In Praise of the Nonstandard Game Over

Content warning: This post contains multiple links to TV Tropes, (including that one!). TV Tropes is a known time-suck and rabid destroyer of productivity. Click at your own peril—you have been warned.

A ton of games use But Thou Must when I think they’d be much better served by a Nonstandard Game Over.

This post is going to 1) explain what in the world that means; 2) provide some examples of particularly awful But Thou Musts; and 3) provide my analysis of why Nonstandard Game Overs are a better—and underused—solution.

First: defining our terms. But Thou Must is when a game presents the player-character with a choice, but doesn’t give the player a real choice at all. The most egregious form of this is when your character is asked a question that seems like you could answer it either way but you (the player) are only given one answer. Example:

KING: Will you venture through the Swamp of Unpleasant Odors, fight the Ogre of Unreasonable Difficulty, and retrieve the Plot Coupon I desire?

PLAYER’S   RESPONSES (pick one):
1) Gladly!
2) If you ask it of me sire, then yes.
3) That sound awful, necessary; I agree.
4) So long as you pay up on the reward we discussed, I’ll do it.

It’s not always quite that obvious, but I’m including any time the character should be able to say “no” but the game doesn’t let the player actually do so

In contrast, a Nonstandard Game Over is when the game will let the player take a certain course of action—but doing so ends the playable part of the game or makes the game unwinnable or not completable in the way the designers intended. There aren’t a ton of examples of games doing this in exactly the way I’m talking about, but Morrowind comes close. The game lets you kill off important characters, but if you kill off someone essential to the main quest, it will give you a message that says, “With this character’s death, the thread of prophecy is severed. Restore a saved game to restore the weave of fate, or persist in the doomed world you have created.”

With that jargon defined, here are several examples of games using But Thou Musts where I think using a Nonstandard Game Over would have been better. (Bioware is a particularly notable offender, and their games show up multiple times on this list. But they’re definitely not the only ones.)

Examples

Knights of the Old Republic

Your character is offered the highly unusual chance to be trained as a jedi as an adult. In game, this is presented as a risky, controversial option. And many more cowardly characters wouldn’t be up for the risk and attention it would draw. On the other hand, the entire game (Knights of the Old Republic) is premised on you becoming a Jedi Knight; the plot of the game wouldn’t work at all if you could actually refuse. The game handles this by not letting you refuse—no matter what dialogue option you pick, you’re getting trained to be a jedi.

Jade Empire

What the game did:
The player character trains in a small town for most of their life under the tutelage of a martial-arts master. A band of assassins show up, burn the town to the ground, and kidnap that master. The player character has to decide what to do; these assassins are very powerful and don’t have anything against the player character (or even know that they exist). The only option the player has is to pursue the assassins to the heart of the empire and attempt to rescue their master.

Dragon Age

What the game did:
Dragon Age is absolutely full of these. In the interest of not being any more repetitive than necessary, I’ll just talk about two: 1) when playing as a mage, the player-character is given the choice to go through the “harrowing,” which lives up to its name—it’s a very dangerous ritual that can and does kill people all the time. Or they can refuse, as many people do, and become “tranquil”—a mage that has been stripped of magic and emotion. The player meets many of these characters in the game, and choosing this option doesn’t seem that rare. Except that the player isn’t allowed to choose this option.

2) Dwarf Noble characters are caught up in political drama and are banished to the Deep Roads (a series of tunnels full of the evil Darkspawn invading the land). This is supposed to be a death sentence: you are supposed to go as far into the Deep Roads as you can, killing Darkspawn until you die. It’s stated that this is the honorable course of action, and implied that others have been banished and have killed many Darkspawn, helping keep the population down. The player, however, runs into a group of humans who offer to take them up to the surface. The player cannot refuse this offer.

Deus Ex

What the game did:
The player-character works for UNATCO (the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition) and spends the first part of the game fighting against a supposed terrorist organization. Then their brother shows up and tells them that the terrorists are actually good guys and UNATCO is part of a global conspiracy. He asks the player to help by turning against all their friends and allies and fighting their way into a secret base to turn off a signal jammer. The player has no option other than to do as he asks.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The player-character works as head of security at Sarif Industries and, early in the game, is very badly wounded in an office invasion. The player-character is rescued and rebuilt using mechanical augmentation, which turns them into a quasi super hero. The are asked to come back to their old job; they player has no choice but to accept, even though other players remark on multiple occasions how remarkable that choice was and how most people wouldn’t have agreed so readily.

