Empowering Power-ups in Video Games
(This article contains spoilers from God of War)
Leveling up your character is one of the great pleasures of gaming.
I’ve unconsciously developed a certain habit for leveling up. I tend to accumulate the ‘leveling currency’ (points, money, parts, etc.) until I find myself struggling against enemies, or perhaps a particularly tough boss. When I find myself overwhelmed, I go and spend all those points (or equip armor, etc.) I’ve gathered to significantly power up my character, and return to surpass the same enemies I was struggling with moments ago. The transition from struggle to triumph is a powerful one that lies at the heart of why leveling up is so pivotal to gaming; so much so that I’ve taken to reproducing the effect even when the game doesn’t facilitate it on its own.
The ‘triumphant return from the jaws of defeat’ is not unique to video games — it is a monomythyical theme that underpins much of storytelling. One need look no further than popular shonen anime to see how compelling it can be, even after it’s done countless times.
It is no easy feat for a video game to produce this experience through gameplay. Different players have different skill levels — presenting a power-up too early means you render it insubstantial for skilled players; present it too late, and you risk alienating less experienced players.
But video games are uniquely well-positioned to make this intimate in a way that other media cannot. Thus, despite its difficulty, attempting to create such an experience is a worthy goal.
And so we ask— what are the ingredients to a truly empowering power-up?
God of War features one of the finest power-ups in video game history. Atreus, Kratos’s son, is deathly sick, and Kratos must descend into hell itself to save him. But his Leviathan Axe is a weapon of ice, and as such ineffective against the ice zombies (Hel-walkers) of Helheim.
Kratos returns home, laboriously punching through Hel-walkers to get there. In a potent cinematic, he retrieves the Blades of Chaos he’d put away long ago. He then steps out to demolish those same Hel-walkers with impunity.
There is so much done well in this sequence. The most commendable quality is the timing — the boldness of placing this power-up in the back half of the game. The Blades are an iconic weapon every God of War player is deeply acquainted with. To hold them back until the right moment for maximum narrative impact is a show of remarkable restraint. The delayed power-up tells you so much about Kratos. He embarked on a daunting journey without taking along his signature weapon— this was after the brutal fight with Baldur and after fighting some of the ice zombies, so it wasn’t as though he expected the Blades to be unnecessary. His decision shows you how confident he is in his combative abilities, and how desperate he is to keep his past buried.
The best power-ups work on multiple levels. They reveal the character. They feed into the narrative rhythm of the game, instead of being confined to the gameplay. They justify their existence through challenges faced by the player up till that point in the game. God of War’s Blades of Chaos moment hits all of these notes flawlessly.
Earlier we touched on the aspect of a power-up turning defeat into victory. Persona 5 exemplifies this. Persona 5 is a party game, and the most significant power-ups you’ll receive are the addition of new members to the party. New members tend to have unique abilities and can exploit elemental weaknesses that the rest of your party (save Joker) cannot.
New members ‘awaken’ their Persona when the party is cornered and facing defeat; the enemy is taunting the newcomer mercilessly, pushing them to the edge of despair. In that moment of darkness, they find a seed of strength within them they didn’t know they had. They ‘embrace their true self’ to unlock their hidden powers. These powers usually present an elemental advantage against the enemies that have the party cornered, so the awakening immediately helps you turn the tables.
Persona awakenings excel in all the ways mentioned earlier. But where they particularly shine is in capturing the shonen anime ethos of unlocking hidden reservoirs of power through sheer strength of character. This is so inherently satisfying that the last awakening in the game feels as fresh and empowering as the first one. It never gets old.
But it’s not always practical to have scripted power-ups — what about open-world RPGs, where there’s no telling when the player is going to unlock a new ability? Skyrim provides some direction here. The most interesting power-ups are usually tied to some quest or battle. Most Shouts are unlocked through quests, or by defeating dragons at Dragon Lairs throughout the world. Mastery over certain skill trees (conjuration, destruction) is achieved through ‘ritual’ quests. The same applies to unique weapons or armor; Daedric quests are some of the most rewarding in the game. Even though it’s difficult for Skyrim to offer the narrative highs of the tightly scripted power-ups discussed in the earlier examples, it compensates well by associating them with memorable quests and battles.
Similarly, in Ghost of Tsushima, the most powerful special attacks in the game are unlocked by dueling an adversary who knows the move. As you fight, you observe and learn the attack (this happens as you whittle down their health). Once you’ve mastered the move, you unleash that attack back on the enemy to deal the fatal blow. It is a power-up that thematically resonates with the idea of the mythical samurai.
The last element to a well-crafted power-up is epitomized in Pokémon games — the element of surprise and discovery. If you’re going into the game with no prior knowledge, you don’t know when or if your Pokémon will evolve, or what they’re going to look like if they evolve. You don’t know what moves you’re going to unlock at which levels, making leveling up a blend of discovery and strategy; you have a guiding hand in growing your Pokémon, but there’s still a sense of awe and wonder.
Contrast this with so many games where the entire skill tree is visible to you within minutes of beginning the game. Skill trees can be thought of as ‘gameplay spoilers’. They add predictability and control, but subtract from the emotional impact of discovering the powers organically. Pokémon games teach us that complete knowledge is actually reductive, and that building suspense and surprise into leveling can make power-ups far more potent.
Leveling up is one of the most fundamental constructs in video games. When done well, it taps into deep-seated monomyths, making the game memorable and cathartic for the player. Level ups can be far more than uninspired skill trees unlocked through ‘technique points’. They can deliver or underscore key plot points via gameplay, and cast the character in a new light. They can empower the player to fight back from the brink of defeat, making the fall and rise of the character more intimate. They can present a voyage of discovery as compelling as the core narrative.