Sunday, August 18, 2019

General RPGs' "Losing" Battles

You know what I’ve always found to be really annoying? The--what? Oh. Yeah, I guess I have always been irritated by how hard it is to find an oatmeal cookie that hasn’t been poisoned with raisins, now that you mention it. Good point.

What I was gonna say, though, is that thing in RPGs where you can win a battle with ease, but because the plot demands it, the story acts like you just survived the fight by the skin of your teeth, or the enemy didn’t actually get damaged, or you’re gradually losing ground, or something.

Like, remember during Dragon Age 2’s finale, if you sided with the mages like a decent human being, there’s this battle where you and your allies are holding off an advancing invasion of templars in a large temple room? When I was playing through that, I had an archer-rogue build on my protagonist so incredibly broken that I was killing enemies faster than the game could keep track of. No, I’m serious--Hawke’s shots were so powerful that when each instant-death arrow hit an enemy, there’d be a pause between the damage being displayed and tallied up, and the enemy actually dying from it, a pause greater than the time it took for Hawke to shoot another arrow. My archer Hawke was so obscenely broken that I had to manually select every target for her because she’d be firing another killshot before the game could even realize she should be moving on to a new enemy. The rest of the party could’ve taken a break and had a mid-battle picnic, and everything would’ve been just fine.*

And yet, in spite of the fact that these enemies were basically dying before they’d even finished stepping through the doorway, I still eventually got interrupted by the inevitable cutscene in which Orsino loses his shit about how it’s a hopeless battle, and goes and proves what a stupid fucking hypocrite he is and what shitty writing the ending of this game had by doing his dumb necromancy nonsense. It’s like, bro, this fight earnestly could not possibly be going better for your side without ceasing to fit the definition of a battle!

Or how about all the times you very clearly win a boss battle, and yet afterwards the game acts like the bad guy’s fine and has been wrecking your party the whole time? Like that time in Xenogears when you fight Id in hand-to-hand combat. He’s not tough, even by standard Trying Too Hard Lame-Ass villain metrics. And yet, even though you can and probably are just steam-rolling this self-important little bitch-boi the whole fight long, when the battle’s over, the game acts like he’s still some dangerous threat going strong that needs a whole giant robot to subdue, even though for the last 15 minutes your characters’ fists have been extracting teeth from Id’s jaw like they want to pay off their student loans through tooth fairy bounties alone. Drives me crazy when games pull this shit, and RPGs do it all the time...hell, Xenosaga 3 overuses this frustrating trope so badly that, from a narrative perspective, its “heroes” actually lose the majority of the fights they get in!

What really drives me crazy is the rare occasion when the gameplay’s even set up in a way that, if the writers had actually given a shit about a cohesive narrative instead of just barreling through it solely as was convenient for them, they could have acknowledged the fact that the heroes of the game weren’t actually having any trouble with the battle in question.

You take Stella Glow, for example. There’s a part of the plot of SG in which the good guys launch an attack on the headquarters of their enemy at the time, Hilda. Things go south fairly quickly, and the heroes find themselves ambushed by Hilda’s goons, and have to fight their way through them. No matter how well the battle goes, though, the heroes still find themselves surrounded on all sides by their enemies, including any who were actually defeated in the battle. This is super annoying, of course, even more so if 1 of the goons you beat up in the battle was Dante, because he’ll be his usual smug jackass self in this scene even though he just got done getting beaten as if he’d wandered into Chris Brown’s aggro range. But what makes it more vexing is that Stella Glow has a monitoring system in place that rewards players for doing certain things in each battle, like getting the first strike, or, most often, not having any party member get KO’d. So the game already has a system in place which it can use to determine whether a player has done well enough to keep all characters alive throughout the fight, not to mention also keep track of which enemies are defeated during a battle (as defeating or not defeating certain enemies can sometimes be a part of these reward variables), there’s really no reason, on the technical side of things, that the game couldn’t have had an alternate scenario prepared for players who did well enough that the Stella Glow heroes were obviously not having any real problem.