Analysis

First of all, why do so many games use (overuse?) the But Thou Must trope? What problem are game developers trying to solve? Well, looking at these examples reveals a bit of a theme: in each  example there’s some sort of call to action that many characters would refuse—with ample justification. The character might be too cowardly, or too selfish, or too much of a rule-follower to do what the plot calls on them to do. At the same time, the game developer understandably can’t actually give the player the freedom to choose not to do the action that propels the plot forward—that would ruin the whole game and require writing and programing a whole different game, an obvious impossibility.

What’s more, even if the game developer had infinite resources and really could let the player choose to reject the whole plot to go off and do their own thing, most players don’t actually want to play that alternative game. Players don’t really want to play the decided-not-to-get-involved-and-lived-out-my-life-as-a-peasant game—they want to play the Big Damn Heroes game. So, game developers solve the problem of characters who logically might decline their call to action by But-Thou-Must-ing the players into following the call to action. It’s a bit brute force, but it works to keep the plot moving forward.

If this works, why do I think it’s still an inferior solution? Because, even though most players don’t want to opt out of the entire plot of the game, many characters would. Worse, many characters that players want to play would want to opt out. I mean, if a player isn’t in the mood to play a bog-standard I’ll-save-the-day hero (again), what’s the next obvious heroic archetype? For many players, it’s the Han-Solo-style selfish antihero, who only saves the day because day-saving pays well. And for many of the choices presented above, that sort of antihero would politely say “no.” (Or not politely. Depending on how much “charming” is part of the players “charming scoundrel” character concept, I guess.)

By But-Thou-Must-ing the player, the game designer is effectively letting the player roleplay Han Solo, right until the time comes when Han Solo wouldn’t stick around for the plot. At that point, the game suddenly forces the player to be Captain America, saving the world just because it’s the right thing to do (aka, what advances the plot). For anyone who set out to play Han Solo, this is an incredibly frustrating trick for the game to pull.

I think there’s a better way. I think that games—rather than forcing players into being Captain America at crucial moments in the game—should instead let players do the amoral, game-ending thing. And doing that thing should actually end the game. Just like the “threads of prophecy” line from Morrowind, the game should find a way to effectively communicate to the player:

Ok, yes, that is a totally valid choice that a selfish or amoral character might make. And we’re not saying you can’t make that choice. It’s just not the game we’re writing. We’re writing a game about a hero who saves the kingdom/world/galaxy. If your character wouldn’t do that, then your character doesn’t fit into the story we’ve written. You need to either rethink what your character’s personality is, or start over with a character with a different personality.

Here’s how that would work in practice: the game would let the player make the currently-forbidden choice, but making that choice would end the game with a Nonstandard Game Over that would briefly describe the consequences of that choice. To return to the examples from above:

  • Knights of the Old Republic: If the player-character refuses to be trained as a jedi, they’re allowed to get in their spaceship and fly off into the sunset. (Er, space-sunset? Whatever the equivalent is with a spaceship.) Then the player gets an ending that describes how the galaxy is rocked by war, that many of the NPCs they’ve met die, but that the they are able to hide out and avoid getting caught up in galactic events.
  • Jade Empire: If the player chooses to not rescue their master but rather to settle down in a nearby village, they get an ending describing how the Emperor continues to upset the balance of nature and the Empire is plagued by an ever-worse problem of marauding ghosts.
  • Dragon Age: If the player refuses to undergo the Harrowing, the player-character becomes tranquil, and gets an ending about how the Darkspawn spread across the land; if the Dwarf Noble player-charecter choses exile, they get to fight unending waves of Darkspawn until they die, and then get the ending above.
  • Deus ExIf the player-character refuses their brother’s request, then they can report their brother to UNATCO, have a conversation with their boss talking about the brother’s betrayal, and then get a ending that informs the player that they have distinguished career at UNATCO and never learn if there was any truth to their brother’s allegations.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution: If the player refuses to come back to work at Sarif Industries, they get an ending that describes how the player-character lives out a normal life, never getting involved in any extraordinary goingson or learning about any global conspiracies.

In each case, the game developers would be acknowledging that the choice is a valid one that characters might make. It’s even a real way to end the game. It’s just not a way to continue with the game.

