Video games that leave you with less and less
October 10, 2013 8:51 AM   Subscribe

What are video games in which your decisions rob you of resources or options, leaving you with fewer and fewer possibilities as the game goes on?

I'm writing about the nature of options in video games today, specifically about how too many options can lead to a player's having too much power and thus getting bored with the game. I'd like to cite games which work the opposite way: the choices you make hedge you into a certain path, until ultimately the end of a game has to do as much with the choices you denied yourself as it does with the choices you took.

Obviously strategy games fit this bill, and chess is maybe the quintessential example in games period. But I'm looking for games which do this in other genres, and specifically games which, in doing this, make you reallythink about what you're doing, and ask yourself about why you're making the choices that you are.

A short and simple version of what I'm looking for is Jason Rohrer's Gravitation, in which depending how you play, your character suffers or doesn't suffer a horrible loss.
posted by Rory Marinich to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Heavy Rain does this. From wikipedia:

"The game is a film noir thriller, featuring four diverse protagonists involved with the mystery of the Origami Killer, a serial killer who uses extended periods of rainfall to drown his victims. The player interacts with the game by performing actions highlighted on screen related to motions on the controller, and in some cases, performing a series of quick time events during fast-paced action sequences. The player's decisions and actions during the game will affect the narrative. The main characters can be killed, and certain actions may lead to different scenes and endings."
posted by Strass at 9:00 AM on October 10, 2013

Response by poster: Hmm. I'm not a fan of Heavy Rain, but you're right—it does just this.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:01 AM on October 10, 2013

Also, any dating simulator game (theoretically also stuff like Mass Effect where certain interactions can either lead to a sex scene or can deny them from ever happening)

I think KotOR also had some choices like this. Certain companions in your party were mutually exclusive and altered the ending.
posted by Strass at 9:02 AM on October 10, 2013

Best answer: TVTropes: Story Branching.
posted by zamboni at 9:10 AM on October 10, 2013

Best answer: Most deckbuilding games (e.g. Ascension, Dominion) do this. You start out by buying the cards you think will put you in a good position later, and the focus of the game gradually shifts from building to execution.

Agricola is similar – you decide what you want to invest in (plowing fields, building hearths, giving birth to additional family members), and at a point, it's just not possible to do certain things because of the path along the "tech tree" that you walked.

Quite a few boardgame conversions probably fit the bill.
posted by ignignokt at 9:10 AM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: ignignokt: I've already got Dominion in my chapter! That game was a big influence when I was still drafting this thing a year or two ago.

zamboni: oh. my. god. This is perfect. Thank you thank you thank you.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:11 AM on October 10, 2013

The Walking Dead video game?

"The story is affected by both the dialogue choices of the player and their actions during quick time events, which can often lead to, for example, certain characters being killed, or an adverse change in the disposition of a certain character or characters towards Lee. The choices made by the player carry over from episode to episode."
posted by wsquared at 9:11 AM on October 10, 2013

Fire Emblem games. I almost cried when I lost one of my best archers.
posted by Strass at 9:13 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Star Wars: The Old Republic does this with the companion story lines. It impacts their behavior in certain points of the game and also gives you optional quests. Since it's a MMORPG it might not quite fit your criteria.

Of course, the first Bioshock incorporates the effects of "harvest" or "rescue" the little sisters must better than subsequent games.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:16 AM on October 10, 2013

Dragon Age. The decisions you make about the characters in your party affect their participation (and in some cases, their actual presence) in the later stages of the game. Also, the epilogue with it's "where are they now" wrap up changes dramatically depending on your choices.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:20 AM on October 10, 2013

Response by poster: While all these recommendations are quite on the mark, let me refine what I'm looking for a bit. I'm not looking for "decisions that affect the outcome", or even just for decisions that branch a story. What I'm trying to find are games in which certain gameplay moves you make limit your ability to make choices in the future. Less of a "this story changed" and more of a "the nature of the game I'm playing changed".

I think Strass's Fire Emblem example comes closest, but even that's probably too diluted an instance of what I'm looking for, because Fire Emblem's gameplay exists within one pretty well-defined genre of play. Games in which, because of things that happened, you have to change your entire method of playing them, are few and far between—which is why I'm having trouble coming up with examples of them.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2013

How about Spore?

