Design Idea: Powering Down

by Darius Kazemi on October 9, 2008

in design

Jeff and I had lunch today with the folks at GAMBIT (and I would like to note that it is awesome that we can decide on a whim that it’s a nice day and we should just walk over to Kendall Square and have lunch with some of the smartest game researchers in the world). Anyway, as usual, we started talking about game design theory. Jesper brought up the idea that games, such as Metroid, where you retread earlier parts of levels, are kind of like the movie Memento.

And then I thought, what would a game look like where you progress backwards throughout the whole thing? We have games like God of War where you start off with all your powers, lose them, and then spend the game getting them back. But what if you just start off with all your powers, and then slowly lose them over the course of the game, until by the end of the game you are a weakling?
I think you could make a really cool game about a retiring hero this way. Say it’s an action game. Maybe in the first level you have the climactic battle where you finally put your arch-nemesis away for good, at which point you decide to give away your powers (your gear or magic or whatever) to younger heroes who are clamoring to take your place. So little by little, you lose your abilities until you’re just a regular guy.
But here’s the thing: this could be a really cool way of scaling difficulty. At the beginning you start out with some super weapon that kills everything in one hit. Then you lose it, and you have to come up with a way to use your remaining weapons more efficiently. Maybe you have to focus more on aiming for weak spots, or be more stealthy. I see the game progressing from a high-action type of game into a more measured stealth game or perhaps even a puzzle game where you are left with no choice but to out-think your enemies. So the enemies never change: you do.
I like this idea a lot, because the gameplay parallels the whole transition from hero to desk jockey or mentor that we often see in movies or stories. We see it in many stories with elderly Batman, where at some point he retires from active duty but remains behind the scenes providing considerable tactical insight and helping out younger heroes (Kingdom Come and Dark Knight Returns spring to mind).
The end-game could be extremely powerful: you fight some final battle, and you’re actually sitting in the back helping the younger heroes achieve their victory. You could have some emotional ending where you finally can retire for real because the next generation has taken on your mantle, and you barely had to help at all. I think that would be amazing to see in a video game.
What do you, my incredibly intelligent readers, think?


Corvus October 9, 2008 at 9:05 pm

This very much meshes with a conversation we had on–I think it was Brainy Gamer. The idea of focusing on the hero’s return to the normal world and how that would feel after having been so powerful.

I think it’s a great idea that would make for a compelling game if it were done well.

Savid Daunders October 9, 2008 at 9:46 pm

I think it’s brilliant! Very, very cool idea.

Howabout this: The game can be played co-op where the 2nd player takes the role of the up-and-coming hero, so they start out weak but get progressively stronger, while you start out strong and get progressively weaker, transferring your power to them over time.

So in effect, one player takes on the role of the mentor, and the other takes on the role of the student.

Nathan October 9, 2008 at 10:37 pm

That’s quite an amazing idea. It actually reminds me of Merlin from the King Arthur legends, which made me think that you could also make a game like that where the loss of powers is involuntary. I imagine the story for such a game could be highly emotional.

By the way, just so you have some idea of who I am (though not really), I attended your talk at PAX, and it gave me more than a bit of inspiration. So thank you.

Arrakiv October 9, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Neat… I can already think of a number of ways to use something like this beyond the ‘retiring hero’ concept as well, and it could bring up some very interesting ways of playing a game. Scaling difficulty is certainly one, and it requires the player to change how they complete challenges, instead of providing easier ways past them.

There is one problem, however. People tend to like gaining power. I’m not sure how they’d react to the idea of losing it.

Casey October 10, 2008 at 1:02 am

What it reminds me of is, “Bearing an Hourglass,” by Piers Anthony. It is part of the Incarnations of Immortality series, with this one being about Time or Chronos. The person who assumes Chronos’ watch begins living their life backward. This would indicate how they know the future, they’ve already lived it. However, the character doesn’t become a child, but the concept really strikes a chord with me.

You could also think of in the sense of the movie Memento, where you more or less unravel your own forgotten tale. Or perhaps that your powers have begun to unravel, and to stop that from happening you quest to find out why.

It’s a great idea, I’ve not seen it in game-form.

Thanks for tossing this out there, it got me thinking.

