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Who needs experience points, anyway?

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

Are You Experienced?

In the second part of my ongoing Zelda: Breath Of The Wild review, I talked about how one of the big differences between it and the vast majority of open-world games is a lack of experience points and leveling up. This is a huge boon, in my eyes, because it makes hitting the road and seeing the world more important than cashing in favors and watching numbers increase. Down in the comments, myrandomnickname recognized the series’ (almost) lifelong deviation from those role-playing norms:

One thing I’ve always liked about the Zelda games is how neatly they manage to sidestep the whole level-grinding process. You can’t get by a boss or make a dungeon easier by simply wandering around killing things for a while, and there’s a definite cap to how many hearts you can have at any point of the game. But if you’re playing thoughtfully, you usually don’t need a ton of extra hearts. Figuring out how a particular monster is most effectively handled is generally sufficient.

Wolfman Jew played off a personal anecdote to get a little deeper into this issue:

I’ve got a friend who’s a huge JRPG guy. When we were in high school, I remember talking with him about Zelda sometime after Twilight Princess was released. He asked why Nintendo didn’t have an experience system like other action-RPG games, saying it’d be better for it. After all, that would give the combat a more “clear” reward, and it’s fun in other games, so why not?

At the time, I didn’t have a real answer—and I was worried I was only going to justify it with a plea to nostalgia and dismissing Zelda IIbut I think I know the reason why, and you really hit the nail on the head. Nintendo gauges your experience by your experience. I mean, they do have actual RPGs with leveling mechanics (and Zelda has always had stronger weapons and various kinds of upgrading), but for them, you can only progress through learning the way it works, not exploiting a system of points. It’s why, some power-ups aside, Mario will probably never learn moves like in Banjo-Kazooie, and why the basic gun in Splatoon can still be used competitively. Not having that kind of leveling in place means the onus has to be on the player for learning things.

Who Has The Time?

Illustration: Nintendo

I took some time this week to weigh in on my experience with the Nintendo Switch, which I’ve had for almost two weeks at this point and am absolutely loving, despite some weird little issues. Instead of a real deep dive into its pros and cons, I decided to draw up a more personal reflection on what the console means to at this point in my life, as someone who once rabidly ate up nearly everything that came out and now can’t find the time to finish a damn thing. (Other than the occasional game I’m reviewing.) In the comments, DrFlimFlam laid out a relatable response:

Becoming an adult, then a partner, then a parent—these things drag on the time you spend alone, because huge swaths of time alone don’t really build relationships (a shocker, I know). So we try to find ways to cram our hobbies into our adult lives. We play co-op games and consider it an acceptable compromise. We watch TV shows and films with others, imposed by or on ourselves. We read on our lunch breaks or for a bit before bed on our phones, soft white lettering on a black background so as not to wake our partners.

Huge chunks of our interests fall by the wayside as our lives move ever forward. My office just this week decided to go from “You can listen to music if it helps you work well” to “It’s not very friendly to wear headphones in an office!” and now I don’t know how to salvage even 10 percent of my music and podcast listening time. We find time for these things if they can be fit into our schedule, if they are convenient and adaptable. If not, they fade away.

The Switch has a clear aim. The approach is from several angles, but it’s all about reclamation. About letting you get an hour in on the TV here and there to remember what a big screen gaming experience is like, but also acknowledging that sometimes you’re better served if you can play it while winding down for the night, half-watching The Golden Girls on Hulu with your partner. It’s about being able to plop it down for Mario Kart wherever, handing someone a controller for a few races. It’s the next evolution of the Wii U’s best idea, that maybe playing a game shouldn’t kick everyone else out of the room, while remaining flexible to inviting others into the experience as seamlessly as possible. It’s about serving multiple situations equally well and trying to stay a part of our lives even as our responsibilities stack up and threaten to take away some of the things we most enjoy. I won’t be buying one any time soon, with my Wii U (and Wii, if I’m being honest) library still owed hundreds of hours, but I’m watching the Switch with great interest just the same. I hope it succeeds. I hope there’s a place for a system that meets people halfway and doesn’t dictate the how or where to play, just that they can, and I hope that it attracts both the adults who don’t want to dominate the living room and the kids who never cared much about giant screens.

Back For Torment

Screenshot: inXile Entertainment

Also this week, William Hughes brought us a look at the first 10 hours of Torment: Tides Of Numenera, a new role-playing game from veterans at inXile Entertainment that aims to follow in the footsteps of Planescape Torment. Several readers noted they’ve gone back to play that dense, literary cult classic—some for the first time, some again. Mister Evil talked about what revisiting Planescape has been like so far:

I had forgotten how lovely it is. I’m about to confront Ravel in the Black-Barbed Maze, and I saved the game last night right in front of her because I knew I was going to want to savor that conversation. It’s remarkable how strongly the characters have remained etched in my memory over the years since I first played it. I love the way many of them withhold critical information from you—not out of malice, but out of fear. The slowly unfolding realization of the sheer scope of the impact you’ve had on existence is masterful.

It’s certainly not a perfect game (especially having been coddled by more player-friendly modern games—several times so far I’ve had to look up where an NPC was actually located just because I couldn’t remember which ward of the Hive I’d started a quest in), but placing such primacy on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma makes it stand out above the crowd even now, nearly 20 years after it was released.

NakedSnake had an insightful explanation for the caginess of your allies:

The central question that snakes through Planescape Torment is “what can change the nature of a man?” Thus, the fundamental focus of the game is on identity. But identity is a fluid concept at the best of times, and it’s downright slippery when the person involved is an amnesiac immortal who has lived through many incarnations. As such, the slow reveal of the extent of your previous impact on the world is one of Planescape’s best tricks. The player may have “forgotten” their past deeds, but the world hasn’t. The player thinks they can proclaim “Rhis is who I am” with a feeling of self-justification, but the NPCs who have met you before can tell you different stories about yourself; stories that contradict the self-image the player might have as a righteous and honorable man. Overall, this dissonance between the player’s image of themselves and the other character’s views becomes a kind of extended allegory for the human tendency to whitewash our own pasts.

Start Your Engines

Next Wednesday is March 8, which means it’ll once again be time for the Gameological community’s Mario Kart 8 on the 8th event. As always, steadfast host DL has laid out the details in this week’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? thread, but here are the basics: Boot up your Wii U next Wednesday at 8 p.m. Central time and use the code 0699-6646-7941 to find the competition. Good luck!

And that’ll do it for this week, friends. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!