[This article discusses plot details of Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II—The Sith Lords.]
Sometimes we lose because we have to. Sometimes we lose because we’re just not good enough to win. And sometimes we lose because it makes for a better story than a win ever possibly could.
The failure that made me realize that last point came at the end of Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II. It was a battle that pitted a fledgling Jedi against an unstoppable sith killing machine and expected him to win. KOTOR2 has an irritating tendency to do this: splitting up your party, tossing under-leveled and poorly equipped support characters into unfavorable fights, and then forcing them to try to survive. The Jedi was Atton Rand, a Han Solo type with a dark past, who my main character—a redeemed dark sider herself—had helped to find his own connection to the Force. The sith was Darth Sion, the game’s physical powerhouse who’s literally unkillable without the right understanding of the forces keeping him alive. Needless to say, the fight didn’t go Atton’s way.
I loaded my game and tried again. And again. And again.
It wasn’t that the fight was fundamentally unwinnable—this wasn’t one of those battles you’re supposed to lose. It’s just that it was unwinnable by me. I eventually resigned myself and gave up, but losing it didn’t end the game. Instead, the screen faded out, and the rest of the ending (badly fragmented in the original release but at least partially fixed by the excellent fan-made The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod) continued to play out. In the game’s last moments, something new happened: I found Atton, collapsed and waiting for me so that he could die. I offered what comfort I could, the Jedi version of last rites. “There is no death, Atton,” my character whispered at the end of what was, at its most basic, a story about her own relationship with her religion and its place in the wider world. “There is only the Force.” And then it was done. It was a profound moment—sad, moving—and it wouldn’t have happened if I had refused to lose that fight.
We lose all the time in life, and the art we consume reflects it. Boromir dies, Apollo Creed wins, and the Bad News Bears lose the big one. But video games generally resist that reality. If you’re skilled or persistent enough, you’ll likely win against whatever challenge is being thrown your way. It’s unrealistic, which is fine. But it’s also static and flat, which is not as fine.
A few months ago, I reviewed the excellent XCOM 2, a difficult game that was actually made harder after its developers found play-testers were able to skip past certain parts of its design because the game never made them feel pressured enough to engage with things like troop recruitment. When I played it, I was incredibly conservative, saving before most turns and reloading when luck didn’t go my way. I could claim that this stemmed from my work as a reviewer, that I couldn’t afford to have a play-through end in failure when there was more to see and understand. But it’s really just my nature; I play games to win, even if winning doesn’t feel very fun.
Upon reflection, my uninterrupted string of successful missions—supposedly waged by a desperate guerrilla force against a seemingly monolithic and omnipotent foe—feels hollow. It’s not because the game hadn’t been hard enough, but because it was inauthentic to the story XCOM was trying to tell. Over the course of my entire campaign, only a single soldier stayed permanently dead. That’s a pitifully low, unrealistic number, one that denied me dozens of moments of sacrifice and futile, beautifully Pyrrhic gestures that would have made the game’s story all the richer.
Even worse, it denied me the ability to come back from the brink. A good story isn’t a steady line of victories; it’s a sine wave, bouncing back and forth from euphoric highs to cruel rock bottoms. Instead, my XCOM campaign had become almost asymptotic, with each carefully engineered victory providing the resources I’d use for the next. That same need for contrast is also why the game’s brutal Ironman mode, where mid-battle saves are eliminated entirely, didn’t satisfy me, either. Failure after failure is no more satisfying than win heaped upon win.
Even as designers lift more and more from the roguelike playbook, filling their games with randomized level design and progress-resetting setbacks, they hesitate to serve up permanent loss. Part of that stems from a natural inclination to smooth the edges off of products that are incredibly expensive to make, but part of it is because they’re giving us, as players, what we want, regardless of what might be better for their stories. The Fire Emblem games have been permanently killing defeated characters for years, and I don’t know anyone who lets their beloved knights or mages stay dead. Instead, they reload the fight and try again. (Nintendo finally gave in a few years ago and provided the option to turn permanent deaths off.)
It’s a tautology; we get attached to characters because they stay around for a while, and we want them to stick around because we’re attached. The consequence is that loss in games almost always comes through story-mandated deaths outside the player’s control, instead of as a consequence of their own actions. Aeris doesn’t die because the player makes a choice that causes her death; she dies because that’s the story Final Fantasy VII wants to tell. As a result, we have a vast number of video game power fantasies where the player is fundamentally powerless, because their actions, talents, and choices only determine whether the story progresses, not how.
Maybe that’s necessary. Maybe the alternative is Darkest Dungeon, where players are encouraged to treat their doomed soldiers as expendable fodder. And yet, few script-mandated deaths have the same impact as when a high-level character in that game mentally snaps, potentially losing all of the experience, quirks, and my affection they’d accumulated over hours of difficult fights. (At the same time, there’s nothing like the euphoric high when they shake off their madness, rally, and thoroughly decimate a foe.) I think back to poor Atton Rand, dying quietly in a galaxy far, far away. Would his death have had the same impact if it were automatic—dictated by the developers—rather than the result of my own choices and failures? And would I still love the game so much if I had cheesed my way through the fight and never felt the loss his murder ultimately provoked?