Culture

Bit Slap: Please, I don’t want to level anymore

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Each Wednesday in Bit Slap, Joe Anderson brings you the latest in gaming trends and bon mots.

In 2003, Splash Damage released Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, and it blew my mind. Splash Damage kept everything that made Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s online multiplayer so enjoyable—character classes, varied maps with unique objectives, awesome German accents—and added one stellar ingredient: character progression. Players were rewarded with XP and advanced in their chosen class as they complete objectives and fragged members of the other team. Unlocks were not persistent and had to be earned every time you joined a new server, but this was oddly part of the allure. Seeing how quickly I could level from Private (or Schütze for Axis) to General became an occupation of mine. As someone who grew up playing lots of RPGs, this RPG and FPS mash up felt like the gaming version of The Grey Album.

Now—and I’d never thought I’d say this—I’m getting real sick of leveling up.

I realized this about a quarter of the way through True Vault Hunter Mode in Borderlands 2. This thought struck me not because I was growing tired of BL2’s character progression; quite the opposite, actually. I was surprised at how much fun I was having planning out my Commando build and finding new equipment. Since some form of leveling system (be it an experience bar, talent trees, stat bonuses, whatever) has been integrated into pretty much every gaming genre at this point, this shouldn’t really be a novel sensation. But that’s the problem: I’ve been playing so many games that just shoehorn in an XP bar and call it a day.

This is a trend I have unintentionally engineered for myself. As a gamer and a consumer, I want to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. When it comes to video games, I like to look at this in terms of time. Not picking up a $60 game because the main campaign only lasts 8 hours is a reasonable line of logic. Unknowingly, though, this kind of thinking has since infected all my gaming choices to the point of absurdity. I know a game with some kind of grind will, in theory, last longer provided it holds my attention.

Recently, I had a friend ask if Persona 3 was worth picking up. For every other entertainment medium, my response would include a collection of positive criteria—“Nah man, go see Django Unchained; Jamie Foxx hangs dong”—that would make a case for whatever I was recommending.

Instead, I merely stated the fact that I clocked a total 110 hours completing the game. Gamer to gamer, this was the equivalent of a glowing review and nothing else needed to be said.

I recently purchased an iPhone and Field Runners 2 was one of the first games I bought for it. Runners is a tower-defense with (surprise, surprise) a system where you unlock new towers by earning money or replaying old missions. I was drawn to this because I knew it would take me a while to unlock all the shit and it would stretch my investment further—if you can call $2 an investment.

On the flipside, I recently played through Hotline Miami. All told, it took me 6 hours to complete and it set me back $10. It was 6 hours of pure neon-lit 80’s murder and a blast the whole way through. Stuff can be unlocked, sure, but there’s no grind. And whatever you do unlock can’t be used to make the game easier, really. You’re beating levels because you have twitch reflexes, not because you unlocked a game-changing item.

What’s really stupid is that Hotline Miami was a hard purchase for me to justify because of its relative shortness. Weird, then, that I didn’t bat an eye to pay $11 to see Lincoln, which was a little shorter than 3 hours.

If you’re like me—and you’re not because you don’t drive a sweet-ass red PT Cruiser—you run into a gaming crisis about once every two years. You wonder if you’re getting too old for video games: you can’t seem to get into them like you used to, you just don’t have a ton of free time anymore, and so on.

Look at what you’re trying to play. Are you trying to get into games that promise endless progression to the point that the artifices that promise nigh-infinite hours of entertainment feel both simultaneously daunting and exhausting, and, in turn, actually serve as barriers of entry? If so, grab a buddy, download a ROM of Gunstar Heroes and beat that shit. It’ll be an all-inclusive three-hour experience and it will remind you that we need to stop thinking about games in terms of hours logged.