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Analysis: Weakening Heroes And The Pursuit Of Progress
Analysis: Weakening Heroes And The Pursuit Of Progress
June 21, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef

[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.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at, Eurogamer, Paste, Joystiq,GamePro, and Kill Screen among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]

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raigan burns
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Semi-spoiler alert!

John McMahon
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Nice article, I'd like to see a lot of cliches thrown away. Too many games are design off of successes instead of challenging what came before.

Mike Engle
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I think it's weird to say "It's sometimes okay to misstep -- to not make the perfectly optimized game design decision at every turn -- just to break cliche every once in a while."

Enough bad design decisions are inherent to the process of designing games that it's odd to intentionally make an imperfect decision.

I mean there's a grain of truth there. For example, an intentionally imperfect death system (permadeath) will be what makes Salem a rather unique(ish) and noteworthy MMORPG. But that same intentional misstep is likely what will prevent the game from ever being all that popular. (And maybe that won't matter if they spend an appropriate budget producing it, but if it's not a well-calculated decision it can be disasterous.)

Rodrigo Contreras
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Nice, Article indeed. But I believe is important not to confuse clever design with "just harder". I think the last level in Mario is just harder. The game is designed so that the player always looks for that mushroom. In this game you describe, it seems it's designed to make the player feel weaker every time.

Maybe both have the same practical effect, but they make the player feel (or want) different.

craig d. adams
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Nice article Mr. Matulef!

Super glad you dug our decisions re: The Scythian's deteriorating condition in Sword & Sworcery.

S:S&S EP isn't a mechanics-focused videogame, it's closer to an audiovisual storybook... and as you point out in your article (with the Indiana Jones reference), dramatic stories in film or in books often end up with a broken & battered protagonist limping to the finish line... I would say this is a normal flow of an adventure story, and it's only videogame stories that choose to do the inverse.

As you discussed, our implementation of this idea was dead simple: the player character loses one max health (starting with five) after each climactic boss fight, and then we added a few idle behaviours (coughing, vomiting) plus a flickering/darkening effect on the sprite, very basic, but it was super interesting playing it through once we got it all working: it really seemed to deepen the sense of a narrative progression; it suggested a tragic outcome and even kinda tugged on the ol' heartstrings; Jim Guthrie's music became even more evocative & heartbreaking.

On the mechanics side, the player had to pay more attention to survive, so the challenge in combat encounters naturally intensified & the dramatic tension ratcheted up a few notches without the need for all-new enemies or new enemy behaviors (which might've been nice but actually wouldn't have added much to the story concept).

Of course this 'weakening heroes' thing isn't a new concept in videogames by any stretch, I can think of a few survival horror experiences, notably Eternal Darkness, that explored some of this stuff... but I think there's a whole lot of other, deeper ideas in this general direction... I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for other instances.

On a sort of personal tip [feel free to not read this]:

So we were putting these degrading health features in last fall, at a time when the project itself was in a challenging state from my perspective. We had been slogging through months of hard work, and at least in my case (separately from Capy & Jim Guthrie), my mental & physical condition had been deteriorating for some time... there were financial pressures on my side, budget & schedule pressures more generally, profound uncertainty about the outcome, exhaustion, sleeplessness... this was my very first time as a videogame project co-lead (and sole artist, amateur sound designer, writer... etc) and I had gone 'all in'... so while I was surrounded by amazing & supportive people on all sides, it was an occasionally spooky ordeal for me personally.

Myself & Kris Piotrowski, Capy's creative director and a co-creator on Sword & Sworcery, went out for some beers around this time. Among other things, we were talking about these health ideas and we were joking around about how the mental & physical effort of making this project (or, well, any project) matched The Scythian's troubled trajectory. We had set out to climb a mountain & slay a beast (finish a videogame project that, while small, was experimental and ambitious for a tiny team) and while we were making good progress towards the finish line, in my case the effort was grinding me down into something less than healthy.

With this in mind, you can imagine how strange it might've felt to paint The Scythian's funeral pyre... getting the ending of the story in place was a significant milestone on the creative side so it felt really good to be finally getting it done, but it was also weirdly kind of heartbreaking and meta.

I've no doubt everyone has stories about the blood, sweat & tears that go into a project you care about, and I've not doubt other folks have had it much much harder than we ever did. I guess the only thing that's unusual about Sword & Sworcery is that our ordeal is metaphorically echoed in the storyline in a pretty intentional way, and maybe there's some aspect of this that comes across somehow.

So yeah, we set out on this adventure to make something kinda worthwhile with a bit of soul, and as Kris often says, making something worthwhile is almost always super tough, and if you want to make something with soul... well... that soul has to come from somewhere... sometimes it has to be semi-painfully extracted from the creators.

All's well that ends well, more or less. The project eventually got done & it found an appreciative audience, plus everyone involved is feeling positive about the experience of making it... so in retrospect it was worthwhile.

ok & kindest wishes


-- | midsummer rockshowcase

Jeffrey Matulef
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That's a great story, Craig. Glad you enjoyed my article and I hope you feel loads better now that the game's been released (and to quite a bit of fanfare, I might add. Good job!).

Todd Boyd
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"Scharzenegger" ?

Jeff Hangartner
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Nice article! I think the stuff you were describing with Snake's fistfight is part of why people get annoyed with Quicktime's visually dramatic but from a gameplay perspective it's basically throwing out all the skills you've been developing. You've put hours into practicing the game's moves and then they throw a scene at you that someone who hasn't touched the game before could complete. If Mario handed you a bunch of mushrooms in that final level, anyone could breeze through it regardless of experience...tension, panic, the joy of success, bragging rights, all those would go out the window.

(I actually love QTEs, haha)

Craig: Awesome story, thanks for sharing. It's clear you guys put a ton of soul into the game!

- Jeff