Brace yourselves, readers, this week's column is going to be another adventure in pitching hypothetical new game concepts that I have no time to make myself and don't expect anyone else to attempt either. This is one I've been thinking about for a while and for which the aftermath of my DC Universe Online review will serve decently enough as a vehicle, because it concerns RPGs, or at least, RPG elements.
Some weeks ago I was attending a barbecue, being in Australia and all, and someone got me gabbing off about videogames, which like a burst dyke is a lot easier to get going than it is to plug up. I was repeating a statement I'd made before concerning RPG elements, stating that I'd played a lot of games with RPG elements where the game gets easier and easier towards the end as you gain more and stronger powers, which is failed design because games are supposed to have escalating difficulty curves. And that led me to wonder if it doesn't make more sense for a game with RPG elements to have you level in reverse. That is, where you start off in your strongest form, become weaker and weaker over the course of the game, lose abilities one by one, and finally end the game with barely a peashooter and a saucepan lid breastplate to your name.
Here's how I imagine this game working, which for now we'll just title Tfarcraw Fo Dlrow. You start off as a level 85 demigod in a wealthy and decadent court of heroes, but after some terrible threat strikes the land you are forced to embark on a series of quests, each of which takes its toll through either injury or exhaustion, gradually and permanently reducing your stats. After a while you're too weak to defend your home nation and must flee to a neighbouring territory where the threat hasn't escalated so far, but this is also some kind of spiritual pilgrimage where at various points you're required to select one of your legion of special powers and abilities to be simply erased from your repertoire before you can proceed. There'd need to be some kind of gating system to stop people getting into later areas too early and stomping all over them.
Now, at first glance, this idea seemed completely indefensible, even to me. "Make the player stronger as they proceed" is part 1 of lesson 1 of game design 101. What possible motivation would the player have to keep playing if they're just going to get weaker? Traditionally one keeps a game interesting by routinely adding new gameplay features, not taking them away. But we can only break free of a dreary cycle of churned-out me-toos by taking a step back and completely reassessing. And the more I think about it, the more levelling backwards makes sense.
The main reason people play games is to progress through them, experiencing the story and exploring the changing terrains around them, which in our hypothetical TfD is only possible by playing and the consequent levelling down. I have a hunch that the desire to get stronger in a game comes out of the broader desire to progress through it, and if the player understands that weakening is what brings progress in this case then they'll be happy to go along with that instead.
Secondly, after recently playing a World of Warcraft mage up to level 60, I couldn't help noticing that the bottom and sides of my screen had gradually become wallpapered with miscellaneous spells, some of which I never used at all. If the player started with all of those, they could decide straight away (well, after some experimentation) which ones best complimented their play style, making the choices of what skills and spells to get rid of initially easy and increasingly heart-rending. Many games already do this to an extent: most recently I've been playing Two Worlds 2, which at the start teaches you virtually every skill at its most basic level, then encourages you to level up the ones you like and let the others slowly atrophy. Conversely, games with RPG elements in which new weapons are introduced staggeringly (such as Bioshock) often result in me keeping steadfastly to the weapons I'd picked up early and been pouring my points into rather than take a chance with something new. This also brings to mind the practice of games like Metroid Prime or Darksiders to have an introductory level where you have all your abilities at the start, but they're all swiftly taken away; it's a means of showing the player how much is at stake.