Last updated on January 26th, 2018 at 09:49 am.
I’ve ranted on Twitter a couple times about scripted losses in games, and a fair number of people still seem to think they’re pretty decent ideas, so I thought I’d get into the meat of what makes them poor design. The bottom line is they violate too many of player’s expectations in a lot of ways developers probably don’t even realize—like many issues in gaming, it’s really easy to overlook when you know what’s going on, but when you don’t, hoo boy.
So this isn’t news. But I think game devs underestimate just how a sudden loss can affect players. Allow me to tell you a story from my youth. From the ancient times, when all games were pixels, and “multiplayer” often meant taking turns in a single-character platformer or just plain ol’ watching a friend play a single player game all day.
I was playing Chrono Trigger with a friend on my Playstation, a bit late to the game. He had beaten the game on SNES before I had even played, but he didn’t want to spoil the game so I was going in fairly blind. The only RPG I had played before this was Super Mario RPG, at that same friend’s house. I never owned a copy.
Eventually I was fighting the infamous Golem fight, probably the first scripted loss a lot of American players in the 90s ever experienced. It certainly was my first scripted loss, with my near-zero experience with RPGs.
Like most players, I lost—the Golem fight is not impossible, as many fans will proudly note. Many treat it as a badge of honor to beat the Golem especially in the first playthrough. But really, this just made the battle look winnable, and it made my defeat feel more crushing. Seeing my last character’s HP reach zero, I reached out—and I pressed the reset button on my console.
“Why did you do that?” my friend asks.
“I lost,” I replied, dumbfounded. I died, so I was going to get a game over, so I might as well reset the console and start over, right.
“You’re supposed to lose that fight, you keep going.”
Yeah. I saw my character’s health reach zero. It’s a very Pavlovian thing, I would see that happen, know that “Game Over” screen was coming, and you know what, whatever. It’s faster and less frustrating to reset the game, right? Except…in trying to avoid seeing that Game Over screen, I ended up actually ending my game when I was totally fine! Joy.
I wasn’t the only one to reset at that boss, or at many, many other such bosses. A friend of mine recently Alt F4’d out of a scripted loss in one of the Neptunia games when he was dealing zero damage, even more obvious than the fight I lost. I thought it was kinda funny at the time, but that’s only because I had forgotten what it’s like to not even be aware of scripted losses in games.
The thing is, not all players are familiar with JRPG conventions like scripted losses. Not all players are familiar with games.
An Inversion of Player Knowledge—For The Worse
Even as a new player, you know some things about how fights work in Chrono Trigger by the time you fight the Golem. You know every fight can be won. You know losing happens because you didn’t do well enough. You know the game is over when your HP hits zero. 99% of the time all of those things are direly important, it’s simply how the world works.
Scripted losses throw all that knowledge out the window without warning. Only after you lose, after you’re expecting to see a Game Over screen that throws away your last hour of progress or so, does the game reveal the ruse. The cutscene is usually an extra kick in the pants too, about your character being tossed into jail or the bad guy burning down their village or something. Inverting what the player knows is almost always a frustrating experience, and to toss the fear of a game over in there on top is just cruel.
And for what? At their very best, a Scripted Loss is basically that moment in an FPS where your character kicks ass 24/7 then instantly loses the will to fight and is taken down by a Plot Armored rando with a knife and tossed into the Prison Escape level. This is another bit of game design often regarded as being poor: it makes the player feel like the game is cheating and highlights—sorry, I’m gonna say it!—the ludonarrative dissonance of your character being a badass when you’re in control but suddenly we need you to kinda take one for the team in this cutscene.
When you invert player expectations, it’s dangerous. You’re telling the player that what they’ve learned is wrong and shit is just going to happen and there’s nothing they could do to stop it. You need to have a good reason to invert player expectations and usually you want the net outcome to be positive to the player. Compare that moment of joy when you realize “I didn’t know this game had a world map!” in Final Fantasy 7 to the dour realization of “oh, I thought I died but the game just lied to me” in, well, all too many other Final Fantasies.
Considerations For Including Scripted Losses
So you really think your player needs to have a scripted loss. Even after I told you they suck. Some friend you are!
Well, let’s go over some considerations to try to make out scripted loss as inoffensive as possible.
Do you really need to give the player control?
So you want to show the bad guy is really strong. Is this really the way you have to do it? Couldn’t you have them decimate some NPCs? Kick the protagonist out a window in a cutscene? Show the combat window but automatically pick the player’s actions, or maybe not even let them get a turn before the enemy wins?
A big part of the problem of scripted losses is that they’re really a cutscene played out by the player as a character, but they give the impression of failing as a player. Just straight making it a cutscene doesn’t remove all the “wait wasn’t just the strongest badass in the world?” questions, but it certainly prevents an unknowing ragequit or a player trying to win a battle they actually can’t.