Now I recognize that there’s a potential objection here: Is this really any different than But Thou Must-ing the player into doing what you want? After all, the player always has the option to stop playing the game just by not playing the game anymore. There’s a certain point of view that would say that choice between getting an ending description that talks about how the world is still in peril isn’t really giving you that choice any more than pointing out that you can turn off the computer is giving you a choice. TV Tropes seems to embrace this perspective—on their page for But Thou Must they include examples where “wrong” choice leads to a Nonstandard Game Over as instances of games But-Thou-Must-ing their players into a particular course of action.

But in my view, the two solutions feel radically different. In a game that literally doesn’t give me (as a player) any option to say no, I feel like I’ve been forced into a plot against my will and have at least a decent chance of spending the rest of the game straining against the bounds of the plot. Conversely, in a game that lets me, the player, make that choice, I feel like I have player agency but also understand what sort of character concepts fit into the world and story the game was going for. In Morrowind, whenever I got the “threads of prophecy” message, I would reload my game and try something different. At the same time, I appreciated that the game would let me do that and felt empowered as a player.

* * *

At the same time, I notice that almost no games do this—even the sequels to Morrowind moved away from it. This confuses me. Am I just very weird in wanting this, or is there’s some downside that I’m missing? Does anyone have any thoughts about what that might be?

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10 thoughts on “In Praise of the Nonstandard Game Over”

  1. I think this kind of thing has moved a bit into JRPG land, specially visual novels. Soul Nomad, for example, has a lot of choices that lead to Nonstandard Game Overs.

    1. That makes sense. I haven’t played many visual novels but my impression of them is that—as the name implies—they have a lot of overlap with choose-your-own-adventure books, which made great use of the Nonstandard “Game” Over. I remember one book about exploring a cave, where you could choose not to explore the cave, or to venture in a little way, find some treasure, and then get out without risking much. And the book was happy to let you—but that meant your adventure ended. 

      I thought about tying these in to the video game point I made in the post, but thought it would be too much of a tangent. But I didn’t think of the video game equivalent. Why do you think that medium has so much more of the Nonstandard Game Over? And whatever it is that makes it work there, do you think it would make the jump to related western genres? (I’m thinking something like Tales of Borderlands or something could be a good fit.)

  2. I’ve often thought about how the original Deux Ex might have implemented a path wherein you remain a loyal UNATCO soldier.

    I think it would happen by having Paul arrested on the spot. They activate his killswitch, and you get sent to that warehouse to find the “evidence” he had squirreled away there. Now you find yourself chasing after him to Hong Kong after he escapes from UNATCO. Somewhere along the way, you switch sides because Bob Page decides you’re too risky, too much of a competitor to his plan to assimilate with Helios.

    Or maybe just to keep it simple, you retrieve the evidence and return it to your superiors. Except they determine that you know too much now, and as soon as you hand it over, Anna and Gunther subdue you and throw you into UNATCO’s prison anyhow.

    1. It’s interesting to me that your thoughts were mostly about how they could get JD back on rails of their plot and still steer him/the player towards a dramatic confrontation with UNATCO/all the conspiracies. My idea was to let the player make the non-dramatic choice and give them an ending that made clear they’d played it safe and missed out on the chance to peel back the mystery.

      I wonder if the instinct to have a narratively satisfying ending is just really strong. Because the thing is, I can understand why they wouldn’t do your solutions–I think they’d be great, but it’d definitely be a big investment of time/money. My solution would be super cheap to implement, but also not that narratively satisfying (it would be satisfying from a character/roleplaying perspective, as it would let players have their avitar make a choice faithful to the personality they’d devised–but it wouldn’t be narratively satisfying in the sense of having a traditional narrative arc/resolution).

      If that is the answer, maybe I’ve just underestimated how much (developers think that) people want narrative structure.  Terry Pratchet wins again.

  3. “Nights of the Old Republic: If the player-character refuses to be trained… ”
    Oh, God. I’m becoming one of those commentators.

    I think the reason we don’t see very many games include these sorts of endings is for the same reason you mentioned we don’t see very many natural pauses in quest lines any more. Developers are probably terrified that people will see one of those “false” endings and never finish the rest of the game. Why develop content that 1) most people will never see, 2) isn’t true to you “vision”, and 3) could make people quit playing? I’d like to see more of them too, but I’m not surprised we don’t.

    Morrowind is an interesting example because you can keep playing the rest of the game after you get the “weave of fate” message. I remember reading that there is actually a way to find an alternate path to completing the main story at that point as well (Couldn’t find anything with a quick google search though).

