What the growing stronger principle is

What are some qualities that make a game great? Some might say responsive controls and fun levels, others might say a deep story that draws you in. What about a game world that feels really interconnected? Or how about your character becoming stronger while you get better at the game too? Well, those last two may be one in the same. For today’s episode of Good Game Design we’re going to look at the growing stronger principle, you could also call this the come back later principle. This is when a game will block a specific path until you come back with a new skill or item.

This principle is used a lot in games, maybe more than you even realize. I’ve seen it in Arkham Asylum where Batman unlocks his gadgets to help him progress in the game. It’s all over Super Metroid where once impossible jumps are made possible with new power ups. I’ve even seen it in Dark Souls though in this case it’s more just opening short cuts once you’ve completed a certain area. This helps the world feel more interwove with itself and like it’s a real place. Which is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily make you feel like you’re growing stronger in this case.

Originally I was going to talk about Pokemon for the growing stronger principle. The main avenue that paths are unlocked in this game are through HMs. You’ll often see a blocked off road due to a tree or boulder placed in the way. But these are passable once you’ve obtained the correct HM to use. It’s nice when a newly opened path will connect with an earlier part of the game. Like I just mentioned with Dark Souls it helps the world feel more real. One of the biggest moments for me when playing Red and Blue was when I finally got surf and could cross huge expanses of ocean. From the very beginning of the game you’re teased with water, you want to cross it but you can’t yet.

“What about a game where the stakes are much higher, like I don’t know, saving the world from complete destruction.”

You see when you start the game your Pokemon are weak, but so are the ones around you in the grass. Other trainers get stronger as you enter new areas but so do you so it has good progression. When I finally got surf and hit the open seas for the first time, it not only let my sense of exploration grow as I discovered secrets and islands but it also made me feel like I was finally becoming a stronger Pokemon trainer. There are other trainers out here too that are pretty tough and it made me feel like I finally made, like I was able to sit at the cool kids table. Perhaps the biggest comeback later moment in the game is when you first reach Viridian City. You can’t enter the gym yet for unexplained reasons but you are able to enter once you’ve beaten all the other gyms. Of course the big reveal here is that the gym leader is the boss of Team Rocket, one of the main villains in the game.

Oh shoot, spoilers.

When you are allowed to access this fight, the game makes sure you’ve trained enough so that you’re ready for this hard battle. Now, Pokemon does a great job of making you feel like you’re growing stronger but what’s the main goal in that game? To become the greatest Pokemon trainer? I mean really, just to get stronger, right?

What about a game where the stakes are much higher, like I don’t know, saving the world from complete destruction. The Legend of Zelda series not only makes you feel like you’re growing stronger but it makes you feel like a hero, like you’re the only person who can save mankind, or in this case Hylian kind. The Zelda series follows a similar formula for all the games. I think the goals are almost always the same, especially for the modern Zelda games. One, make Ganon seem crazy evil and powerful and make the stakes high i.e. taking over the world. And two making you feel like you become strong enough to actually take him down. You always start a Zelda game basically unaware that you’re the chosen one until someone tells you about a prophecy or something, then you slowly but surely gain abilities and items that help you on your quest until you’re a lean, mean, Ganon killing machine.

The items you collect not only allow you to enter new areas but they also make you feel like a stronger adventurer, able to take on harder challenges. Let’s look at some specific examples. In Ocarina of Time right after you become adult Link you go to enter the forest temple but the entrance is out of reach. The game wants to make sure you get one of the most important items in the game first, the hook shot. Just by turning into an adult you already feel like you might be more powerful, but you also get equipped with the item that will help you reach all kinds of new areas. This is important so that when you enter the first temple as an adult you really feel the difference in strength from being a child.

There are countless times in this game where you’ll find a new item in a dungeon that will help you progress and also fight the boss of the area. This makes you feel stronger because you’re becoming adept at using an arsenal of items. You find new ways to use the items and you feel smarter as a result. In the original Legend of Zelda it was all about exploring. There’s this dock in the water but you can’t do anything with it yet, so you leave it alone. Later you find something that looks like a raft, you think “I wonder…” So then you go back to the water and it works. It feels so good man, because you figured this out by deduction. It releases endorphins or something. Maybe dopamine, calories, I don’t know. You gain items that help you reach new harder areas but it makes sure you’ve cleared earlier dungeons first, so you have the experience necessary to take on this new place.

A Link to the Past possibly has the best moment of realization that you’ve grown stronger. Of course there’s a ton of items in this game that you need to use to reach new areas, like the titan’s mitt, but the moment when you get the master sword is unforgettable. The game practically tells you to go find it in the forest so you go to check it out. There’s other swords but you know those aren’t the real ones. Then you finally see it down a long corridor. It sits on top of a majestic pedestal. You reach out your hand, and, you can’t get it yet. But once you’ve completed a few dungeons and gotten become better equipped as well as better at the game, now you go back and you can finally get the desired master sword.

The change in strength is real and immediate. You realize that enemies take less hits to kill, you feel like a true hero. Of course they raise enemy health back up pretty shortly after so you feel like a wimp again, but that’s all on purpose. They wanted you to really feel like this long quest of terrible traps and enemies is helping you gain ability as a true hero. If you just walked in to fight Ganon at the very beginning of the game and whipped his butt in 30 seconds there would be no pacing. You would spend the whole time wondering how your character got so strong in the first place. You’d be wishing you could’ve seen the progression of your player to see how he got to this point. You see, that’s why Zelda does growing stronger so well. It’s because the task at hand is so epic. You’re not just trying to be the very best, you’re trying to save the world from certain doom.

You see true evil in the form of Ganon, but when he pushes you out of the way you feel helpless. You think, me, I’m supposed to take that down, how could I ever do that? But by playing the game and journeying through all the tests and trials you become the true hero that is worthy of fighting such a strong enemy and they ensure you progress at the right pace by making certain items necessary to enter new areas. Now you might be thinking I’m looking too much into this, it’s just a fun game, right? But let’s just say that it’s no coincidence that Link’s symbol is the tri-force of courage.

As I mentioned before a ton of games do this. It’s a good tool to use to make sure the player has adequate skill before dropping a bomb of the hardest level on them. It ends up making the game experience as a whole more enjoyable and triumphant when you finally take down that final boss. I be you could think of some games that do this principle as well. In the comments below tell me a game that you think helps the player grow stronger by unlocking new areas once the player is ready.

SCHOOL OF GAME DESIGN