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.