So this is a random, weird thought, but if you’ve been following this blog, you should be accustomed to such by now. I’ve lately been giving a lot of thought to what’s in the head of a video game super villain as they lay out their obstacle course of doom for the hapless hero tasked with navigating wind, rain, and big dudes with powerful fucking weapons to save generic Cool Planet.
Start with the first level. There’s not a whole lot there. To the gamer and the designer, this makes perfect sense because you don’t want to throw your entire weight in the gamer’s direction right in the first level. It’s the training ground, there strictly to give the gamer a feel for the game. Obstacles don’t ask for very much beyond jumping short gaps to wide targets and enemies are all taken out in one shot. But think about this from the villain’s point of view: It probably makes good sense to them, too. It’s the beginning of the game, and the villains aren’t out to conquer more territory because they’ve gotten ahold of everything in sight. Right? Why else would every area a gamer visits be overrun with enemies? Now, if you’re the good guy, you’re probably not privy to announcing your presence with the deck stacked high against you. That makes the good guy some sort of rebel, or secret agent, or some sort of non-threat – if not a nonentity altogether – who is trying to go about the business of killing everyone in sight and slaughtering the bad guy real quiet-like.
From the game’s point of view, that’s why the first level is so easy. No one knows the good guy is there yet. If they’re on the main villain’s radar at all, they’re a blip that can be disposed up easily. Not everyone in the game’s world liked having the enemies take over, so its conceivable that many people in there tried to rise up at some point. Hell, the bad guys may have even taken out whole groups of better-armed good guys. What’s one more person going on a jaunt with a gun? The bad guys stationed on guard at the first level are probably feeling pretty confident because they’ve probably knocked off a few rebels already, and even if they didn’t, they’re trained, armed, possibly have better equipment and vehicular support, and the backing of the entire enemy organization. So if you were the main villain, what would be the point of throwing your entire arsenal at this one person? It’s barely worth making the effort to vocalize the orders.
Well, this new good guy comes in and defies the odds. They leave a bloody and hubrisful trail behind in that first level and have found every safe spot and weakness on the way through it. But… There’s barely any concern. Sometimes people get lucky. The good guys go into the second level, which is more often than not everything they faced in the first level, just expanded. And again, there’s not a whole lot to worry about. They’re a little closer to your evil lair, but your minions are still capable of stopping them. Right?
Apparently not. The good guy blazes through the second level, and word of their little one-person rebellion by this point is starting to get around. You’re not thinking of it as a significant thereat yet, but after cleaning your guards and sentries out of two different places and taking back what you stole from them, it’s starting to turn into a movement. It’s time to take some sort of action, but you’re too busy ruling and keeping the territories you still have to give the good guy any more than a cursory resistance. The third level is the wake-up call, and things start to get a little more serious and challenging. Enemies are better-equipped and can take more punishment before going down. From the grunt point of view, the time for guard duty is over, and it’s now time to begin a real fight against the insolent up-risers. They start counterattacking instead of just defending.
By the next level, word is starting to get out about the unexpected rebel running roughshod over the minions and taking over the outskirts of your stolen land. The ground officers are now seeing it fit to get involved and are running from one strategic location to the next, making sure there are traps and barriers being rigged up strictly for this rebel. The sentries who were around for the first couple of levels are still there, but they’re also scared to death because they all know they’re going to be fodder, so they’re being used more sparingly. And it isn’t helping that whatever mass resistance movement is starting to form behind the good guy is now occupying their retaken territory and capturing whatever’s left of their rank.
Good guy manages to get through that, and now that they’ve gotten this far, you’re starting to realize something: If – and you now know that the “if AND when” of getting rid of them has turned into a legitimate “if OR when” – you manage to successfully kill this rebel, there’s going to be some fallout. No one made it this far before, a large chunk of your forces have been wiped out or captured, and you’re starting to give in-person suggestions to your officers for dealing with them. This is becoming a full-blown war, and that head rebel who you thought was a gnat is going to become a martyr if they get killed. Fortunately, the good thing about depleted territory is that you can condense the remains of your military and launch a real offense at the good guy. And you’re not deluding yourself by now. This one is now a special case and will need to be dealt with through more direct means. (Red Faction for the Playstation 2 illustrates this gradual buildup better than most – it starts with a scuffle between a miner and a guard, and you start to see wanted posters for your character halfway through the game.)
The head rebel is also starting to anticipate the many types of troops, vehicles, strategies, and artillery you’re able to throw at them. It’s starting to give them a sort of mental edge against your own loyal people, so it’s time to start bringing out the stuff you didn’t expect to have to use. Omega Attack Formation using the flying gunships? Isn’t that overkill? The more they run around, the less it looks like it.
But by now they’re past the halfway point and have retaken over half what you took when you moved in. The people are rallying to the cause, the retaken territory is mopped up, and it’s starting to look like your victory – should it happen – will be a pyhrric victory at best. At this point, it’s time to break out the heavy-duty units. Special forces are in, and you’re probably hiring private mercenaries and bounty hunters too just in case. Something is going to have to work, and it has to be soon; most of your lower-end officers are now captured or killed. A couple of your high-end officers are groveling before you, begging for a second chance, and even though these are guys who have come through for you in tough situations in the past, you’re still reluctant to give them another chance because you’re not sure they can pull it off. You reluctantly give those guys their last chance, and give them your strongest equipment and troops to get the job done, but you’re now scared to death because they just failed again.
Face it, Dear Leader: You’ve lost. You now have your hired mercenaries and strongest minions holding on to your base, and any hope you now have of beating the good guys is strictly in the interest of your escape. What’s to do? Retreat, get out, build a new army, and try again. But just when the last vehicle out is ready to take you away, the good guy bursts in. If you were smarter, you would offer them your recently-vacated spot as your right hand, but it’s not like you have anything left to rule. So out you go to answer for your crimes against humanity.
And THAT is why video game levels progress in difficulty the way they do. Make sense?