Are there any stealth games where you have to change your whole playstyle after you're detected? Maybe Thief?

In Contra, your playstyle changed drastically depending on which weapon modifier you picked up. And once you picked one up you couldn't get your old one back unless you found it again. AKA once I lost the homing bullets it was game over.

Any side scroller where you can't go towards the left side of the screen, blocking off options/powerups.
posted by Strass at 9:35 AM on October 10, 2013

Mod note: OP, dont threadsit.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2013

Fallout 3 is sort of like this -- the notion of skills, karma, and decisions (blow up Megaton?) affect both the story and how you play the game.
posted by starman at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

This isn't answering your question, but it's related, in a way. I know nothing about video games, but recently read the story story "Navigators" by Mike Meginnis. It's about a father and a son who play a video game (the fictitious Legend of Silence) wherein the character, a princess, loses power the longer the game is played. If she uses her sword, it breaks. She "wins" sunglasses and when she puts them on, the screen goes dark, so she has to fumble around in blackness, etc. (It's a good story, and the game is really well described in it. You may want to check it out.) Meginnis later said the game was loosely based (inversely based, I guess) on the game Metroid.
posted by dearwassily at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

What about RPGs with "Skill Trees", like Final Fantasy X (there are certainly others, probably even better examples as the FFX skill trees didn't have a lot of branches). The plot of the game itself doesn't change, but character development depended on where you chose to spend your resources, and choosing one branch effectively closed others.
posted by muddgirl at 9:50 AM on October 10, 2013

OK, so I haven't played it yet, but maybe Papers, Please? The gameplay changes, apparently, as your country's relationship to its neighbors evolve. And since it looks like you have some say in whether terrorists from other countries enter or not, you affect these relations. Maybe this is an example of choice changing the nature of the game?
posted by middlethird at 9:52 AM on October 10, 2013

The first thing that came to mind was Fable. It's an RPG for the Xbox that allowed your smaller actions to define your characters alignment as either good or evil. Certain paths were unavailable to you based upon the decisions you made earlier in the game.
posted by BrianJ at 9:53 AM on October 10, 2013

On the subject of skill or tech trees, Bethesda RPGs are known for this. I think they actually tried to keep choices (both in leveling and story decisions) more open in Skyrim, which made the game more fun to explore (you couldn't accidentally make bad choices that couldn't be reversed) but also made progress seem kind of meaningless.

League of Legends/DOTA/etc. and RTSs do this over the course of a single match rather than a long narrative, but it's a huge part of strategy in those kinds of games.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:54 AM on October 10, 2013

Tetris! Seconding Fire Emblem.. loosing a troop was a MAJOR deal depending on the troop and style of game play. I suppose there are also some games where you can chose not to recruit any of the power troops for a self handicap.
posted by Jacen at 10:12 AM on October 10, 2013

Best answer: In the vein of Fire Emblem, the new X-Com in Ironman Mode really struck me to the core with the weight of my actions, and how even a little misstep could potentially close off previously viable options, and even ruin dozens of hours of my game in one stroke. If you don't know, Ironman Mode essentially gives the game a roguelike inability to reload - the game is instantly and permanently saved with every action you take. This means a typical scenario could result in your carelessly stepping out from under cover, leading to the enemy taking advantage, and the extermination of several VIP soldiers who have been carefully leveled up for hours and whom you've grown to depend on. That's only one of many aspects in which your choices instantly cut you off. I've had to restart the game multiple times because countries removed my funding, entire continents have been invaded due to my neglect and lack of budget, weak ships being unable to strike down UFOs, and new and harder enemies being close to impossible with my weak newbie recruits (since my important guys were dead.) And that was on easy difficulty.

If any current strategy game could be considered roguelike survival horror, I'd nominate X-Com.
posted by naju at 10:25 AM on October 10, 2013

Speaking of roguelikes: About halfway through any game of NetHack you're given a quest, during which you receive two items that you need to finish the game. If you've changed your alignment (lawful/neutral/chaotic), you won't be allowed to begin the quest; likewise if you anger or kill the NPC who gives you the quest.

There's also no turning back once you begin the endgame: whatever gear you take into the Elemental Planes is all you'll have. Building an "ascension kit" that equips you for this stage is a key part of NetHack strategy, and failing to have the appropriate items (a way to dig through the Plane of Earth, fly through the Plane of Air, cross the Plane of Water without drowning...) can make it impossible to complete.

