"Despair for 15 Seconds" - Your thoughts on gameplay as plot

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Wavelength, Jun 18, 2019.

  1. Wavelength

    Wavelength Pre-Merge Boot Moderator

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    Moderate Spoilers for Accel World vs. Sword Art Online ahead, but I'll keep them as vague as possible.

    At one of the climax moments in Accel World vs SAO, a villain's plans come to fruition and it looks like they have the opportunity to kill a character. The cast seems appropriately horrified about this but aren't taking any real action in the moment to stop it, which is something I see a lot in RPGs when one of your party members is killed or captured. I figured this was about to be a "narrative death", which always comes across to me as revulsively cheesy and even unfair - here you have a cast of characters who are willing to fight anything, who you've been able to make victorious through your own skill, and you have to sit there and just watch as a beloved character is taken away?

    But then something unexpected happened. The main character said he needed to find a way to stop it, and it opened up into gameplay - with a very visible 15-second timer onscreen, several objects around, and no real hint of what to do. My heart was pounding. I didn't want to fail. I didn't want this character to die. And as I flailed around for 15 seconds with none of my ideas working, I watched in horror as the timer ran out and the villain completed their task.

    As a long, sad cutscene played where I was maybe expecting an immediate Game Over, I wondered (my soul wracked with genuine guilt) - is this just a very creative GO sequence? Is it a branching plot, where I have to live with the loss of the character? Or... was this the narrative intention all along, and I actually had no hope of saving the character? Looking it up in a spoiler-free walkthrough a little while later, I noticed their instruction for this part of the level was "Despair for 15 seconds" - indeed, it was designed so that there was nothing the player could do to halt the villain's plans there.

    Essentially, it was a quick and streamlined adventure equivalent to the "Unwinnable Boss Battle" where you're intended (and forced) to lose, and the game continues as normal afterwards.

    This has had me so fascinated, though. Had the characters (and I) just watched as the atrocity was committed, it would have felt so shallow, cheesy, disconnected from everything I'd been doing. But giving me those few seconds of gameplay to think I had a chance to stop it completely changed the way I processed it. Instead of "the designers decided I'm losing this character", now it was "I failed to save this character".

    In 15 seconds, with no extra narrative work, it became intense, desperate, full of emotional investment and connection. For me, at least, believing that I had the opportunity to succeed allowed me to connect emotionally to my failure and its consequences.

    So with that long buildup out of the way, I'd like to open it up to you guys for some general discussion: What do you think of this kind of "Gameplay as Plot" design?

    Do you like the idea of presenting something that will necessarily happen in the plot as gameplay (where the player either cannot fail, or cannot succeed), instead of non-interactive narrative?

    Do you feel it helps players emotionally invest themselves in the moment in ways that a cutscene can't, or do you feel that players feel merely cheated when they realize that they actually had no agency in the matter? And how do you keep it from becoming overly transparent, to the point that players realize in the moment that they have no agency?

    Have you seen this technique used effectively in any games that you've played in the past?
    Basileus, Soryuju and jonthefox like this.
  2. Tai_MT

    Tai_MT Veteran Veteran

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    The only game I've ever seen use this effectively (at least on me) was Mass Effect 1.

    At one point in the game, you are to make a decision on who your character saves. Do you save Ashley or Kaiden? One of them is guarding a bomb to blow up the facility, the other is running with a squad of troops to run distraction for that bomb. Someone will die if you do not go to help them. You are given multiple chances to change your mind. To amend your decision. The game never tells you that one of them will die.

    Up to that point, the entire game has been teaching you, "If your Paragon/Renegade score is up high enough, you can avoid anyone dying at all." and "If you make the right choices, nobody dies".

    I was playing the game during an entire month when I did not have internet. I had no way to look up a solution. No way to find out what I was supposed to do. I savescummed a lot at this point. There just HAD to be a way to save them both. Something I could do.

    I tried absolutely everything I could think of.

    Near as I could tell, my choice was permanent. Maybe I'd missed something earlier in the game and didn't hinge on this moment right now. Some games do that.

    I decided that I would save my Love Interest and move along. I wanted the achievement for completing the Love Interest thing. Plus, I really liked Ashley as a character.

    When all was said and done... Ashley called me out on my decision. "I can't help but think you saved me just because of what you and I have. That, you wouldn't have saved me if there wasn't this connection between us". Owch. She called me on my BS. On my nonsense. My decision to save her for a stupid achievement and because I liked her better.

    I found out much later... there's nothing you can do. Someone is scripted to die here. The moment had had its intended effect. It made me agonize over it. How to save them both. I couldn't save them both. Then, it kicked me when I was down, just in case I'd chosen for stupid and superficial reasons... and I had to justify it to the person I saved.

    No game before or since has done this to me.

