The Impact of Character Experience

Personal note: My apologies for the lack of blog posts, but there’s a whole lot of life stuff happening right now, so I’m using the energy I have while I have to say the things I want. More life stuff will be discussed later.

Experience is a loaded concept, measured in a variety of ways, used for a variety of purposes, and is a key part in character development over time. It’s at times a reward and a metric, and I’d like to talk a little about both of those things.

As a metric, say in a game where you have character levels, it’s a linear way to mark progress, regardless of plot. This is best seen in role-playing games where you can advance a PC through grinding (killing monsters and gaining experience without advancing the primary plot) or through minor accomplishments (collecting a certain number of tokens, exploration, or anything that offers rewards without plot advancement). You can look at the character data and say that because you have killed so many monsters, or completed a certain task so many times, the character is “better” as a result. A level 1 character is thought to be inferior to, less cool, or less accomplished than a level 10 character.

As a reward, experience is the prize for completing a task, independent of whether or not the plot happens. Kill a monster? Have some points! Advance the story significantly? Have lots of points! In this way, the player is conditioned to perform tasks to get a reward, and has an expectation that the reward will improve the character. Also in this idea is the idea that you accrue experience and can “spend” it in an economy where you can gain access to new abilities or items, skipping the logical question about whether or not the ability or item was available the entire time.

For example, if every 2 levels gains me an ability point, and I can spend an ability to point to learn how to throw my shield like Captain America, then what you’re telling the player is that the world this story exists in, people one day discover shield throwing. I imagine the exchange to be like this:

“Hey Tom, check it out! I worked really hard this week, so when I woke up this morning, I just randomly knew how to hurl this metal disc without ever trying it before or practicing!”
“Wow, I hope I somehow instantaneously gain knowledge without practice or effort!”

It’s really common to build an in-game economy this way, and no one really questions it if you say you’re a game with levels and ability points. Video games thrive on this sort of development system – where I need to reach a certain level before I gain an ability that grants me an advantage.

What this does overall is suggest a hierarchy – advancing from part of the story to another part, each subsequent “step up” being harder than the last and requiring that I have access to certain knowledge before I can really thrive there.

Taken to the opposite extreme, a game without levels suggests a baseline equality, or at least an egalitarian position where anyone can do anything anytime. Whether this is a sandbox world (like Grand Theft Auto) or a story game (Fate Core), when you divorce the idea of levels from story and skill advancement, you’re suggesting that the players have more freedom, liberating them from the idea that in order to reach Section X in the story, they need to be a certain level and/or have certain abilities. What often happens instead is that the plot becomes the boundaries for character, that certain plot points have to happen so that players can go to a new area (you have to complete the mission so that the bridge is made available, for instance).

In its own way, this is also limiting. By capping the decision tree (that’s the term for what the character can do in any situation) at specific points, you are forcing one solution and saying the plot HAS to proceed in a certain vector. In the case mentioned above, if you have to complete a mission to make the bridge accessible, then likely there are a limited number of ways to make that bridge accessible, which means your problem solving ability is less valued than your timing or dexterity or your mechanical procedure.

When we take this idea outside of gaming (we’ll go back soon), we see a lack of obvious numbers, but a similar plot-based experience track. Just because Indiana Jones punches three Nazis, we don’t see a little golden 150 flash in the movie’s sidebar, nor does a menu appear to tell us we can upgrade Indy’s ability to be badass. However, the three now-punched Nazis were between Dr. Jones and a door that leads him deeper into the castle and deeper into the plot.

This creates a variation of the developed decision tree, because there are lots of ways to solve the problem once you’ve identified it:

Problem: There are 3 guys between the protagonist and the door.

Solution: Punch them / Shoot them / Deceive them / Avoid them / etc etc

The selected solution has to do with the type of story being told – if this is a very action-oriented type of story, expect a fight. If this moment is to highlight stealth or deception, expect to see the fight avoided. Highlighting that particular skill is not only a chance to see the skill improved (he was good at punching now he’s *really* good at punching) but also says something about how the character solves problems, which can endear the audience to the character because we develop a set of expectations and see them paid off.

For me, I see a value in both ideas. The incentive of levels and upgrades and experience as a reward for actions makes me want to keep doing the actions, so that later, I can do more cool things (visuals play a big part in video games here) so that I keep wanting to do more things as part of the cycle. On the other hand, when a character can get improve a skill by performing it over and over (or even better, the character is assumed competent from the start and has strengths and weaknesses that add challenge and reward on their own), the focus shifts away from making a colored bar grow on the screen and more about the fundamental question in story: How do(es) the protagonist(s) deal with the plot and all its related conflicts?

When writing a novel, it’s a good idea to decide how you measure your character’s progress, not just in terms of what they accomplish in the story (as though you’re ticking off items in the outline or a to-do list) but also in terms of what they can do about their own personal arcs. Improving themselves in the face of adversity (think of the cliche where a person can’t perform a task for the bulk of the story, but doing that task is central to the story at a crucial time, I’m looking at you Jurassic Park and your “Unix system”) is experiential and while there are no meters or scores, the character subsequently performs better over time. This doesn’t assume default competence, but states that competence is gained over the course of a story.

Is one better than the other? They’re different tools for related jobs.

A game with levels suggests longevity and the idea you can play it in a progression. (Whereas a game without levels may be better consumed in individual instances, like a board game)

A game with advancing skills suggests superiority over time, that things scale in terms of potential and difficulty. A game with fixed skills suggests a more open and variable experience

A character in a story who can do anything at any time runs the risk of being unchallenged (*cough*Superman*cough*) but also can represent a versatile character so long as the plot generates new possible experiences and risks (James Bond)

I tend to challenge people on their assumption that a game needs to have levels and that stories have to demonstrate competent characters with insignificant problems or failings. The argument of “Well what do you want, weak soft characters?” is an extremist all-or-nothing fear-based complaint that says more about the person’s fear that they can’t be creative rather than any idea that something can pay off dividends in terms of people liking the creative effort.

Think about the experience you’re rewarding or saying has already been rewarded. Tie effort to plot and character arc. Challenge your assumptions and conventions. You don’t have to be “perfect” about it, I’m just encouraging you to try to do something to push yourself. Because I think you can do it.

Happy creating.