This article contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line and early spoilers for Undertale
In my previous article I compare the actions-with-consequences that are forced upon you by two games: the excellent Spec Ops: The Line and the amusing Accounting. These are actions that garner much criticism from the games’ characters but are outside the control of the player – they are the only options presented and the game doesn’t proceed until you take them. I tried to argue that being criticised for such forced decisions in Accounting is annoying but it is tolerable (and maybe laudable) in Spec Ops because it fully embraces this theme as a means to empathise with the protagonist. In Spec Ops you play the tunnel-visioned Captain Walker who sees no alternatives to his actions and stubbornly forges onward without considering the bigger picture. The game’s story introduces tragedies that are then the result of this obstinance and openly blames Captain Walker for them. Spec Ops then goes further by telling Walker (and perhaps also the player) that these hideous consequences could have been avoided if only he “just stopped”. But what does this mean in gameplay terms?
Suppose Captain Walker has a cooler head early in the game and decides that to “just stop” is the correct course of action. The consequences of this are fairly straight-forward for him. It means he just doesn’t press on further in the direction he feels prompted – he stands on the spot and does nothing. In your head-canon perhaps he leaves Dubai, or hands over his command, or makes further attempts to establish dialogue with his adversaries.
Of course, in the actual game these are things that just can’t happen because neither they nor any other alternatives have been coded. So for you, the player, to “just stop” can only mean that you refuse to progress the game. That you leave the controller alone and have your character do nothing forever. More practically, it would mean that you just quit the game. To quit the game is certainly an action that the player can take. It’s also unarguably a decision that the player makes about the game (namely, “I want to stop playing it”), but does it count as a decision in the game? If you decide that pressing mindlessly onward in Spec Ops is the morally wrong decision, does quitting the game count as making the right decision and therefore reaching a win condition?
I wonder if there are any indie games that have played around with this concept. That treat quitting at a particular time as a successful end state. I have a feeling that if a game gave you an achievement for doing so then the player would interpret this as the game accepting the player’s decision, having explicitly acknowledged it with game logic. This indicates to me that quitting as a win condition could potentially be legitimate game design and leave the player satisfied instead of resentful of a game that forces you to take only undesired actions. Without this explicit acknowledgement, however, the line gets much blurrier. The player would need an intrinsic confidence that they “played the game right”.
Either way, there might be some actual game design potential here, and much like how The Treachery of Images plays in the space between the art piece and the viewer’s participation in considering the art piece, such a gameplay experience might play in the space between coded decisions within the game and the player’s decisions about the game. This could be clever and unexpected, and bring the player the novel interaction of having to consider their conduct in how they play, or then again it could be pretentious and unsatisfying.
The most important obstacle to quitting-as-win-condition is that the player who takes this option is then presented with a very powerful downside, that they are then denied the experience of the rest of the game content. For Accounting, this means missing out on some very funny dialogue and art content. For Spec Ops, this would mean missing out on one of the best endings in gaming. Players are undoubtedly aware of this, and so would say to themselves “my character would probably give up and leave here, but I want to see the rest of the game so I’ll continue”. Captain Walker then continues his three-man crusade into Dubai but “not really” because the player knows the right thing to do is to stop at the beginning and so is continuing the game just to see the rest of the content. I expect this might lower the player’s investment in the game as they are no longer making decisions based on their own judgement or for role-playing purposes, but rather “just to see what happens”.
I am mainly drawn to quitting-as-win-condition due to Spec Ops, but I suppose there is valid design space in other meta-game activities being acknowledged within the game. This could involve the game acknowledging when a player changes the difficulty, saves his game, has finished the game before or has played a certain number of times. None of this sounds as exciting as choosing to quit, but at least they avoid the problem of denying future game content. Metal Gear Solid has a psychic enemy who can read the player’s controller inputs and so you have to re-plug the controller into port 2 in order to defeat him. The excellent Undertale plays rampant with the meta-game. Some characters recognise if you’re playing a second playthrough, and sometimes even know if they died in your earlier playthrough. The villanous Flowey will mock you if you kill the strict-yet-motherly Toriel character, and will also mock you if you reload an earlier game just so you can avoid killing her. The game’s world has a consistent underlying logic that explains how its characters might know these things, and indeed an in-game explanation might be a requirement for a game that recognises such meta-game decisions. Otherwise they might be perceived and understood as only a sly wink from the developer to the player, such as with “easter egg” secrets.
Ultimately, I think that if a game does want to introduce quitting as a win condition then it needs to do so under the following conditions. Firstly, it should provide explicit acknowledgement of the player’s decision, either via in-game dialogue or platform achievement. Secondly, the game needs to offer the quitting point either very early or very late in the game’s expected length (or just have a short, replayable game). This means that the player is aware that they are not missing out on much content because they can easily start a new game or were basically at the end of the game already. Finally, the decision to quit the game needs to have a legitimate in-game reason for doing so, and tie into an overarching theme or important story beat, so as to make the decision satisfying for the player. Done well, and this could be the sort of gaming story that the player will tell others about well into the future.