Failure to prepare for encounters earlier in the game can screw you, too, perhaps most notably the confrontation with Medusa, whose gaze can turn you to stone. Fortunately, this being NetHack, there are all kinds of ways to deal with this: wear a blindfold or a towel over your head, drink a potion of blindness, polymorph into a stoning-resistant or eyeless creature, equip a reflective shield or amulet and stone her first....
posted by Zozo at 10:30 AM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of competitive multiplayer video games have this aspect to them, but only for the losing side. It's probably most clear-cut in something like DotA 2 or League of Legends, where making poor choices at the beginning of the game can mean you're restricted to spending all your money on basic health/armor items, even if those aren't what you would normally have bought, because without them you'll just die instantly. But it's there in something like street fighter, too, where if you're backed into the corner with very low life your options are drastically limited compared to what they were at the beginning of the round (because you can no longer block without dying to chip damage).
posted by a birds at 10:35 AM on October 10, 2013

Best answer: The game Persona 4 takes place over the course of a Japanese school year. You have to spend your time wisely (earning money v. developing skills v. progressing the story) and certain activities are only allowed during certain times of the day. It came out for the PS2 in 2008. (Yes, the PS2... two years after the PS3 was released!)

A lot of interactive fiction games are very much like this. In addition to actual old-school IF, you can check out multiple choice adventure games such as the stuff by ChoiceOfGames or the digitized Lone Wolf books.

There's also Masq, which plays like an adventure game and a comic and you're TIMED. Interesting, at the very least.

Not sure if these examples change the way you play the game, but the storyline choices are an integral part of the gameplay.

Good question!
posted by yaymukund at 10:39 AM on October 10, 2013

certain gameplay moves you make limit your ability to make choices in the future

As someone mentioned above, anything with permanent skill trees would fit the bill I think. Classic Diablo II is the first thing that comes to mind, and I think Path of Exile still doesn't allow respecs. (It's also why I can't play those kinds of games -- choice anxiety!)
posted by jess at 10:40 AM on October 10, 2013

Fallout: New Vegas, because of the multiple factions. Things you do can massively restrict your options.
posted by jbickers at 10:51 AM on October 10, 2013

Warning Forever is a 2D "boss-only" shooter in which the current level is based on how you defeated the previous one. You have to modify your strategy every few levels, or it gets difficult quickly.
posted by stobor at 11:01 AM on October 10, 2013

You mention chess and strategy games (Civ, as a proxy for 4x games in general) for which this is a core mechanic. That's an interesting pair, because I think limitations are different between the two. Chess is a game defined by units and zones of threat. Civ takes from that but is also strongly influenced by go: zones of control are really imporantant too. Civ is a game, more so than chess, of control of an inhomogeneous geography. In chess, the board becomes less controlled as the game goes on and fewer pieces can exert threat, however in Civ, like go, end-games are characterized by hghly-structured, limited geography.

Sim-games and "god" games frequently use the same mechanic. Simcity, for instance, has increasing options for building with increasing money and population, but the player is increasingly limited by consumption of free space as the game goes on. Neighbourhoods can't sprawl forever and you might not be able to build a new airport near the population ceiling without demolishing an industrial park.

"God" games, like Populus, are somewhere between 4x's and sims: limits may increasingly come from mixing with other tribes and conflict, but ultimately options are limited by reductions in complexity of the play map.
posted by bonehead at 11:07 AM on October 10, 2013

it's harder to find, but Ar tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica does this. At one point in the game you have to chose to help one of the two romantic interests over the other and in doing so you lose all ability to keep pursuing the other girl romantically.

The way she (spurned girl) interacts with you changes, you're locked out of a deeper part of her story, etc.

All the Ar Tonelcio games do this, to be honest.. but the second game as the biggest "you can't go back" jump.
posted by royalsong at 11:12 AM on October 10, 2013

ZombieU and Don't Starve. While you can gather resources and come become good at it, they are constantly spent to survive the game.
posted by GiveUpNed at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2013

Strass already mentioned Mass Effect, but it goes way beyond romance options; player decisions affect all three games in the presence or absence of squad members (NPCs that the player can use in combat).


