Win states, player skill, and completionism

Delta VDelta V wrote on 29 Jun 2012 03:31

"Why can't we just win?"

My favorite game of all time, as I'm sure I've mentioned, is X-Com1. Even X-Com had a win state, bleak and unremitting as the game was. Its loss state, however, was forever nipping at the player's heels. It took both effort and skill to avoid it. Loss wasn't a sudden thing, either; it was more of a slow bleeding, like a nasty gutshot. You could be rather thoroughly losing simply because you weren't keeping up, but not realize it until much later, once harder enemies appeared and you weren't prepared. But if you won, you won completely - and because it was long and hard, victory felt great.

There is a strain of gaming criticism which considers that form of player-skill reward to be essential. To win, we must become good enough at the game to earn it. Failing to reach the desired (and calibrated) skill plateau was rewarded with loss instead of stalemate. This critical view looks down upon the school of thought (which is so very common at present) wherein completion of the game is paramount. They believe that it rewards "mere" persistence instead of skill, and that muddling through a game produces the same mechanical rewards as mastering it.

The Completion School posits that because so few players reach the end of a given game, doing so should be a reward in itself. This means that there are no explicit "loss" states, and there is always a failsafe of some sort for the player to fall back to. These are games where the only true way to lose is to stop playing, and whatever story is present is written to fit. Though it gets labeled as "old-school", even Dark Souls (drink!) falls into this category - for all its vaunted difficulty, you can never truly lose the game, only lose interest in attempting to continue.

The other counterpoint, however, is that the Completion School engenders a certain expectation of the finale of a given game to be a "win" of some variety or another. As we saw with Mass Effect 3, a failure2 to provide such elicits (often legitimate) feelings of disappointment in the player. The game sets the rules, and the rewards are expected to follow. If the rules do not allow for loss, and completion itself is the definition of winning, then failure to provide commensurate rewards is fundamentally dissociative.

Mass Effect 2, however, blends the two approaches in concept, constructing the final sequence to allow for a spectrum between Pyrrhic and total victories. If one plays the game poorly, everyone dies in the process of technical resolution of the plot. If one plays well, everyone lives in a thoroughly triumphant scene. I think the concept was stronger than the execution - the element of skill involved is not the player's efficiency at dispatching enemies or navigating conversations, but their persistence in completing side missions and scanning planets - but there is promise in the concept itself, and I wish more games would follow its example.

Are there other games with this kind of balancing act? Do people here prefer one approach above the other? Is there another view I've overlooked?



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