[In his latest column examining gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them, Gamasutra contributor Jeffrey Matulef looks at Sword & Sworcery andthe payoff in weakening players' characters over time.]
Upon completing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, I was struck by its unique design choice to make your health deteriorate throughout the course of the game. The explanation for this is that carrying the "golden trigons" -- magical triangles clearly referencing The Legend of Zelda -- are sapping your life force. Rather than simply stand in the background as a plot element, it was refreshing to see this affect the character in such an immediate and tangible way.
This was also fascinating because it went against the status quo that video game characters should grow increasingly powerful. In role playing games we level up. In action games we buy new moves or find items to increase our health and attack power, or expand out move sets. In racing games we acquire new gear to enhance our performance. Not all game have growth systems, but the ones that do make sure your numbers keep going up rather than down. Call it the pursuit of progress.
By the same token, conventional design philosophy dictates that games should get more challenging as they go. Once you acquire a base set of skills to conquer a game's earlier chapters, it should demand more and more from you, lest it become tired or boring.
These two ideals are not mutually exclusive. Usually to get around this, designers ensure you get stronger but make enemies become even stronger yet. This way you have the illusion of growing, even if you're actually getting weaker relative to the task at hand. It's as if you received a minor raise, only to come home and realize your rent's just gone up.
Superbrothers' decision to wear a character down isn't empowering, but it is dramatic. Just as Indiana Jones looks like he's been through hell and back by the time the end credits roll in his movies, there's a cathartic sense of raw power that comes from seeing a weathered hero fight tooth and nail to complete their quest.
Games like Arkham Asylum and Shadow of the Colossus alter your character's appearance as the game wears on. By the end of these games, Bat's costume is torn to shreds and Wander is haggard and dirty. However, their health and abilities are at an all time high. Your character may look weary, but you'll feel powerful.
The reasoning behind this is the more you do something, the better you'll get at it. Just as Batman gets better at beating up thugs, Wander improves his climbing skills. This doesn't take into account that they'd tire themselves out. Some games with a longer format like Fallout 3 and Deadly Premonition even point this out by making your character perform poorly or lose health if they've not slept or eaten for too long.
This doesn't hold up in Arkham Asylum, where Batman's journey takes place entirely over the course of one night (cleverly the game's 12 or so hour length adds to the illusion that this is happening in real time). By the time Batman reaches the Joker for the final showdown he should be pretty wounded. Feeling like the ultimate badass goes against this notion.
I admired that S:S&S made you feel just as weak as its protagonist by decreasing her health meter. Going from three hit points to only two ratcheted up tension dramatically in the late game. By the endgame, your health is down to a scant one hit point as your avatar flashes, crawls, and vomits her way to a so close, yet so far conclusion.
This isn't that new. Mario did this in '85 when its final level offered not a single mushroom to you. Bowser remains as he ever was, a hopping, hammer throwing menace vulnerable to lava (which he inexplicably hung out on top of). He hasn't grown or evolved since he started tossing hammers midway through the game, but facing off against him that final time is especially terrifying with little room for error for poor, shrunken Mario.
Curiously, while few games decrease your health in the endgame, many decrease your abilities. In Metal Gear Solid, for example, you spend much of the game using nifty gadgets, weapons, and stealth to defeat a rogues gallery of bosses requiring you to take advantage of your wide arsenal. The final battle, however, is a no holds barred fist fight. It's trying to be macho -- like when Schwarzenegger's John Matrix throws away his knife at the end of Commando to face off against his old foe mano-a-mano -- but it ends up just being stupid. Throughout the game Snake was never portrayed as being an excellent brawler. Why should he be now? I didn't feel limited for any good reason, so it felt misguided to throw out all I'd learned up to that point.
There's nothing inherently wrong with leveling up a player character only to level up their opposition even more. In theory it makes the final encounter more dramatic to have the two forces at the top of their game duking it out. The problem is that it's becomes cliche.
Superbrothers' unconventional approach to making your character weaker maintained a greater sense of weariness and defeat. Even though its final minutes contain little combat, it felt tense because I've grown a Pavlovian reaction to seeing my avatar flash. By making the player character's weakness more than just superficial, it robbed me of all my confidence. I was uncomfortable and worried, just as one should be when the fate of the world lies in their dying hands.