Final Fantasy 6 had an interesting version of this trope where a non-player character in fact loses the hopeless boss fight. It’s an in-battle cutscene that’s more than just “fade out after your party dies then somehow it’s not a game over”, the character actually looks like he’s winning, and he’s not a main member of your party so the loss isn’t jarring. It’s clearly not an “oh dang, reset the game” moment because of how it’s set up and presents itself, and the way it works the cutscene into the battle screen itself is rather interesting, unlike, well, almost every single other scripted loss in the history of gaming.
Is it the beginning of the game?
If the player loses the very first fight of the game (as in Paper Mario and Final Fantasy 2) they’ll probably get the hint. This is one of the less offensive uses of this trope, as your player won’t have that reset-reflex and is probably thinking it’s a cutscene if you slip the scripted loss into your game’s intro.
Does it look like they can win?
This is a huge no-no. Ideally a scripted loss should communicate itself extremely explicitly, such as characters pointing out the hopelessness of the situation via dialog, attacks clearly dealing zero damage, characters instantly being defeated either via instant-death status or “9999” damage (or equivalent).
The very gameplay of a scripted boss itself should strongly suggest to the player that no, this is not a tough boss fight, this is literally impossible and I couldn’t reach my fingers over to Alt F4 in rage before the game over screen even pops up. It’s sort of unthinkable in the days of long loads and autosaves, but yes in the SNES days a lot of us just hit reset the moment the Game Over screen came up—it was faster.
I’ve seen people bring up the Golem fight in Chrono trigger as a “good” scripted loss, but as you can tell from my story above, I strongly disagree. Being able to beat a scripted loss in an NG+ is an awkward complication that honestly probably shouldn’t be a factor. One series I’ve seen do this interestingly is Disgaea, which often gives you bad endings for winning scripted losses. These include some of my least favorite writing in the entire series, such as Etna being forced to lose to Laharl because MAIN CHARACTER (except he’s not the main character anymore?) and, no, I would not say the scripted losses are any more excusable because of their bad-ending winnableness.
Being able to win a scriptable loss is just a different kind of bad, and probably results in the original fight seeming possible in a first playthrough (like in Chrono Trigger) which is more likely to frustrate players, not less. Do not ruin a player’s first experience with your game for a minor easter egg a small percent of returning players might see. Most players are going to play your game once, and most of those won’t even make it all the way to the end. This is why first impressions are so important.
If it’s an action game, what if the player is too good to lose?
Super Metroid and Mega Man X are in an awkward situation where their first, unwinnable boss fights actually take dramatically longer if you don’t…just…walk into the boss and “die”. Skilled but unknowledgable players are harshly punished by wasting considerable time should they manage to stay alive for entire minutes only to find they were supposed to lose. That is what we call, in academic terms, a “dick move”.
What if the player DOES win?
So instead of dealing a forced 9999 damage and being invincible you set the boss’s stats really high and there’s no way most players could beat it. But what about NG+? What if there’s some bug that makes it possible? Or just some complex assortment of stats, skills and strategies you didn’t think about?
Are you just going to play the “you lost!” cutscene after the win like nothing happened? Are you going to script a whole, second cutscene if they do win? Does your battle system even handle someone winning a scripted loss? (many games, especially older ones, often just crash.)
Can the player lose something in the cutscene?
Oh, a boss did an instant-kill attack! I haven’t saved in a while, so I’ll use my rare full-revive item so I don’t die here!
…oh, it was a scripted loss.
…and I completely wasted a rare, limited item.
Yeah, you should probably kill the player before they even have the chance to use any sort of consumable, and if your game has anything like kill-streaks/etc it would be very rude to reset them because of a forced loss. Once again, this is another strong indication that this loss should not be during a gameplay segment. Alternately, disable item/consumable command uses.
Can you avert the Game Over fear?
One of the less-offensive Scripted Loss situations I’ve seen has the players strike against a foe who cannot be harmed, but either doesn’t attack or doesn’t deal enough damage to instill panic. The battle usually ends after a few rounds of dealing no damage when the heroes realize it’s hopeless.
Since no one’s dying, no one’s likely to be reaching for the reset button just yet, and you get across the strength of the boss all the same.
So scripted losses almost always suck. Doing them right is a lot of work and will probably require special programming in your combat system to clearly signal the loss and/or deal with the repercussions of the player actually winning. Is whatever you have in mind really worth all that trouble for you and your player?
The Finer Points is an ongoing series of articles on Game UX Design covering often overlooked but critical “small” elements of design that can result in either big frustration if done wrong or big satisfaction if done right (or both!).