By ahoodedfigure 11 Comments
It's a pretty utilitarian term that most people are familiar with in real life, whether we're talking levels in a building (floors, storeys, whatever) or takin' it to the next level if you're stuck in the 1990's.
Level in games actually gets rather convoluted, due in part to the influence of pen and paper role-playing games, I'm betting. You have character levels, which are tiers that characters reach as they gain experience (there's another word for later, I guess. Two if you count character), you have levels in a dungeon, which is as close to the real world examples above, and you have the one I'm going to focus on right now: game levels.
Levels in a game have been around pretty much from their popular inception. When you cleared one level/wave/stage, on came the next one. In arcade design this means you upped the difficulty, sometimes upped the points and the sights you could see, all with the purpose of murdering the player-character so the user will pay you more quarters. This meaning of the term stuck with gaming long after it ceased to have meaning in a lot of games. Level still suggests a discreet beginning and end, and many games sort of intertwine their locations, allowing you to go back to places you've been, so level in that rigid sense doesn't quite work. Yet people who don't know a lot about games will often talk about "beating a level", whether or not the game even has levels. There are no levels of this sort in, say, Elder Scrolls. You'll have character levels and dungeon levels, but it's not a game philosophy that complements the linear progression of areas you think of when you hear "level."
My verdict on this one is pretty simple, despite all the complexity: level has been used way too much for too many different things. In pen and paper RPGs it's actually a bit sad to see it being used too much, because it can actually cause confusion, especially for new players. Vidya Games too have this general learning curve with nomenclature, and so while I don't expect "level" to fall into disuse, I do understand why non-gamers often look at those who play games as cultists. As Astras showed in his comment on my previous entry in this series, we talk funny.
The two real-world examples that come to mind are grinding in skating, and "the daily grind" and related meanings, which is probably a direct precedent to the gaming meaning.
In gaming, grinding is specifically about working an often repetitive task to reach a new tier or tiers (levels, if you like). Its ubiquity often spills out to just mean any sort of indirect increase in character abilities, wealth, stats, whatever. You grind to get to this point, even if you're completely involved and there's no repetition, which I feel is taking things a bit too far. Grinding suggests that it sorta sucks or is a distraction.
Grinding, though, is not something I'm terribly familiar with. I'm more the kind of person who will try to go into an area that's too high level for me and get by with a minimum of repetition. Once I realized that grinding was a tactic people used to get ahead of static difficulty curves, I pretty much set out to DEFY that and see how well I could inch by big problems with an extra challenging battle. In games with full scaling grinding doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it is a legitimate tactic when the difficulty doesn't change as much relative to player-character ability.
This term seems firmly entrenched, and it's one of the few terms I've talked about so far that is more reactive, in that it actually might disappear altogether if designers move away from styles of play that seem to require this sort of behavior. It's a world I'm largely ignorant of, though; even in games like Phantasy Star or Final Fantasy, where people consider grinding almost required, I tended NOT to play that way. Probably one of the reasons I never got top-level techniques in the Phantasy Star games or Knights of the Round in FF7.
Any terms you all can think of that have taken on new meanings in video games? You find these changes irritating, or improvements, or something else entirely?