Is There Value in a Game You Can’t Win?

Is there though?

Until recently I’d taken the idea of winning a game for granted. So many games feature a win state and the point of the game is to achieve said state. Even games not explicitly about winning let you do this. For example: narrative driven walking sims let players make it to the end, thus fulfilling said game’s win condition. Winning is such a foundational part of how most games are created that when I recently encountered a game where I couldn’t always win it really rubbed me up the wrong way.

But what does that say about me as a player, or the game’s overall design?

For context, I originally spun into this rabbit hole of games being winnable thanks to Ring of Pain. Some of you may remember I did an impression collaboration earlier this year for the game. It finally released and I decided to pick it up and continue playing. While my initial impressions were positive, getting to play the full game revealed aspects of it that weren’t apparent during the demo.

Like in so many other games I’ve played, Ring of Pain’s dungeons are procedurally generated. Given Ring of Pain is another rogue-like this is par for the course. What isn’t par for the course, however, is that a run may be unwinnable. Every single move made could be the correct one with everything working in the player’s favour, but victory may be impossible to achieve. That’s what I mean by unwinnable. I mean the game can’t be won by any combination of actions from the player.

Running into these checkmate scenarios can be fairly frustrating. If you make all of the correct moves and still lose there is nothing for you to learn for future runs. By featuring unwinnable runs, Ring of Pain discards one of the core aspects that makes rogue-likes so enjoyable: mastery from repeated practice. In a lot of ways I’m reminded of my time playing Dicey Dungeons from earlier this year.

What’s more, in theory, this exact same problem exists in both Slay the Spire and Monster Train. Due to the random nature of both of these games they can also create checkmate scenarios for players to stumble into. In fact, any card game that makes use of the rogue-like format would have this problem as testing all possible outputs from the scenario generator is impossible. So why do I enjoy the aforementioned games more than Ring of Pain?

For starters, both Slay the Spire and Monster Train let you feel a degree of control through meaningful decision making. Players constantly decide which cards to draft, remove, or skip while creating their deck alongside smaller decisions such as which cards to spend a limited number of upgrades on. Plus, deciding which risks are worth taking and when those risks make the most sense to pursue plays a huge factor in any given run’s success. Allowing players to control these aspects of the game lets them take ownership of their failure, even if it was preordained.

By contrast, I feel as though Ring of Pain doesn’t possess this benefit. Decisions feel meaningless in the grand scheme of things. For example, many stat boosting items are cursed having a chance to drain a significant portion of your HP instead of increasing a stat, which adds a risk-reward element to using them. However, electing to go without these stat boosts will almost certainly prove fatal when you arrive underpowered for later stages of the dungeon. In this way there really isn’t a decision: you either take the risks for the necessary stat boosts, or you avoid them until you perish.

Similarly, equipment doesn’t feel like it contributes to meaningful decision making. In almost all cases if you find a piece of equipment you will want to take it. Even pieces with negative drawbacks provide enough positives to outweigh the negatives. Thus the only time you have to make a decision about equipment is when you’re replacing an existing piece of it with something new. This scenario doesn’t manifest often and when it does the new equipment is usually much stronger, owing to it appearing later in a run, so choosing to swap doesn’t register as a meaningful decision either.

Speaking of, equipment availability in Ring of Pain is the cause I attribute most of my failure toward. In Slay the Spire and Monster Train throughout a run players are given numerous opportunities to draft new cards. After every combat encounter, during certain events, and while visiting shops (in Spire only) players can augment their deck to better their odds of success. Opportunities are consistent and plentiful across the whole of a run meaning players are always making meaningful decisions right up until the final boss.

However, in Ring of Pain players can be given a run where they won’t find equipment fast enough to mitigate failure. For anyone who has played Slay the Spire, can you imagine playing through the whole of the first act while only being allowed to draft two cards versus the normal five to ten? That’s how some of my runs in Ring of Pain felt. The lack of equipment availability is especially apparent when the first floor of the dungeon doesn’t spawn any equipment drops, which by all accounts starts the player off with a crippling disadvantage that they had no control over.

The other aspect that both Spire and Monster Train have over Ring of Pain is incremental difficulty. The former games are almost entirely winnable with one hundred percent certainty on lower difficulties. Runs that are unwinnable only come up as the wiggle room for mistakes is reduced as a natural consequence of increased difficulty. This means that only the most hardcore of players are likely to run into these scenarios and will do so after the game has already proven a compelling experience, which isn’t necessarily true for Ring of Pain.

So returning to my original question: is there value in a game you can’t win? Can a game still be engaging even if you can play it perfectly and still lose because of circumstances outside of your control?

