claims that you can “break the game itself by using glitches to corrupt foes and solve puzzles in the environment.” Of course, this is exactly wrong: because these mechanics have specific, intentional effects and the game is designed around them, they precisely do not “break” the game. This may just seem like a cute reference, but what’s important is that it allows Axiom Verge to pretend to be doing more than it actually is; to make do with cuteness instead of trying for depth. This is the problem of mere cleverness.

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So, since I already used the “kill yr idols” conclusion, let’s try something else. Axiom Verge is science-themed. The player character is a theoretical physicist (uh, I think. He works in a “laser lab,” anyway), and your equipment’s ability to alter reality is implied to come from the development and application of a “Theory of Everything.” What I’m going to suggest is that Axiom Verge ought to have followed its theme.

As mentioned, the game is a more combat-focused version of the basic Metroid design, “combat” in this case meaning that there are “enemies” whose only purpose is to be obstacles to your progress, and you get them out of the way by “attacking” them enough to get rid of them while avoiding their own attacks on you. This is very much not what science is like. Science (when done well), is about open-mindedness, collaboration, experimentation, careful observation, and even tedious rigor. Of course, I’m not claiming that the game should have tried to implement a complete representation of the scientific method, but I am claiming that it could easily have done better than implementing the exact opposite.

And here’s what’s interesting: the basic explorative gameplay of Metroid is actually already fairly science-like. You have to stay open-minded and look for alternative routes in order to successfully navigate the environment. You have to experiment to understand how your tools interact with the game world. You have to make careful observations to find likely locations of hidden areas. Sometimes you even have to tediously check every possible wall for a hidden passage. Axiom Verge, with its claimed ability to allow you to alter the environment via the Address Disruptor and change the basic nature of the game with the Passcode Tool, should have been able to do even better than this; it should have been a step forward. Instead, it does the easy thing and slaps a bunch more guns onto a basic design template. It retreats from the game it ought to have been.

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The third boss fight provides some insight into how things could have worked. The boss is a giant, screen-filling monstrosity that throws multiple simultaneous attacks at you, and if you try to fight it via the standard dodging-and-shooting approach, you’re totally doomed. Instead, you have to use the Address Disruptor to reveal more platforms in the area that both block some of the boss’s attacks and provide you with more advantageous positions from which to attack (it’s over once you have the high ground). This is a great example of how a boss fight can rely on thought and planning rather than reflexes and button mashing. And it shows that, even with just the tools that Axiom Verge already has, there could have been an entire game that worked this way.

This is the real significance of the fact that Axiom Verge is a Metroid clone. Starting from the basic Metroid design and then adding enough “innovative” ideas to make the game “original” is exactly the wrong approach. The clearest example of this mistake is the Remote Drone, which is used to move through narrow passages in exactly the same way as Metroid’s Morph Ball. Its look and feel are slightly different, which guarantees that clueless reviewers will praise it for “originality,” but the actual function of the item is exactly the same. Certainly, when one considers the possible applications of a remote-controlled robot in the context of scientific exploration, one can easily imagine several more interesting alternatives.

The better approach, then, is to start with a theme, something that you actually want the game to convey, and then use whatever aspects of existing designs are useful for doing so. Even if this results in a pure genre game, it’ll be one that matters for its own sake, that isn’t merely a representative of its category. This is part of the deep problem that video games have with insularity: they’re only judged against themselves. A different version of a game that’s already been judged “good” is therefore necessarily also “good.” But this doesn’t give anyone who doesn’t already like this type of game any reason to care about it; indeed, it doesn’t give the game a right to exist when someone else has already done it better. The reason nobody has to make any excuses when some new band comes out sounding like the Ramones is because it’s taken for granted that music is a way to express something; we expect it to stand up to judgment on our own terms. This is not currently the case for video games.

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You got a new weapon

Leveling up is the worst mechanic in video games. Naturally, it’s also one of the most popular. From a design perspective, it’s useless at best and counterproductive at worst. From an aesthetic perspective, it’s actively evil.

