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On Consequences
by Matthew Warren on 09/07/12 08:08:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The Walking Dead
Very rarely am I worried about the consequences of any of my actions in a game. Which is fine sometimes!  Sometimes the player just want to indiscriminately punch random criminals on the street like in Sleeping Dogs.  

But a lot of games boast about how the choices you make affect gameplay.  Yet from what I can tell, the more important the player’s actions are during a game, the less important any action is. The developers are forced to make sure that every option has an equal gameplay experience so your choices rarely have any consequence rather than the color of ninja you fight.  

That’s why I’m so rarely worried about anything I do during a game.  If I lose and get a game over, I’m back to five minutes earlier and suddenly everything’s fine.  The best tension in games comes from threats other than losing the game.  

That’s why Telltale’s The Walking Dead is such a wonderful game.  Because everything you say and do has real consequences.  If the player does or says the wrong thing, people turn against each other or against the player or they die.  In the first and second chapter I was constantly trying to take the middle road so I didn’t anger the group.  But my wishy-washyness just upset everyone anyway so in the third game I took a more direct approach to choices and I got someone killed because of it.  My head immediately went over all the things I could’ve done differently to save them but it was too late.  

That’s how you give players consequences to things they do.  

“Game Over” as a mechanic has been on it’s way out for a long time now.  Most games allow the player to immediately start over at whatever fight they lost.  These days the only fear players feel about losing is that they’ll have to watch five minutes of cutscenes to get back to the boss.  I’m not saying players should be punished for losing, that’s just a bad idea, but at the same time, players should feel that there are consequences for what they do.  

The Game of Thrones videogame fails because it lacks the shifting levels of power that are in the series and books.  The player knows that they’re always going to be the ones to win the fight.  The player has to be the one to win because if they don’t the game stops.  Why not phase out game overs entirely?  If the game doesn’t stop when the player loses, there can be real consequences.  

The player stops thinking “If I lose, I’ll have to try again.” and starts thinking “If I lose they’ll burn down the orphanage.” 

Heavy Rain didn’t have a game over system either.  If your character died, the story would continue on without them or their help.  If players screwed up enough, the killer would just get away or the little boy would die.  The player had the implication that everything they did mattered and because of that, they constantly felt that they had to do their best.  The tensest moment I had in the game was when I was performing CPR on the drowned Shaun and I was terrified I didn’t make it in time.  

The player shouldn't feel tense all the time when you're playing games.  Like all good stories there should be an arc of rising and falling tension, the player shouldn't feel constantly stressed.  The Walking Dead succeeds so well because of the quiet moments where the players learn more about their companions and chat with them about their homes and what they want.  The player should feel that their decisions are important and in the Walking Dead they do feel important, life and death have the proper weight.  That's quality storytelling.

But what about the game part?

A lot of this has been focusing on the interactive story aspect of games rather than the gameplay.  The idea is that the game doesn't stop on a loss but instead takes the story in a different direction.  The concept can be applied to a variety of genres and there are a variety of games that do this very well already!  

Look at the Total War series as opposed to Starcraft.  In Total War you don't have to win every single battle to win the game.  You lose troops and territory and the game continues.  You may lose your general during a battle and if you like him enough or put enough training into him this may be a major loss!  If the player wants to keep the general they'd play differently, more defensively.  Whereas in Starcraft, if the important units die, the level starts over.  When games have different conditions than just win or lose, the game changes dramatically.  

The middle ground of this would be Fire Emblem.  In each level, characters that die stay dead but there are still lose conditions that would cause the level to have to be restarted.  And of course many players simply restart when any ally dies.  In that case it simply becomes another loss condition.  Otherwise, the player is forced to make dynamic choices in battle.  "I could finish this battle easily but I'd have to sacrifice one of my characters, and I really like that guy." 

Obviously not every game could handle the freedom this presents.  There are only so many ways you can justify having a main character lose a life or death fight and still survive after all.  But by incorporating a bit of freedom into the system, the player can feel much more involved in the game, and isn't that what so many games are striving for these days? 

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Ulf Hartelius
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Really agree with you on pretty much all of your points. It's unfortunate that it takes so much extra work to create branching scenarios, whether you're just cutting scenes out or adding different content altogether, that what you're talking about is far from cost-free. The fact that Heavy Rain boasted about this very quality goes to show just how uncommon it is, even though we've always had some games that do it.

By the way: an easy way to make choices matter, primarily in old pre-auto saving games, is to simply NOT SAVE. Just an old unintended habit of mine for e.g. PS1 Resident Evil games.

jack richardson
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the issue is not that the game isn't hard enough.. or that they are making the game too easy or choices too insignificant, it's that you're using every tool offered to you to make it as simple, easy and insignificant as possible. you don't need to save every 5 min.. but you do.. if you didn't, you'd find all those choices you made throughout the game take on a much greater meaning.

jack richardson
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good article, a lot to think about, but i dissagree on the basics of the arguement. having an end game is not what makes a game good or bad to play, its the planning and concept of the game. the reason you don't have to feel bad about losing a game because you can go back 5 mins when nothing is wrong is because there are save games, not because there is an end game... something that is also it other games that choices do matter.. and again, undoing you're choices is as simple as loading a save game.

the other issue is that many games can't just continue on... game of thrones has many good examples of a required "game over" sequence, in the books.. not just the game. Do you think there was much someone who was playing John Snow could have done after he died? no. it's game over. thats it.. obviously games can't just END like that.. but they can't continue on without some creative main character juggling either. game over's aren't on their way out, they are a specific end to a game. yes other options are appearing now a days.. but it all depends on the game.

would you think a game was the most amazing game in the world if you death was permanent and it never let you play the game ever again? that's the finality of your claim.. for your concequences to be of paramount importance the absolute biggest risk must be involved... I love playing games at the hardest difficulties, on ironman or hardcore mode or any such thing as much as possible... but even I couldn't get behind a game that has one single play.. unless it was free, as sort of a social experiment type deal.

Matthew Warren
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Hey there. I'm not saying that the game should only allow you to play it once, obviously that's a negative game mechanic and a very literal game over. In fact I think that the systems I talk about encourage replaying the game to see how playing differently affects the story.

But you're right, sometimes you just want a challenge without actively being punished for wanting a challenge. I agree! As I mention in the article, I don't think every type of game is suited for a branching story system as opposed to simple win-loss conditions.

Also, I do remember a flash game I played a while back called something to the effect of "You have One Chance" where you just had a single chance to save the world, or at the very least your family. It was simple, there were only a few choices each day but you had to make the right ones. Once the game was over, it remembered itself on your computer so you couldn't play through again. Obviously if I paid fifty dollars for that game I'd be pretty upset but it really captured a stressful situation and was very memorable.