This is Gwaul, a woman I abandoned two years ago.

[image of Gwaul]

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).

[one chance, character standing in front of mirror in bedroom]

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.

[one chance: one possible ending, character dies alone in lab]

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.

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23 thoughts on “The Consequences Of Consequences

  1. Rowan Kaiser just tweeted “Interesting piece, but I didn’t get a good reason for why your M&B issue was bad. That sounds awesome. Reminded me of times in Master of Orion where I’d make an alliance for safety but that triggered galactic WWI. Loved the risk.”

    I should clarify that Gwaul’s party was hunted by armies in most of Calradia – her movements were now highly restricted. She was often caught by these armies and made to fight (unwinnable) or surrender (lose party and lots of stuff). Party was being dismantled like legs off a dragonfly. Got to the point where small groups of bandits were threatening again. The clock was more than just going backwards, half of the land was hostile.

    The only ally was the Khanate which was doing very badly in all of its wars. Gwaul just couldn’t finish existing tasks and new ones were pretty dicey. Kept on being called into battle which the Khanate did hopelessly in.

    I surfed desperately for how I could get out of the contract – but there wasn’t really any reset button available. Other players seemed to have fallen into a similar trap.

  2. Same story here (except it was the With Fire and Sword, not the original game). I was a respected trader, buying velvet from the Krimean Khanate for pocket change, reselling it to the Moscovites for as much as ten times the buying price. The only role my party played was protecting the cargo. I did odd jobs here and there, delivering letters and such. So when a Polish nobleman asked me to join “them”, I thought it was about time they let me in on the whole castle ownership thing. Except they drafted me. And two days later, everything went to shit.

    But I loved it. I loved the fact that I could screw up so bad that I would switch from bathing in liquid gold and virgin tears to running naked through the woods, trying to dodge burning arrows. And I did get back on my feet. It was a long and painful journey, but it made me appreciate my achievments even more.

    The other game I haven’t tried. Now, I most definitely will, thanks to you.

    But yeah, “be fucking careful” sums it up pretty nicely. It can be amazingly satisfying, but there are pitfalls.

  3. I figured One Chance would offer some options at the exclusion of others, so I ended up getting an okay ending (all things considered) because I was worried that choosing one option would move me in a direction I didn’t want to go in. It’s happened to me before, even in games with less permanence, so I tend to be touchy about that.

    Starting from less than square one is appealing in its own way, but the closest thing to that I’ve experienced is in roguelikes, where permadeath makes the situation pretty short-lived.

  4. Huh, Harbour Master sounds to me like you are getting soft.

    I love the fear of consequences, irreversible choices that cannot be undone. I hate it in games like Oblivion and Dead Rising 2 where I have to fix their games for them by only doing one type of guild mission set and refusing to acknowledge that the other guild missions are available (in the case of the former) or only using one save file and never ‘noticing’ the other 2 save slots (in the case of the latter).

    Seeing all and everything is boring, my experience is never going to feel unique. The only game that have enjoyed trying to do everything in that still managed to make your experience seem specific to me was Way of the Samurai 3. It did that by keeping the playthrough short and then giving 21 different outcomes to the stories. Even after getting 18 of the endings I still felt like there was stuff I had missed and that there were still things to explore, and that felt/feels fucking marvelous.

    Really need to find time to write about emergent story telling that Shaun poked me about 8 months ago.

  5. Thanks for the comments, all.

    @Ketchua: I heard that it’s possible to save your game at will with later versions of M&B, is this true? I screwed up plenty and often, and I loved it – ah, the caravans I lost to bandits! But I felt like I was thrust into a situation devoid of fun. Gwaul lost her party, having been defeated by armies of the Khanate’s armies, and the only group giving me the time of the day were the Khanate themselves who expected me to turn up to battlefields and lose along with them. The open world, where I was free to choose, had now turned into a Khanate box which looked down on me for not helping out in doomed fights. And with my difficulty of finding time to spend on games, it was simply unacceptable that I would be forced to play this out to its reputation-less conclusion.

