Electron Dance
14Sep/1618

Arithmophobia

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Tony Van was the producer in charge of localizing a Japanese RPG called The Story of Thor: Hikari wo Tsugu Mono (Ancient, 1994) for Western audiences, but received a badly translated copy of the story to work from.

In an interview for the The Game Localization Handbook, he explained: “I tried my hardest to figure it out, but was completely baffled. I was under extreme time pressure to get it out for Christmas, so I didn’t have time to contact the Japanese office to track down the original source and get it re-translated. I simply rewrote the story and dialogue using all the plot points I could understand as references and writing that sounded good to me when I didn’t understand the plot points!”

Instead of the action taking place in “the world of Thor”, the English translation located everything in “the land of Oasis” and the game was sold in North America as Beyond Oasis. Someone decided it would sell better in Europe under its original title of The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light except it left thousands of European Sega Megadrive owners with a mystery: who the bloody Hell is Thor?

I will forever remember it as The Story of Thor because Thor is one of my personal favourites. I’ve played through it three times: the first time was in 1994 as the academic chapter of my life was coming to a close; the second time in 2006 as pure comfort gaming on an emulator; the third time, this year, was a performance for my children, who enjoyed the watching but had little interest in the doing. It can now be bought on Steam for a couple of dollars.

This recent and perhaps final playthrough was illuminating because I was simultaneously playing… dun-dun-duuuunnnn Dark Souls (From Software, 2011).

Thor is a simple RPG in which you use weapons to slash your way through legions of enemies but also employ the “Gold Armlet” to summon spirits to aid you. Most of the game is a long quest to recover the four spirits of the Armlet after which you have to take down the Big Bad who is using the “Silver Armlet” for Nefarious Purposes.

Once you have acquired a spirit, it can only be summoned if that spirit’s element is nearby: Dytto comes from water, Efreet from fire, Shade from reflections and Bow from plants. Thus the Thor player is more attentive to environment than similar games of the era because without access to the right spirit at the right time, progress is difficult or impossible.

Inventory management is basic. There are two inventories: one for weapons and one for food, although occasionally special magical items take up a space in your food page. All weapons, aside from your basic knife, have a limited number of uses, so you’re often hunting for more weapons to stave off the fear that you’ll have to fall back on your knife. Although I am supposed to interpret this as blades do not last forever, it somewhat feels like your swords have finite ammunition because of what we might call the “stabs remaining” count next to each weapon. (Pro tip: don’t waste those stabs on opening chests.)

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While its translator considered the story baffling, Thor is minimalist when it comes to delivering narrative through the game. There are only a few folks to talk to and, as no one planted any dialogue trees in Thor, you're there just to listen. Story beats are expressed through the fragile, haunting and occasionally bloody loud soundtrack from Yuzo Koshiro which masterfully evokes the black and white serials of the early twentieth-century. This also means the player is never in any doubt this is about good versus evil. Not like that Soleil/Crusader of Centy (Atlus, 1994), an early example of subverting traditional game symbolism... but that’s a story for another day.

There are no shops. There is definitely no gold. Although the strength of each spirit depends on how many elemental gems you've collected and your maximum health and magic scores will increase over the game, Thor isn’t a title where you grind for stats and experience points, because the game is a largely linear journey. Your character doesn’t really have stats to monitor and GamePro’s 1995 review described it as “definitely not for hardcore RPGers” (according to Wikipedia).

There are some obnoxious design decisions later such as jumping puzzles, aggravating boss fights over a precipice and one maddening dark hole that the game has trained you to recognise as certain death when actually it's an exit. Also, you cannot save your game when you are inside a cave or dungeon, but that is easily resolved with an emulator.

Overall, it’s not a difficult game and having been through it twice before, I find it all quite Zen and chasing down some of the optional secrets can be fun (pro tip: not Efreet’s time trial, goddddd nooooo).

