Humans like it when numbers go up. When you really think about it, most of what we do is based around making numbers go up. Our economies are based on expansion – numbers going up is good times, numbers staying level is stagnation, and numbers going down is recession. Recession is bad – I think most of us have learnt that by now. The numbers must go up.
At the time of writing it’s early January, which means we’re still recovering from New Year’s celebrations, the time of year where we all get together to celebrate a number going up. Now we’re mostly back at work, the place we go to make sure the numbers in our bank accounts keep going up (or, as is unfortunately too often the case, just to stop them going down.)
A love of numbers going up is built into our genes. We’re biologically programmed to reproduce, to expand, to increase the number of people related to us in the world – perhaps that’s why we’re so obsessed with the idea of numbers going up in our entertainment as well.
Right now I’m in the middle of playing four different games, because I am nothing if not ambitious. Those games are Pokemon Omega Ruby, Persona 4 Golden, Dragon Age Inquisition and Destiny. They are all, in their own ways, games about numbers going up. Games are, for the most part, exercises in making numbers go up – the number of points, the number of levels, the number of kills; the nature of the number doesn’t matter, so long as it is going up.
Pokemon is perhaps the ultimate game of accumulation, with the biggest range of different numbers, all of which are within your power to make go up. You begin the game with a single Pokemon, and have the ability, should you possess the willpower, to increase this number to a full roster of 718.
Each one of these 718 critters has a full compliment of statistics, each of which you can increase to your heart’s desire. Then there’s a huge range of items to collect, trainers to beat, moves to learn…Pokemon is either an obsessive’s dream game or worst nightmare, depending on how willing they are to sacrifice their existence to the pursuit of increasing numbers (admittedly numbers that are wrapped up in a very charming package.)
It should feel cynical, 22 games into a series that only improves by tiny increments each time, but somehow it doesn’t. A lot of it is down to the Nintendo charm, their ability to make what is effectively a massive spreadsheet feel like an exciting childhood adventure every time. Pokemon games are like a comfort food for me at this point, nostalgic enough to make me crave a new one every year and just engaging enough to keep me hooked throughout.
Pokemon is something like a candy-coloured vision of a capitalist utopia; so long as you are dedicated and are willing to crush all opposition, you can accumulate untold riches (in this case, lots and lots of Pokemon) and become champion. Nothing but your own lack of resolve can stop you from becoming The Very Best.
Real life doesn’t work like Pokemon. Obviously. Nobody can really catch ’em all, no matter how much time and effort they put in, and not everyone gets to have a shiny Charizard (or whatever the real-life example of a shiny Charizard would be – that house Notch just bought, maybe?)
Persona 4 shares a lot of similarities with Pokemon, but in its world of combined high school drama, murder mystery and dungeon crawler, the most important numbers relate to the relationship of your hero to their classmates and allies. Your Social Links govern both your allies’ effectiveness in battle and your own, so much of the game is spent simply hanging out with its vibrant cast of characters, hoping to make the number that represents your relationships go up.
It’s a compelling system that makes spending time with a cast of anime school kids feel worthwhile, but it’s probably worth pointing out that this system cannot be applied to real-life relationships. I have considered creating a chart of all my friends to pin on my wall, with numbers to tick off whenever I feel our relationships have ‘levelled up’, but quickly realised that this is the behaviour of a sociopath. Our relationships in games are a cleverly constructed number puzzle; our relationships in real life are a little more complex than that. Games can use numbers to simulate real life, but life will always be more complex, and that’s (probably) a good thing.
Dragon Age Inquisition populates a whole world with numbers, using mathematical complexity to create a tapestry of interconnected landscapes and narratives that can seem as daunting as it is absorbing. Dragon Age is descended from the classic pen and paper RPGs with their fearsome 20-sided dice. The legacy of those dice can be felt everywhere in Dragon Age, from the numbers that fly off enemies’ heads when you attack to the imposing wall of statistics that make up your inventory screen.
BioWare are masters at building worlds out of numbers, of drawing you in and making you feel like you’re part of something vast. At its height it works brilliantly, but there are times when the numbers behind the scenes are all too apparent. When you check your quest log to find out you’ve only collected 6 out of 10 rare herbs, or visited 3 out of 19 possible landmarks, you realise that the rich fantasy world is still an illusion. It’s a meticulously crafted and beautifully intertwined system for making numbers go up.
You’d think we’d be more than happy to leave this sort of tedium in games, but I’ve encountered plenty of blogs trying to persuade me the way to success is to compartmentalise everything I do into numbered lists – to turn my day-to-day activities into a series of particularly grindy side quests. All these ‘productivity tips’ are bullshit, of course; you don’t become successful by ticking things off a spreadsheet. Except at collecting elfroot, obviously.
Destiny is the ambitious new persistent-world multiplayer space opera from Bungie. It’s one of the most expensive videogames ever made, merging the first-person shooter with massively multiplayer roleplaying game mechanics to create a hybrid game that spectacularly spans campaign, co operative and competitive game modes.
It’s also most definitely a game about making numbers go up. Destiny has a frightening amount of numbers you can make go up, and as you keep playing you begin to get the sneaking suspicion that a lot of those numbers exist purely so players can work at making them go up.
After a while the gloss wears off, and you realise what a crutch those numbers are. You realise that you’re playing solely to make numbers increase and, unlike Pokemon, it does start to feel cynical. It’s at this point that you either buy in completely, happy enough grinding away with friends for the foreseeable future, or you put the game down and don’t look back.
Destiny‘s model of grind reflects real life with surprising accuracy at times. Sometimes you can grind away for hours, give it your all, only to be awarded some mediocre loot and booted back to the start. And sometimes, when you least expect it, something awesome and completely game-changing will pop up out of nowhere. If that’s not like life then I don’t know what is. The one thing that remains true is that you can’t game the system – just take part, commit yourself, and hope it pays off. And hope the Cryptarch isn’t an asshole today. Screw you, Cryptarch.
Clearly I seem to be drawn to games about numbers going up – as well as making poor analogies, obviously. But the truth of the matter is the numbers in games mean things – they represent complex systems, whether ecosystems, economies or relationships. If you’re designing a game, be aware of the power contained in the numbers that make up your game. And if you’re playing a game, make yourself aware of how the numbers in the game are affecting you. Make sure the game isn’t actually playing you.