    @gnome: As I said, I absolutely loved M&B and, no doubt, not everyone would find themselves in shit city like this. The Khanate went to war with three kingdoms including my home, native kingdom. All of my ongoing quests were blocked and my reputation began to nosedive.

    @BeamSplashX: I’m a great fan of games which patch your mistakes into its tapestry – that to play perfectly makes them boring. Games which are forgiving of mistakes – where you finger is not permanently on the quicksave key – also make me very happy. You feel like you’re “living” a game than playing one.

    @badgercommander: “I love the fear of consequences, irreversible choices that cannot be undone.” I’m not quite sure where you read that I didn’t. My message is that it’s a risky design decision, because a developer fuck-up can be that much more massive. Everyone bemoans checkpoints for exactly that reason, because the developers often get checkpoints wrong – before a cutscene, before a long hike to the boss room, etc. making a game mega-irritating that would otherwise be fun with quicksave. I never intended to play M&B as long as I did, but its narrative-less little world was so engrossing – until the contract-with-unforeseen-consequences happened. It was fun, and then it was not. I don’t have time to waste playing Gwaul back to a point where the game is fun again. I moved on.

  6. The issue of consequences is also one I’ve often considered in the context of pen & paper roleplaying. As a game master who has sometimes followed the logic of a situation to the inevitable death of all party members (though not on purpose), I’m very much aware of the fact that maintaining both the seriousness of a world with real consequences and gameplay that is actually enjoyable is… well, a challenge. A fun challenge, to be sure, but something that – as you said – designers need to be fucking careful about.

  7. @Jonas: I was wondering how often this comes into the minds of developers, considering that anything approaching real consequence is usually steered well clear of. Is it just design habit – or actual choice due to inherent risk?

  8. I think developers can be accused most of being inconsiderate of the guaranteed real consequence of any game- time. Bad UI design, poor checkpointing, game-breaking bugs and the like all feed into that. Granted, the good parts of games cost time too, but the point is that we’re satisfied by that.

  9. I actually hate quick save features, they annoy the hell out of me. In the case you used I can half understand what you mean but what you described as annoying sounds delightful to me. I want to fuck up, I want no warnings and I want there to be a chance for me to return to former glory through blood, sweat and tears. I don’t want developers to expect me to ‘fix’ their design decisions by using Quick saves every few fucking seconds. It was one of the things I most hated about Half Life 2. The rinse-repeat nature of qucik saving and quick loading was expected and made HL2 a weaker game for it.

    I am not saying that every game needs to knee the player in the balls (Saints Row: The Third would be a weaker game if it didn’t indulge the player at every corner) but when the game is designed as such then you have to roll with it rather than chastise the developer decision.

    I’ll admit that it feels like I have immediately countered my own point about Half Life 2. If you want to argue about that then I can elaborate at a more sober time.

  10. Ten years ago, I probably would have lauded M&B’s unflinching consequences and patted myself on the back for getting through the gruesome re-grind to the top. Today I simply don’t have the time for such struggle. What had been pleasurable was now deprived, thus I deprived the game of me. Perhaps I am writing about consequences as observed through the prism of my life, which is highly sensitive to anything that feels unfair or grindy.

    I’m not sure whether developers actually “expect” quick saves to save their asses in terms of design mistakes but their inadvertent bonus is that they do offer a workaround. That’s essentially what I wanted to highlight in games that pursue consequences. I do love a sense of permanence – it’s just that it’s a double-edged sword. No developer is perfect – no game is perfect – and taking out the “let’s do this again…” options will make those mistakes bite harder.