I’m playing Dark Souls for the first time and find it very much anti-Zen. It requires your full attention and shoves you into a constant sense of anxiety, an adventurer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You cannot make your way through Dark Souls without making mistakes, yet mistakes always feel costly due to the potential loss of experience and being forced to fight your way again to the point YOU DIED. It’s Stockholm Syndrome: The Game, where players openly declare their love for a consumer product that imprisons them for hours and tortures them throughout.

I had a great urge to run away when I embarked on my Dark Souls adventure. Not because of what people had said, but because of something they hadn’t.

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The numbers.

Good luck in getting Roger Ebert, if he were still with us, to appreciate this modern videogame “art”. Pages and pages of numbers. The stats of your character, the stats of each weapon and item, how much you can carry and so on. I remember being shocked at how many attributes a single character in Mount & Blade (TaleWorlds Entertainment, 2011) had, like I was ever going to play the game long enough to get an idea of where I should put my paltry few upgrade points among four attributes and 24 skills. I hadn’t played a proper RPG for years and I’d forgotten, upon beholding Dark Souls, how bewildering they could be.

The only reliable strategy for getting over this fear of numbers is to dive in. Like strangers at a party, they only become familiar and friendly if you spend some time getting to know them. Eventually, these numbers become the knobs and switches on your personal mixing deck. It’s like levelling up, the meta edition: you need to gain experience with the numbers before you understand how your character gains experience with the numbers.

Eventually, these systems reduce into something manageable or, sometimes, early choices narrow your potential “career path” so it makes less sense putting numbers into certain stats. Even the great Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999) had lots of numbers; I was big into Wisdom because Wisdom made for better conversations, the heart of Torment’s greatness. Gradually I began to acquire numerical interests in Dark Souls. I want to live a little longer? That’ll be Vitality. I want to wield Astora’s Straight Sword? That’ll be Strength. And so on, et cetera, ad infinitum.

Thor has none of this, coming from a era where console games were making great strides in design often by draining complexity. Games were now expensive to make and appetite for risk was ebbing with every year. In the 80s, computer RPGs typically came something resembling an academic paper on how their arcane adventuring system worked, trying their best to emulate their favourite boxed RPG. And that meant you couldn’t play seriously without RTFM.

Phantasie I and II instructions

Designers aim to ensure that stat improvements are countered with beefier enemies. Failure results in encounters like the Ylsides in Arx Fatalis (Arkane Studios, 2002), enemies that kill with such deadly, speedy precision that fear gives way to frustration. There’s an absurdist story to be found here, of developers burning the midnight oil and high-fiving one another for constructing the most intricate, complex system that resembles, as close as possible, a flat line of difficulty.

Also, lest we forget, we’re discussing games played on computers. You know what computers are good at? Hiding complexity, covering up all that dirty numerical filth. That famous hybrid Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) was more about choosing the abilities at your disposal as opposed to divining the meaning of numbers - although a system of “skill points” managed to leak through.

But no, despite all this, a desire for the naked number endures and there are players for whom communion with an arbitrary system of numbers is essential. Why?

One answer is that these systems are puzzles to be solved. How do these stats translate into something I want to achieve? On my next stat increase, what would be better, to broaden my abilities or specialize? A system like this is said to offer depth and is usually more about longevity and replay than mastery across a single playthrough. Sometimes getting to grips with arcane systems is, in itself, a reward. I remember feeling triumphant when I could make sense of the numbers in deckbuilding game Armageddon Empires (Cryptic Comet, 2007).

But that's not the whole story; infinity seduces players. As the numbers march inexorably upwards, there is the illusion of progress, that something of importance is happening with every kill. The danger is that it’s not really a “role-playing game” but bland grind flavoured with numerical salt, a trick exploited by many F2P games. Even with the best of intentions, many RPGs fall back on grind as padding.

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I’ve played some of Dark Souls and it’s clear that if you’re grinding, you’re doing it wrong, you’re looking at the finger and missing all that goddamn heavenly glory. The numbers are a way to lock in progress: once you’ve completed a section, it will never be this difficult again. And maybe that is the true magic of the numbers in Dark Souls, a cosmic prank at the expense of the numerologist player. Salvation is not to be found in numbers but in yourself. The XP of the player and the XP of the character are one and the same.

