First things first, hello, I’m new. You probably could have guessed that, but I’m saying it anyhow, because I’m redundant that way.
Now with that out of the way, let’s jump right in to what this here post is about.
So, I’ve been lurking around here for some time now - about two or three years, I think? - and I’ve read a fair number of stories across CoG, HG and HD. Not quite in equal measure, because the HD games don’t really call out to me that strongly (ace/aro, as my profile says), but I’ve been around. In that time, I’ve noticed a number of common habits among the stories on offer, but two in particular really kind of stick to me, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about my thoughts on them, just to get it off my chest.
Skill Checks: Failures, Against Character Motivation, and Breaking of Immersion
That title probably reads like I’m coming out swinging, and to be fair, I’m going to be pretty blunt about this, but let me explain.
Primarily, I see these games as what they are, interactive stories. Emphasis on “story,” mind you. I recognize that, in order for it to be interactive,I have to be able to, you know, interact with it, but I can safely say that I don’t think I’ve ever come across a type of interactive story that actively checks whether I have the chops to meet a certain scenario or not. This… actually kinda tends to bother me a bit. I recognize that these are, as advertised, games, as well as stories, so I suppose I can’t be too surprised to see minor game mechanics involved, but more and more I’m finding that I’m not a big fan of the story stopping and asking me, “hey, are you strong enough for this next part? No? Well, that’s too bad.”
I’ll admit it here and now, I don’t suffer failure well. It makes games like Dark Souls really difficult for me to play, because you’re supposed to accept that you’ll fail over and over again, but for me, once is entirely too many. That tends to sour my opinion of things when I’m cruising right along through a story, only to then slam into a wall out of nowhere and be unable to get around it because I don’t meet the required check amount.
Let me give an example:
In the Lost Heir games, there are skill checks all over the place. You can’t go more than five minutes without one, it seems. The games advertise being able to build your character in whatever way you want - and you can! - but for someone like me, who, again, doesn’t take failing very well, it can seem like a lot of the checks you’re expected to meet are there to inform you that you’ve built your character the wrong way. Like, I tried to build a character who was primarily combat and magic focused, and then got hit with skill checks that expected me to muster up stealth chops that I simply didn’t have because I had no idea I would need them as soon as I did.
That, in itself, is another issue: if it’s the first time playing through a game, you have no way of knowing what’s going to get checked and where. Magikiras is another game that did that to me, too. I was building my character to be a tactician who tried to stay out of combat as much as possible and lead from the back, but then a series of skill checks cropped up out of nowhere that focused on combat and strength and accuracy and basically all the skills I hadn’t been doing anything with because I didn’t think I would need to, at least not right away.
This combination of unexpectedness and checking your absolute weaknesses oftentimes sees me stuck on a train of check fails that I can’t do anything about, so I’m just along for the ride whether I like it or not. It’s made me leery of CoG releases these days, because I know they’ll be full of skill checks, and unlike the HG WIPS with their save system that I can utilize to go back and try again as I please, if I screw up a check in a CoG game and want a do-over, I have to completely restart the entire game. If this happens 7+ chapters in, that’s a lot of invested time I’m flushing down the toilet. It doesn’t feel too good.
Additionally, there are some skill checks (or just plain dialogue options, while I’m thinking about it) that seem to exist for no other reason than to force me to break character. Like, say I’m playing a character who’s a stoic cynic whose only interest in things is cash and isn’t terribly invested in the goings-on of the world around them. I come across a skill check… and all the options are something that runs completely counter to my character build. I can choose to be friendly (which counters the stoic cynicism), optimistic (again countering the cynicism), I can want to learn more about a certain topic (counters general disinterest outside of monetary gain), or I can be altruistic (countering only being in it for the cash).
Or, to use another example, when my character’s motivations have historically been set in one direction, all of a sudden there’s a dialogue choice/skill check which is entirely focused the opposite way. Let’s say I’m playing a character whose one and only focus is academia, and then all of a sudden there’s a scene with a check that demands that I take a stance on some political happening that, realistically, would be far beneath my character’s interest, so it makes no sense that they’re even part of the discussion in the first place, let alone that they’re expected to have any strong opinions on it one way or another. There’s no option for me to say, “Why are you asking me? You know I don’t care,” so I have to choose a side, regardless of how neutral I’ve been thus far.
That actually bleeds over into my second topic of discussion, so we’ll come back to that.
All these factors put together tend to really take me out of the story. It’s hard for me to remain immersed in the plot when I get slapped with something like that, which causes me to sit back and go, “Wait, what the hell? Are we just not accounting for certain perspectives, here? What’s going on?”, because from that moment on, I’m not playing the game due to my interest in the story anymore, I’m playing it to see how many more times I’ll be shoved into a corner like that, how it’ll happen, and why. At that point, I stop enjoying it as much. Zyri, the guy enjoying the story, goes away, and Zyri, the critic, comes out, and then I start noticing things that bother me, and then I have to just stop playing the game because I start feeling negative about the whole thing.
More and more, I find myself drawn to stories where the skills are less for the sake of checks, and more, “this is your character’s general demeanor, which affects how others perceive and react to you as you interact.” Or, games where personality decisions you make early on change what dialogue choices you get later based on what you set your personality to be, that sort of thing. In Wayhaven Chronicles, the detective has a number of different personality traits and skills they can build into, and it’s not so much for the sake of skill checks (though those do exist), but rather, it changes how the detective behaves from one scene to the next - a hostile loner detective is more to-the-point and blunt and generally grouchy, whereas a nicer detective would be more inclined to speak politely and have a good attitude. It feels more organic to me, like I’m building my own character, rather than trying to optimize my stats for the absolute perfect run.