    A quicksave would’ve allowed me step back from the precipice of the Khanate contract. The game didn’t spell out the critical consequences of a simple “Yes/No” choice. So I dare say it’s not my fucking problem for being pissed off with the destruction of Gwaul’s reputation, her wealth and death/capture of every member of her party on the basis of that ambiguous coin toss. Pretty much the only thing left intact was her stats increases. For me, this coin toss didn’t rank as “design decision of the year”.

    I don’t know if HL2 is a great example, though. I played through most of that game without dying once. And surely all those games you have played – practically all have some form of save system, right? It’s not quicksave so much that’s important but the existence of a save system, checkpoints included. M&B and One Chance have absolutely nothing. I could say a lot more here, but I haven’t been drinking.

    Do you always post her drunk? Do you need to drink first before posting?

    Time to tweet: “The Electron Dance comments: Have ye a drink first, ye’ll need it.”

  11. Haha, you make the comments thread sound like an insecure girlfriend or something.

    I understand that you no longer have the time for that grind, most of the time neither do I. It is why Oblivion got thrown under the bus and why Tales of Vesperia was such a chore to finish.

    Dead Rising has a save system that has no ‘do over’ it gives no hints of what you might be running into and whether you are going to encounter a random boss that is going to proceed to murder you. You could not save whenever you want either, there were manual saves that could only be triggered at specific points.

    Dark Souls saves all the time, short of pulling the plug on your console everything you do is saved. Every time you visit a bonfire, every time you die, every time you kill a boss. Your choices are permanent.

    The fact that you walked away from Gwaul is a fitting end surely. You saw the rise and fall of a character when they bit off too much to chew. That character arc would have been satisfactory to me. It clearly annoyed you, which is fair enough the game wasn’t for you. I was starting to get worried that these types of games were a thing of the past but Dark Souls sold 1.5 million copies so I have hope.

  12. I see my typo saying “Do you always post her drunk?” which is an amazing typo thus I will not use my alarmingly revisionist powers to correct.

    Couple of things.

    First, I god damn wish I could play Demon’s Souls on the PC. It sounds like the art of deadly consequence done really well.

    Second, I want to establish that I did try to continue Gwaul. I was offered the Khanate contract and I thought – you know, let’s find out what this means. I don’t have to save. So I played and bad things started to happen. My party was captured. I lost everything. Then without weapons and floundering health, Gwaul was ambushed by muggers IN A FUCKING TOWN which I didn’t even know could happen. She lost. I was excited by where the game was taking me – but realised after three hours that I couldn’t climb back up. With no party, being called to support Khanate army matters was pointless. I tried raising a party again – but kept losing them to captures.

    Eventually, I realised this was ridiculous and decided to roll back. I don’t recall the exact details of this moment – but I discover it’s been saved and there’s no rollback. Gwaul’s collapse was permanent. I kept going regardless because the game had enshrined consequences in a positive way up until now. When the Khanate started a war with the Nords – where 90% of my quests were based – I still persisted, thinking it might be possible to complete the quests. Failing a quest means a hit to rep. All that happened is that Nord armies captured me – “enemy of the state” – in their territory.

    I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do except wait for the contract to expire. But at that point, Gwaul was arguably worse off than a fresh character – hated by many.

    But it is impossible to die in M&B, teasing you with the possibility of turning things around. I don’t know if it was a fitting end, because it wasn’t an end. I felt like I abandoned her. Choosing to give up on Gwaul was one of the toughest gaming decisions I’ve had to make.

  13. @BC: you’re not quite right about Dead Rising. In both games you can save at any time by going to a toilet. So to an extent it was possible to exploit the save system to get around a tough fight.

    For example, I was quite happy to save right before tackling a psychopath (the descriptions often give ’em away even if you’ve not run into them before) because losing a boss fight through not yet knowing the patterns and having to replay x number of hours of the game to get to the same fight–which I might immediately lose again–did not always appeal.