In the first Mass Effect game, on one mission, you have to decide which of two squad members will live or die. It's not a trivial choice, as they have very different power/ability sets. Throughout ME2, you recruit squad members and perform "loyalty" missions that will affect whether or not they survive the final mission; you can also choose not to recruit some squad members. (For that matter--and many ME players don't know this--you can choose not to recruit Garrus Vakarian, one of the more popular squad members, in ME1.) Other factors and decisions in the game influence whether a particular squad member survives the end.

A lot of these decisions and many others come to a head in ME3; the overall Effective Military Strength score, which affects which endings you can choose, is made up of a number of things, including whether or not you completed some relatively minor missions during the first two games. As with ME2, some of these choices will affect whether a particular character or squad member lives or dies, and in some cases (*ahem*) people have gone back and replayed a substantial portion, or all, of the game trilogy in order to get a better outcome.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:17 PM on October 10, 2013

Best answer: Everyone seems to be focusing on the games where making choices affects the range of outcomes. That describes pretty much any game where you have to make a choice of any kind.

I guess I'm reading the question a little differently, in a way that makes it more interesting for me. Take a Zelda game, where over the course of the game you acquire more and more tools and abilities, and more and more of the world opens up to you.

Now imagine a Zelda game in reverse. You start out with every item in the game and have to replace them in each temple, losing them one by one. You go to the Wind Temple and return the slingshot, to the Water Temple and return the grappling hook, whatever.

This is a very different game! It would be interesting to find out what creative opportunities this design makes possible.

My canonical answer to this question is Superbrothers: S&S. Your character loses health as the game progresses. It's not a matter of story choices, it's just how the game works. It would be a different and less interesting game if you just "gained levels" as the game went along.
posted by Nomyte at 2:46 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

It was mentioned earlier by Comrade_robot but just in case it got lost in the shuffle, I'm seconding FTL: Faster Than Light. It's all about limited time, limited resources and choices with consequences as you try to stay one step ahead of your enemies.
posted by cali59 at 3:55 PM on October 10, 2013

Response by poster: nomyte: That is EXACTLY the sort of game that I'm looking for. "Zelda in reverse" is a perfect description.

I haven't played S&S all the way through, I guess because I got to a point where I was wondering what the hell the game could possibly do next. Now I know, and I think I'll have to do a full playthrough of that game before I write my second draft.

Hopefully my nitpicking of the answers here isn't coming off as ungrateful: a lot of the games mentioned here are ones that I haven't played at all, and I will try my best to get through the ones I don't know much about so I can see if they'll help me write my piece. Where I'm at in my writing is basically that I know the argument I'm making, and I have fewer examples of the sort of game I mean than I'd like to have in order to keep things feeling fun and non-abstract.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:47 PM on October 10, 2013

This is a pretty common gameplay element in boss fights, especially at the end of games -- in Metroid Prime (I think it was), for instance, your special abilities slowly diminish over the course of the final fight. It's also the mechanic that makes sequels work, again (among other places) in the Metroid series; at the start of every game the character's super-suit is damaged and all the abilities she'd previously gained are destroyed. (But the sequel then resumes a logic of increasing ability.)

I think you're definitely on to something, though, that this is a relatively rare game mechanic. Like many of its cousins in geek culture -- science fiction, D&D, etc -- video games are typically participating in a fantasy of mastery. You just don't see a ton of games that work the other way, where you get less and less skilled as time goes on. It's especially rare, I think, to see it as the core game mechanic.

Some other TV Tropes pages that might jog something:

Difficulty Spike
Fake Difficulty
Unexpected Gameplay Change
No-Gear Level

One last thought: Go is like this in a somewhat different way than chess is. In Go, early moves have a ton of power and amass a lot of territory, while moves in the end game are generally squabbling over one or two points at the margins...
posted by gerryblog at 7:10 PM on October 10, 2013

The nuclear wargame DefCon does this. Not only is it highly strategic with limited resources and time to deploy them, but the endgame (and hauntingly minimal effects) really rub your face in the fact that even a skillful strategy ends in the deaths of millions of innocents.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:23 PM on October 10, 2013

A lot of folks have mentioned FTL; FTL is sort of rogue-like in that there are two countervailing trends, one of gaining equipment/experience/mastery as the game progresses, and the other trend of having less available time/resources/options. The trick to winning those games is just to keep the trends out of balance in your favor. It's certainly possible in a lot of those games to do nothing but lose resources the whole way but it's not really expected and you're gonna be totally screwed by the end. Not exactly what Rory was looking for, I think.

