The Game against the Story

Words: 1874 Approximate Reading Time 10-15 minutes

I’ve been playing through Star Wars Jedi: Survivor recently, and I’ve been having fun. If you’ve been following the news, you probably have heard about the issues on PC, and I have been experiencing those issues to some degree…but that’s not the purpose of this essay.

Instead, I bring the game up not to talk about it specifically. I wanted to explore an aspect of game design and storytelling that has become difficult to unsee. Indeed, you might well have noticed it yourself in various places.

That aspect is how games may set up the idea of taking something important away from you…only to eventually return it, sometimes even immediately. The idea is – as an element of storytelling – to increase tension. But that tension exists only so long as you don’t know that you’re getting the item back.

It would be easy enough to present this as a “trope,” but really that term doesn’t capture what’s going on. Because a trope is something done merely because of tradition or familiarity – other games did this, so we should do it too. Rather, what we’re seeing is a constraint imposed by design and the expectations of players.

And like I said, once you start to see this pattern, it is impossible to unsee it when it happens.

It’s hard to discuss this without some examples, but I don’t want to focus on a brand new game. So in the examples that follow I will try to stick to older games that a large array of players are likely to be familiar with. These will involve spoilers for those games, but in a sense not entirely – since the twists that are about to be revealed are themselves twists that are easily guessable if you stop to think about them.

Exploration, Completion, and Purpose

When dealing with games, especially big games which involve a lot of exploration, players go in with a set of expectations. One of the core expectations is the opportunity to experience everything. Not that every player will go out and get every item or complete every quest or loot every chest. But not being allowed to do so can be a pain.

Missable content in games exists, but is a lot less frequent than you might think. Often stuff that’s “missable” is true in a very strict sense – you can’t get multiple endings, or picking one origin story might prevent you from seeing other origin stories. But that “missable” content boils down to material that is minimal. If you want to get a different ending, you might just load up an old save. If you want to see other origin stories, you might start up a new game for a couple hours. But everything in between? Whatever you can miss is likely to be so minimal that it becomes more of a curiosity than something you are likely to seek out.

Truly missable content is most likely in linear games. In these cases, what you miss might be valuable, but not necessary. Since you get to experience the core story no matter what, missable items are mostly extras or minor upgrades – things that make the game a bit easier. Thus you get to set the pace of your own adventure: if you want to explore and try to find everything, you can; if you would prefer to just keep running forward, you might have a slightly harder time, but you can do that, too.

So when we’re offered a more exploratory experience, we tend to expect the ability to experience everything. Every chest should be openable. Every item should be obtainable. Every quest completable.

How about from a developer’s point of view?

Especially when we’re talking about games with lots of exploration – such as, but not limited to, open world games – one thing that you wind up doing is creating challenges that focus on the basic rulesets. Imagine crypts in Skyrim, or rift tears in God of War, or the vantage points in the Assassin’s Creed series. Whatever the content is, it gives a basic template for the player of what they can expect to be doing as they roam through the world.

And of course, what the developer will be doing is spreading that content throughout the game world. You might seek them all out, you might only ever touch the first one that’s used as a tutorial, you might tackle half of them. But as a developer, you don’t want players to be unable to go through this content. Not just because the player might get frustrated, but because you have put so much work into these challenges, and you’d like players to experience them. In a sense, to create content and then tell players they can’t go through it is counterproductive.

Okay, but the examples I’ve provided so far are just everyday challenges. What does this have to do with storytelling and robbing players of items?

Well, imagine that some of these challenges were only accessible with some sort of key. A handful of these examples exist throughout different games, in different capacities. Whether it’s the Bifrost in God of War that allows you to travel between worlds and explore dark areas, or the lantern in Witcher 3 that allows you to see and talk to ghosts, or just about any dungeon item from any Zelda game.

And now further imagine that the game took that item away from you. It’s not common, but now and then the game might make a big show of taking one of those items away. Sometimes because it’s a Story Item that the Bad Guy also wants. Sometimes you might lose it because the dungeon you’re in takes it away. Maybe a friendly character asks to borrow it.

Whatever the case may be, you can actually know one thing immediately – you’re going to get the item back, perhaps even very soon (alternatively, you’ll get a replacement).

Why? Because the developer doesn’t want to take that item away from you. It would mean you can’t see the content that key unlocks, which would both frustrate you and mean that they’ve wasted their effort.