Let’s start by clarifying what it is we’re talking about. Leveling up is about advancement through your in-game capabilities increasing, as opposed to your abilities as a player. There’s no such concept in a game like Super Mario Bros., where Mario’s abilities are the same throughout the entire game. While there are power-ups that can temporarily increase your abilities, these are situational upgrades rather than a persistent part of Mario’s character.

In Mega Man, on the other hand, the abilities that Mega Man gains by defeating each boss become part of his permanent arsenal. By the end of the game, Mega Man is much more capable than he was at the beginning. Indeed, if you’re having a hard time against one of the bosses in a Mega Man game, one way to proceed is to defeat a different boss in order to get their weapon, and then use it against the boss you’re having trouble on. In this way, the player can advance without actually getting better at the game. Not that this is necessarily a problem; having a variety of challenges available is a good way to keep the player from getting stuck, and they’ll presumably get better at the game naturally as long as they have the opportunity to keep trying.

This still isn’t really what we’re talking about, though, because Mega Man’s weapons are new abilities: they make him more capable, but not necessarily more powerful. There may be situations in which a new weapon isn’t actually useful. Not only that, but the player has to learn what each weapon is good for and decide when to use it, so in that sense these upgrades actually make the game more complicated to play. What we really mean by “level ups” is a general increase in power rather than a specific increase in capabilities. In Super Metroid, for example, Samus can collect energy tanks to increase her endurance, new suits to reduce the amount of damage she takes, or new beams that are strictly superior versions of her existing beam (as opposed to separate weapons in the way that Mega Man’s are). All of these are what you might think of as “background” upgrades; they make the game easier without providing the player with any new options. Of course, Super Metroid also has plenty of upgrades that do actually give Samus new abilities; there’s a clear distinction between upgrades that allow you to do new things and upgrades which are mere improvements.

Thus, we can draw a distinction between two concepts which are often conflated: skill growth and power growth. The first allows the player to do new things, resulting in increased gameplay options and possibly even increased difficulty, while the second makes the things that the player can already do more effective, resulting in a mere decrease in difficulty.

You may have noticed that I’ve deliberately avoided using any examples for the genre that is actually about level ups: RPGs. The problem with RPGs is that the concept of leveling up is so baked-in to the basic formula that it’s very difficult to separate out the relevant concepts. It’s typical for a “level” in an RPG to refer to everything at once: all of your character’s parameters increase, and you also learn new abilities, and your abilities also get stronger without actually doing anything different. Plus there’s things like new equipment, which sometimes gives you a mere power increase, or sometimes gives you what looks like an ability but is actually just a power increase (such as “increased critical hit rate” or “extra damage against dragons”), and sometimes actually gives you new options (such as a staff that regenerates your MP but can’t be used to attack). The point is that RPG design is generally a mess and what I’m taking aim at here is not everything that gets called a “level up” but the specific concept of general power growth.

Skill growth isn’t a problem; indeed, it’s easy to see why it’s an effective mechanic. In games like Mega Man and Super Metroid, skill growth is used to ease the player into the game. The player starts with only the basic abilities, allowing them to get a handle on the fundamentals, and then, with a foundation established, learn to use the new abilities one at a time. Giving the player all the abilities at the outset would be overwhelming; it would actually make the game harder to play. Furthermore, since each skill has a specific function, the process of gaining skills itself can be strategic. In Mega Man, as mentioned, you might try to gain a specific weapon for the purpose of defeating a specific boss. In this way, the player can chart their own path through the game based on an understanding of what capabilities they need to have in order to perform certain tasks (and Mega Man is really the simplest possible example here; a game that utilized this sort of progression in a meaningful way would really be something).

Power growth offers none of these advantages and also contains several drawbacks. The basic problem is that power growth adds nothing to the gameplay. Attacking a monster and dealing 50 damage is exactly the same operation as attacking it and dealing 500 damage. Furthermore, since the game’s challenges have to get harder to compensate for the player’s increased power, there’s not even any practical effect from leveling up. If a monster has 500 HP and you deal 50 damage per hit, you need to hit it 10 times to win. If, after leveling up and moving to a harder area, a new monster has 5000 HP and you’re dealing 500 damage, the situation is exactly the same. It looks different, but the actual actions you’re taking are identical to what they were before. In this way, RPGs often confuse the issue by offering a lot of flash that makes it look like something is going on when you’re actually just using the exact same tactics in every encounter. Thus, level ups often conceal a lack of actual gameplay.