It doesn't quite perfectly fit, but I actually thought of Half-Life 2 (just the base game, not the episodes). While you acquire an inventory of weaponry over the course of the game, at the very end of it, you're stripped of everything except the Gravity Gun and the gameplay of that end portion of the game changes pretty significantly.
posted by mstokes650 at 9:43 PM on October 10, 2013

Response by poster: I plan to use Half-Life 2 in my chapter already! Mainly for the way in which its earlier stages deprive you of weapons and ammo altogether, so that for the first leg of the way every bullet you fire might deprive you of the ability to kill a fenced-off enemy later on.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:09 PM on October 10, 2013

I recall a term like "resource expenditure games" from back in the days of computer bulletin boards, but a quick Google suggests that isn't it.

One game that does this is Kerbal Space Program - you build your rocket and go to do your thing (fly to the moon, land on their version of Mars, etc.) and you can either be very efficient with your gravity turns and transfer orbits, or you can run out of fuel about half way down and crash. Should have gone with more fuel, less mass or better piloting.

Another example that isn't what your asking for but kind of dances with what you describe is the base sequences of X-Com. Resources are doled out in drabs and dribs and you constantly have to balance between an immediate tactical advantage vs. building up your infrastructure to give you more resources later and a long term strategic advantage. Plow all your funds into being successful in the field early on, and you'll never have enough funding to survive the end, but plow everything into the strategic side of things and the aliens will eat your face in the field.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:26 PM on October 10, 2013

Resident Evil (and its sequels) come to mind. The game severely limits the amount of ammunition available to the player, and ammo never respawns. In the early stages, ammo is relatively plentiful and you can kill most enemies easily. But if you use too many bullets early on, you'll find that later encounters are impossible or must be performed using stealth, secondary attacks, etc. Health potions and herbs were also limited and finite in the same way, and could be stockpiled for future use.

In addition, the meta-game of saving your place and restoring is limited because you need an ink ribbon to save. So deciding exactly when to use your saves was its own bit of strategy. Finally, even thought health and ammo didn't respawn, the bad guys did. So if you were stuck on a puzzle, you couldn't just wander around looking for clues and ideas until you stumbled on something, because even your movement was taxed by taking away ammunition and health; this was also a resource that had to be conserved, and you needed to minimize backtracking.

The game did give you "power-ups" as you went, in the form of bigger guns, so your options did increase from time to time. But overall the game gave a feeling of relative ease early on, followed by much harder choices as your spent your resources.
posted by bbuda at 11:30 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Halloween Jack's description on the Mass Effect series is pretty comprehensive and I'd agree that it seems to line up with what you're looking for. I'd like to add that the choices you make are subtly presented and deliberately opaque in places...

For example, the game gives you the option...sort of in passing...of buying some upgrades for your ship. Totally optional, and not focused on as a plot point.

But if you don't buy one of them, a crewmember dies. If you don't buy another one, someone else dies.

Further, in ME:2, when it opens up a particular mission to you, you don't have to go on the mission right away. It allows you to power up and build some capabilities before you go. But it doesn't tell you or even ALLUDE to the fact that if you don't go within in a certain time period, a significant character will definitely die in a pretty horrible way. And THAT has an effect on 3-4 plot points in ME:3.
posted by Thistledown at 5:35 AM on October 11, 2013

There's a game called Kudos 2 which is essentially built around this principle. You are living the life of a young man or woman, and you have to choose what career to go into, what to do in the evenings, and which friendships to maintain - if you clean your house, you get healthier, but you feel lonelier; if you take the bus home, you get there quicker, but you spend money and get less exercise; if you take an evening class in Medicine, you don't have the time or money to do law; if you spend all your time with George, then Fred stops wanting to be invited out. It's more of a life sim than the games described above, but you do get the feeling of having to weigh every decision.
posted by mippy at 6:29 AM on October 11, 2013

I know Nethack's already been mentioned, but you should specifically check out its system of official and unofficial conducts. They can be fiendishly difficult and they're entirely self-imposed.
posted by yaymukund at 10:46 AM on October 11, 2013

« Older How to accept non-exclusivity in a new dating...   |   We're totally going to eat these if you don't stop... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.