So I've been replaying Final Fantasy 6 recently, and I'll spare you the “OMG I FORGOT HOW GOOD THIS GAME IS” talk, but something occurred to me.
For those of you that don't know (and even those of you that do), there is a moment, after what is more or less the apocalypse, where you wake up in control of single character, only to discover that you and your adoptive grandfather have been stuck on an island for over a year since the catastrophe, and Celes (your character) has only just now woken up. There used to be a few other people on the island, but they've since died of either disease or sheer ennui. As far as you know at this point, Celes and Cid are the only human beings left alive at this point, and Cid has taken deathly ill.
You're presented with a minigame, in which Celes catches fish to feed to Cid, in order to nurse him back to health. Fast fish add to his gauge, slow fish subtract, and it slowly drains over time. If it gets up to 10, he recovers, and if it gets down to 0, he dies.
The weird thing is, you can't lose the game at this point. Ultimately, it makes no substantial difference if he lives or dies. Either way, a short series of events transpires that end up with you on a raft, trying to make for the mainland, in order to discover if there's anyone else out there.
Whenever I played this game as a kid, I would always save Cid, since I wanted to beat every possible challenge set before me, and it really wasn't that difficult. I had never even seen what happens when you let him die.
That is, until this most recent time. When you come in to feed Cid, and you've let him die, Celes checks on him, discovers that he's dead, and runs from the room in tears (accompanied by her theme from the opera earlier). She walks to the northernmost point of the island, and throws herself off the cliffs, figuring that with everyone else gone, she has nothing left. She nevertheless survives the fall, only to find the raft that Cid was secretly working on before he took ill. Why he didn't mention it before escapes me, but there you have it.
From the connection you have to the music, to the little save point-ish sparkles they use for her tears as she falls, it's easily one of the most emotionally powerful moments to ever come out of a Super Nintendo (perhaps only second to Lucca telling Robo at the end of Chrono Trigger: “Don't pretend you don't care when you're really sad”).
The scene if you save Cid, however, is kind of an anti-climax. He... feels better then tells you about the raft. He stays on the island, and you can visit him any time you like after you get an airship. Kind of... well, boring.
And yet, because I was presented with success/failure conditions and the task was easy enough, I never saw this different, decidedly superior path for the story to take. This has gotten me thinking: when the most dramatically interesting path for a story to take involves a character failing at the task set before him/her for no reason other than their own personal failings, what's a game designer to do?
I realize this is a bit of a soapbox issue for me: If I refuse to take control away from the player at any point, how can I craft any kind of emotionally engaging situation that requires the player's character to act in some way?
Malgayne, as I was talking with him about it, really hit the nail on the head, I think. If I think of myself as being Celes, then clearly I have to do everything within my power to save Cid, but if I think of myself as a 3rd party, guiding the story, then it frees me up have something happen because I want to see how it would play out.
In a game like Mass Effect or Fallout, there could never be a moment in which the villain gets away because your character falters at the crucial moment, and lacks the resolve to pull the trigger. Or, more appropriately, if this ever happens, it must either happen in a cutscene, during which you have no control, or events must occur that make your hesitation functionally irrelevant. If it significantly changed the course of the game from every point forward, the workload would be, at this point, prohibitively high. I would like to think this will not always be the case, but that's where we are right now.
And even if you were given the choice to have your character hesitate, and not shoot the villain at the crucal moment, all Keyzer Soze style, how many of you would honestly take that chance? The “Game Over” screen has conditioned gamers everywhere that failure to accomplish your originally intended goal means that you stop playing the game. JRPGs and that whole genre has, by this point, devolved into a story (occasionally a very engaging one) that you must pass a series of largely unrelated challenges to experience. If you fail a challenge, you don't learn any more of the story until you beat said challenge, so the impulse is always to try as hard as possible to beat every fight put in front of you. If I was legitimately afraid that I would go game over, I would have my character kill the villain right then and there, out of fear I would have to replay some part of the game because I failed the challenge.
But it's not as simple as “well, give players the option to make their characters fail on purpose without ending the game”. Take the example of feeding Cid the fish: I didn't want to save Cid because I cared about his character that much, or because I really identified with Celes and her struggle to find an anchor in the cruel new world she had found herself in. I wanted to save Cid because the game had given me a challenge, and dammit, I'm going to win, even if it involves nothing other than walking up to the shoreline and mashing the A button to pick up fish. Frankly, if a game tasks me with something, I want to be able to succeed at it, but I have a lot of difficulty imagining how you could design a challenge for which the success condition involves your character throwing herself off a cliff in despair.
I think the real problem here is that when I say “game”, people think “success/failure conditions”. It seems like the industry would benefit from moving more in the direction of something like Daniel Benmergui (his website can be foundhere), who has always been fairly clear that in most of his games, while there may be some conditions that can be described as more positive for the characters involved, there's rarely one set of circumstances characterized as a goal for the player (other than perhaps experiencing all possible permutations of events).
But most of these projects are small in scope, and deal with the player's control over a small number of variables. I would say “I hope that this take on games evolves into something with the relative size and scope of something like Mass Effect of Final Fantasy 6”, but we all know it will eventually. It only took 24 years for Mario to make it up to the first Mario Galaxy, so let's check back around 2030, right?