First, a simple example to get the idea across.
Daggers of Darkness is a gamebook, part of the classic Fighting Fantasy series. (I’m afraid there will be some spoilers, but oh well.) It’s a very elaborate book, with many paths, but they all lead to one confrontation (or death, but, well). After going through more than 50 sections and a number of dice-rolling battles, you find yourself at a final choice: The villain is already seated on the throne, and attacks you with ogre guards. You can fight back, or you can put your weapon away and simply walk to the throne.
If you attack, a mystical voice proclaims that no weapons may be drawn or used in the throne room. You and the villain both die. Game Over. If, however. you don’t fight back, then the villain and ogres die and you successfully take the throne. Victory!
The point is that even after all those sections and battles–even after going through about 95% of the book–you can still get an insta-game over on what could be considered a coin flip, instantly destroying all the work you did to get to this point.
(Of course, for gamebooks, most players leave a finger on their current section and flip to the next section to peek and see what happens. Flipping to a new section without any record of where you previously were is the gamebook version of “hardcore difficulty”.)
So recently I finally started playing Dragon Age: Origins. There are a number of different character paths you can go through; I chose the mage. (What did you expect me to be, a fighter?) Every path starts out with a sort of prelude before you get to the main story, so first I went through a test in the dream world, then I was wandering around the mage tower…But then I got to something interesting. Part of the Dragon Age setting is that magic power is considered dangerous, so the mages have formed an organization to police themselves. Mages that don’t follow the rules are forced to have a sort of magical lobotomy, or they’re just hunted down. To assist in this process, the mage organization keeps a vial of blood from every mage, to use in sympathetic magic rituals if they go astray.
The point is, you eventually meet an apprentice mage who feels constrained by the rules, having fallen in love with someone he isn’t supposed to, or something. So he wants you to help him grab his blood vial and escape.
Now, when I play games like this, I’m always ready to help people escape unjust authority. However, with everything I’ve seen, the mage organization is shown to be quite powerful and competent. It seems likely that if I tried to help this guy, I would be found out and punished, probably resulting in a Game Over before I even got to the main story. Then I’d have to start all over again.
Would the game writers do that? Would they cut my playthrough short because I made one wrong choice? Of course they would.
In theory, there are ways to mitigate this problem. Saving often, of course, and having the wiki open while I play the game. (I’ve learned that a smartphone is good for consulting the wiki for a game that takes up the full screen.) In practice, of course, trying to figure out the right choice has made me lose interest in the game.
Those strategies aren’t always available, though. For example, if you have a long conversation and cutscene, it can be really tedious to play through it multiple times to make sure you get the right choice. Like in Mass Effect, the choices are designated by rather vague phrases, so you have to think very carefully about each and every conversational decision. And if it’s an online game, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, you really only get once chance per playthrough. And sometimes there isn’t even a wiki available, which means it’s a good time to talk about Fallen London…
Fallen London has certain storylines that can only be played through if you buy access with Fate (basically the currency you can only get by paying real money). I think this is a great idea, because it lets me reward a game I like by paying for something that doesn’t help my in-game situation–it doesn’t let me cheat, in other words, it just lets me experience more cool stuff. However, the Fallen London developers have a policy that Fate-locked content can not be recorded on any wiki, in order to preserve the incentive for people to pay for it. I do respect that idea, but…
One of the Fate-locked storylines is “Uncovering Secrets Framed in Gold”. (I’m going to try to be vague here–I mean, I’m quoting stuff for purposes of criticism, so I’m not worried about infringement; I really do want to preserve the mystery for players who might want to go through the storyline.) There’s some preliminary stuff in the storyline, and then you need to find a certain character in the game to help you. I had never encountered them before, but the wiki definitely helped me here (since finding the character was something you could do at any time, not tied to this storyline). It turned out I had to be thrown in prison again in order to find them. That was pretty tedious, because of the way the mechanics of Suspicion worked (although now that I think about it, nowadays it would probably be a lot easier to get thrown into prison).
So after going through these preliminaries, the basic structure of the storyline is: As you proceed, more horrible stuff happens, so you have to decide how far you want to go. I, of course, shrugged off the consequences and kept going–until the end. The final choice of the storyline has this character telling you several things:
- This is the final choice
- If you choose to go forward, you will not get anything of interest or value
- If you choose to go forward, the character will go away and you will never see them again
Now, the second and third things seem to contradict each other; why would they be freaked out about “nothing”? Is it possible the character is lying? Well, yes, in Fallen London there’s a lot of deception about. But I felt inclined to trust the character. Not only that, if they went away and I needed them again, I’d have to go through that whole rigamarole of being thrown into prison again, groan. So, the clear implication is that if I “go forward”, I get nothing and I lose something.
Would the writers really end a storyline with a “Ha ha, you were stupid for choosing this, you get nothing”? Of course they would.
So obviously I chose to “cut my losses”; as a result, my character got a mysterious message saying “Thanks for not taking that too far, here are a few valuable items for your trouble”.
Sometimes I think it would be cool to have a game where you were comfortable choosing crazy options and not worrying about the consequences. But, oh well.