Irish October 10, 2008 at 11:20 am

It could also be an up-and-coming hero, as in the movie “The Professional”. Essentially, training begins with the easiest weapon (sniper rifle, in this case) and finishes with the most difficult (a knife). The way it’s told, it takes quite a long time to get from one to the other, and that could certainly constitute a game.

Eric Robinson October 10, 2008 at 3:24 pm

While this sounds like a fantastic idea, there’s a major implementation problem: the player would need to start out an expert of the game to begin with.

The problem is that your players become more adept at playing your game as they progress; they get more comfortable within the ergodic space you’ve created for them as they explore it. In doing this your player’s competence curve would be inverse of the accessible game space curve (how much freedom the player has to explore – keep in mind that more guns = more freedom in FPS games). Games have evolved player bootstrapping methods like tutorial levels to get players up-to-speed quickly. Eschewing this as a game designer would be equivalent to taking a BFG to your own foot.

Consider Portal. The level progression in Portal (some of the best ever devised) was the result of innumerable hours of play-testing. Imagine telling a player that they’re a Portal Device™ expert at the beginning of the game. They have just broken free of the laboratory and now need to break out of the complex in order to save themselves [and then the world?]. They start the game with GlaDOS telling them that there is no cake and that they should lie down and wait for the authorities to arrive. This wouldn’t work at all. You need to ride that learning curve.

In making a game like this, you’d be expecting your player to start the game as an expert with every tool [mechanic] in the game. Let’s take a look at the first-person genre. Each weapon is essentially a tool the player can use to help him/her explore the world you’ve created for them. HL2′s crowbar can be used to beat down enemies but it is more frequently used to break into crates and the like. The Gravity Gun and rocket launcher from the same game work similarly [isn't it amazing how those crates of rockets never run dry!?].

The Gravity Gun was new to the Half-Life universe in HL2. When it was introduced there was a short tutorial on its use. This ensured that the player continued on with at least some competence. The rest of the game was littered with Gravity Gun puzzles of increasing difficulty, culminating in its amazing use in the final level of Episode 2.

There is one way out of this: build this game as a part of a pre-established property. Valve could pull it off with Gordon Freeman in the game Half-Life 2, Episode 6: Denouement. At this point anyone playing the game should be familiar enough with the game’s mechanics and environments that they can start stripping Gordon Freeman of his tools. (Note that even Valve pulled the God of War strip-god-like-powers-from-the-player-early trick with the Super Gravity Gun in Episode 1.) However, this would have to happen with great care in order to ensure that the player would not become frustrated with the gameplay.

Outside of that you’d have to do a pretty generic genre game to get people into it. This because you’re presupposing expertise.

One last thing. You did mention the Batman-style, becoming less active and more tactical route. In creating a game like this you’d have to be extremely careful and deliberate with your gameplay changes; you could easily end up with a game that feels like four smaller, crappy games strung together with bubble gum. You could very easily end up with a reverse Spore and I don’t think that that would be very much fun for people.

Darius Kazemi October 10, 2008 at 3:30 pm

Eric: excellent points all, and it did occur to me that training the player would be the hard part. I see a few ways around this. Two you already mentioned: make it a sequel to a well-known game (although you still want to pick up new players with a sequel), or make it a horribly generic game to begin with that everyone who’s ever played an FPS would know how to play.

You could also have the first third of the game be “normal” and then the last two thirds being about losing your power. You could even structure a bunch of freeform missions where you play around with all your awesome powers, and then you get the option to begin campaign mode, which is far more linear and wherein you lose everything over time.

I think the game would have to be somewhat generic in its starting state: the game is interesting in its deconstruction of a pretty generic hero type, both psychologically and also in ability.

Eric Robinson October 10, 2008 at 4:01 pm

I like the latter point there – a game with the first third being a quick ramp-up and the last two thirds being the slow loss of power. Done well, this could create an awesome, powerful play experience. Perhaps you could even create a truly tragic experience (rather than just tell the player that they’re character is undergoing [or has already undergone] ‘tragic events’). Hmmm……

Patrick October 10, 2008 at 5:39 pm

How about a logistics-economics management game where you start out at peak oil or maybe here and then proceed to have less and less energy, somehow managing to keep things on kilter, learning to accept chaos and decentralization. Literally, a powering down.

