Sunday, December 5, 2010

Forced Loss

I was recently contacted by a reader and asked for my opinions on a few issues of game design. Yes, I do read messages that people send me, and I definitely appreciate anyone taking the time to suggest items I can discuss in future blog posts. If you're interested in discussing a particular subject, or want me to address it, let me know and I'll try to get around to it at some point. With any luck, you, I and other readers might get some more food for thought.  But getting on to the subject at hand, the thing that I want to address is the concept of the player making a "wrong" choice.

In a game, our fate is predetermined.  There is a set goal laid out for the player, and there are certain things that we must achieve in order to reach that goal.  We can't make a choice that means that we "break" our game. We can't, say, choose not to spray LeChuck with root beer in The Secret of Monkey Island. It's not possible to let 343 Guilty Spark live in Halo 3. We can't decide to not save the Princess from the vizier in Prince of Persia. What about in Dragon Age, where the player joins or is conscripted into the Grey Wardens? They do not have any choice in the matter whatsoever, and in order for the game to work, they cannot. In many cases, the player faces death if they are not conscripted. Could or should the game allow players to make the choice to refuse and then immediately suffer death? Should designers allow players to deliberately make a "bad" choice and immediately suffer the consequence of permanent failure?

What if I don't want to join you?

I actually attempted this in Fate of a City. At one point the player could refuse to work with one of the core plot characters. After the player indicated they did not wish to work with her, she threatened the player with certain death. If you player refused a second time, she attacked the player and would always kill them. Some players actually complained bitterly about this choice, because it drew attention to the fact that they had no choice in the matter and had to go along with helping her.

In this case, which is the lesser of two evils? Is it to give the player the option not to follow the pre-determined path and immediately kill them if they do so, or is it to eliminate the possibility of them making this choice entirely? Game design principles would tell us that the latter is the better option, because players do not like being "wrong". Worse still, players might believe that it is possibly for them to "win" a situation that is designed to be impossible, resulting in significant frustration and aggravation as they continually fail to beat an invincible enemy.

Modern game design is such that players do not expect to be put in situations in which they cannot win, at least not without very clear and obvious meta-game information telling them so. In World of Warcraft this is achieved by having creatures with a skull instead of a number for their level. Any game putting the player into un-winnable situations would need to do something clear and obvious like this to let the player know that they've made a "bad" choice.

Skull = death. Simple, no?

There are certain instances where a player can die instantly from failing to act in an appropriate way. If you make a wrong jump in a platformer, you can easily fall to your death. If you don't get out of the way of a boss's super attack, you'll quite likely die. An active choice by the player trying to circumvent or get around the mechanics of a level or fight frequently results in instant death - you can't shortcut the level by driving across the lava field. Why is that if the player told multiple times that a particular choice in terms the story would be bad or result in their death, this is somehow unacceptable game design? Provided that the punishment for that decision occurs immediately (just as it does with bad "choices" regarding a game's mechanics), is this any worse?

I can see arguments both ways. On one hand, this presents the player with the grim reality of their situation: that some choices will result in their death. This tells them "no, if you try to refuse the destiny that the game offers, you will die." However, this also reinforces to the player that they are playing the game. It highlights the artificial nature of their experience and that they do not limitless freedom, no matter how much we as designers try to convince them otherwise. Worse still, would such options potentially make the player resent the game because it does not allow them to fully explore some of the choices it is presenting to them.

In this case, it seems better not to present the choice at all. Simply make your player so engaged and drawn into the story and the cause you want them to pursue that they won't even think of doing something else. That is good game design.

1 comment:

  1. I think generally speaking, you really have to try and set some expectations, though even that will not be enough to please "both sides". For example, while I'm not really a fan of Bioware's love of forcing the player into ancient and powerful orders, I think DA always made it clear even from before the game was released that this is what the game is about and there's no changing that.
    So while I think the choice, or 'lack of choice, was sometimes handled a bit clumsily (varies depending on the origins) I didn't have a problem with it.

    That said, I think having death or failure can be an interesting option. But I also think that you have to present it very well, and have a good "closure" on what the player chooses.

    As an example, in Fallout 1 a character called the Master is producing Super Mutants by dipping humans into vats filled with a viral goo called FEV. At one point in the game, you can talk to one of these mutants who is very adamant about taking you back to his base. Your choices here are to go willingly or to refuse him (which I believe initiates combat directly, not sure).
    If you do go with him, it's basically a game over. But you get this whole elaborate cutscene of you getting dipped into the vats, the Super Mutants invading the Vault where you came from and killing anyone there. It's an ending on its own except, well... You don't get a credits roll and all that.

    Still, I could appreciate that because even though it's a game over, it presented the player with something. A reward, such as it is.