Margaret Robertson

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This American Life, Ira Glass’ impeccable radio show, always urbane and humane in equal measure, opened the year by re-broadcasting one of its classic episodes, Numbers. Catching up, it introduced me to the story of Andrea, who as a young temp more than a decade ago taught herself Microsoft Excel by making a spreadsheet called My Love Life: A Ten Year Span.

The years were plotted along the bottom, and the Y-axis recorded the number of people Andrea had got lucky with each year – hitting a total of seven in her luckiest of years. Seeing her life laid out in stark statistics like this was somehow reassuring, she confided: “It is just numbers. Looking at it this way, the people totally go away… So many of these things on their own I would normally classify as failures, they were were rejections or something painful, but when I look at it in the context of all this, these are all my scores, my successes.”


Scores! That simple piece of abstractional magic that can turn failure into success, that assigns you a clear place in a world which can otherwise seem oblivious to your efforts. Life is full of unquantifiable mysteries – rewards you don’t quite feel you’ve earned, punishments you know for sure you haven’t, equations that can’t be solved about whether people who are richer, fitter and prettier, but also ruder, stupider and lonelier are actually better than you or not.

It is from these pains that I take refuge in Disgaea.This time it’s the DS version, but I’ve retreated to the the first two often enough, as well as to stable-mates La Pucelle and Phantom Brave over the years. They’re all made by Nippon Ichi, a company who specialise in producing games for people who like numbers, grids and jokes. Or, to put it another way, me.

Disgaea is a quest for numerical orgasm. There’s a story and some tactical depth, of course, but the real objective of the game is the quest to make the screen explode with wonderful, glorious, ridiculous numbers. Starting from scratch, you crescendo through the entire decimal system – can I do 1000 in a single hit? 100,000 in a single hit? Can I do a million, a billion? English or American billion? Who cares, do ‘em both, probably in a single combo. YouTube is stacked with ecstatic videos of mass group attacks and billion-point single hits.

There are some videos for the most recent game showing single hits of up to 30 billion, but I haven’t watched those yet: it’s still not out in Europe and Disgaea 3 is probably about the only game in existence where an 11-digit number constitutes a spoiler. Forget Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule, which charts the slow, painful progress from beginner to genius. Disgaea is world where it’s possible for me to become a billion times better than I am in less than a year.


That’s the magic of numbers. The difference between 1 and 1,000,000,000 is what, an inch? A microgram of ink? But within that tiny scope, numbers make huge things possible: numbers make rewards predictable, punishments transparent, comparisons a matter of simple arithmetic. Numbers, through their power to abstract, give you access to all kinds of positive emotions that life too often denies you – reassurance, pride, achievement, growth.

Games, we all too often forget, are nothing more than numbers at heart. Underpinning even the fluffiest of playful diversions is a spreadsheet and a bunch of equations. It’s easy to forget when we blithely bitch about balance that the real problem lies in an intricate, interconnected ecosystem of numbers that doesn’t necessarily like to be disturbed.

One of my favourite bits of game writing in the last few years came from Bungie staffer Tyson Green explaining the changes made to Halo 3’s melee handling online. It’s a lovely, lucid bit of prose – in which he reveals himself, I’d hazard, to be someone who likes numbers, grids and jokes – and does as good a job as a hundred text books of showing the degree to which maths underpins fun. So when something like Disgaea comes along, which is made of numbers underneath and all about numbers on top, something happens which I find enduringly narcotic.


So I understand, intimately, why Andrea turned to Excel to make sense of her life. The world of numbers isn’t antithetical to the world of feelings. It’s one that lies on top, or underneath, and looking through one to the other always shows you things you hadn’t noticed before. I know, deep down, than Disgaea is a meaningless treadmill, but I’m convinced the time I spend playing it isn’t wasted. It, like other games that keep their maths a little more hidden, nourishes a vital part of my brain, a part of me that doesn’t think in words but still deserves a say.

[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]

One More Go: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat – Offworld
One More Go: Ikaruga, The Big Enemy Is Approaching – Offworld
One More Go: New York Times Crosswords – Offworld

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  1. Great post. I’m a numbers guy and have always loved Disgaea. Just never really knew why. Don’t worry about the comment haters above. This is a video game blog not a writers workshop.

  2. >>SCYPHER
    Since when is are intros supposed to be “seemingly” unrelated to the subject? This is a mannerism that only ever happens on certain blogs and websites. It’s called bad writing. Imagine opening a book and the Introduction being an anecdote that is “seemingly unrelated” to what the book is about.

    Opening anecdotes seemingly unrelated to the subject? You mean an intro?

    Anyway, I too have been hooked to Disgaea since the moment I played it. It made me realize that I love the Strategy RPG genre not for its or episodic story, but because clearing out 20 enemies with 5 units and min-maxing the ideal stats and stacking 5% damage bonuses and basically executing transparent mechanics with razor-sharp efficiency is damn satisfying.

    It’s for that reason I have to tear myself away from these games. Unless they’re short, I will no doubt spend 3x the amount of time it takes to finish the game crunching numbers, before even seeing the final stage.

    Ironically, it’s that same Maximum Efficiency Overdrive complex that leads me to force myself from playing. “You’re spending 20 hours on making your team do a few more digits of damage when you could have spent those same 20 hours playing and finishing another game on your list? How inefficient!”

  4. I’d say the first three paragraphs were very much on the topic of the post – the bizarre obsession with numbers that makes games like Disgaea so compulsively enjoyable. If you want boring press-release regurgitation, check out IGN. (Or, for an actual example of what you’re talking about, go to

  5. I haven’t been following this blog closely so maybe all the posts are like this, but the fact that the first three paragraphs of this post were about something that had nothing to do with the subject of the post really reminded me of Pitchfork (for those who aren’t familiar, it’s a website where people who hate music make awkward attempts at reviewing albums.) No offense or anything, just thought I’d share.

  6. This might be my favorite RPG series, precisely because it caters to my inner spreadsheet junkie (which I never actually knew existed). The PSP version completely devoured my life – I put in 102 hours before finishing off the final boss, and I still need to go back and do Etna Mode. Of all the funny looks I get from my girlfriend when I play games, this one probably elicits the funniest. I just explain that it’s my version of a little Zen garden.

  7. no this is actually pretty great writing. i can see the pitchfork comparison but it isn’t as lame.

  8. Pingback: My Virtual Memory: Harlancore’s adorable Nintendo/RPG papercraft dioramas | VENUS PATROL

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