Landon from GameStop
Recently, the Lunch Zone crew and I got around to playing Heart of Enya – which is a game with relatively small numbers. A lot of 2’s and 4’s and 8’s. You do a little damage to a little health pool. You feel fragile and everything else feels fragile. Learning when to retreat is a primary mechanic. It’s a very good game, developed by Team Bapy as a part of the Computational Media/Art program at UC Santa Cruz. If you have the time it’s worth playing through and supporting the developers. I would give a thorough review if anyone wanted such a thing – so feel free to pester me in the comments.
While I could sing the praises of Team Bapy for ages, today [or tonight, whenever you fancy] I want to expand a conversation that the Lunch Zone crew got around to. Specifically, about the size of numbers in role playing games (RPGs). How do you determine what size a number should be and how does its size effect the experience of play? The visualization of game values are a staple of the genre, of course. The whole point of a limit break in Final Fantasy 7 is to surpass the 9999 value that is set as the maximum damage for a skill. Octopath Traveler finds a similar analog in the skill “Surpassing Power” from the warrior job. For any min/max-er or completionist, it’s a necessary skill to have. Many of the game’s final fights simply have too much health to fight without the iconic “limit breaking” power. Another game I’ve been obsessed with lately, Monster Hunter World, borrows from this tradition. Giving you miniscule damage ticks for every slash, bash, or shot you take. It really underscores the size of the monsters you’re fighting. They can kill you in two strikes, killing them takes a thousand [The closest analog is the adamantoise fight in FF15, though that’s it’s own blog post] . And I could go on – but I’m less interested in my own experience of big numbers, or as we in the biz call it “Beeg number”, and more interested in a survey of experiences. So, without further ado, here’s a quick convivence sample from friends of the show.
For my Friends and Collaborators:
I want to be clear this isn’t some sort of formalized process; this is just players giving us some feedback. I’m not here to draw conclusions per-se, but to platform some takes I’ve found interesting. My colleague Morgan Forbush forwarded the question to her free company [a Final Fantasy 14 Guild] and the results were very focused on the rush of seeing a beeg number. User Rayden expressed an enjoyment of not just the largeness of the number, but the fact that the number was a critical hit. Perhaps this is best described as a mix of satisfaction from incredible luck and potent abilities. Another user, Sekary, offered that a massive healing number has a similar satisfaction. Perhaps this is indicative of a tension resolved by saving someone who is close to death or ensuring the enemy can’t do any meaningful damage in the first place. So, this cross-section seems to spin off into two categories: skill numbers and affective numbers.
Skill numbers are reminiscent of @HardCel’s comment on my twitter thread preparing for this post; that starting a game with small damage numbers and growing to large damage numbers contextualizes the effort of play. It allows for the player to feel like the grind, and the journey, has made them more capable than when they first started. And by being more capable they have more agency in the game-environment. Affective numbers remind me of @roadmappodcast’s comment; that in do-or-die moments the number takes on the character of a near miss. It plays with the tension created by contingency and the ever-present possibility of failure. Naturally, these two categories have major overlap and any one experience with a visualized game value can be a reaction to skill or moment-to-moment affect.
There are a lot of places where the beeg number doesn’t seem to land for players. Mainly, once the number gets too large [Not a problem the billionaires would have I suppose]. In that case the players who responded to my inquiry seem less warm to its presence. User pHotobomb reports that once the number becomes unreadably large, it ceases to create the same feeling in their experience of play. Twitter user @Giggahurts argues that numbers that seem overly large just for the sake of being overly large can diminish the experience of play. Resoundingly, those who replied put major emphasis on the context of the genre expectations. The expectations of a JRPG, an MMO, and a TTRPG all mandate what the player will understand as “beeg” enough. Perhaps saying that context matters isn’t particularly shocking – it just cements that data visualization in video games is as socially situated as any other convention. Any attempt to understand data visualization without an eye to the social, is then no better than any other kind of formalism .