    With both games, incidentally, I treated each death as real except in boss fights. I used the save system to give me the opportunity to learn the necessary patterns and techniques, through repeated failure. To do otherwise would have meant essentially replaying a huge swathe of the game and grinding up a tougher character to make the boss fights easier. More interesting to take them on with a weaker character but give yourself scope to figure out how to beat them properly, I thought.

    I’ve not played Dark Souls but obviously that has its own enshrined system which seems to work very well for it.

    I sank a lot of time into Mount & Blade back in ’06 or ’07 and stopped playing because it got boring – I ran out of interesting content or challenges. It’s been updated a lot since then of course. Anyway, I would’ve done much the same as HM if what happened to him happened to me… the game burned that bridge, IMO.

    In my mind it’s comparable to the old X-Wing / TIE Fighter games which had a very cruel lottery in the event that you were shot down… you either got picked up by friendlies in which case you could continue, or you were picked up by the enemy or killed in which case your campaign was over. And lucky, lucky you, you get to replay the entire campaign again. Including all those missions you hated!

    I never finished X-Wing. No regrets there, even if I know I missed out on a lot of fun. It presented a hoop that I eventually refused to jump through. No, game. Let me play you. Don’t actively prevent me from enjoying you.

  14. @Shaun, maybe I should reword that then. Certainly the there would be hints that you might be fighting a psycho, but it was nto always clear if they would be easy or just steamroll you. That was the point I was trying to make.

    You counter my point by saying that you could save at anytime by going to a toilet. That is not my definition of anytime, given that you might have to struggle through hundreds of zombies to get to that point, and risk dying or placing yourself in a situation where you no longer had time to complete a quest or save a survivor. That is not ‘anytime’, you cannot just pause the game and instantly save.

    And don’t mention Dead Rising 2, that game was a joke as they removed almost all of this threat. I was diplomatic about it at the time, but I went back and played Dead Rising again recently to capture some footage and it is just a much cleverer, meaner game.

    @HM The more you describe yours and Gwaul’s plight the better and more fitting end it seems. Not only was Gwaul abandoned by all of the NPCs but she was also abandoned by her Player Character too. She now sits on the street begging for change so that she can drown her sorrows in the local tavern talking how she used to be someone. She has to resort to stealing steel and copper from people’s houses to feed her alcoholism, grifting to satiate her disease. I have been reading ‘The Corner’ too much.

  15. Dead Rising’s save system, especially the function to restart the game whenever you wanted with your more developed character, was the centerpiece of an earlier Capcom game- Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. The thing is, they made a point of telling you that beating the game on your first run was a notion you should dismiss immediately. Dead Rising, not so much.

    It does bring to mind a guy from college saying the game was stupid since you had to learn it before you played it, and all of his roommates whining about a majority of things you could change in the options menu. At least they admitted that the Call of Duty games were pretty much the same…?

  16. @BC: Fair call dude, it’s not the same as any time. Equally, if you were on your own (no survivors) then it was usually easy enough to reach one of the toilets. There was a risk in Dead Rising because of the time management demands – going to save could mean missing out on an extra survivor – but like everything else in the game it was a tactical option.

    DR1 and DR2 are siblings. One of them is the frightening, withdrawn one with the fascinating intellect and the penchant for making things difficult. The other is the friendly, bubbly one who’s into some cool stuff but mostly likes to party. I’m happy going out drinking with either. So long as neither of them try to make me buy Capcom DLC, because that makes the tortured metaphor collapse like a tragic souffle.

    I was thinking last night about how ace it would be to have a game that does the Dark Souls / Binding of Isaac style of thing, a combat game with the usual fantasy cod-medieval accoutrements, wherein it’s all about cautiously approaching and trying to learn patterns and techniques through parrying and dodging, before going in with an actual combat strategy. A game that demands you spend several minutes trying to suss out an enemy before committing yourself. A game wherein any fighter, PC or AI, can be put down with one good blow. And then I was thinking how cool it would be if the option simply existed for different playstyles. Roguelike: each character lives only once. Traditional (for lack of a better term): you save at the beginning of a level or dungeon, but if you die it’s back to the start. Of course, as in Dark Souls you can make your progress back easily because you now know how to fight the enemies… so long as you’re careful. And Casual: a checkpoint before every fight. And separate achievements and leaderboards for each of those three strands. Because why not reflect in your game that people like to approach games in different ways? Why not go this way instead of rubbish difficulty modes that just tweak levels of health and damage?