So, that’s my thoughts on that topic, wrapped up in a bow. Let’s talk about the second point:
Saying No: An Offer You Simply Can’t Refuse
Kinda spells itself out, doesn’t it?
Let me preface this by saying that I fully understand that, in order for the plot to move forward, the players actually have to engage with it. Eventually, you have to say yes to the plot, or else you’re stuck and can’t go anywhere. I recognize that.
However, I hold fast to the belief that, even if it amounts to nothing, you should never be outright denied the chance to say no. And, unfortunately, a lot of the WIPs I’ve been reading here, and even some published stories, have this real nasty habit of putting players in a situation where they might be playing characters who would have no reason to agree with what’s happening, but the author straight-up removes the ability to say no.
Let’s refer to my earlier example from point one: A character is only interested in one thing, but gets dragged, kicking and screaming, into a situation that is either beneath their interest, or that they shouldn’t even be involved with in the first place. Of particular note to me is If It Please the Court - my character, Jehanne Moreau, is very disinterested in this whole spy thing. She’s only in it for the money so her mother can keep a roof over her head. She holds no respect for the nobility, and has no problem saying so directly to the face of the noblewoman spymistress she works for. Her loyalty to France begins and ends at, “I live here.” Were it not for the fact that the enemy spy she bumps into later scares the crap out of her, she’d probably have jumped ship already just to not have to put up with the Secret du Roi anymore. And when it comes to her absent father, Jehanne figures he’s not worth knowing in the first place.
…But when the spymistress meets with her under moonlight, offers her the job, and offers to let her in on her father’s big secret, Jehanne is practically chomping at the bit for the chance, regardless of how I’ve been playing her up to that point. At no point do I have the option to say, “not interested, thanks,” which could simply lead to a game over, no harm done, wanna play again and actually play the game this time? Instead, the closest I can get is being hesitant, and beyond that, if I really want to quit this whole spy business, I have to actively try and lose the game, which is pretty hard to do, it turns out. (I’ve had to restart the story six times because I’m trying to fail on purpose but am succeeding instead. I’m failing at failing. I’m a living paradox of a man.)
That right there is what I wish more stories would do: Give me the option to say no, with all the consequences that would come of it. Yes, I’m aware that refusing to participate in the plot means there is no story, but let that be my choice to make. The WIP for Soul Stone Wars 2 allows you to ditch your party and turn to the dark side in chapter one, which results in a game over as you become a vampire’s trophy (wife/husband/person of sexual interest) and the world burns around you. You are then allowed to start over, and, you know, maybe not do that again, now that you’ve seen where it goes. Or, better yet, instead of removing the option to say no or having it lead to the game just ending outright, have the option to say no, and write around that so that the plot still works, even though the OC isn’t taking the path of least resistance.
I get hung up on this primarily because, when I start reading a story, I can’t stop until I have some kind of resolution, whether I like it or not. If I start reading a story that I simply don’t enjoy, I actively look for a point where I can swiftly extract myself from the plot, thereby giving me my resolution and allowing me to leave that story behind for one I enjoy more, without having lingering thoughts of the story I don’t like. “Just hit the back button” doesn’t do it for me, my brain doesn’t work that way. It’s an odd bit of obsessiveness on my part.
But beyond that, like I said, I play the contrarian in these kinds of stories - my characters are people who concede that they have a role to play in the story, but that doesn’t mean they have to take everything that gets dumped in their laps. If they have the option to put their foot down and say enough is enough, then they’ll take that opportunity. In Heroes of Myth, when faced with the knowledge that he may very well be part-demon, Kendrick of Ithos says “to hell with that” and goes out of his way to seal demons away from the human world forever, severing his own demonic ties and becoming completely human in the process. In Heroes Rise, Morgan Kastans, a.k.a. Merc, is told that she has incredible Infini powers, that she outright refuses to use on the grounds of not being willing to compromise her morals by lusting after power she doesn’t need. I forget what I named my Versus protagonist, but in the face of being told time and time again that she’s stuck on Versus and must either win the games and become a new god-being or die, her one and only goal is to get the hell off this forsaken hunk of rock and return to her family. All three of these characters have flourished without their Infini powers or demon heritage or being some kind of god-being (Versus OC’s gun has served get plenty well, thank you very much), because they had the ability to say no, and rather than the story coming to an abrupt halt or pulling an, “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,” it instead goes, “Okay, fair, we can make this work.”
I have a lot more respect for the stories that happily give me the rope to hang myself with, because if I game over at that point, I know damn well that I’ve done it to myself. I didn’t get caught out by a skill check I couldn’t meet because I didn’t know it was even going to happen, I didn’t die because I said the wrong thing and it turned south on me, I failed because I actively chose to fail, and the game let me. This is not to say I don’t respect the games where saying no isn’t an option, but I remember the stories more fondly that let me screw myself over, rather than the ones that put up safety netting so that I don’t fall, because that might risk me not being able to continue the story.
So, to recap:
Skill checks take me out of my immersion, especially when they’re unexpected, go against my characters’ personalities, or target skills I have no chance of possibly meeting.
Let me say no, damn it!
Don’t expect me to reply too quickly, I tend to be pretty slow on the draw when it comes to forum stuff. Probably, I’ll come back to this topic a week from now and be all, “oh yeah, I posted that, huh.”
EDIT: See? See? I told you all it takes me a while to respond. Of course, in this case, it was because I was at work until about two hours ago (11:31 AM, 6/1/2021 at time of writing), and I feel like my boss would have had a thing or two to say about me being on my phone when I’m supposed to be stocking shelves.