Editorial: Handling the Skill Gap, Part 2

And actually, a lot less useful...
Lamp Posts are the new Bonfires.

Last week I discussed how games and certain game companies handle skill gaps between players. I talked about the positive and negatives sides of widening and closing that gap. The former caters to core gamers who are probably already familiar with the basic concepts, and the latter caters to new players. I would personally endorse a wider skill gap, as a gap is (supposed to be) composed of two sides, of low- and high-skill, with a large amount of distance to cover to get from one side to another. Ideally, it both welcomes new players while rewarding older ones. The early Smash Bros. games handle the skill gap wonderfully, as many Nintendo games from the early 2000s and before tended to do.

But there is a different kind of skill gap that I would like to discuss this week, and it comes directly off the heels of my early experiences with the newly released Bloodborne. With my review of this game incoming, I have been paying very close attention to minor details in gameplay and design, especially as they contrast to the previous games. And what I realized is the entire series, even the relatively lukewarm Dark Souls 2, gets the sense of individual player progression right like few other games I have played. Since these games are only loosely a multiplayer affair, the skill gap involved is not about players being pitted against each other so much as it is about the player being pitted against their own abilities to play the game.

Old NES era games are often designed this way, though not too often credited for it, in that they give the player all of the tool necessary to win and then slowly make them better at using those tools, testing their ability to do so in the various boss battles, until the final boss which necessitates proper use of all of those skill learned. In recent years, however, that dynamic has fallen away as “RPG-like” mechanics have woven themselves into more and more games. What this does is make player progression more about stat numbers increasing—more about leveling up to deal more damage and take more damage—than it does about the player becoming better at playing the game.

There's some skill involved, yes, but it's not the determining factor in a firefight.
Gear is the only difference between winning and losing in Borderlands.

Take, for example, the wildly popular Borderlands games. Throughout those games, which feature ostensibly very familiar FPS, the only difference between me being able to kill one enemy instead of another one is what numbers I have associated with my character or my guns. If those numbers are too low, there is literally no chance I could take the target down. Progression, and player skill for the most part, is instead simulated by my character gaining more power. The original conceit going back to pen-and-paper role playing games was that the character was getting better at what they did. The bonuses to rolls on an attack was mostly supposed to represent that character better learning how to fight by acquiring what are literally called experience points. It is a way to simulate increased skill since the actual player cannot get better at rolling some dice.

In videogames, the action is more literally represented, less of the experience is simulated and yet often the progression is still simulated. Which brings me back to the Souls games (I include Bloodborne in that category) as they have done an outstanding job of making progress more about the player learning the game than about the game handing out a license to fight stronger enemies. Of course, these games do involve leveling-up, experience points, plenty of stats that govern damage and damage mitigation, but they are much less relevant in this game than they are in games like my example of Borderlands. It is possible to finish a Souls game at level one, it is in no way possible to do this in Borderlands.

Just as the Undead sought Souls. It's really the same idea.
The Hunters seek the Blood…

My experience thus far in Bloodborne has been harrowing as much as it has been rewarding. Until I learned out to effectively use the gun as a stunning tool to make certain foes more manageable (e.g., bosses and other Hunters), the game proved to be a relentless test of my ability to read my opponent. As it stands, it still is such a test, only the rewards for doing so are much greater with my acquired skill. Unlike the previous Miyazaki games, this one has forgone the shield and asked the player to take many more risks while incorporating into the game many rewards for those risks. These risks, which revolve around gameplay mechanics available from the very beginning of the game, will eventually be understood by the triumphant player and will represent the better portion of success over things like character level or equipment upgrades. The latter is what will help skilled players to accomplish the same feats more quickly, but until one learns the requisite mechanics, being over-leveled will not mean much.

Above most other things, it is the sense of accomplishment from employing a system like this that elevates a game. It makes each obstacle a fight, it makes each loss a very despairing moment, and most importantly it makes the whole game much more memorable. It is exceedingly easy to launch into how I fought a particular boss, or how I overcame an unexpected encounter with an fellow Hunter, but instead of reading all of my own travails in Bloodborne I encourage you, reader, to tell us a bit more about your time with the game in the comments. I will probably have just as much to say. Ask for some advice if you want, too!

4 comments

  1. Spot on.

    This has always been my experience with the Souls titles, and part of why I’ve been so enamored with it. It also never really occurred to me until now that the failure of most rpg-styled mechanics is stripping you of any real gameplay agency. Numbers are all that matter, and there’s no way to be skilled enough to compensate, outside of the Souls games presently.

  2. A sequel! Mel, you bastard. Be prepared for my three page essay on Flower in response over the next few days!

  3. @Wolfe: Thanks! I wasn’t something I really laid out in my mind, but I had known the Souls games were pretty good at giving a sense of accomplishment. I just wasn’t so certain on why, until now.

    @Ethos: It isn’t safe to use your phone and drive! You might hit a Canadian! Or worse, a person!

  4. it is the sense of accomplishment from employing a system like this that elevates a game

    In a single sentence, that is the reason for my scorn towards modern ‘game’ development.

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