Reading the title you may be thinking that I am going to talk about how characters evolve in a narrative in roleplaying games, but if you remember last week’s article you may note the subtle queue in my use of RPG instead of “roleplaying game.” That’s right; today I am going to talk about different styles of stat/ability progression in RPGs along with minor discussion on the role of progression in narrative.
To begin this discussion I first need to break apart statistic/ability character progression apart, because it turns out there are multiple different ways to make game characters more powerful over time, and their differences are the interesting pieces which make them interact with narrative in different ways. Because naming things is fun I have begun labeling the various progression styles as: Upgrade, Enhancing, and Tuning. They may sound like me just going through a thesaurus for words that mean “better,” but I assure you there is a method to this madness.
Upgrade is probably the simplest, but also one of the most familiar styles of progression. This is when a character passes a certain threshold and gains increased raw stats as well as possibly new abilities. Often there are no choices to be made here. The character is simply better. Narratively this means the player and the character are separate entities. Often Upgrade games don’t let the player make truly important narrative decisions, or even progression decisions. They may let the player choose equipment, but really this is a false choice as Sword X is most definitely better than Sword Y. Upgrade is usually coupled with crafted narratives and defined characters that the player gets to watch.
Enhancing is when character progression doesn’t involve new abilities at all, but usually only upgrades a small portion of the character’s stats. One of the best examples is Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. In Morrowind your abilities each gain experience independently, so the more you swing a sword the better you get at swinging swords. This means that whatever playstyle you prefer ends up becoming your most effective mode of play, but at the cost of no new gameplay options (though usually the player gets to choose which abilities are enhanced via point spending instead of time investment). Narratively Enhancing represents exactly what it does mechanically: the hero getting better and better at their job over time. But unlike upgrade these improvements are defined by the player, who lives through the character. As such Enhancing is most often used in immersive games.
Tuning is an odd one which never seems to be done the same way twice. It also usually falls under either Upgrade or Enhancing as it usually involves deciding upon ability acquisitions upon leveling up (Diablo 2) or involves purchasing abilities with earned points (Dawn of War 2 or Guild Wars 2). The keys here are that the player gets to choose from an array of potential options that not only make them better at their preferred playstyle via stat increases, but also allow them to fine tune that style by upgrading existing abilities, or even developing new playstyles by unlocking new abilities. My favorite example of style unlocking comes from Guild Wars 2 whereupon investing enough points in a traitline the player can gain access to powerful passive abilities which can completely alter how a character is played (creating clones by dodging, making auras targetable, or even turning damaging skills into healing ones). Similar to Enhancing, Tuning is an immersive style of progression, though it is also often used in games designed to make players grind and farm as much as possible, so maybe the opportunity to develop new playstyles is a way to try and reduce player boredom. Though Tuning is also found in games in which player skill plays a large part. Armored Core is my favorite example here, as new parts for your robot aren’t necessarily better than the old ones, but can fine tune exactly how the player wishes to play.
Games can mix the styles though. One of my favorite methods for progression style mixing is Pokemon. The monsters you collect all follow Upgrade progression (albeit limited due to the monsters only being able to retain four moves), but the player follows Tuning progression because the player can build a 6-monster team in just about any way they want. Borderlands combines Enhancing with Tuning by making gun-use upgrade gun performance, but leveling up allows the player to choose abilities to define and fine-tune their playstyle.
To end I’ll just treat you to a comic about the dangers of allowing too much progression in immersion games: