When is it Time to Play Skillfully or Run Like Hell?
A handful of hours into Final Fantasy XII your party emerges from the linear opening of the game and is able to explore and level up in the game’s first open world environment: the Dalmasca Estersand.
Your characters are still pretty weak at this point, so one of the more surprising things you see in the Estersand is a full-size T-Rex stomping around doing its thing. If you leave it alone, it leaves you alone. If you bother it, this happens. This is your heads up that the enemies in Final Fantasy IX’s open world don’t wait for you to get good to be crazy strong. Instead, the strong ones either leave you alone (like the T-Rex) or destroy you, which is your hint that you can’t go that way until you get stronger. It’s a brilliant mechanic that makes open-world RPG combat more realistic and more fun at the same time. Traditional RPG mechanics have enemies level with your party, so that all the enemies you encounter early on have 40 hit points, the enemies you encounter ten hours later have 400 hit points, and fifteen hours after that they have 4,000 HP. It’s convenient from a gameplay perspective, but rarely is it worked into the story realistically. Why does Final Fantasy IV’s “Baron Soldier” have 27 HP and the “Baron Guardsman” 280 HP? Because fun.
The ability to level up your characters requires enemies to get harder, and this is how early games did it. Enemies getting stronger in tandem with the player’s party became conventional because it succeeded at keeping combat interesting while allowing for a satisfying party leveling system. (A similar system existed as early as FF VIII, but since its battles couldn’t be avoided in advance, FF VIII had a party member recommend that you flee an overpowered battle with a T-Rexaur early on, so players could grasp the system.
Seven months before Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII, Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to great acclaim. It’s a staggeringly huge game, full of locations and things to do there and enemies to fight. Players quickly noticed, though, that the enemies to fight were always just hard enough, because Oblivion sets enemy levels according to the player’s level, so you’re not going to come across an area that’s too easy – or too hard. This became one of players’ main critiques of the game because it takes the fun out of leveling if you know that for the most part you can go anywhere anyway and the enemies you find won’t be too hard, even if you haven’t been leveling up.
In response to this criticism, Skyrim modified this system. Enemies scale levels, but only within a set range. If you go to an area with level 20-30 enemies, and you’re still level 10, you’ll get creamed. If you’re within the right range, the enemies will be reasonable; otherwise you have to get stronger to go back (or sneak or dash through to get somewhere else). The Skyrim and Final Fantasy XII systems make for more immersive worlds – rather than slowly realizing that fights would always be approximately manageable, players in these worlds have to pay attention to which areas are beyond their current capabilities and react accordingly. Instead of blocking players from certain regions with a bridge that’s out or a door that’s locked, etc., those areas can just be too much for the player to handle until they develop the necessary combat (or combat avoidance) skills, adding variety to the ways in which the currently playable world is bounded.
Balancing character growth with realistic and challenging enemy difficulty is a challenge in other genres, too, of course. The Last of Us addresses this by making situations, rather than enemies, tougher. The infected at the beginning of the game are basically the same as those at the end, but the scenarios in which you encounter them require more ingenuity as well as the skills the player-character has developed over the course of the game. One of the most time-consuming kills in the game, for me, was a deer that I had to hunt with a bow and arrow relatively late in the game, which I thought was great, because it reminded me that my characters had not become superhuman, just good at navigating a violent world. By the end of the game, I felt more like Batman than Superman – master of techniques and helpful gear, but still vulnerable and human, someone who a single slip-up could still get killed.
I find it more fun to explore a world where all the enemies in an area aren’t the same difficulty. It forces me to size each potential adversary up individually and determine whether this is a fight I want to start. There’s a real sense of satisfaction when you can finally return and defeat a giant or dragon, or even just a normal enemy that was too much for you a few hours earlier. Also, because I enjoy being able to dive into the world of a good RPG, I appreciate when a game doesn’t pull me out of it with distracting unrealistic conventions, like enemy soldiers (or recurring bosses) who inexplicably get tougher right along with you throughout the game. If every fight I experience in the beginning of a game is totally manageable (or, occasionally, scripted to end in certain defeat), my decisions make less of a difference – if I get in a fight and lose, it’s only because I didn’t fight well, not because maybe I shouldn’t have been in that fight in the first place. Games like Skyrim, FF XII, and The Last of Us force me to respect the fights I get into in a way that increases rather than decreases my involvement in their worlds. What gameplay mechanics increase or decrease your immersion in the game world?