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Balancing risk and reward: A case study

Ever since the birth of videogames, the landscape has been dominated by power fantasies.  Games such as Prototype and God of War are extroverts, challenging players to perform ever-more gratuitous feats of carnage. Characters grow in strength and arsenal in continual escalation, seeking to wow their audience with spectacle and bombast.

But shock and awe can only take us so far before we seek new heights to attain, new challenges to meet.  Without carefully balanced risk, power fantasies quickly pale, for what sense of achievement is earned by decimating an army of cardboard foes?  How can that same sense of power be sustained while asking the player to risk everything?

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter was a brave experiment for Capcom.  It broke from the series' traditional bland fantasy roots and plunged the player into an underground science-fiction dystopia, awash with new and often conflicting mechanics. Its save system was punishing, its ambience industrial, alienating as many fans as it intrigued. But where Dragon Quarter shone was in the balance between risk and reward, granting the player overwhelming power at a terrible cost.

Early in the game, Dragon Quarter's protagonist Ryu encounters – and is possessed by – a dragon.  So far, so cliche, until the previously unseen counter in the corner of the screen begins to tick upward, ever so slowly.

00.01%

00.02%

00.03%

When the D-counter reaches 100%, you die. Permanently. You return to the very beginning of this sprawling RPG, to begin your journey again, older, wiser, with a few bonuses to see you through, perhaps a smidgen of saved XP to give yourself the slightest edge.

100% seems a long way from 00.01%.  At least, until you discover your protagonist's incredible dragon-imbued abilities are directly linked to the D-counter. Assuming dragon-form adds 1%. Overcharging your attack: 2%. Devastating almost any boss with a single triple-overcharged punch: Priceless.

Oh, and eight full percentage points added to your burgeoning D-counter. Alternatively, you could spend ten minutes and most of your items whittling said boss down without resorting to dooming yourself to an early – and quite permanent – demise, but the steep difficulty curve forces you to reconsider: are you really strong enough to triumph unenhanced?  Surely it wouldn't hurt if you used a little overwheming firepower, just to level the playing field…

And then the battle's over, your D-counter dangerously, terrifyingly higher than it was when you began.  Every few steps, it ticks, an ever-present reminder of your folly, how your lust for power and disbelief in your own abilities led you towards ruin. Dragon Quarter's strength lies in forcing you to ask those questions, to make that decision which may lead to your doom or your salvation.

Worse still is Ryu's piece de resistance: an almighty blast of energy, unstoppable, unrelenting, its duration bound to a single button-press. The longer you hold the button, the more power streams forth to wreak devastation upon your enemies, and the faster your D-counter spins until you realise too late that you'll never make it to the surface.  The forces arrayed before you are too strong.  You wasted too many precious percentage points on early bosses, who now seem so feeble. And as you're plunged into yet another life or death struggle with the superhuman Regents who block your path, you give in, and hurl your rapidly-decaying husk at your foes in one last, futile attempt at victory.

Never mind. There's always next time.


Originally posted at Generation Minus One, the webcomic of last-gen gaming.


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