Behind all the smoke and mirrors, what are video games but lines of code with high aspirations? Unlike with movies, which for the most part share this relationship with coding to the point of visual representation and no further, video games aspire to simulate living, breathing situations through a responsive world that will change both with and without user interactions. Even if you set down the gamepad without pressing pause to fix yourself a tuna melt during a rousing bout of Super Mario Bros, the Goomba, Koopa, Koopa Paratroopa will all still algorithmically waddle and hop about, all for the sake of simulated agency. And when you get back having satisfied your belly but whetted your appetite for monster stomping, the parameters that allow you take command of Mario to do Mario things are all just a series of coded objects and relational hit-boxes. Be it the relationship with the ground/platforms that prevents Mario from falling through or the various angles of interaction that determines whether Mario or the Goomba gets fucked up, it all adds up to numbers. For the most part we don’t think about these things, be it through sheer mesmerized ignorance or suspension of disbelief we just power on through taking this simulation of a living world for granted. The world in which we immerse ourselves has a very knowable higher power, a God that lives in the numbers and in the spaces in between.
Skimming forward through over 25 years of innovations in the industry, many developers have expanded their repertoire to include more refined programming magics for various titles that have volleyed new ideas off of one another, and we find the numbers behind game mechanics doing quite interesting things. More important to my point than BIGGER STRONGER GRAFIX MAKING REALER DUDES, much creativity has been invested in new game mechanics that attempt to make the work of suspending disbelief easier for the consumer of games. Interact-able environments, refined character model responses, and more complex interactions with action-based game worlds are a popular trend, but some of the most varied and individualized game mechanic endeavors can be found in the RPG. RPGs of course didn’t start out as video games, and the numbers involved in making immersion work in a game like tabletop D&D is, while refined and numerically complicated in it’s own right through dice rolls, character sheets, and room for creative decision making that arguably falls outside the dominion of numbers, comparatively far less numerically involved than most of it’s broad digital lineage. Certain game mechanics stuck, like running percentages and comparing variables to calculate who does however much damage to whom and whether not the attack connects in the first place, as it’s a method of reality simulation that people have connected with and enjoyed. But when that number crunching became too predicable, and players are reminded too easily how mechanically fathomable and controllable the world is, they’ll maybe play God for a bit until the immersion breaks and they get bored.
So the name of the game is “dazzle the kiddos holding the gamepads with fancy numbers,” and developers of RPGS have tossed in a variety of hands in order to accomplish this differently. The closest thing to a uniform approach is the application of customizable character and battle mechanics that don’t necessarily exceed the old formula of “hit the thing hard enough long enough until it dies”, but add mechanics that allow for tactful maximization of performance and super tough bosses that require you to do so. This is the case with most MMORPGS, and for the most part players are effectively dazzled by the sheer number of possibilities for armor combinations and different roles to maximize performance in. In this case one might say God is in the vastness of possibility and lofty accomplishments the numbers deterimine. A game like Pokemon might offer a same level of diversity in the number of monsters one can catch and varied roles each monster might have, but additionally it does something more interesting than that. More specifically, there is a set of 6 numbers ranging from 1-31 that are (somewhat) randomly generated and attached to any given Pokemon at the moment it is encountered. Every Pokemon has them, and most importantly they are entirely outside player knowledge or control outside abuse of a cheating device. They are called Individual Values, abbreviated commonly to IVs, and are meant to represent individual, natural aptitudes of the particular monster in certain areas. Provided much of the game’s appeal comes from bonding with these creatures on your journey, the sense of individuality the IV aspires to create helps to differentiate your digital buddies from little clumps of numbers. The IVs can’t be known outside of complicated, reverse engineering of a Pokemon’s given stats in relation to archived base stats, and at the point where these numbers are being researched the immersion has already been broken. God’s workings have been pointed out. Pokemon also have set personality indicators that, while affecting the statistic of the game mechanics somewhat, go even further to create a space to believe these little dudes have their own subjective agencies. These are readily available to the player though, and easy to manipulate in order to achieve favorable stats. And, as it is probably unsurprising to many, the abuse of these numbers to create maximized mons is far from uncommon. Pokemon’s rich and varied battle mechanics and growing online presence has allowed a heavy competitive atmosphere to blossom around multiplayer battles. From the perspective of the devs this may or may not seem like a tragedy. So much work invested in creating a space to believe that each Pokemon is an adorable agency to be bonded with, and ravenous players strip it down for competitive satisfiaction and maximization. God is ripped straight from the numbers into the hands of the player. (If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at how stupid complicated game mechanics in Pokemon are, I wrote an article back in high school that can be found here)
A game series like Fire Emblem, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Acknowledging that there are people who gain such a strong enjoyment from manipulating and crunching numbers, the developers put the percentages and stat points out there for the player to access whenever they might be relevant. However, this is counterbalanced by an attribute increasing system based on random increases for each level up that tantalizingly rip complete control from the player’s finger tips. The random number generator is God in Fire Emblem, determining how each character grows and occassionally turning the tide on what seems like an absolute victory. Provided the vulnerability of each unit to be ripped away from the living game world, as Mike discussed in his permadeath article, this adds up to a game where each play-through will be different for a player even if they attempt to make the same choices.