David Sahlin October 12, 2008 at 6:32 pm

I agree with Corvus – this sounds like it would be a wonderful experience, if done right. The post-zenith experience is a part of the Monomyth that isn’t really explored. I would argue that this type of plot would require a game with a bit more engagement than typical ‘generic’ genretypes.

Personally, I believe the ’1/3 normal’ path would actually be detrimental to the experience. I would imagine it would not only further complicate the learning curve, by making it a learning spike. It would also require a clever narrative to prevent the player from feeling ‘cheated.’

They have to want to become weak. So seeing someone else become more powerful in your stead would work, but they have to be emotionally invested in that entity.

Johannes K October 12, 2008 at 10:53 pm

I really like Patrick’s idea about the economics component. What I like about it is that it actually could include an educational aspect: The idea of saving (a very 2008 thought I guess), of doing more with less. We need to work on saving energy, so why not learn it subtly with shotgun shells… However, I think it is a difficult task to make the idea of “less” not become “less fun”. But then again, maybe computer games are ready to be not only defined by how much “fun” the player has but by their ability to trigger other emotions. The feeling of achievement of finishing a game with bare fists instead of the BFG 9000 sounds very interesting.

Ian Schreiber October 13, 2008 at 1:03 am

Everyone seems to be approaching this from a video-game perspective, but I think it would be far easier to pull off in a tabletop-RPG campaign. D&D, for example, already has rules for aging (there are STR/DEX/CON penalties and INT/WIS bonuses, among other things). Playing a retiring band of fighters and rogues in a campaign would certainly be interesting.

As for Memento and the idea of a game being played backwards, of course there are games that flirt with the concept like Braid and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, where the ending is actually the beginning. Or games like Majora's Mask or Planescape:Torment or Chrono Trigger that involve messing with the time stream to change the present (which I suppose could be closer to Groundhog Day than Memento, but they still have in common a non-linear story).

If you were to do this more explicitly in a game, you'd have to do it in a way that made the player really WANT to power down. Retiring is one way to do this. A downward spiral into madness would be another, darker path.

I don't see a problem with the player's skill being the inverse of the character's. This is essentially a metaphor for real life, isn't it? "It's a shame that youth is wasted on the young" and all that.

Dan Menard November 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm

I think this is a great idea and I don’t think you have to use a 1/3 model or even train the player at all. Like you said, you start out with your most powerful weapon, lets say a war hammer with radius effect that causes instant death to the peons. Why would a player need anything else?
On top of that you don’t even need a tutorial or pregame missions because it would destroy the pace of the game. How do you replace this? Use the common button for these devastating attack, for instance on the PS3 X is the button someone is most likely to use. The other buttons would equally be loaded up with massive fireballs and damage eating shields.
While the player is still figuring out how to use things it doesn’t matter because the weapons are so strong and that covers up the competence curve. When he gives away his abilities, one by one, he is forced to rediscover his new abilities which could be a tutorial or could be more of an action puzzle, kind of like what Resistance does with its multiple weapons: Which weapon is best in the upcoming situation, that’s for you to decide and figure out(this resembles Shadow of the Colossus).
By the way, I meet you at Netgames, told you I loved this idea and I asked the question about what the industry likes to see more, a couple of 3-D scenes or a full 2-D game. I am actually going to build a full 2-D game for my project, thanks for the advice.

Brian Shurtleff November 15, 2008 at 9:36 pm

I like this idea a lot, if you could implement it well.

I forgot where I read it, but at some point I read someone’s interesting observation that games are filled with stories of boys becomming men, and almost no stories of men realizing they’ve grown old. Especially as the average age of a gamer continues to work it’s way up there, I think the latter theme certainly will have an increasing place in the world of games.

Also, as someone mentioned Memento’s story being one of unraveling your own forgotten story, I at one point was working on a game with a story that worked like that. In fact, it was very disturbingly similar to Memento’s story in retrospect. Very similar ending twist. Only in mine, you were playing a computer that had deleted it’s own memory, rather than a person, but eh. Basically, think a hybrid of the film Memento and the game Paranoia (only you’re the computer rather than the people it controls) and that’s what it was sort of like.

Of course, at the time I couldn’t program to save my life, so it didn’t get anywhere. But hey, maybe I’ll make it someday.

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