It is a foundational assumption in countless—if not most—video games: over the course of the game, the player-character will improve.
Of course, the same assumption exists for players as well. By engaging with a game, responding to its demands, practicing, and rising to its challenges, players will come to gain and hone specific skillsets that the game encourages and necessitates. However, players’ increasing capabilities aren’t what I intend to (briefly) examine here (although that is a consideration that merits more attention on its own).
For now, I’m talking about player-characters within game-worlds, the protagonists or avatars of first-person shooters and action-adventure games and survival-horror games and roleplaying games and so on and so forth. Particularly, really, games in which combat plays a role. In many of these game genres, in which you take on the role of a specific character, you can almost universally rest assured that as you progress in the game, your characters will get better. Your characters will level up and increase their stats; they will find better weapons, better armor; they will gain access to upgrades and to the quantitative measures needed to purchase those upgrades. Improvement in such games isn’t just about the improvement in the players’ gameplay skills—it’s just as much, if not more so, about the player-character’s steady ascension, an unquestioned and unfaltering path towards achieving greater material wealth and greater powers.
In many cases, improvement of the player-character is accompanied by improvement of enemies as well. Frequently, enemies scale with the character’s progress, requiring that the player-character improve in the first place. Improvement becomes necessary simply to keep up with the game’s incremental difficulty scaling. What results is a sort of balancing effect. Enemies get harder over the course of the game, so the player-character gets stronger weapons and armor and upgrades to be able to take them on—but really, those enemies aren’t actually harder to combat because of the player-character’s constant improvement. Consequently, the difficulty level actually stays consistent throughout (trusting, of course, that the player’s skills and improvement stay consistent as well), thanks to the interplay between regular increases in enemy strength and regular climbs in the player-character’s abilities.
So, like, that badass gun you’ve been saving up to purchase for so long over the course of the game? It’s not really that badass, because by the time you’ve collected the necessary points to buy it, the enemies have scaled right alongside you every step of the way. That badass gun is as effective against those late-stage enemies as your little pistol was against enemies at the start of the game. It evens out.
On the other hand, there are those situations in which improvements may result in player-characters being overwhelmingly powerful in comparison to their opponents. Such situations can occur by, say, grinding a whole bunch of levels in a roleplaying game, or by unlocking an especially powerful gun in a first-person shooter (making that badass gun actually badass). From then on out, the player-character may remain obscenely powerful in relation to the enemies and NPCs and otherwise. Scenarios like these may often be dependent on combinations of games’ difficulty levels and players’ skills. For instance, a skilled player that selects a difficulty setting of Easy in a particular game may find their player-character virtually untouchable by the time they reach a game’s later sections.
Whatever the case, improvement is an assumption that lies at the heart of many of the games we play. Even ultra-difficult “masocore” games like those in the Dark Souls franchise follow this rule. Sometimes I think this is boring. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is the case so much of the time. Along with it just generally being an assumption or even ideology that we have—play, practice, get better, improve, progress, win—it also gives players something to do to keep them playing, to keep them motivated. Play more to level up, to get more stuff, to get better, to unlock that next area, to take on that next set of enemies that were too tough before but won’t be so tough now, on and on. Unlock more powers. Unlock more stuff.
But what if this weren’t always the case? What if there were games in which the player-character steadily declined over the course of the game?
What if weapons degraded and couldn’t be fixed? What if subsequent weapons that you found were worse? What if you started with a fine, sturdy shotgun—but you lost it, or it broke? And what if all you could find after that was a plank with a nail through the end? What if ammunition and health kits and money just stopped showing up?
What if, rather than enjoying upgrades, the trauma and turmoil that your character undergoes gradually took a toll, slowly diminishing their capabilities? What if they actually got weaker over the course of the game, rather than simply looking a little bloodier while still being fully capable of—or improving at—fighting?
What if there wasn’t more power to be achieved, but just a slow and steady decline?
And then, what if the player actually had to perfect skillsets to account for this decline, for this increase in difficulty, rather than that balancing-out or that overwhelming force that comes with player-character improvement? What if players just hit a point where they couldn’t keep going, where completion was totally unachievable because of the player-character’s deterioration or the loss of necessary items?
I think that games that didn’t rely on an assumption of constant, regular improvement would be interesting. I think that player-character decline would be especially interesting in the context of a genre like survival-horror. …But I also like games that are brutally difficult, scary, or nerve-wracking, so maybe that’s just me.
I do think this model could also have some ethical issues attached to it. But maybe it would also call into question some of the ethical issues already underlying the current model of perpetual improvement.
Truthfully, though, I get bored by the persistent and unchanging models of improvement that are currently on offer. I don’t know if I, or anyone else, would necessarily enjoy a game featuring player-character decline—but I do think it’d be interesting. If nothing else, it’s interesting just to think about.
Are there games out there that offer player-character decline that I’ve overlooked or forgotten about? I’d love some recommendations or reminders.
(By the way, one area that I can think of off the top of my head that games have explored with regard to player-character decline is that of stress and mental health. For more on this, check out Austin Walker’s piece on mental health in Darkest Dungeon. )