But not every game is Dark Souls and I worry that the undying fetish for numbers is the main reason we still have them, rather than any contribution to a meaningful game experience. I was brought up on the streamlined Skill/Stamina system in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and that seemed good enough. I graduated onto D&D and Call of Cthulhu where the numbers were a necessary backdrop to the actual “role-playing”. But with computer RPGs, naked numbers feel like a vestigial organ that take on undeserved prominence. At best, I tolerate them.

I imagine I just sound like the kind of person who wants to do away with combat in the Mass Effect series. Please write in the comments why you think the numbers deserve to stay.

Update Sunday 18 Sep: The sequel post, Arithmophobia II, with ruminations on the responses is up!

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Comments (18) Trackbacks (1)
  1. sorry, can’t help you as it seems we agree once again.
    i was just thinking about this the other day when i saw a game trailer spending time showing menus or charachter sheets, as if they where a selling point. it works exactly the other way for me.
    like you said, it’s a bit baffling we’re still stuck with this mechanic from another era, and expecting to spend time in menus, dismissing enithing else as “not hardcore enough”

  2. This is actually something I think about a lot(ish) – how can we replace numbers with a symbol/trait/or visual cue? Couldn’t more running simply give you more stamina? Couldn’t each boss you beat suddenly make certain weapons available because of the strength you have gained just from beating that boss? It’s more about question of choice and what happens under the hood of games – it’s all numbers anyway. And if its not numbers, it’s words (or pictures).

    Though my game knowledge is limited (especially Regarding RPGs), I think of how Half-Life progresses with new weapons vs new enemies. Start off with a crow bar beating head-crabs and zombies, progress up to the Gluon Gun and Xen level. That gives you the accompanying illusion of gained strength/wit/intelligence/whatever…. But then, that’s not Role Playing – there’s no choice.

    Maybe in order to decrease numbers, you would need to increase attribute abilities – what you can do with gained magical skills. A new type of crafting that hides the numbers with specific abilities. Or, rather than a spread-sheet of numbers, NPCs who you go to for upgrades, just like how in Dark Souls you go to NPCs to buy specific ability [stuff] from.

  3. I have similar reactions, Fco, to all trailers that promise complexity that will take years to master. Will I be playing that much? Do I trust you to make a decent system??

  4. One thing to note is that you can by all means have an overbearingly complicated game without the player seeing a single number.

    I don’t really care one way or the other about, say, Binding of Isaac but it falls into this category. The player is required to track, map and predict interactions between a huge set of of items – most of which offer discrete, human-language benefits. Looking up a list of items and their traits is more or less required if one wants to advance beyond the mercy of complete dumb luck – an extremely overwhelming amount of information.

    Personally, I don’t have a huge problem with this, but there’s certainly an accessibility problem. Ultimately however, I think humans are more than capable of understanding numbers. Numbers can often be less ambiguous than language, particularly after things like localization.

    The question would be whether they’re going to be chunky, easy-to-understand numbers or multiple pages of tiny increments. And if it’s the latter, perhaps it’s more about when information is presented than how it’s presented.

  5. One of the most enjoyable video game experiences I had this year was with Final Fantasy IX. A game awash with numbers. But in fact these are not numbers – they are intervals.

    They’re points between A and B. Each character had their own collection of progress bars to fill out. Big checklists of things to find and collect. I had enormous fun with it, even though the card game stole things from you for losing, even though the treasure hunt game is garbage, even though the final boss is a bit crap.

    What I enjoyed was constantly unlocking things and trying them out. Collecting. That is what “grind” is. It’s the journey. When done badly you can’t see the destination and it seems like you’ll never get there. When done well, there is a plethora of sights to see as you make your way up the mountain.

    It is not quite as simple as Numbers Are Bad.

