For the love of leveling

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

For The Love Of Leveling

I gained one thousand seven hundred and twenty-one levels in the last year. Around the end of 2011, fellow game writer and RPG fan Phil Kollar asked his Twitter followers how many levels they thought they'd gained over the course of the year. The idea of calculating my progress seemed fascinating and throughout 2012 I decided to keep track of my earned levels.

The levels were earned from a variety of different sources. Some levels came easily: I played two BioWare games, for example, both games have a large casts of characters and 30 or 40 levels to gain. Allies in those games gain levels alongside the protagonist, so if those characters ever made it into my rotation, I counted each level. Some levels were more difficult to earn: the post-30 levels in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars: The Old Republic's launch, when repetition, lack of motivation, and some nasty bugs slowed my progress and eventually drove me away. Some games featured both: In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim my pyromaniac mage torched her way through 15 levels easily, but upgrading to fireballs in the game's odd skill system brought her leveling to a screeching halt.

Levels are odd things to consider. They're holdovers from the genres paper-and-pencil roots, where the lack of a computer processor meant that it was significantly easier to have one specific marker of character progress than, say, a series of slow-gaining semi-random skills and stats. The advent of video game RPGs made the latter possible, but only a few RPGs have totally eschewed levels: Final Fantasy II improved every statistic including health with practice, leading to the ridiculous point of having your characters attack one another in combat in order to improve their HP. Betrayal At Krondor may be the best single-playing, no-levels RPG, although even it cheated a bit and improved your characters' hit points at certain plot points. Krondor's success with the model convinced a younger me that this was the best way forward for RPGs. I was apparently the only one.

Leveling up is even more important of a process now than before. Within the role-playing genre, levels are attached a set of choices, some of which can define your character for the rest of the game, like Dragon Age 2's options to make your protagonist a support character for the entire party versus an individual damage-dealer. Some games experimented with the form, like Diablo 3 allowing your change your skills at any point, but for most, the leveling process is fairly similar: maybe directly add some points to stats or skills, then choose your most important perks.

But the concept is extending well beyond RPGs. The game that gave me the most levels over the course the year was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game that certainly straddled the line between RPG and strategy. I like to play on higher difficulties, and take a lot of casualties, so I'd have 30-40 soldiers who all gained three-to-five levels on my memorial wall. While theoretically the leveling process was simple-you just chose between two perks the same way for each class – part of what made XCOM so great is that they were almost always interesting, legitimate choices for building different squaddie types. This made leveling in XCOM a more memorable part of the game than even most traditional RPGs.

They're spreading wider and wider, too. Far Cry 3 has a leveling-up system, with a bunch of various perks to pick up with each level. I'm not actually certain that it actually improves the game in any significant way, but its mere existence indicates the perceived usefulness of leveling in the game industry. Indeed, the entire "gamification" industry exists because a large number of people seem to believe that if you add a number going up to something repetitive, it'll make people happy.

I don't think leveling your way to happiness actually works outside of certain game contexts, but within certain games, there's something to the idea. One of the games that provided me with a few levels this year was the Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition a game built around the idea that levels should be meaningful. And it succeeds with that idea. The kobolds and wolves that might have given you and party problems at the start of the game are just slight bumps in the road by level three, but the process of getting to that point involves a wonderful mix of exploration, stubbornness, and tactics. When those levels come, eventually, they're not just an improvement in your player characters' abilities, they're a vindication of the time spent in the game.

Not every game goes so far with it (although Torchlight 2 comes close) but there's still some small thrill in the process. And certainly, those 1,721 levels had different amounts of thrill attached to them. Still, every single one added at least a little bit more power to the game they were part of. Technically, leveling up may be unrealistic and anachronistic, but it's also a great way to encourage the player to bond with his or her in-game characters.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.