The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds launched this past fall, with a new take on the time-tested Zelda formula. For the first time ever, most of the important items were available to rent from a special shop. If you die, you lose the item and can rent it again. You can also buy items permanently if you have enough rupees, which lets you upgrade the items and keep them in your inventory even after you die.
But hold on a minute. This game also lets you save at regular intervals. Why would you want to live with the consequences of your mistakes when you can just reload a save?
This was a topic I saw discussed on Twitter, in forum threads and even mulled over in reviews. There is a system in place to encourage you to purchase the items, but you can beat the game with nothing but rentals. If you die, just load your last save. No big deal. The game isn’t terribly hard either, so even if you’re avoiding options to become stronger (via item upgrades), you can still make your way through the game without too much trouble.
Human beings seem to be extremely apt at finding the easy way to do things. We are an efficient species, when we want to be, and that’s a huge part of why you’re probably sitting on something made by humans, inside another thing made by humans, looking at a thing made by humans and reading something written by a human. You don’t see dogs building computers and monkeys, try as they might, are yet to write anything that’s really worth reading.
Why then, did I find myself happy to accept my fate in A Link Between Worlds? I should probably point out that I only died once in the game, but part of that was because I made sure I bought and upgraded all of the items. There are some tough sequences in that game, and I wanted to be prepared. I can’t say for sure if I would have loaded my save if I had died with a rental item, but I feel confident in saying I wouldn’t have. Clearly this is not the most efficient path to take. If a person were to want to blow through the game, it may make sense to just rent the items. They could ignore side quests and just work their way through the game’s dungeons. If you happen to die, just load your save. No big deal. If you find yourself stuck, the game gives you lots of options to make things easier on yourself. You don’t need upgraded items, or even very many heart pieces, when you can purchase potions that can make you stronger or invulnerable for a period of time.
Looking back on my time with ALBW, there are couple of reasons why I decided to follow the risk-reward system it had in place. First of all, and possibly most importantly, I wanted to find everything in the game. I wanted to search all of the nooks and crannies and talk to every person and find every item. I wanted to upgrade all of the items I could. I bought the items fairly early in the game, and part of the reasoning was that I needed to in order to get everything in the game. This quickly negated the downsides of dying, so the idea of loading my save when I died barely entered my head. Despite this, I also feel I had a strong respect for “the rules”. To me, loading a save would have been equivalent to cheating at board game or a sport. Maybe I could get away with it, and it might make my life easier, but it wouldn’t be a real victory. This was actually another part of my motivation to own every item – if I died, I didn’t want to have to waste any rupees re-renting an item. I accepted that I would face this consequence if it came down to it, but I never did.
Sometimes consequences aren’t strictly life and death. It has become increasingly popular for games to include story choices, and for there to be a “good” choice and a “bad” choice. Sometimes these aren’t direct choices, but simply consequences for the actions you take. Do the “right” thing, get the “good” outcome. Do the “wrong” thing, get the “bad” outcome.
Anybody that has played Mass Effect 2 is aware of the loyalty missions that make up a significant portion of the game. To become properly prepared for the final battle, the player must gain the loyalty of each of their squad members by helping them take care of something personal. It is possible to “fail” these missions and continue without that squad member’s loyalty. Without enough loyalty, there's a good chance you'll witness a tragic ending when you finish the game. Without giving too much away, there is a mission that involves you following a non-player character through a city environment. If you get too far away and lose track of them, the squad member you were trying to help will not be loyal to you.
I was playing through this mission, and something went wrong with the camera. I might have pushed it in a weird direction, it may have hit the geometry in a weird way, but basically I found myself disoriented. I attempted to continue with the mission, and ended up failing because it took me too long to locate the NPC. I reloaded my save.
Later, in the same game, two characters that were already loyal to me got into an argument. I felt one of them was being pretty reasonable, while the other was being a bit too harsh. I took the side of the character I sympathized with, and lost the loyalty of the other character. I did not reload my save.
In the first example, I felt like forces out of my control caused a negative outcome to occur. I was frustrated that a mechanical error, either on my part or the game’s part, caused the story to move in a negative direction. In the second example there was a somewhat negative outcome (from what I’ve read since, it sounds like there is a way to resolve the conflict and keep both characters happy) but I felt that the story choices I made were consistent with how I wanted to play the game. To me, reloading the save in the first example felt justified. I felt like I was owed a second chance, and that it wasn’t acceptable for me to let that be the final outcome.