The short answer is yes, but the level of fun is subject to change based on who you ask. For me personally, I had a spot of fun with Ring of Pain, but once the new game smell wore off I didn’t feel a need to return to it. I don’t feel like there is more to learn and the challenges I bested felt like I did so entirely because of factors outside of my control. Simply returning to see content I haven’t yet encountered isn’t a compelling enough reason for me to throw myself into the grinder again.

12 thoughts on “Is There Value in a Game You Can’t Win?

  1. If I were to pick between games where you can’t or a game where you can’t lose…

    Then I will always go for the game where you can’t win, as you at the very least are playing against yourself in getting closer to the end goal.

    While games where you can’t lose offers nothing of the sort, in many ways it’s a case of hard thought defeat vs an empty victory.

    Now knowing you inner battle against grinding might be what turns you off from playing it again a bit more….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “A game where you can’t lose”. Isn’t that technically every video game? You die, big deal. Reload your last save or the last checkpoint. You haven’t “lost” the game, you just lost a bit of time. I remember that Prince of Persia (2008) got a lot of flack because any time the Prince died, Elika was there to save him, putting him back at the last bit of solid ground or reviving him at an earlier part of the fight.

      But what’s the actual difference to a Game Over Screen? Nothing. It’s even better, as you don’t lose as much time and progress. In the end, I think it boils down to how it’s presented. In a traditional Game Over, that’s what the game tells you: that was the wrong input, try again. Whereas in games like PoP it can come across as handholding (“Awww, little baby made a mistake? Here, let me get that for you…”). It’s all in the mind of the player.

      Even with roguelikes, where Permadeath is a thing, you don’t really lose. Sure, this particular run may be over, but the game as a whole is meant to be multiple runs. In many cases, it’s even part of the narrative!

      Obviously, it’s a bit different for literally unwinnable levels, as mentioned in the post. Up to a point, you can learn from those unwinnable games, but not for very long, and never more than with a properly designed level. Most of these types of games have a rather low skill floor, but a pretty high skill ceiling. The complex strategies most often only really develop over the long run (saving vital hit points/retaining strong cooldowns/sacrificing one thing for a later benefit). If you get blocked in a random level, you will not see if your strategy will work in the end.

      On the other hand, if you cannot lose (or what you rather meant, if it is so easy that it is only possible to reach a failstate on purpose), it is not necessary to dive deep into the mechanics and try out new strategies. Why take fun risks when you can just spam Fireball?

      But in this case, it is no longer a question of unwinnable vs unloseable, but a question of difficulty, which is another topic completely. Also, since wer’re talking about winning, losing, and games: All of you have just lost “the game”. You’re welcome.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah I can see that wording it as losing or winning might make it unclear what is meant.

        But you got it and helped build on it.

        So for that thank you friend 😊

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I don’t have anything additional to add after Quietschisto’s response, but I will nod in agreement as to my apprehension for grinding being a major factor in deciding what I will and won’t tolerate.

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    1. I understand what you’re getting at and I think you can. Setting your own personal goals and working toward them, to my mind, would be “winning”. Obviously that is something that you, as a player, do on your own independent of the game, so it goes a bit beyond the scope of what I’ve highlighted here. Though, I suppose that as long as games provide something for players to reach out for then they can always continue to “win”.

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  2. Before I read the article: The *entire* genre of competitive games sends their regards 🙂 In all competitive games, I’m all for fighting until the end, for multiple reasons. 1) Even when you lose, you learn something, you get better at the game. 2) Assuming you can’t win any longer happens way to fast. You can always win, up until seconds before the “You Lost” screen.

    It’s a bit different for single-player games, of course. Normally, losing means that achieved a non-desireable outcome, as in “you done fucked up, boii”. You restart and/or load a save file, carry on and win eventually. However, maneuvring into an unwinnable state and still playing out until you get the Game Over screen can have value. For example, some games feature funny/cool Game Over screens. Or, it can give you a deep sense of satisfaction, sending a message (to yourself) of determination. Also, a lot of the time, unwinnable states are not as unwinnable as we thought. Sure, facetanking three hits on a Dark-Souls-Boss might not be the top strategy, but as long as you are not dead, you theoretically have a chance. It is now up to you to give your best until the end and learn something, or say “Meh, guess it’s time to reload”.

    Lastly, at least for me, it’s kind of my way of saying “okay, you got me”, and even if I know that my next move will inevitably lead me to my death, I still make that move.

    Okay, I have read the post now. Boy, did I miss the point. In short, I agree: Unwinnable level-layouts from the get-go suck balls, it’s kind of like removing the level exit in a regular game…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I laughed (yes out loud) at your comment.

      You remedied things in the final bit, but by answering the question in the title without first reading what I’d written most of what’s here is way off base. Still though – my fault for asking a question in the title. 😛

      Like

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