On Fairness in Games

Warning: Minor spoilers for When the Seacats Cry Episode 3 below. {: .notice--warning}

I’ve considered discussing my own games in detail for a while now, and this topic seems like a good start. There’s a lot of time, effort, and meaning that goes into making games, and I’m not sure if every detail gets across to the players by the time they’ve finished. Sometimes post-mortems are necessary, not just to examine the development of what went right or wrong, but for learning from the nature of the game itself.

Fan-Episode 3, Inquisition of the Golden Witch, was originally released in January 2011 for /seacats/. It was my most popular fangame by far, as most members of the website participated in constructing theories. In this game, the player controls Erika by making choices. She must explore Rokkenjima, gather clues, and attempt to find the culprit before it’s too late. The game was a monster to try and code, especially because it was made in ONscripter. I wasn’t as experienced back then as I am now, so it’s clear to me that I could’ve done a much better job with the internal structure of the game. There were so many different choices, there were maps and items Erika could collect, and there was a clock system to make sure the player wouldn’t waste any time. Of course, there were also a number of bugs and glitches that resulted from adding these features to the game, and that’s kind of how I earned my reputation for “buggy” code.

However, the main feature of the gameplay was its difficulty: unfair. The player could only play the game one time, taking exactly one path (unless they were clever and messed with the game data). Only after the answer was revealed could they go backward and take different choices. On the surface, the game was a test of “whether the player could solve the crime if they had been on Rokkenjima”, but really it was a test of “how fun is a game that is intentionally made to be unfair?”

Games are constructed to be fair. We develop rulesets and prohibit cheating in order to make a game fair. So when a game deliberately makes itself unfair, is it still a game? Do people still have fun with it? Apparently they do, quite a lot actually, according to results from Inquisition. Everyone had fun playing and discussing with each other outside of the game each path they had missed, spreading information to the other players to unite and construct the correct theory. And by some miracle, they actually succeeded on their first try.

There was one particular choice in the game that eventually became notorious. After the first six corpses are discovered, and Erika interrogates the survivors in the parlor, Rudolf and Kyrie decide to leave the room. Erika is given a choice: follow them, or not? Should Erika follow them, she is then attacked and knocked out for the remainder of the game, as Rudolf and Kyrie are “the sacrifices for the Second Twilight”. The Second Twilight always kills off two people who are close, and that should have been a hint for the player to not follow them to their doom.

The consequence was that the player would miss the rest of the game, Erika being unconscious the whole time. The survivors at the end would fill her in on what happened, but she would lose all ability to investigate in more detail. For the people who had played the game at /seacats/, it wasn’t much of a problem because the others could fill them in on what they had missed. But for the people who played the game on their own, missing any information felt like a punishment for making the wrong decision. And that suddenly became an interesting question for me: Should that choice be in the game? Should it have been changed to something else, or removed entirely? Or maybe it was justified after all?

Initially, it seems that it was a bad design choice. People weren’t having fun with this choice as it was intended. They’d missed out on half the game, the best part too — most of the murders take place after this choice, and that’s what everyone looks forward to when reading Umineko games. To miss out on half the murders just because of a 50/50 choice seemed like an insult to the player and a waste of their time. The players who had carefully thought out every single action beforehand, and who may have even carefully considered the consequences of this one, had ended up picking the “wrong” choice anyway. And they felt betrayed here, because they had done so well before, they had done everything right, without a single punishment — only to be given an incredibly harsh punishment for a seemingly harmless decision.

But isn’t that life? That warning screen at the start was put there for a reason. The players were warned beforehand that this game would be unfair. They were told from the start, and maybe they did pay attention and listen, and maybe that is the reason why they were so cautious from the beginning. Being told “you only have one chance, so don’t mess up” might make someone overly-cautious, and as an effect, change how they behave and react. The player learned that there weren’t too many harsh punishments. There were some cases where Erika could hurt herself and time would pass, but not enough to skip entire chapters. That was the difficulty curve that I had designed, although not everyone who played that game experienced that same curve. Ultimately, the fact that there were so many different paths meant that there was no reasonable way to plan a difficulty curve, and by the time we get to the Second Twilight, it’s all-or-nothing. Either the player has learned to be cautious, or they have a false sense of security, and either way the player may still pick the choice that punishes them, without any way to undo that action.

That’s the definition of unfair.

In that sense, that kind of decision is perfect for a game designed to be unfair. Is it something that makes for a fun game? I’m not entirely sure. I think it can only depend on your attitude while playing. If you go into it with the attitude of a hungry detective, “I only have one shot, so I need to do my best to get all the clues and solve this!”, then when you make the wrong decision, you’ll suddenly think “Oh no! I messed up my only chance, and now I don’t have enough clues!” And the game will then seem unsolvable, and you’ll think there’s no point in trying to solve it. You’ve lost the fun you once had. But try going into the game with a different attitude: “I’m going to enjoy the story, have fun with these choices, and see where I end up after that.” Then you probably won’t care too much about the Rudolf/Kyrie choice. Instead, you might even think “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! What a sneaky guy, killing me off like that!” and get a sense of satisfaction.

The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that life behaves in the same way. If “being human” means “you can’t take back your choices”, then does that mean you should carefully consider the choices you make (because you only get one shot), or does that mean you shouldn’t worry too much about making the “wrong” choices due to the incredibly low probability of picking the “right” ones? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Maybe it depends on the situation, or maybe it depends on the person. Our different paths in life present us with different curves of difficulty, they teach us different ways of handling situations. Those who get hurt a lot at the start may end up being more cautious later on, they might dodge a few bullets but then get hit by a big one. And those who managed avoid that pain may have no way of coping with it when it happens. The best solution seems to be accepting that this game is unfair and moving forward with a positive attitude.

That’s the real meaning, the deeper truth, behind Inquisition of the Golden Witch. Thanks for playing, and thanks for reading.