  6. There’s also games that are frustrating for their lack of numbers. No Man’s Sky supposedly gives you a bonus if you group all your upgrades so they touch each other. But how much of a bonus? Is it worth it to rip out all the existing upgrades on a new gun or spaceship and expend the resources to reapply them so they fit together? Who knows?

  7. Love me a bit of Legend of Thor. Still have my Megadrive copy lying around.

    What I found interesting is the concept of spacial awareness and appreciation you talked about, this is something that I think is what really ruins games when they take that away.

    I was playing Tomb Raider rececntly on Xbox One and there is a tracker ability that highlights points of interest throughout the game. This becomes ‘essential’ (if you want to collect all the bit of tat) when navigating the large areas. What it does is saturate the area, flatening everything, and making points of interest shiny beacons. This is a crime against an already boring game that the one thing you should be doing – taking in the beautiful scenery and marvelling at being an explorer.

    I definitely think that developers should be taking this stuff into consideration when they design things like collectables, achievements, their mini-map, how they are unlock new areas etc. Are you designing it for the sake of a game’s longevity (which I think is ultimately your problem with numbers, they draw things out for the sake of someone being able to go put a tick box next to 40 hours +) or for a player’s appreciation of the game?

    As for numbers, I am playing Earthlock: Festival of Magic right now and everything you abhor about numbers is prevalent in this game.

  8. Appreciate all the responses, will write soon! I jacked out of the matrix last night, wayyyy too tired.

  9. Warstub

    I think this is the primary issue with obscuring numbers, that it obscures the system, which you do not want to do in many instances. Although I do think if you’re trying to lead a game with fiction, perhaps you *do* want to de-systemize it? But there are counterperspectives that climbing up a system, even if part of your brain knows it’s kind of stupid, works as a proxy for progress. See st33d’s response.

    The funny thing in your response – and you’re by no means the only person to imply this – is identifying an important connection between numbers and role playing. This triggers one of my issues with the RPG numbers obsession, that the stat upgrades become the most vital decisions in a game. If your game is about systems, super good. But should that really be the strongest representation of choice in your game?

    Anonymous

    I guess it’s not precisely numbers themselves that bother me, but the arcane system they might be supporting. Like, do I want sift through pages and pages of 24 skills each for every member of my party (Mount & Blade). Is that page of attributes in Dark Souls key to it’s success? Putting it another way, are numbers an enabler for fiddly over-complicated systems that would be difficult to balance in practice?

    I’m actually okay with a handful of numbers but when they start to multiply like rabbits…

    st33d

    Every time you appear I am reminded I still haven’t tried Ending. It’s like when Sean Hogan turns up, I sigh inwardly, “Anodyne!”

    I, too, don’t agree that numbers are bad :) Even Story of Thor has a few numbers if you go looking for them.

    Having not played, I’m guessing from your description of FFIX that you don’t deal with a “system” there but a bunch of progress bars? That almost sounds like the stats you get with an open-world game as opposed to trying to min-max attributes for particular tasks. Am I right? I mean, if I’m right, that’s not quite the type of numbers I’m grappling with here.

    Urthman

    True. NMS is a good example here of how difficult it is to make an effective opaque system.

    But because I think adding numbers to NMS’ opaque systems won’t improve the fact they are not very good. Most of the time you’re just juggling things to make the game less obnoxious as opposed to achieving a goal.

    Would NMS be more fun if we started to min-max fractions of a percent on the basis of the energy consumption, power output, weapon punchiness and armour shielding?

    Badger Commander

    Yes, I love that in Thor it makes you much more aware of your surroundings beyond “here’s an arena with a chest”. And the environment also has a few secrets, too…

    Grind and game “inflation” is *one* worry. Thor is great because it is constantly about progress. It’s equivalent of grind is to make more rooms with more keys and more enemies. The only time you *do* grind is if you’ve run out of food and thus unable to heal; I did that once in my last game, close to the end.