Perhaps this seems obvious, but once you truly see and understand this rule, it eliminates all of the tension when it happens. Because if you see that item get dropped or lost, your immediate reaction is meant to be “oh no, what if I don’t get it back?!” But of course you’re going to get it back.

For instance, Jedi: Fallen Order has a sequence in which your lightsaber gets broken. Oh no, now you can’t fight! But obviously not only will you get it back, but you’re going to get it back before you need to fight. The game isn’t going to suddenly turn into a stealth game, nor is it going to try and throw you into combat and force you to use an entirely different set of skills than the game has trained you to use. It is a sequence that is meant to feel harrowing, but when you think through the implications, you can immediately predict what will happen next.

Loss vs. “Loss”

For this section, it might be most useful to start with an example. Let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts II. This bit is definitely going to fall into spoiler territory.

Kingdom Hearts had you controlling the main character, Sora, with two iconic Disney characters as your party members: Donald and Goofy. These characters are with you for almost the entire game, and a decent number of interactable elements of the game involved the trio working together to unlock treasures.

KHII did basically the exact same thing. Still with Donald and Goofy as your party members.

So at a certain point in the game, you fight a boss, and afterwards is a cutscene. And in the cutscene, a big rock comes tumbling down and hits Goofy on the head. The characters all react as though this has killed Goofy, and you go out to defeat a bunch of enemies to avenge your fallen comrade.

Once the sequence is done, so maybe 15-30 minutes later, Goofy comes back. Turns out he was fine the whole time. He was just knocked out briefly. Much joy and tears as everyone is reunited.

But if you stop to think about it, the scene is obviously not “real.” Of course Goofy isn’t actually going to die. Do you think Disney would let this game developer kill off one of its most iconic characters? Do you think that the game developers would completely redo a combat system that might rely on Goofy’s skills and character model?

Absolutely not.

Similar things happen in plenty of other RPGs. Especially ones where you have defined party members who usually fill specific roles. If one of those party members dies, they will be immediately replaced by someone else who fulfills the exact same role. That new party member will also be the same strength as the dead one. Because imagine if that old character was one of your go-to fighters…and then you got someone significantly weaker?

I bring these ideas up because the idea of “loss” in storytelling is meant to be important. The death of characters is meant to have an impact on the audience. But sometimes those deaths are of little meaning, or just not real.

A common refrain is that if you don’t see someone die, then they aren’t really dead. This rule often holds true for heroes and villains alike. Which can then mean, for example, that if a companion character falls off a cliff, they will nevertheless survive as long as you don’t see the dead body. That “death” is just to psyche you out.

The exact reasons for why you might use death in these ways will likely vary from writer to writer. But the fundamental cause for why “death” will have no gameplay impact always remains the same: because the game needs to be able to account for as many possibilities as it can. The game can’t deprive you of a core character, because what if you’ve genuinely come to rely on them? To permanently remove that functionality would basically be to punish the player for making the wrong choice – a choice where they could not have known it was wrong beforehand.

Concluding Remarks

In describing these kinds of scenes in games, none of what I am saying is a criticism. A game taking away a key item that you need for exploration only to immediately give it back makes complete sense. A death that has no gameplay impact is just what you would want to do in the developer’s shoes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these decisions.

But understanding these pressures is like pulling back the curtain. Seeing how the sausage gets made. Once you really see this, you can’t not see it. The next time you play a game where someone dies, you will probably find yourself asking “did that character die for real?” And then running through your head the reasons why that character could or could not be truly dead. If your special key gets lost, you will probably start counting down how many minutes will elapse until you get it back.

The impact is gone.

2 thoughts on “The Game against the Story

  1. I don’t want to specify the name of the game, but I somewhat recently played a title that did a great job with this. It was a strategy title, and about halfway through you lose access to the main hero, and half of your units. You’re then forced to play through the next third of the game without them.

    I was floored. After the first following mission I thought they’d return, but by the 3rd I’d accepted they were all dead, and started trying to pull together any available resources to patch up all of the massive holes in my army.

    This made the eventual triumphant return of the main character for the final confrontation way more satisfying. I was actually able to feel that same loss as the surviving characters in the game, and the joy of seeing a familiar and extremely powerful ally return to the fold.

    Said game also lets you absolutely roll the first couple encounters after the hero returns, which just really ties the whole thing together nicely.

    I’ve rarely seen games commit this hard to the bit though.

    Liked by 1 person

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