Hell, it wouldn’t even have been hard from a writing perspective. Hilda only shows up halfway through the post-battle scene, so the writers could’ve just had a version like we see in the game, where protagonist Alto and his bunch are on the ropes, and a version where Hilda’s bunch are the ones in dire straits, but Hilda arrives with enough reinforcements that Alto’s team wind up in need to rescue all the same. You’d easily get from Point A to Point B as needed either way, and at least not make everything that occurred in the preceding fight narratively inconsistent.

I know that the battle screen is, most of the time, only vaguely related to the actual events of an RPG’s story. Still, it’s jarring, annoyingly so, to finish a battle with the impression that the heroes have come out on top--a natural reaction, considering that even these fights which the story says were unsuccessful still usually require the player to have won them--and be presented with a scene completely contrary to the victorious situation you’ve just created. Not only that, but it can even be detrimental to the story as a whole--while few games are such chronic offenders as Xenosaga 3, the player inevitably loses any confidence or pride in the heroes of that game simply because said heroes prove themselves time and time again utterly incapable of winning a fight when it counts. This is just an outright annoying trope, all the more since it only exists because of writers’ laziness, inflexibility, and lack of creativity, as they force the story to potentially ignore its own events’ reality so that they can achieve their means in a single, direct way, rather than perform their office as creators and create alternate means to their end.

* I am not, incidentally, trying to brag or flex about what an awesome RPG player I am, or anything. I suspect, in fact, that I’m generally below average, and creating broken builds in Dragon Age is not a difficult thing to achieve.


  1. I wrote some comments on Xenogears's Id battle, but my post became too long for the reply section. Basically, that fight is highly luck-based (can be hard or easy, but I've never seen it or had it be as much of a cakewalk as you describe), but I don't think the game's story handles the non-victory that poorly. y. All that happens after the fight is one party member says that Id is strong (opinions may vary), but the outcome is treated more as inconclusive rather than as a loss. Both Id and the player's party remain standing, and then a third party interrupts. The Id fight is a weird case.

    For me, Trails of Cold Steel 2 is what I think of when it comes to story-based losses, as its final dungeon is a series of battles that the player can effortlessly win, yet the story strongly suggests that the player loses every single time. These fights are so easy that the player can literally win them before the boss even has a chance to attack. However, even after winning without taking damage, the player's party will be on their knees, panting with exhaustion and saying how hard the fight was, while the boss invariably stands up and says it's time to get serious. It's incredibly obnoxious, made all the worse due to both the lack of difficulty and the frequency with which it happens.

    Trails in the Sky 2, which I don't believe you've played, is also guilty of abusing the non-victory trope, so the Legend of Heroes franchise as a whole has a real problem with not letting players win fights. Ironically enough, though, the Japan-only Trails to Azure, another game in this franchise, actually features the best use of this trope that I've ever seen in any RPG. It has a boss that is legitimately hard to defeat even when abusing the battle system's dirtiest tactics, where winning is optional (otherwise, many players would get stuck at that point and drop the game), and the outcome of the fight, should the player win the battle, is acknowledged by the boss so that it feels like a victory...yet, without going into details, it still feels like a loss for another reason. That fight produces conflicted feelings in the player which really matches what happens in both the narrative and gameplay.

