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Lose/Lose Situations a Winning Element in Story Driven Games?

Is it possible that lose/lose situations in gaming can help magnify the emotional investment given by a gamer? Why are certain themes and story telling methods so popular?

Yuichi Haga, Blogger

June 8, 2013

4 Min Read

Presenting gamers with a lose/lose proposition in gaming can be good for your game.

Disclaimer: I  understand that this is only one element of what makes a story driven game great. Not all games need "choices" in them to be great games.
This is merely an observation I have made on popularized themes and growing trends in the industry. I welcome your thoughts as well.

Games, movies and television have grown up and the fans have spoken with their dollars.
Television themes have matured and have left the wholesome family value shows and replaced them with crime dramas, death and the post apocalypse. Games are no different. The average gamer is 30 years old and have been playing games for over a decade. Story driven games have had to mature with its audience, and we want more drama.

No more rescuing princesses over and over... If these games didn't have the gameplay down solid, no one would stay for the story. Look at some of the more recent popular television shows that have been getting a lot of attention. ( these are ones I watch)

  • Breaking Bad 

  • Game of Thrones 

  • Dexter 

  • The Walking Dead

  • BattleStar Galactica

As you can see, all of these shows have dire themes to them. A "what would I do in their situation" factor. This question lives and dies there as the audience can only watch and enjoy the ride. For gaming, however, we have a chance to partake in the chaos and live in these worlds. As a developer, we want people invested in our games and to finish the story. How can we get players to do that?

It seems that approximately 10% of people actually finish the game they start.
This number is devastatingly low for any game designer to see. This is barely enough time to get out of the tutorials and start introducing the really interesting gameplay designs and story elements. When Heavy Rain developer, Quantic Dreams, claimed that 72% of players beat their game I took notice.  I had beaten the game when I read the article and I could believe it.

I had a hypothesis, that this more mature audience loves drama. This much is obvious... but when I saw what was happening in the past decade in shows, I realized that this audience loves to be beat up emotionally. We as people love to see the hero come out on top, especially after he/she has been kicked and dragged through the mud. It is truly a cathartic experience and game developers are catching on.

Choices in the form of lose/lose situations or the impossible choice is a perfect way to get your gaming audience invested. (this, of course, depends on the mood you are going for with your game.) How can gaming add to a great story with choice? I believe that making an impossible choice allows the player to quickly run through the various stages of grief. In this way, the game developer is able to get the gamer emotionally involved.
Just by placing characters in dire situations, we can set up the stage for a lose/lose situation easier. I suspect that this is because the audience expects it and is less likely to turn away in anger at a difficult situation.

Here are some games that I feel presented dire themes and lose/lose situations well.

  • The Walking Dead - Telltale Games

  • Mass Effect Trilogy

  • Fallout 3

  • Heavy Rain

I'm guessing that the Last of Us also does this well.

Imagine if Kratos -Spoilers- had to choose to either kill his daughter or his wife early in the story... you would see different reactions but both would be heartfelt only to have Aries come down and kill the other in front of Kratos. The result would still be the same.. but the choice would probably have made a difference to the player.

So take a look at the 3 Act Structure for dramatic writing and create some tension, kick and push your audience through the mud (emotionally), they will love you for it.
"Make me care... please, make me care emotionally." - Andrew Stanton TED talks  'The clues to a great story' 



Do you have any recommendations for games that used choice well?
Do you also find yourself going through the 5 stages of grieving when forced to make a choice in a game? How did you feel afterwards?

I recently co-developed a game on iOS called Nameless: The Hackers RPG - please check it out and let me know what you thought of our story.

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