    1. “Nights of the Old Republic: If the player-character refuses to be trained… ”

      Thanks. Fixed. (I had to read that about 8 times before I caught the error, which probably says something about me).

      I think the reason we don’t see very many games include these sorts of endings is for the same reason you mentioned we don’t see very many natural pauses in quest lines any more. Developers are probably terrified that people will see one of those “false” endings and never finish the rest of the game. Why develop content that 1) most people will never see, 2) isn’t true to you “vision”, and 3) could make people quit playing? I’d like to see more of them too, but I’m not surprised we don’t

      That could be it. And it wouldn’t even have to be people “fooled” by the “false” ending. People could reach what they felt like was the “right” ending for their character–that is, an ending that isn’t narratively satisfying, but felt like it reflected the choices that their character really would have made. Then people might have the intent to go back and play a different character, but never make it back/not enjoy another play-through of the beginning.

      Morrowind is an interesting example because you can keep playing the rest of the game after you get the “weave of fate” message. I remember reading that there is actually a way to find an alternate path to completing the main story at that point as well (Couldn’t find anything with a quick google search though).

      Ohh boy, chance for me to seriously nerd out. Three were actually three ways you could still win after getting that message (spoiler warning for a game that’s old enough for a learner’s permit in some states)”

      • You could get enough fame and trigger a message that the, uh, Archdeacon? Primate? Head-church guy, anyway,  wanted to see you and he’d talk about how you were off the path but could still get back on it and offer some quest that would re-enter you to the main quest (this depended on you having broken things in the early game, not the late)
      • You could track down Keening and Sunder without anyone ever telling you where they are and go through the final quest normally. This was the favorite of speedrunners.
      • You could (I think fight Dagoth Ur without Keening and Sunder, but needed to be able to deal damage very quickly because he kept healing. (Or maybe you need Keening but not Sunder? Or not the wraithguard? That may be it, actually)
  4. I think this might just come down to why bother spending time and money on this, when it comes to most triple A games anyway. Anything that is more than that short morrorwind text message would cost ample money (in dev time anyway), and I think most people wouldn’t really feel gratified by something short anyway.

    There’s also the fact that I wanna say triple A is a bit obsessed with ‘telling their story’ often and that might be another reason why they don’t do it. I think the popularity of open world/sandbox as well as complex multipath RPG and VN games shows that people are interested in expressing themselves through a character. Just not in your blockbuster big games anymore. Like you said morrowinds successors don’t do it anymore but just look at the backlash Fallout 4 got for removing layers of ‘roleplaying’ their character with the simplified dialogue wheel. People care, just don’t expect it from stuff like far cry I guess.

    I remember the alternative game over screens from half life 1&2, where it specifies why you got a game over when you do something especially weird. Those were fun.

    1. I think this might just come down to why bother spending time and money on this, when it comes to most triple A games anyway. Anything that is more than that short morrorwind text message would cost ample money (in dev time anyway), and I think most people wouldn’t really feel gratified by something short anyway. . . .

      I remember the alternative game over screens from half life 1&2, where it specifies why you got a game over when you do something especially weird. Those were fun.

      But, as your later example shows, it seems like it could be as simple as a text screen in most cases. In fact, in most of the examples I gave, that’s exactly what I was imagining. Some sort of “game over” screen that acknowledges you made a valid choice and that you lived out your days with the consequence of that choice. It really doesn’t seem like cost is the prohibitive factor.

      Your answer about an obsession with “telling their story” might be it. But that just pushes the question back a level. Why are designers who are so into empowering players also into telling their own story?

    2. Far Cry 4 let you see an “ending” very soon after the game begins. Near the beginning of the game, you’re a guest of the evil dictator and he takes you to a room and tells you to waist until he gets back. Then you start hearing screams and such, and the game prompts you to go investigate and/or escape. However, if you do what the dictator told you and just sit tight for about ten minutes of real time, he comes back, explains what the confusing instructions in the letter you received meant, gives you a helicopter ride to the location it indicated, and fades to black as rebels attack and he exclaims “Now maybe we can shoot some guns!”

      So you can “solve” the game’s plot without killing anyone at all, but as the NPCs suggest, where’s the fun in that?

      1. That’s very interesting and exactly the sort of thing that I’m talking about. If you want to play a rule-follower, you can and the game will respect your choice; they just didn’t build a game for you. Contrast that with all the games that force you into rebelling.

        I wish more games followed that model!

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