    Other thoughts on this trope: I think the game's scenario writers often want to have villains defeat the heroes, as that's a really common storytelling device in other media which is used to both motivate heroes to get stronger and hype up the bad guys (see "The Worf Effect" on TV Tropes for how this plot device can backfire in other media, too). However, I think this trope is much harder to implement in a video game than in a novel or movie; RPGs with turn-based combat are basically the best-suited genre of video game for this trope to be invoked (see Mega Man X for an example of an action game that manages to successfully use this trope), but even most RPGs fail to use this storytelling trope successfully because this trope almost always works in opposition to gameplay. The player wants to win fights, so either the game lets the player win but then says otherwise in the story (like in Xenogears and Trails of Cold Steel 2) or the game makes the battle impossible to win and the fight feels pointless (and this method happens in too many RPGs to count). Losing battle due to the story weakens the villains' impact, since it's hard to be intimidated by someone like Id after the player has already defeated him, but too many impossible battles defeats the purpose of having a game. It may as well just be a movie if all the events are scripted. The solutions for these issues seem simple enough (write better narratives and have better game design!), but those are more difficult in practice than they are in theory.

    1. Trails of Cold Steel 2 sounds utterly asinine. Sooner or later I'll doubtless play it, and I'm now mildly interested to know which game utterly discredited and hobbled its cast in the eyes of its player worse: this, or Xenosaga 3. I thought Xenosaga 3 would surely be the worst I'd ever see of this trope, but at least the latter game's many ineffectual boss battles actually require one to put in some effort to win. To win so easily as you describe and then turn out to have lost...well, Xenosaga 3 seems to actually have some competition for its incompetence in this field, at the very least. How terrifying.

      Good on Trails to Azure, at least. There ARE some few RPGs like that, which actually do account for player competence and accomplish what they want without having to give up on what they need to accomplish in that scene. Lufia 2, for example, allows for the unlikely but possible scenario that you'll beat Gades the first time you encounter him (and even rewards you for it), and although it's a bit hamfisted in its method, the fact that it bothers to do so is a breath of fresh air. And Chrono Trigger's first battle against Lavos can technically be won (even though he's actually more powerful there than at the end of the game), and the game's finale jumpstarted at that moment.

      Although, at the same time, those all are battles which allow for and even expect players to lose, so they're not exactly the same, I guess. In most cases of this trope, they're battles you're required to WIN before losing. So I dunno if they even really count.

      I'll give you that it's more difficult to pull off this scenario of a villain's victory in games, but "more difficult" isn't really an excuse for a writer. It's more difficult to make Chicken Cacciatore than it is to make Chicken Parmesan, but if I walk into an Italian restaurant, it's reasonable to expect both to be on the menu and the chef ready to prepare them. Absolute rigidity to their intended structure and an inability to think around obstacles isn't a good look on a writer.

      Also, I feel like scenarios such as this are a wasted opportunity for the gameplay side of an RPG. Instead of just showing off how high a villain's Power Level is like that complete hack Toriyama, why not introduce a new element of the battle system during this villain battle? Like, say, if you had a game like Final Fantasy 6, with the Esper magic stuff and all that jazz, you could have a moment in the game in which both the heroes and the villain couldn't score a good physical hit on each other, but the villain then wins the battle because he employs magic from his Esper infusion, so even though he and the heroes are evenly matched physically, he has a clear, threatening advantage thanks to being further advanced on the game's own mechanics. The villain can be shown to be a threat because he simply knows more about combat, not just because he inexplicably doesn't get hurt when you put an axe into his face. You could introduce a dangerous foe, show him to be an overwhelming threat, but avoid a lot of the frustration of making the heroes look weak to no benefit, instead emphasizing that they've got to grow in Skill instead of just Strength and Magical Plot Contrivance.

    2. I actually really like Trails of Cold Steel 2. The stupidity of fight outcomes is one of my biggest complaints with the game, though. As far as stupidity compared to Xenosaga 3 goes, Cold Steel 2 at least has being the second of four games in its defense, whereas Xenosaga 3 is the final game of its storyline, which makes protagonist incompetence a lot more frustrating. Personally, I want the characters I play as to win in the last act, unless there is a really good reason for them not to. In Trails of Cold Steel 2's case, the writers were saving some bad guys for future fights in later games, although it does make me ask: why bother? I'd generally rather see new villains, as it's hard to take any boss seriously the more times they're defeated in a game.