There must be people that feel this way about A Link Between Worlds. They aren’t just being efficient, they’re getting around what they may see as a poor design choice. A rule that they don’t respect. They have every right to see it this way and enjoy the product as they see fit, but I can’t help but feel that circumventing consequence is missing part of the point.
Fire Emblem, for the uninitiated, is a long-running strategy role-playing game series. Traditionally, if one of your characters in a Fire Emblem game dies in battle, that character is dead for the rest of the game. As you might imagine, this leads to a lot of users loading their saves rather than living with the consequences. The games are still made much more difficult by this mechanic, but the fact is many players will never continue with a battle if a character they like dies. In the most recent entry to the series, Fire Emblem: Awakening, players have the option to turn this feature on or off. The creators have recognized that permanent character death probably isn’t for everyone, and have likely taken into account the fact that many players don’t accept permanent character death anyway. They have essentially avoided players circumventing the rules by changing the rules to account for circumvention.
This was the solution that worked for Fire Emblem. What might work for a game like A Link Between Worlds? Well, Demon’s Souls has done a great job of providing an example. Death is a big part of Demon’s Souls, and players will typically choose to live with their death and continue on with their punishment. Why? Well, death also gives them a chance to improve themselves. You can purchase upgrades, maybe try a different stage (though you're more likely to want to go find the blood stain from your previous attempt). If nothing else, you’ll at least get some practice. Death is inevitable, and it’s built into the game. Your death in Demon’s Souls isn’t good, but it’s something most players will choose to live with. The key seems to be giving as well as taking.
Maybe instead of simply taking your rental items away when you die, ALBW should give the player the option to rent an upgraded version of the item. This option would only become available after you’ve died with the applicable item, and would perhaps give players a reason to live with their failure instead of restarting the game.
In regards to story-based games like Mass Effect 2, choices could stand to be more flexible. ME2 isn’t totally rigid in terms of what is “good” and what is “bad”, but there are certainly “good” and “bad” outcomes, and the requirements for each are fairly strict. In fact, it is not advantageous to be morally grey in the Mass Effect series. I mostly made the “good” Paragon choices, but made a few Renegade choices (if I’m going to spend half the game killing nameless thugs during gameplay, why would I spare a dangerous murderer during a cut scene?). This meant the “you-must-be-full-Paragon-to-choose-this” resolution option was greyed out for me when my two crew members were arguing.
Dragon Age: Origins, while still suffering from a few too many binary choices, did a much better job of not having a “good” outcome. If you make it through the game, you’re still going to see an ending that’s somewhat similar no matter what you do. But the loyalty of your party members, the circumstances surrounding the conclusion and the fate of your hero are all very flexible. I happened to achieve an ending that isn’t consider cannon by BioWare (they’ve specifically released downloadable content and an expansion that don’t accommodate my version of the story at all), but I was happy with it. Despite being annoyed at how they’ve handled the story since then, I was glad I was able to be the hero I wanted to be at the end of Origins. I never regretted a decision or felt like I got an undesirable outcome, and I never reloaded my save to give story choices a second go. When bad things did happen as a result of my choices, I felt like I still made the right choices for my character, even if they weren’t the “best” choices. Keeping the story interesting, and not attaching success and failure to story choices, makes players less likely to feel like they did something wrong after making crucial choices. This type of user-driven storytelling may eventually eliminate the idea that story-driven games have good endings and bad endings.
Traditionally, a negative outcome in a game will be a death, or an outright failure, followed by a chance to try again. As more and more games move into alternate success/failure states, and provide different positive and negative outcomes for player choices and user error, more and more players are going to be reloading their saves rather than face the consequences as they are designed. These players are essentially treating these games like they would treat any other game – if you do something wrong, try again. As long as this remains the most efficient option, a sizable percentage of the audience will choose to use it. When games try to integrate failure into their game design or story, they need to give players a reason to stick with them rather than load a save and try again. Though many of us are willing to play along most of the time, there will always be a portion of the audience that isn’t so understanding.