    Another worry is how complicated stat systems can waste time for both players and developers. Like going heavy on a “constitution” stat and finding a game to be impossible to defeat once you’re deep in – is that the realistic consequences of choice or is it a frustrating game you want to throw away? And it seems crazy to work so hard on stat systems so that all players have very similar upgrade paths (flattened system). Why bother with the choice if you’re beavering away to make it inconsequential (safe)?

  10. I started having a mild panic attack when you started to criticize Dark Souls’ numbers. “Noooo he doesn’t get it how does he not get it?!?!” But then I kept reading and the anxiety melted away. You get it.

    I have a complicated relationship with numbers. I used to swear by them. I used them as a buyer’s guide for RPGs – if the damage a weapond did wasn’t represented as XdY+Z, I wasn’t playing it. Nowadays, I’m more inclined to agree with you.

    Not about the fetish part, though. I think they’re still there because it’s the path of least resistance. People like seeing numbers go up, lizard brain and all that. It’s just another box to tick while designing for mass appeal.

    On the other hand, I’m quick to blame mass appeal for pretty much everything wrong with games.

  11. I feel like defending numbers a little. The only cRPGs I’ve played much at the moment are pretty numbers-heavy; roguelikes mostly, where nethack has a lot of stats (and should have more; you basically have to look up weapon damage on the wiki to make decent decisions), and Desktop Dungeons (free version) literally requires a ton of mental arithmetic–while something like Monster’s Den is all about trying to see if you can hang a big number on the other team. (Brogue does an excellent job of representing things with health bars, but even so it’d be impossible to play without the hovertext where it tells you how many hits each combatant can take, and there are a fair number of numbers throughout, telling you things like how much you have to improve yourself or a weapon before you can use it effectively.)

    Well, that’s not a defense, since it might just be that I suck. The defense is this: The numbers give you feedback. Computers are great at concealing numbers, but when they conceal numbers they have to be giving you some other kind of feedback, and that can be hard to design in a way that communicates effectively. To use an analogy, it can be like a physics engine that tries to translate your movements into a feel. In a game like Nightsky it works wonderfully and you can use something like your tactile awareness to move around in the world, but you also wind up with something like And Yet It Moves where, despite its many fine qualities, the physics behind the falling damage is obscure enough that it’s often difficult to tell why you survived one landing and not another. And then there’s Gish. It can be easier on the player to just implement a nice clean obvious feedback model: here’s your jump height, hit one of these obstacles and you die.

    It reminds me of a point Emily Short often makes about conversation systems (maybe here is one place): The player wants to be able to know what they’re doing and what effect therir actions have had. Maybe in a real-lifelike situation we don’t get clean feedback but we skate through situations using our general skills of social awareness, which enable us to know in general how people have reacted to us. (The butler is somewhat snippy because, thinking about it, we have been generally high-handed.) But that’s something that’s hard to capture; it’s a lot easier to make a natural-feeling physics engine than a natural-feeling social engine. Well, in RPGs we’re not generally talking social engines… but then again most of us don’t have a natural feel for how we’re doing in combat the way we do for social interactions (“I really stuck my landing casting that fireball!”) The numbers give us something we can understand.

  12. The line between “min/maxing” and “making interesting decisions based on information rather than guesswork” seems pretty subjective to me, and I would guess depends on other factors related to how successfully the game gets you invested rather than the particular numbers mechanic itself.

  13. Regarding NMS, I like the idea of choosing between tearing apart your ship or weapon to rebuild optimized systems from scratch vs. taking what you get and trying to build on it. It’s not implemented well as it is, but it seems to me that a good version of that system would require numbers to make it interesting.

  14. Man I am tempted to close the comments – I have a huge followup in excess of 3000 words that is not yet complete and RPS just linked this one.

  15. I think the problem isn’t numbers, it’s needlessly high and needlessly arbitrary numbers.

    Look at the Fire Emblem series. The numbers are kept extremely low – they start in the 4’s and 5s (except for HP), and cap out at 30-40. There’s no need for 5000 strength or whatever. The numbers are kept low enough that you can meaningfully see the difference between, say, a unit with 7 strength and a unit with 9, as opposed to somebody with 700 strength and someone with 900.