    (I understand that this is a separate discussion to that which Gwaul faced, but I’m not sure there’s more to say on that. You seem to like the idea that the character’s rise and fall is a unique, inimicable narrative that will endure in memory. HM would perhaps have preferred to have seen more of the game that he now probably never will. I can see the appeal of both ideas. Hope I’m not mischaracterising either of you btw, that is how I’m reading the above discussion.)

  17. Oh, so checking the “notify me of followup comments” in fact means that I don’t want updates? I hate you WordPress. I hate you so very much. Better late than never, I guess.

    @HM: Yes, the later games let you choose if you’d like to have the option of quitting without saving. But I choose not to use it, because I love the thrill of “onechancing”, and I did have time to waste. Anyway, you could give it another try, maybe they even added it to the original game. I don’t have it, so I have no idea.

    Dark Souls related (you probably saw it already, but just to be sure):

  18. Ha no idea what happened there! I’m using a WordPress plugin for notifications but thinking of switching to something sort-of WordPress native.

    I’ve got a copy of the later games – Armand gifted them to me recently – so who knows?

    …plus I’m so totally down on that petition already. I couldn’t let that one go by without my name on it!

  19. Hello? Anyone still in here? I’m a bit late to the party.

    I’m glad Rowan Kaiser asked why your experience/issue with M&B was so bad because I was thinking the same thing.

    The two games that come to mind when I think of permanence are Demon’s Souls and Heavy Rain. Now in Heavy Rain, yes you can replay sections again for a perfect outcome but after David Cage suggested players should aim for a singular experience, that’s exactly what me and my girlfriend did. We took our decisions on the chin whether they were good or bad and it lifted the experience so much. Even some of the minor choices that possibly, even probably, didn’t have an impact on anything ultimately mattered because there was no going back on anything. Me and my girlfriend both got very different outcomes at various junctures and it was fascinating to hear how we both handled situations differently and which characters died and where and how, and how that affected other parts of the game. One particular character death I found especially hard hitting simply because I knew I could have prevented it, but alas, he was gone forever, at least for me.

    Something I love about games which don’t allow you to replay sections is how you have to live with your actions. Once they’re committed, that’s it, move along, you ain’t changin’ ’em now buster. There’s none of this ‘If I just load my previous save I can try hacking that computer again without it locking me out permanently’. Taking that choice away from me makes my experience that much simpler but in many ways more meaningful because my actions have real consequences rather than phantom ones. Unfortunately there is always the issue of encountering game-breakers, whether they be bugs or bad design decisions and that’s where permanence really bites you in the ass.

    I wasn’t too enthralled by One Chance either, there was no real agency behind any of my actions so as a result the ending was as haphazard as the many smaller outcomes that contributed to it. You Only Live Once however was really funny and very nicely done.

    Great read, thanks!

  20. I think I slipped up on this article and needed to put more in about my M&B experience. The original version (sent to Second Person Shooter a year earlier, they were going to put this piece up) had a lot more detail in it but it seemed to detract from the overall cut-and-thrust of the essay. Yes, except that without the detail it looked like a silly whine to experienced M&B players.

    I have nothing against permanentizing consequences (I love these made-up words) but I just wanted to make the point they really are quite deadly on the design-side. Every game has bugs. With permanent consequences, they are now bug+.

    Cart Life tries to convince you to stick to consequences and not reload and replay. And that’s what I did, except where bugs forced my hand.

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