It’s worse than that, though, because power growth can actually cannibalize real gameplay. For example, say you’re up against a boss that counters any physical attacks you hit it with, so instead you need to beat it with magic attacks. But suppose you’ve leveled up enough that the counterattacks aren’t strong enough to stop you. You can just blithely bash away with physical attacks and win anyway; you don’t actually have to learn the boss’s characteristics or how to deal with them. You don’t actually have to play the game.

The reason for this problem is that challenge relies on balance. To illustrate this, consider a boss battle from any Mega Man game. If you’re not familiar, they look like this:

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See those two bars? One of them is Mega Man’s health meter, and one of them is Guts Man’s. When Mega Man hits Guts Man, Guts Man’s health goes down by a certain amount, and vice versa. The fact that both bars are visibly the same size makes the situation admirably clear: the difficulty of the battle is based on the ratio of the amount of damage Mega Man deals to Guts Man to the damage he takes from Guts Man’s attacks. If Mega Man has a weapon that is highly effective against Guts Man (that’d be Bomb Man’s weapon), he might be able to win by just shooting repeatedly and not bothering to avoid any of Guts Man’s attacks. The player doesn’t have to learn anything at all; the battle becomes trivially easy. On the other hand, if Mega Man does very little damage compared to how much he takes from each hit, he may have to avoid almost all of Guts Man’s attacks in order to have a chance. The player may have a hard time even after learning how to effectively dodge most of the boss’s attacks; the battle becomes excruciatingly hard. A well-designed boss battle will have a damage ratio that puts it between these two extremes: with the correct weapon, the battle should be easy but not trivial; without it, the battle should be challenging but doable for a moderately skilled player.

But if the player can increase Mega Man’s overall power by “leveling up,” then they’re in control of the damage ratio (intentionally or otherwise), which means the actual design of the battle goes out the window. If you’re having a hard time against a boss, you have no idea whether it’s because there’s something about the gameplay you have yet to learn or whether you just haven’t leveled enough. If you’ve leveled too much, you’ll just blaze through and miss the opportunity to learn anything. In this situation, the developer has in effect abdicated their responsibility to design a meaningful encounter, instead obligating the player to “guess” what level they need to be at in order to have a good experience (the extent to which game designers often seem to be looking for any possible excuse to avoid actually designing their games is rather disheartening; see also “procedurally generated levels” as a selling point).

But it’s not just that power growth sucks, it’s also that it’s totally clowned by its cooler, more attractive cousin: skill growth. Skill growth does everything power growth can do and more, and it looks good doing it. This is easy to understand if we look at a game that uses both mechanics, but cleanly separates them so that they can be analyzed individually. That game is Final Fantasy Tactics. Whenever one of your characters takes an action, they grow in two ways: they gain Experience, which eventually levels them up in the power growth sense, and they gain Job Points, which can be used to purchase new abilities. If you play the game with this in mind, it will quickly become apparent that Experience is completely boring. It gradually accumulates and makes you stronger and you never actually think or worry about it in any way. Trying to pay attention to it is like watching someone else run on a treadmill.

Conversely, Job Points are not only interesting, they’re also awesome and basically the entire point of the game. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that getting new abilities is fun and interesting. A new ability allows you to do something new in battle, and since Final Fantasy Tactics is pretty well designed, new abilities are generally distinctive: they allow you to do a new type of thing rather than just being a different version of something you can already do. Another reason is that you get to choose which abilities to get, so you can make a plan about how your team is going to work and design the kind of characters that you think will be effective, or creative, or challenging, or even just fun. Thus, we get the same sense of character advancement that power growth offers, but in a way that’s both interesting and conducive to actual gameplay.