    But, to be honest... Games where I'm meant to lose a boss fight... or meant to just agonize and can't save someone... feel artificial to me. They pull me out of the game. I've run into the "agonize over them" thing a few times. It has never had an effect on me other than, "Pause", look up to see what I'm meant to do... Find out I'm meant to do nothing... so just AFK until the timer runs out. Or, do whatever moves the scene along faster.

    See, such things only work if you have no way of knowing they're coming. I didn't know my decision would 100% result in a character death. I didn't know there was nothing I could do. The game had built up my expectation that when someone died, it was 100% my fault. Even via cutscene. The scene was made worse in that I wasn't deciding who got to live... I was deciding who got to die. My direct decision sent a character to their Heroic and Tragic Death. Then, the game demanded I justify myself to it. It was going to judge me, and not in a superficial way. It was going to call me out for making the decision I made. It was going to tell me that I was wrong.

    The game made me directly involved in the events. Not in a superficial way. My direct actions caused a character death. One I had no way to see coming. One the game had been communicating to me for the last 30 hours, I could avoid if I was good enough at making decisions and had two meters filled enough to make those decisions.

    That's the trick though. You have to convince the player that the situation is THEIR fault. That they're an accomplice. If it's "I can't do anything", then the player just gets left feeling railroaded. It feels cheap. The "agonize for 15 seconds" feels like the dev giving you the middle finger.

    But, if the player is complicit in the death. If their decisions directly caused it... they will agonize over what the right decision was. Especially if that decision is a choice between who lives and who dies.

    That is essentially the essence of the game I'm trying to design. A game full of choices... no "good decision" among them. Just a "what can you live with?" train. A game that calls you a terrible person for whatever decision you've made. The effects and repercussions linger the entire game as well. Problems don't just "go away".

    If the player is forced to face the world they are interacting with, by having to make "the lesser of two evils" type decisions, and then being told why the other decision was the "lesser of two evils"... It has more of an impact. A larger chance to connect with the player. To make them consider decisions beyond "what is the right thing to do, right now?" and "who do I prefer more as a party member?".

    In my opinion, that's the true agonizing for 15 seconds. "What choice do I make here? Which one is the right one? Which is the least wrong?".

    The player should be questioning themselves and not what the game dev thinks they should do.

    But, that's just the way I enjoy games. It's the only way such an event in an RPG has ever connected with me. By making me the culprit.
    Soryuju likes this.
  3. jonthefox

    jonthefox Veteran Veteran

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    This is a very good instructional example of how to add little extra touches to make the game more engaging and compelling. Very often I find, at least personally, I'm so caught up in the WHAT of storycrafting (ok, now the party comes here, the villain does this, then this is going to happen - ok so i make this scene and then the plot will go here-) that it doesn't even occur to me to get creative with the HOW. I think this kind of thing can happen on a very small scale as well - it doesn't have to be a story-changing moment of climax. I remember when I was like 12 years old and played FF7 for the first time, very early on you had the choice whether or not to buy a flower from Aeris (who wasn't even fully introduced as a major character yet). It's a seemingly (and maybe even literally) inconsequential choice - but I didn't know that yet. It gave me a sense of agency and immersion and little touches like this definitely make a difference.

    By the way, one of my favorite RPGMaker games, at least from a story perspective, is Red Nova's Soul Sunder. In that game, he uses techniques similar to the one you reference. It definitely adds tension and drama and made for a really enjoyable gameplay experience.
  4. Soryuju

    Soryuju Combat Balance Enthusiast Veteran

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    @Wavelength I’m a little torn on this. On one hand, I think it’s a clever trick to subvert the notion of player agency when trying to engage players emotionally. You’ve already thoroughly deconstructed just how this makes the player’s sense of failure feel more personal, and I can’t help but agree that the despair of the loss would feel much more authentic following this sequence.

    On the other hand, while this instance of interactive storytelling seems like a poignant narrative tool, it’s a tool which will likely only work once. If you’re telling a linear story, the next time you try to kill off a character this way, your players are going to doubt their agency in the situation, and the attempt to emotionally engage them is likely to actually distance them from the events of the narrative. If I’m the player, now I’m busy worrying if the game will actually allow me to make a difference in this new scenario, so my immersion is gone and I’m too distracted to actually empathize with my characters. And after the second time, I’ll be completely wise to the fact that the story’s not actually going to branch based on what I do.

    To drift briefly from the original point, say the dev does suddenly decide to switch gears into a branching story where my actions matter, and I fail because I was previously taught that I couldn’t succeed. This is just going to frustrate and anger me unless there was some very clear signaling beforehand. But if the dev is now signaling a choice which does matter, we’ve arrived at the complete opposite of the situation we started with, so once again, we find that this type of narrative trick can’t be sustained.

