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“The point of no return”

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TL,DR: "The Point of No Return" moments suck because from there on you know player agency is going downhill and the tone is going to get dark.

I hit this message yesterday in The Witcher 3 (note: haven't played it before, and still haven't finished it as of posting this, so y'know… spoiler your comments please if you choose to talk about it.) Also I finished Enderal fairly recently, and played the shit out of the Mass Effect series in the past, and those games make use of this technique (either implicitly or explicitly.) Anyway, it's definitely a thing, and I hate it, so I've been thinking about why I dislike it so much. Wanted to lay out my thoughts, hear whether you guys have the same kind of reaction to it that I do, if you agree with my explanation for why games do it, whether you see parallels in other media, and if you can think of games that confront the same situation that might trigger doing it (see below), but find another way. Or any other thoughts, obv.

First, just to get this out of the way: I'm not saying like "ugh, I really hate how this pop up breaks my immersion." Games have all kinds of non-diegetic stuff, and this seems like a minor sin when RPGs already have you browsing around in menus and choosing your stats and stuff.

Okay, so why do games do this? I think that fundamentally it's to warn players that their expectations about game systems and gameplay parameters are about to be undermined. Developers recognize that over the course of playing a game/game genre, we come to expect that these parameters will be relatively consistent and stable – or that when they change, it's in the direction of more player agency. To use a familiar reference: it's frustrating when you lose control of your character in a cutscene and have your ass handed to you by the game's antagonist, even though you've been steamrolling everything for the last 50 hours.

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This line of thinking gets me to the first reason I dislike The Point of No Return. It's like the unbeatable cut scene thing, but instead of a singular spike, it's like the whole game is put on a low simmer version of that problem: instead of being locked out of controlling things for this one fight, you'll just have companions die / side quests become inaccessible / lose access to your home base / no longer able to utilize new loot you find or get to a vendor / etc. (and maybe all that on top of being locked out of control for a few cutscenes.) In short: your agency is about to be sacrificed on the altar of The Ending. To a varying extent, the focus is going to switch from prioritizing gameplay to prioritizing narrative in order to get there.

This hints to the second thing that kinda just sucks about The Point of No Return: beyond this waning of choice and agency, there's also just the simple fact that because it coincides with the end of a game, you know you're done with the freedom and optimistic tone that typically characterize the exploratory/growth period of the early- and mid-game. You know that you're in for all those cliche tropes like you can never go home again and your mentors are all dead and stuff. In short: you know when you get this message that it's going to get darker. Plus, if the game has been good (and especially if it sticks the landing), there's going to be that feeling of "oh, I'm gonna miss this experience."

There are games that seem to avoid this pressure, and I'm not exactly sure what they have in common. Elder Scrolls games, for example, have an endlessly upward trajectory; there's no "point of no return" moment where you're locked out and things get sad – just an endless fantasy power trip. It's much easier to find examples outside of the RPG genre – but maybe that's because the same narrative pressures don't exist. Like Dwarf Fortress manages to have "endings," but the narratives there are so different from the Campbell-style plots of most RPGs that it's hard to draw parallels. Or like Journey has a kind of "story" to it, but the gameplay is so locked down they don't need to turn your agency down to force the ending.

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