FinalFantasyLegend%28Redbull%29.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

When people ask if video games teach us anything, the answer is yes: they teach us how to be better at playing video games. But games also teach us, sometimes subtly, sometimes accidentally, about game design. The choices of design aren’t usually obvious.

Most of the time, it’s enough that a game is fun, or scary, or dramatic, and it’s better to focus the player on the experience rather than how the experience was created. Sometimes, though, an unusual choice of design breaks this rhythm and makes us suddenly conscious of the conventions we take for granted.

One game that unintentionally shares this information (to its determent, unfortunately) is SaGa, a game marketed in the states as The Final Fantasy Legend. The SaGa series is perhaps best known for becoming progressively more obtuse and bizarre with each iteration. Its beginning on the Game Boy, however, was fairly standard for RPGs of its time, asking the player recruits a party of four to do normal RPG things like kill monsters and find treasure.

But this game gives particular insight into enemy design and its incompatibility with player design through an interesting, though flawed, option for players: it lets you play as nearly any enemy in the game.

SaGa is unusual when it comes to the advancement of the game’s three races. Humans grow by buying HP and stats from stores, and mutants grow in random ways after every fight. Monsters, however, advance by turning into different monsters, allowing them to transform into an exact copy of nearly any enemy in the game.

Don’t Eat the Meat

In theory, it sounds very interesting, but because these monsters are designed with the challenges of enemy design in mind, the fundamentally different design requirements that go into creating players and enemies makes the monsters an extremely weak choice to play as. What becomes apparent through play is that their weaknesses as a tool for a player are a result of their strengths as a challenge for the player to overcome.

So what makes monsters so bad? For one thing, monsters tend to do much less damage than anyone else, and they can’t be customized, whereas the humanoid races can be set up with an appropriate breadth of abilities. Monsters can quickly run out of useful skills and then sit around uselessly until you have a chance to rest. They have more HP than anything else, but that doesn’t carry much of an advantage when the other playable races can do so much more damage that there won’t be enough enemies left to damage them.

It doesn’t take a lot of playing to figure out that monsters just don’t feel made for fighting.

The characters the player controls need to be designed to live through dozens and dozens of battles, kill a boss, buy stuff, advance the plot, and still have some wiggle room left over. A monster, on the other hand, is designed to outlast the looping of the battle music. In the seconds of an enemy’s lifespan, it needs to be challenging enough to interest the player but then either die immediately in a satisfying manner or kill players that are doing something wrong.

FinalFantasyLegend%28Redbull%29.jpgThe Life of a Monster: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Because of this, a monster is designed with only a brief lifespan in mind. Designers don’t have to worry about the monster before it encounters the party (because it doesn’t exist) or after (because either the player or the monster is dead). Trying to keep one of these things in your party is like trying to get a mayfly to live long enough to earn a PHD from a major research institution.

At first this might seem backwards since monsters have high HP and frustrating immunities, which theoretically would let them survive longer than the races designed specifically for players. But because a monster has relatively weak attacks, they will actually take much more damage than any of the other races because their weak attacks ensure that combat will last longer.

Monsters also aren’t typically equipped with the resources necessary for multiple battles. The other races have the ability to stock up on weapons and attacks, and although they run out eventually, monsters are stuck with what they have. For their tiny lifespan, it’s luxurious, but the game full expects the player to be able to survive extensive periods without rest, and what’s plenty for one battle is nowhere near enough for dozens.

The Making of a Hero

Player HP is low not to make the heroes weak, but to create tension and drama. If the players lose health, they have to be cautious or find ways to recover it. Monsters won’t outlast the fight, so their HP has to come up front. When HP is given to player characters in short increments, the player has a lot more moments of OH MY GOD I’M GONNA DIE. This engages players.

HP is the benchmark of challenge. Monsters must have more and more HP in order to present more of a challenge. HP is less a way for monsters to survive and more a tangible goal for the players to accomplish. The core of RPG gameplay (or really, any game that involves fighting) is to hit this allotted goal of damage before you run out of resources. Challenge and tension depend on this sort of distinctive enemy design.

Conclusions

These principles are by no means limited to RPGs. What if I invented a first person shooter in which you ran from inn to inn shooting waves of monsters? Then I would be sued, because I would have invented Doom. While Doom’s monsters aren’t very resilient, they more than make up for this in numbers that easily overwhelm the total health of the player. In both games, there’s a goal of minimum damage required before you can move on.

In the more “realistic” modern fps, the only change to the fundamental mechanic is even lower player health, a design choice that is as much for dramatic reasons as it is for realism. Nearly every game that involves shooting and killing something controlled by the computer follows this school of design.

This is because enemies aren’t supposed to be lethal. They exist to generate the tension of almost dying, and force the player to find ways to overcome them. SaGa teaches its unsuspecting players that enemies are designed to pose challenges, not overcome them.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames and helps mayflies acquire master's degrees, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]