This is Gwaul, a woman I abandoned two years ago.
She was my avatar in Mount & Blade, TaleWorlds' open world RPG set in the medieval land of Calradia that has never heard of dragons, beholders, dwarves or even a Ring of Protection +2. It is also a game where you are encouraged to live out the consequences of your decisions and failures.
If you fail at a task, Mount & Blade expects you to grin and bear it because leaving the game is only possible through an option called Save & Exit. Unless you feel comfortable with ALT+F4 or yanking out the power with your bare hands.
For most of the game, I’d bought into this concept and enjoyed the heft and solidity it lent Gwaul’s existence. She'd built up a sterling reputation and put together a large party full of people who got shit done, in spite of a litany of mistakes. In real life, what we screw up defines us as much as what we excel at. Each one of those mistakes in Mount & Blade – a village burnt down here, a caravan lost to bandits there – added character to the party. Gwaul's gang were just ordinary folk with common aspirations, nothing like the clichéd band of heroes you'd see in similar games, whose destiny is often sealed with a narrative kiss.
But one fateful, terrible day a lord of the Khergit Khanate, one of the five Mount & Blade kingdoms, asked if Gwaul wished to help them in their struggles. We had no plans for the evening – so why not?
She put quill to paper and became a hired blade for the Khanate… changing everything. As the Khanate was at war with two of its neighbours, Gwaul had real enemies for the first time. And soon after, in a crippling twist of the knife, the warmongering bastards kicked off a third conflict, this time against Gwaul’s home kingdom. Her staunchest allies were now enemies and half a dozen quests she had on the boil became impossible to complete. Reputation? In shreds. Party? Terrified to wander lands they once considered safe.
This was no longer the game I had been enjoying and so it came to pass that after 56 days in the company of Gwaul, I turned off the PC and retired from Mount & Blade.
Mount & Blade isn't the only game that suppresses the ability to undo mistakes. Did you play Dean Moynihan's One Chance? In this game, you play a scientist who cures cancer only to discover the cure will kill all life on the planet. The game gives you six days before everything on the planet dies but the twist is that you get only one chance to play. There is no ability to reload or restart the game (well, not without cheating, of course).
Although not the first game to try this (see also You Only Live Once), Moynihan makes a concerted effort to arm the game with an emotional shotgun. Cards on the table – yes, I found it moving, but I didn't find it entirely satisfying.
At the start, it was clear that I should press space to interact – but with what? You have one chance, the game taunts. Scared of missing a vital hotspot, I tapped the space bar like a woodpecker with a keyboard fetish as I moved my character about, ensuring no hotspot was left unturned. You have one chance.
My master plan was to spend as much time as possible in the lab researching a solution, but my rattling space bar thrust me into a wild night with a woman who wasn’t my wife. Bollocks. So on the second day, I backed away from the keyboard and opted to walk around first, so as not to end the day before I was ready. When I reached the roof of the lab someone jumped to their death – and another day was suddenly over. For a game about choice, it didn’t feel like I’d had much input at that point.
After six days, I earned a wretched ending, dying alone in the lab with my daughter's lifeless body discarded in the corridor outside.
A game with permanent consequences is a complicated affair. When things go well, you can't stop playing because it's so engrossing. When things go badly, it gives the game world solidity and a sense of real danger. When the game turns against you, you want to format the hard drive, kick it around the room and then bash your brains out with it.
The save game has sometimes been slandered as the enemy of difficulty, but there is an interesting flip side: it also makes the game more forgiving on the author. The same tool that allows a player to sharpen their skills through replay also enables the player to circumvent game design flaws. Remove that quick fix, the ability for players to debug the game themselves, and the player becomes utterly dependent on the developer to have constructed an experience in which it is not possible to commit game-devastating mistakes. It's the odious checkpoint system taken to its extreme conclusion.
In both Mount & Blade and One Chance, I fell into a trap of game design which the developer left me to rot in. While One Chance’s incidents only marred the experience, the Mount & Blade problem was fatal. Whilst I know it's still possible for Gwaul to recover and rebuild her battered prestige once released from the Khanate contract, I didn’t play for 56 days just to “start again”. Under the spotlight of irreversible consequences, even the most mundane game design errors become more noticeable and toxic, ruining the game for some players. And yet both of these games shine precisely because they offer permanence.
The moral of the story is this: game developers, just be fucking careful.