A common trope of video games is the progression from zero to hero. While this trope is most prevalent in RPGs, it also finds its way into action games, sports games, and rhythm games. One of the reasons for the popularity of the ‘zero to hero’ trope is that games tend to be more interesting when they feel like they are building on themselves. We rarely want a game where the protagonist is just as strong at the end of the game as he/she is in the beginning.
Yet it’s rare for me to find games that make me feel like the protagonist itself is getting better at his/her core skills. Instead, character progression in video games tends to follow a fairly standard pattern which relies on one of two types of progression: stat progression or ability progression.
Stat progression refers to an increase in numbers that define the character’s overarching capabilities. For example, in many RPGs, a character may “level up” and gain an increase in their strength, speed, health, or defense. The end result of stat progression is that your character is, on paper, better. Yet stat progression has always felt like a cop out to me. I never feel like my character is getting better at anything. Instead, the character’s numbers are getting better in concert with the numbers of the enemy. Imagine the situation where I initially deal 10 damage against an average minion who has 20 health and by the end of the game I use the same move to deal 1,000,000 damage against a character with 2,000,000 health. What has really changed here?
This problem is compounded when these games attempt to show you how powerful an enemy is by placing you in a losing battle. Often you will find yourself attacking an enemy with a massive number of hit points while doing very little damage. These fights rarely make the enemy feel more powerful then the protagonist. They just feel like they have better numbers than the protagonist. Later in the game when you fight these enemies for real, your attacks could stay the exact same, but your better numbers will ensure a more fair battle.
Ability progression tends to invoke a stronger feeling of actual progression. Ability progression refers to the addition of new actions for the protagonist to take. Abilities can be new combinations, new weapons, new spells, new basic attacks, or upgraded versions of old abilities. When you first grab the shotgun in Bioshock, your character’s kill potential greatly increases. The game even makes you aware of this fact by surrounding you with enemies who would have likely destroyed you when you were stuck with only a pistol and a magic taser.
One of the great things about ability progression is that it makes you feel more like you are becoming powerful and not that your numbers are just becoming higher than the enemies. Keeping with the Bioshock example, in the beginning of the game you are armed with only a crowbar and your magic taser. The first time you see a Big Daddy, you are horribly unequipped to deal with him and this leads to a feeling that you are powerless in this environment. By the end of the game, you have rockets, electric trip wires, hacked turrets, armor piercing machine gun rounds, and explosive shotgun rounds. Your plethora of abilities makes you feel akin to a god in Rapture and killing Big Daddies becomes more of a sport than a life or death struggle.
Yet despite the protagonist’s increased utility with ability progression, there still seems to be something lacking. The addition of new ways of killing enemies does not make me feel like the protagonist has gotten better at what he has been doing. Instead, it feels like the protagonist has been given more options so that he/she does not have to get better at what he/she has been doing.
I would like to see more games focus on showing a progression in the protagonist’s current abilities. It would be interesting to see the protagonist slowly get better at preforming basic attacks. In a lot of action RPGs, the characters add attacks to their combos, allowing the character to deal more damage to their enemies. Yet it is rare for me to see a game where the first attack ever changes – either by becoming faster, better aimed, or more efficient.
Imagine a game where your attacks and movements are sluggish at first, but become faster and deadlier as you get stronger. In this game when you are confronted with a better enemy, they would actually feel better than you. They would be able to dance circles around you while you flail about trying to land a single strike. Then by the end of the game you can feel like you have really progressed when you are able to match your opponent strike for strike. Additionally, the difficulty curve of the game can increase as your character progresses because you are now fighting at faster speeds.
One great example of this type of progression is Katamari Damacy. In Katamari Damacy, you play as a Teletubby rolling around a ball of trash. As the ball picks up more items, the ball increases in size and is capable of grabbing even larger items. In a single level, your ball of trash can increase from the size of a paperclip to the size of a large city. When you start these levels, human beings are huge and imposing. Then your trash ball slowly increases in size until you reach the point where you can just barely start grabbing people. By the end of the level you can laugh maniacally as you suck up cities into your ever increasing trash ball. Katamai Damacy doesn’t show progression by increasing a background “damage” value or by giving your ball new abilities like a vortex. Instead, you progress in your basic ability to roll things up by rolling things up.
Another great example is Crackdown where agility orbs are littered around the map. Collecting an agility orb increases the protagonist’s movement speed and max jump height. In the beginning of the game, the protagonist can barely jump over a dumpster. By the end of the game, the protagonist is leaping over skyscrapers in a single bound. These types of progression systems really make you feel like your character is getting better, instead of just becoming more diverse or increasing their background numbers to match the numbers of those around them.
If you can think of other good examples of progression through an increase in basic abilities, please leave them in the comments.