Monday, July 22, 2013

You think you a big man?

One type of game feature which I cannot stomach, regardless of whether it's at all justified in any way, is anything which seems specifically designed to take the player down a peg. To humble the player. To artificially force a loss regardless of performance. This is unfortunately sometimes necessary in multiplayer games, especially true MMOs where no player faction can be allowed to completely ruin the game for others, but it's unjustifiable in single-player games.

It pops up in strategy games in various forms.

An acceptable incarnation was the way Elemental: War of Magic used to handle questing. The player could research various "technologies" which would reveal higher-level quest locations on the map. These techs would also randomly spawn tougher monsters all around the game world whenever any faction researched them, presumably mostly around that faction's territory. It was a nice enough idea for scaling the general difficulty of the game world as the game wore on.
I say this is an acceptable variation because it did not specifically, artificially force a loss condition based on nothing else than doing too well, too fast. There are endless other means by which a player's growth can be limited. Resource availability is the old classic, or economic penalties based on number of bases controlled or army size, or alliances between AI factions, or generally any diminishing returns scheme.

What grates is any penalty specifically imposed on the player specifically for doing too well, for growing not just too much, but too quickly or winning too decisive a victory.
The example which sparked this post is last night's game of Europa Universalis 3. I was playing as Switzerland, and being me, was anything but neutral. I wrangled my way into some perfectly legitimate war declarations through various alliances and managed to grab a few north-Italian provinces. And then I lost the game. Because actually taking control of those provinces raises a stat called "infamy" which not only lowers other nations' relations toward you precipitously but makes the AI specifically take actions to lower relations so they can justify war declarations. I don't just mean that the rest of Italy feels threatened by me and bands together, but that all of Europe including my own allies, who had in fact taken the lion's share of the land grab from our conquests, turned against me. The only real way to avoid infamy is by slowing down, crippling yourself by not taking your spoils of war.
The same thing happens in Civilization 4. If you become too powerful or influential, you get zerged. This includes your allies, no matter how positive their standing toward you. These are both good games but they fail in this respect of giving the AI a behavior pattern which shows a metagaming attitude: instead of playing to win they play to prevent me from winning. If I can navigate your alliance system in order to get enough factions on my side to trample the rest of the world, then that's exactly what I should be able to do. Don't divinely intervene to tear me down just for being too good at the military aspect of the game.

In RPGs and some FPS, this mentality takes the form of forced death. Let's get this clear: you're not being clever by making suicide a requirement of completing a quest. I am talking once again specifically about TSW, which features a number of missions that can only be completed as a ghost. This is not part of the game. When you build your mechanics around fighting, around "it's him or me" and making sure the other guy drops before you do, requiring players to purposely throw the game is not "thinking outside the box" - it's tossing the box off a cliff. There is a difference between creativity and nonsense.
There is of course a way to do this elegantly and it's found in that golden oldie Planescape: Torment. The Nameless One commits suicide and allows himself to be murdered and come back to life like it's a bodily function; in fact, for him, it is. However, the situations where you're required to make that choice are clearly outlined in dialogue options or at least strongly hinted at. You're not expected to suddenly overturn the logical rules of the game entirely of your own accord.

If you want me to die, then kill me. Put me in a fight I can't win. There's nothing wrong with losing to impossible odds. Just don't require me to take a dive. Don't demand that I be dishonest.
And don't create some over-arching, uncounterable strategy game mechanic to punish me for being too good at countering your more justifiable ones.

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