That's not just a cheesy line from a 1980s action movie, or the title of a self-help book that has become required reading at your workplace. It's an unwritten commandment in virtually every single videogame that's ever been made. The rule is simple: You cannot continue until you've beaten the previous level. This, in essence, is why we're stuck with reloading - which, as I mentioned in my last post, tends to diminish a game's storyline.
For most games, it's hard to imagine things any other way. How exactly would you structure a platformer that allowed you to blunder your way through levels? The whole point of most games is to be successful while improving your skills... so you can be even more successful while improving your skills even more... and so on. If you no longer require success, you no longer have a game.
But this is one of those cases where RPGs are special - in theory, if not in practice. In an RPG, the game is at least partly about crafting your own character and story, and that often includes subjective decisions that have nothing to do with winning the game. For example, the choice of gender, appearance, race, and personality are largely cosmetic, but those customization options are often highly valued by players.
|I want my Shepard to have a bad mustache, and damn you if you try and stop me!|
OK, forget sometimes. Let's talk about Crossroad Keep. Unless, of course, you're scared of musty old Neverwinter Nights 2 spoilers.
To me, the Battle of Crossroad Keep represents one of the most frustrating missed opportunities in RPGs. In case you're not familiar with it or your memory of ancient history is hazy, Crossroad Keep is a castle that falls into the PC's lap in Neverwinter Nights 2. Ingeniously, the game takes a popular feature from Baldur's Gate 2 - strongholds - and places it at the center of the story. Much of the gameplay involves managing the keep - repairing walls, recruiting guards, setting tax levels for the local merchants, and so on. All of this leading up to a big battle where all those fiddly little decisions determine the outcome of the game's marquee event.
|This is going to be EPIC! Right... ?|
I can see the design problem here. You can't allow the player to save the game in an unwinnable state, so making those earlier decisions matter is really tricky. But that's why this was the perfect opportunity for a storyline that branches based on success or failure. I'm not going to go through the pointless exercise of brainstorming changes to the story that could have allowed this, but I'm certain it could have been done. The PC could have been allowed to lose this battle, but still finish the game.
The only question - and it's a big one that applies to these sort of branches in general - is whether players would accept failure. Would they follow the "loser" branch, or continue to bang their heads against the wall trying to win an unwinnable battle (until quitting the game in a fit of nerd rage)? This is what makes this sort of branching risky, which is maybe why we haven't seen more of it.
|The face of nerd rage.|
Good writing never hurts, either. Far from being detrimental to a story, having the protagonist fail on occasion can actually work nicely. From tv tropes:
Interestingly, Dragon Age 2 actually forces failure at various points in its story in order to make the PC a more tragic figure. Without delving into spoilers, I think it would have been much better to give the player a chance of success, however small, in order to bring the player's feelings into alignment with the PC's. However, the fact that failure results in the more compelling story - at least in the eyes of Bioware - just shows that success/failure branches can be weighted so that an individual's preference for one or the other isn't such a no-brainer.
Heroes sometimes lose. It's pretty common and, with a few exceptions, it's the general rule of fiction to the point of being a near Omnipresent Trope. That said, losing in Acts 1 and 2 doesn't mean a hero won't beat the villain in Act 3; this is a good way of establishing conflict and drama.
Having said all that, I admit it would be gutsy for any RPG developer to allow the PC to fail at a key point in the plot. With RPGs getting easier and more dumbed down, players are becoming accustomed to charging at enemies head-on and winning. I can already hear complaints about "difficulty spikes" and how "unheroic" the PC is.
But then, there's an easy comeback for players who don't appreciate a story with a less-than-perfect hero: If you don't like it, you can always reload.