I’m almost finished with Saints Row: Gat out of Hell. I bought it right away, of course, because it will be an odd day indeed when something is released within that franchise that I don’t want, but I saved it for a while with full knowledge that I would be able to blow through it in a very short amount of actual play. True to form, here I am, with the game almost completely finished, even down to picking up the wobbly collectibles scattered throughout the game, a technique I generally eschew because it’s massively time-consuming in a larger city.
At the same time, I can appreciate the height of the end all the more because of where I started.
The start of the game, you see, drops you right back at the beginning of the usual Saints Row power curve, and leaves you at the end in roughly the same place as you were at the end of Saints Row 4 with an arsenal of slightly different superhuman powers and a flight system that’s both brilliant and fun. The difference is that instead of sinking 40 hours into the game to be most of the way to completion, I’m almost there in five. As there’s an extra layer of appreciation there.
One of the lines that’s almost uncharacteristically bleak from Gat out of Hell comes from Satan himself: “Despair is nothing without having some petty little hope to cling to.” But the inverse is true, too, especially in games. It’s hard to appreciate the power jump at the end of the game if you can’t remember how things felt at the beginning of the game.
I am fairly certain that this is part of the reason why old-school games like to really ramp up the brutality in earlier stages; it means you appreciate when things stop being so hard later on. But the span of time between one and the other makes a big difference. If you’ve been slowly accumulating power the whole time, it’s not really as notable when you get to the end and you have a huge array of options in any given situation; it feels like everything has just extended naturally.
You can’t fully appreciate world 8-4 in Super Mario Bros. when world 1-1 was so far back.
While I wasn’t pleased with the ultimate execution for much of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, I did appreciate that the generally shorter runtimes of each individual episode allowed for a much steeper and more predictable power curve. Part of this was just because it was nice being in a world where a Flame Whip actually mattered – shades of uncommon or rare items in World of Warcraft back in the day – but a bigger part of it was the simple fact that I could always remember having no money or resources or options. Having them all back at the end of each story made the game feel as if you’d really climbed somewhere, something the vignettes struggled to accomplish in a narrative sense.
By creating this short power curve with a higher endpoint, you really get to appreciate the apex more. Most games draw it out a fair bit, which means that you start with only a few weak options and very gradually get better ones. This also can lead to some unpleasantness if you choose to explore upgrades to the wrong options early on. You upgrade one ability but it turns out another one would have been more useful, now you have to play catch-up until that first ability is useful. If it ever is.
The down side, of course, is that you don’t get much time to play with any of the individual toys along the road. While I can appreciate the stark differences in power level between the start of Gat out of Hell and the near-end of the game, I’ve also had very little time to appreciate any of the single moments along the road. All of the new elements to my various powers have been used briefly if at all; it doesn’t help that some of them are blazingly powerful while others are more or less forgettable.
Spending too much time at the top of the power curve also deforms the game somewhat. Just like having a longer span of game between the bottom and the top makes you forget what the bottom feels like, the longer you’re at the top the more it feels like the default state of being. This becomes particularly problematic in MMOs, where going back to lower levels is often a shock or outright impossible; it’s easy to feel as if the game at the level cap is the only game that exists, because you spend far more time there than anywhere else.
For a longer game, in short, it’s a trick you can’t quite pull off. You wind up with all of your powerups coming too early and without that appreciation lasting into the later portions of the game. But for shorter games, for more controlled experiences, it’s actually a major benefit, partly because you’re used to longer games with a slower power curve.
There’s something to be said for treating episodic gameplay closer to this, making each episode a self-contained climb rather than making every single installment a tiny horizontal slice of the overall gameplay pie. The verticality is a benefit, really giving that feel of accomplishment and climb even if the individual steps wind up being a lot shorter and perhaps not as individually satisfying.
But boy, is there ever something great about being able to remember the bottom of the power ladder being only a few hours of play behind. It really makes you feel like you’ve wound up somewhere.