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Bravery and Loss in Games

Have you ever actually felt brave while playing a game?

There’s an endless cavalcade of games where your goal is to accomplish heroic and courageous deeds. Rescuing the princess, stopping the terrorists, turning back the tide of battle, saving the universe, killing the evil wizard, wiping out alien scum, shooting the underworld drug lord in the face; the list goes on. Just stop and think for a moment, though. When was the last time you actually felt genuinely brave while playing a game? What was the last decision you made that really took balls? The last moment where you were honest to god frightened of what might happen if you fucked up?

There’s a very large discrepancy between the two there. I didn’t feel particularly heroic in Mass Effect 2 at any of the many heroic points in the game. Nothing I did in KOTOR made me feel like that. Hell, picking up the triforce of courage in any of the Zelda games, an item which exists solely to make one feel courageous, was a rather bland and meaningless gesture to me which amounted to little more than “you got item x, move to the next level.”

Master of Orion 2 has been amongst my favourite games since I first played it, if only because there are just so many different situations you can get yourself into. It’s got so many interlocking pieces, and when they fit together it’s just magic. It has problems, certainly, but time and time again it makes me smile when so many other games make me sigh, and I’m more than happy to endure a clunky combat system and a spying mechanic that barely makes sense for that.

I started a new game the other night, and the planets were so aligned that my home system was directly next to one of the computer players, so I was essentially sandwiched into a corner of the map. Because I couldn’t expand, I put most of my efforts into research.

Now the Bulrathi (pig men), who were the people sandwiching me in, were fairly chummy, so we sat back with trade agreements and all that quietly working away. The Klackons (ant men), on the other hand, were spreading around the galaxy pretty densely, and soon enough there wasn’t any room left to expand – and it’s pretty easy to see what that spells.

In Master of Orion II, there’s a sort of voting system at work. Every so often, all of the races in the game come together, and they all vote on a titular Master of Orion. You each get an amount of votes based on how much population you have, and you get to pick between two candidates or abstaining. If any race gets a two thirds majority vote, then they become the Master. As a player, you do have the choice of disagreeing with the council’s ruling and refuse to accept that race as Master, in which case you immediately go to war with every race that did, but unless anybody does that then the game’s over.

In any case, I’d researched fairly long range scanners, and I could clearly see that the Klackons were amassing quite a large fleet. Now, I hadn’t really done anything militaristic yet, what with the only neighbour of mine being so chummy, so that fleet was looking worse every turn. Then their diplomat approached me, and they demanded that I vote for them at the next meeting.

Well, they had big ships and big guns, but I thought maybe they were bluffing, so when it came round I just abstained. They were pretty miffed, but nothing was declared, so I chalked it up as a win. With that military threat in mind, I was trying to come up with a solution. The system my home planet was in had three gas giants in it. Gas giants are usually impossible to colonise, but I’d just found the option to research the means to set up a base on them. With an extra three planets at work, I could easily throw up enough defence to hold anybody off indefinitely.

At the same time, the Klackons had been raiding planets all over the system because nobody was voting for them. Eventually it was just them, me and the Bulrathi left. Then, the denouement. In the same turn as I finished that research, the Klackons destroyed that Bulrathi system that was blocking me into the corner. It was just the two of us, and they demanded that I give them the gas giant research I’d just finished.

Now, they were already pissed off with me. If I refused, they were obviously going to declare war on me. And I hadn’t yet started building u[ my defences, so I had next to no protection at all. It was crunch time right there. They were barbaric villains who got everything they wanted by killing, so what do I do? Suffer inevitable death, or just give them what they want? This was a decision that actually called for courage.

Eventually I just thought, no, screw those guys. We were just one tiny swamp planet up against ant men who controlled the rest of the entire galaxy, almost nothing to our name, but we stood up and said no. We got wiped out in one single turn, but that was okay. I actually felt brave. That isn’t something that happens often at all.

Moreover, in a technical sense I lost the game. All my guys died and it was game over – but it felt satisfying. It wasn’t just “oh no you fell in the lava and that was your last life bl bro”. It was a death that had meaning, a loss that was substantial. There was a choice to make and death was a consequence of that choice, and that’s okay! Games don’t have to pander to you to make sure you’re enjoying yourself. If you remove the consequences from your actions within a game’s world, then those actions become meaningless and winning feels just as hollow as losing. This loss here, this death, felt a lot more satisfying than the thousands of times I’ve won by rescuing the princess or saving the kingdom. It made me smile, and it made me feel a certain way. I wish that was something that happened more.

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