    Similarly, the trick won’t age well on subsequent playthroughs, when the player already knows that they can’t change the outcome. They know they might as well just stand still and let the timer run down, which will drag out the moment and destroy all tension. Standard narrative would actually serve you better here, since even when the player knows what’s coming, the game won’t create any unnecessary delays or distractions, and some of the original emotion will likely be preserved.

    I’m all for exploring new ways to engage players emotionally through the tools of the medium. However, I also think that if these techniques are going to be genuine innovations rather than mere gimmicks, they need to have narrative staying power.

    I would compare it to how we think about plot twists in narrative. A low-grade plot twist relies on mere shock factor and subversion to elicit a reaction from the audience, and the thrill is gone once the reveal is made. Conversely, a well-written plot twist not only surprises the audience, but it recontextualizes the way the audience understands the rest of the narrative. Every other facet of the story suddenly makes more sense and gains new meaning once the veil is drawn back, making the narrative richer even for those who are already familiar with the twist. While that all can sound a bit abstract when you try to tie it back to narrative mechanics, I think it’s the mindset we need to approach narrative in games with if we want to make truly innovative and impactful situations for players.

    I do like the example that @Tai_MT gave with the dilemma in Mass Effect, and I think some of what I’m trying to get across can be seen in that. The choice the player is forced to make comes with shocking consequences, which will likely create feelings of grief and remorse for the player the first time they experience it. However, if the player knows what’s about to happen, those feelings evolve rather than just dissipate. When the player knows they must choose who lives, the shock and sorrow of the loss become guilt and doubt leading up to the decision. The player’s understanding of the game world changes after the experience, and it colors all the rest of their experiences in that world.

    Taking it a step further, if the player plays through the game again after letting one character live, and then chooses to save the other character the next time around, their decision actually gains new weight. Now they’ve seen the complete story of the first character they saved, and they know exactly what future they’re denying that character by letting them die. The mechanic creates multiple narrative layers for the player to experience, and gives them a chance to experience new feelings from the story even if they revisit it many times.

    I do admit that games with linear narratives have a more difficult job in this regard (especially RPGs, given how regularly they depend on text to convey complex ideas). The illusion of player agency is fragile even in most non-linear games, and trying to get the player to engage fully with games as a medium is difficult when a linear story is railroading most of their decisions. From what I’ve read and watched, it seems like even the most prominent professional designers are at a loss over how to tackle this conflict.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we should give up on it, but it could potentially mean that linear RPGs will ultimately require an entirely different approach to player engagement as the genre evolves. At this point, though, I have no idea what that approach might look like. Let me know if one of you figures it out!
  5. AfroKat

    AfroKat Villager Member

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    There is a metroidvania called Iconoclasts (very very good, highly recommended!) Where spoilers alert...

    Near the end of the game a monster appears and destroys your space station and you have like 7minutes to leave. It takes around one minute to get out, but your Friends spirit (one of the main characters) is broken and they are pretty much dragged along to get outside. There is a part where someone needs to stand on a switch to open the door to leave. So you drop him on the switch and go through the door. Then the exit is right there... So you leave the station it blows up and that's it. He's dead and he never said a word or anything. Then you just go home... After that happened I reloaded cause I thought I messed up and tried to save him, so I spent the entire 7minutes thinking of ways to save him using all tricks and... Nothing. He can't be saved and he goes out sad and broken and he probably doesn't even realize what is happening nor that you left him behind before he dies. And after that I shut the game off and googled it. Nothing. You can't save him. The Dev made the map only take 1minite to escape, but gave you such a big timer to make you think you can save him, but you can't. THAT was a great way to implement it and it made me feel and reload and try so hard to get nothing. That feeling sometimes is needed and how you progress after the fact is equally as important.

    To make it worse he was one of the main characters and believed in his religion (religion being good in games OMEGALUL) and he was the chosen one with his magical powers. Only to find out he's not magic, his religion is a sham, his "mother" wasn't the benevolent person she made herself to seem. For her to die in front of him and become a monster. For his city to be burnt down, for his Deity to finally arrived and answer all his questions turn out to be a mindless monster who attacks him (ala what was explained above) breaking the character down to nothing waiting for his redemption to not happen was an amazing experience all though in the moment it felt horrible. It's all on how the writer deals with it before and after. Making it have an impact.

    If killing either A or B doesn't matter after the next 3seconds... Then it's done poorly and you probably shouldn't even do it.
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2019
  6. Tigerawr

    Tigerawr Veteran Veteran

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    I've seen it used by someone who described his goal as achievement a movie feeling. I guess it works okay with this sort of things, but I'm convinced that video games, being an interactive medium, shouldn't be made like movies. This kind of stuff removes too much agency from the player. Make a proper cutscene or a gameplay section, but mixing both is just frustrating.

    Also, sometimes I don't play a game for the story, but for the puzzles, battles, etc. And then it's just painful to have to sit through "15 seconds of despair" to get to the good stuff. I would despair just as much as the character. x)

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