    This is also because the calculations are kept simple. Want to know how much damage an attack will do? Strength, + your weapon’s might, – the target’s defense. That’s it. And since, again, you’re dealing with numbers that cap out at 30-40, this is math you can do in your head on a moment’s notice.

    This math is needed because the fire emblem games are punishing strategy RPGs. Units can die in a couple of attacks, and death is permanent. You need to be able to know, at a glance, what is going to happen when two units fight. The numbers allow you to easily understand that in a way taht simple bars or assumptions wouldn’t. That’s what numbers are for. More than that, when a unit levels up in Fire Emblem, you can easily tell what their stat increases translate to. A point of strength equals a point of damage. A point of defense equals a point less of damage taken. The game tells you this, as well. It’s math is so simple that it can be basically explained to the player via one or two sentence long tooltips.

    The problem is that, when the numbers are overly large and the math is incredibly complex, that simply doesn’t exist. You can obviously know that more = better, but how much better, how that translates directly into your output, etc – all that is impossible to know when you’re dealing with, say, a 6458 strength warrior swinging a 130 atk sword.

    So, again, the problem isn’t numbers themselves, it’s needless bloat of those numbers.

  16. Ketchua

    Sorry I didn’t respond to this at time, I was busy on the followup post and I was addressing directly the love of numbers going up.

    I remember getting pissed off with a Flash game that made you grind the same levels again and again for score until you could afford an upgrade that made the level survivable. That’s when I really started to resent XP as a fundamental unit of design.

    I’m between worlds. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasurable sensation of a number rising but when you see some games overdoing it… it’s like whoa whoa whoa, are the numbers genuinely the most important thing here? (I’m not getting a clear sense of whether Dark Souls’ numbers are actually important. Yet people do grind. Then again that grind is practice…)

    But let’s blame mass appeal. Always a slam dunk in an argument.

    Matt W

    Your defense is welcome, Sir Matt, and I handpicked one of your comments for the followup as you might have seen.

    I respect the point that number systems are good at providing feedback. But I wonder how important they are. When I look at something like Nethack, I can see they’re an integrated part of the game, but in others I wonder if they overweight game into an obsseesion with numbers, where poor grind pads out the game. But also an overwhelming set of stats can be noise instead of proper feedback. (I find HP damage is usually the biggest numeric feedback I monitor; in Dark Souls watching that like a hawk.)

    As a “student” of games, I think the system in 80 Days was quite clearly one with numbers behind the scenes I was not party to. But at the same time, if these numbers had been exposed directly, I would’ve resented that as making the experience wholly artificial. Yet in the RPG space, number-explicit systems are a default. They aren’t artificial at all. They are the Alpha and Omega of the RPG.

    Is this the zenith of RPG design or is it a sign of a field crying out for innovation?

    mic drop

    Urthman

    My worry is that the numbers end up taking over what would be otherwise pretty game of planet sightseeing. NMS clearly tried to make all the players happy, but left few of them happy. I think this is where my original point of “numbers are scary” is at its strongest. How many of the people looking for the definitive “space walking sim” would have jumped onto the game if they’d heard it was plastered with stats and numbers?

    To focus more on numbers and micromanagement is to shunt your appeal to a different userbase. I say this even though I know NMS screwed this up.

    Everdistant

    Thanks for your excellent point here. I don’t think it’s the only problem with numbers but I did get to deploy it in the followup post! This is part of the larger issue that number systems need to be carefully designed to make feedback usable and just throwing numbers at the screen is not a win.

  17. And what a follow-up it was!

    The numbers in Dark Souls are training wheels, ironic as that may be. Increasing your stats can give you a push, but it won’t tip the scales. As you’ve said, the XP of the character and the XP of the player are one and the same. There’s no replacement for gitting gud.


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