“Can We Not Grow Up?”: A Thought On Progression in Meaningful Game Design

Before I begin, I want to take a brief moment to share my insights on life itself first.

You’ve probably asked yourself this question as well: why can’t we grow backwards and be the younger self?

Growing up is actually not bad. As time goes by, you grow physically stronger, and mentally more mature. You get to learn a lot of stuff, understand things in different ways, and most importantly, from all the things that you’ve taken and absorbed from the world, you form your own identity. That’s something no-one’s going to take away from you.

But let me bring up this famous quote:

Remember, with great power, comes great responsibility.

Ben Parker, from the movie “Spider-Man”

Responsibility is an easy thing to say, but not an easy thing to carry with. What is it with such duty that makes it so intimidating? The true hostility of the term only comes in when a failure has occurred in whatever case under discussion, or more generally speaking, when something is lost. In other words, the true meaning of responsibility is unknown until an error has taken place.

However, growing up doesn’t only include the enhancements of body and mind, nor does it only include the increasing responsibility; at later stages, it also means losing powers while still being demanded an equal amount of responsibility. That’s an alternate definition of growing old.

Coming back into games, we see that, probably the vast majority of games, stick to a progression system where players grow stronger and stronger over time, and reach either the level cap of the system, or they just continue to climb infinitely. It’s often considered as an analogy of growing up in real life, but I’d say it only focuses on the glorious days of being young, and fails to cover the old and fading parts of our later lives.

What if, there is a game in which its difficulty rises not because the world has to cope with the growing strength of the protagonist, but the protagonist him/herself becomes weaker over time?

Imagine this narrative: (I know its shabby)

Ah. Now that you’ve asked. You know those blobs just outside the village that likes to feast on our crops, right? They’d teach you how to fight with them and some other creatures.

I used to be a knight. This is also where I started. Yeah, just by killing blobs. I trained, I trained, and as I grew stronger I knew I wasn’t just capable of killing farm pests. So I joined the army, fought in the Great War and became a knight.

Heh…look at me now. I’m old. How am I supposed to fight with those blobs? I’d shatter my back before my blade could reach their skins.

An adventure about an old, retired knight acknowledging his fading strength. As the world puts this veteran onto yet another challenging journey, the player will soon find out the world becoming more and more dangerous only because of his slipping-away life.

Imagine what message would this game deliver? I believe, it delivers a much more powerful one that reads “cherish”. Only through the permanent vanishing of a beloved item can one understand the true value of anything; then, the concept folds into the concept of “responsibility”, which is the exact lesson that is supposed to be conveyed through the other game system.

If there is ever going to be a game like this — or if there is one — I would love to play, and see it for myself whether my point of view stands.

P.S. The header image is from the last scene in The Last Crusade, in which Indiana Jones finds an old knight attempting to defend the holy grail. The knight surprisingly strikes his sword weakly and harmlessly towards Indy, then falls on the ground. The knight then reveals that he has been guarding the holy grail for more than 700 years, and it is time to pass on his duty to another.

Published by

Brian Teng

Game Designer | San Jose, CA

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