Finally, the act of gaining Job Points itself also involves a choice, because each character only gains Job Points for the class they are currently using (pedantic caveat: not actually true, but close enough). So if you want to, for example, make a White Mage that can also use Time Magic, you have to decide when you can allow the character to train in the Time Mage class and when you’re going to need them as a White Mage. And this isn’t an isolated decision, because you have other team members with the same dynamic; if one of them is training as a White Mage, the others are free to do something else. Thus, there’s an interesting tension between growing your characters for the long term and winning each battle in the short term; unlike with Experience, you don’t just get everything for free.

What all this adds up to is that you could completely excise the concept of Experience from Final Fantasy Tactics and you would lose absolutely none of what makes the game good. So from a design perspective the solution to power growth is pretty simple: just say no. Pick a power level and design your game around that. If you want to provide a couple of options for the player to make things easier or harder for themselves, that’s fine, but these ought to be explicit choices rather than just something that happens as you play the game. Furthermore, the limits of these options need to be designed appropriately in order to provide an experience that’s still meaningful even when it’s a little easier or harder.

Gameplay isn’t everything, though. The actual purpose of levels is, of course, aesthetic. They represent a character’s growth over the course of the story. If you’re making a game with a Hero’s Journey type of story, where the main character starts off as some nobody and goes through some trials and stuff and becomes powerful enough to save the day, using level ups to gradually increase the character’s attributes is a great way to represent that, even if it doesn’t actually change the gameplay.

The problem with this is that the Hero’s Journey is a bunch of fucking horseshit. Real things don’t actually happen because of some guy who’s just so strong and smart and powerful that he can defeat all the bad evil forces and make things nice and peaceful for everybody. That’s not how the real world works. It is, rather, how the rulers of an oppressive, hierarchical society want you to think the world works, because it justifies existing power structures.

For example, the jobs of a CEO and a janitor are so different that they can’t be meaningfully compared in terms of value. But we accept that a CEO should have higher pay than a janitor because we consider it to be a “higher level” job. If we instead view these two jobs are merely two different sets of skills, both of which are required for a company to operate, then the justification for not merely “outsized” CEO pay but for any pay discrepancy at all vanishes.

The truth is that the world works the way it does as a result of specific abilities that people have. The members of the ruling class are not better than you. The reason rich fucks are rich is that they’re good at the specific things that our society rewards. Warren Buffett, who is certainly one of our more self-aware rich fucks, has made precisely this point with regard to himself:

“I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.
But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent, and gave me a good education to develop that talent, and set up the laws and the financial system to let me do what I love doing — and make a lot of money doing it. The least I can do is help pay for all that.”

In other words, there’s no actual justification for someone like Buffett being rich. It’s just how things happen to be set up at the moment. Those who are invested in maintaining our current level of injustice want you to believe that the people on top of our society are there because they deserve it, because they’re just better. But they aren’t, and they don’t.

This isn’t just about rich fucks, either. The same analysis applies to the rest of us. The big paradox of justice in the internet years has been that, while the internet has been an incredible boon to the spread of anti-oppression ideologies, it has resulted in very little structural change. Marginalized people have more opportunity than ever to have their voices heard, and inconvenient ideas no longer require official channels for dissemination. At the same time, economic inequality has been steadily worsening and social progress has largely stalled out. The unfortunate truth is that “power” in the form of large numbers of people agreeing on the internet does not actually accomplish anything. What internet activists often fail to realize is that we are not dealing with some sort of cosmic scale, where we just have to put all of our weight on one side to move it. We are dealing with a specific socio-historical situation and specific sorts of actions are required to affect it. Of course, if I had any idea what these actions were, I’d be doing something a little more productive than blogging about game mechanics. But the least we can do is let go of the false hope that says that everything will work out as long as we care hard enough.

And this is where things get really interesting, because not only is there actually a game mechanic that can convey this in a way that’s applicable to the real world, but it’s precisely the good aspect of leveling up that we were just talking about: it’s skill growth. Pretty crazy coincidence, right? The alternative to power growth that’s better for gameplay just so happens to also be the alternative that’s compatible with justice. Except no shit, because it’s obviously not a coincidence, because good design is the same thing as meaningful existence.