Hiding a Beeg Number in Plain Sight:
I’m sure there’s a million other categories we could invent for data visualization in any game [And over taxonomizing is useless anyhow]. I think it’s really interesting how differently a player interacts with, say Kingdom Hearts, when lacking the scan ability. Scan allows you to see you enemy’s health points pool via a multi-colored and tiered bar at the top of the screen. There’s far more tension in the game when that data isn’t within the HUD. First time players tend to be far more cautious, and far less willing to risk striking a foe in a precarious position when scan isn’t equipped. When scan is equipped, players take more risks assuming they’ll survive through their combos [Which is… mostly correct]. Hiding a large number can cause the player to re-evaluate their possible strategies in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.
On the other end, Twitter user @weaker_coffee reminds us of the case of Undertale,
(spoilers?) In the beginning of a neutral or genocide route, when you kill Toriel it only requires one hit. Keep in mind you are a small child equipped at the moment with a stick. Why does it only take one hit?? And why does that one hit strike over 22,000 damage???? 3/?
@weaker_coffee goes on to explain that this unexpected damage value results in the player gaining a conception of how fragile life is in Undertale. It results in empathy and remorse for the unexpected consequences of your actions. Consequences that are only unexpected because Toby Fox’s game exists within the RPG genre where it’s uncommon for you to start a game with ludicrous power. I think as much as it’s important to consider the sociality of data visualization, it’s important to understand that data visualization in these games is contingent on action. Players are always enacting the value that is being visualized. Data in a game space is a type of performance, and there’s a good deal to be learned from a rigorous inquiry into how players negotiate performances visualized by this black-box calculus. And, of course, how the black box visualizes the player in any given game. All of these digits, values, and heads-up-displays construct the ability of the player – or at least, give the player a metric to gauge their own ability. This inherently gets all knotted up in the player’s sense of embodiment. The data becomes personal and emblematic of the character or avatar. There’s a metonymy occurring, and I’m not sure which part stands in for the whole. Is the character/avatar swallowed by it’s metrics? or are the metrics swallowed by the character/avatar? Is it just an ouroboros – the snake eating it’s own tail? I’ll leave you to judge: feel free to comment your own experiences with beeg numbers.
@HardCel. “BEEG numbers are nice with context and aren’t arbitrarily high on the outset to seem grandiose. JRPGs are the most common example, doing SMOL double digit attacks at lv 1 make doing thousands in the endgame contextualized how you’ve grown. Also, MY BLADE UN UNBENDING.” Twitter, 3 May 2021, 1:52 a.m., https://twitter.com/HardCel/status/1389291712594518017?s=20
@roadmappodcast. “Honestly, I think they only have an impact in the clutch moments. Do or die situations. Otherwise it feels like it was wasted. Like nailing a stealth roll in Call of Cthulhu not to attack, but just not be seen by the scary monster that will make you your own half twin.” Twitter, 30 Apr. 2021, 3:09 p.m.,https://twitter.com/roadmappodcast/status/1388224077752586242?s=20
@Giggahurts. “To me it’s more about how the BEEG NUMBER is contextualized versus how big it actually is. Any game where the progression system is constantly expanded upon over time (I.E. an MMO) seem to suffer from this problem where the endgame numbers are super high just for the sake of it.” Twitter, 3 May 2021, 2:05 p.m., https://twitter.com/Giggahurts/status/1389295093346185220?s=20
@weaker_coffee. “(spoilers?) In the beginning of a neutral or genocide route, when you kill Toriel it only requires one hit. Keep in mind you are a small child equipped at the moment with a stick. Why does it only take one hit?? And why does that one hit strike over 22,000 damage???? 3/?” Twitter, 30 Apr. 2021, 2:34 p.m. https://twitter.com/weaker_coffee/status/1388215176541974530?s=20
Gastrow, Jason. “BEEG BEEG YOSHI.” YouTube, uploaded by videogamedunkey, 26 January 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWu5X4jcvv8