      And, yeah, I'd prefer to see developers experiment more with gameplay mechanics in RPGs, even if experimentation can lead to disastrous results (like the GF nonsense in Final Fantasy 8). Maybe the developer will learn from a mistake after an experiment (which is probably overly optimistic thinking, on my part) and make something better; unless the experiment fails terribly, I'd rather see something new or interesting than more of the same old again. In the best case scenario, the developers might come up with some mechanics that interest me, like the final bosses in Earthbound and Mother 3. As for learning skills to beat bosses, RPGs could easily incorporate that type of character growth into the narrative and combat. For instance, the party members cannot defeat the boss because they lack an "Armor Penetrate" skill, and later they can win the fight because the party learns said skill. While my example is not very inventive, it would add some cohesion to gameplay and narrative and perhaps make it more satisfying when the player later defeats the boss.

    3. I don't see why they couldn't have just had those bosses-who-would-be-seen-again still be defeated and then slink off. They're up against endgame-level heroes; what's the shame in losing then? Some other RPGs handle that situation similarly, and it seems fine. Baten Kaitos 2, a prequel to BK1, for example, includes a younger version of a major antagonist from BK1, and you do have to defeat him--but that never seemed to lessen his presence as a villain retroactively, only provide a new angle of interest with which to view him.

      Well, I actually personally wish developers would stop messing around with gameplay and keep things simple because most of the time they just make an already tedious process even more annoying with all these nuances, but since stupid gameplay experimentation seems to be an inescapable part of this genre's landscape, I was thinking of a scenario like what you describe, yes, to achieve the writers' needs for the Big Bad Villain without having to contradict the player's own efforts.

    4. Sometimes, the bosses end up defeated and slink off in Trails games. Trails of Cold Steel 2 just happens to have four series of boss fights in its final dungeon, but the characters don't win any of them until the final one. I find it difficult in some ways to compare what the Trails games do to other franchises, since most RPGs actually try to finish narratives in one game, even if the game is part of a larger narrative with continuity. The Trails games have far more continuity than any other RPG series I've played, which has some benefits, but the continuity also comes with drawbacks, like villains who rarely die.

      Also, it's not surprising that you wouldn't want gameplay experimentation, since you like saying that you don't even really like the interactive aspects of most RPGs. Personally, much as I enjoy seeing some new wrinkles in turn-based games, I have to admit there are things I wish developers would not experiment with. Mainly, I wish they would stop complicating the level-up, but I'm okay with the early experiments, in this regard. I'm not so okay with a recent game like Final Fantasy XV forcing the player to go camping or something stupid like that in order to level up.

  2. This is one of the more irritating things in RPGs for me, particularly when the game is happy to allow you to expend costly or similarly limited resources on a fight you can't win, with the competence of the unwinnable fight usually matching the competence of the writing.

    I appreciated the way Final Fantasy 9 handled this situation. You would battle for a while, with the pace of the fight being quite manageable, only to discover that the boss was holding back once they abruptly strike you down. What's more, they go up against you three times, building up a sense of dread when they show up. That their first encounter is the final boss of disc 1 really sets an ominous tone for the story in a way I don't see many games commit to.

    1. As ever, FF9 remains at the height of all things RPG.

    2. The unwinnable fight that seems winnable at first can definitely be a worst-case scenario, as that can lead to much wasting of items.

      In Final Fantasy IX, I mostly recall being annoyed at some of those unwinnable fights, not because of the mechanics but because the timed nature meant that I couldn't steal all of the boss's items. I believe I've restarted the first Beatrix fight a couple of times because I really wanted to steal her loot.

    3. Fair point about the loot. I tend to forget about tedious Steal scenarios besides the Fairy Flute.

      When I first fought the boss, it didn't feel too challenging, so I wasn't pressured into using many items in the way that "unwinnable by brute force/infinite HP/post-battle cutscene can", though it's been since release year for me, so I may be misremembering things. The lack of a dedicated healer is notable, to say the least.