Utilizing Forced Loss Battles

When playing a game of any kind, the goal is to win. This can take the form of something concrete like a win condition, such as getting the most points by the game’s conclusion or being the last one standing in a competitive game, or reaching the endpoint or credits in a single-player or cooperative game; this could also take the form as something more abstract like beating a high score or time. In either case, the goal is to succeed, which makes things interesting when the game requires the player to fail in order to succeed, though this too has variations. It could be a soft requirement, such as learning through failure, and using the knowledge you’ve acquired through your attempts in order to finally succeed, or it could be a hard requirement, such as a forced loss battle.

Forced loss battles are a tricky thing to implement in a game. On the one hand, it is a great narrative tool to help the player feel powerless, and is more impactful than simply having their character lose a conflict in a cutscene, as in the latter case, the player will know they could have won if they were in control. Such an event can lead to a satisfying turnaround when the player eventually has gained the strength or tools to win a rematch, allowing the player to feel the same sense of accomplishment as the character. Of course, in order to create tension during the initial encounter, you can’t tell the player that they are scripted to lose this battle, that the odds have been stacked against them and the enemy is programmed is unkillable, because then the moment just becomes another task to mark off a checklist of victory requirements, and the feeling is lost. On the other hand, a player can become frustrated if they spent a great deal of resources trying to win what they thought was just a very hard battle, only to discover they never stood a chance anyway.

One method of preventing frustration is to place the battle early in the game, and make it go quickly. Just at the point where the player has learned the mechanics of the game, but haven’t built up wastable resources or powerful abilities, and just long enough to let that sense of dread set in when they start losing, but not long enough to make them feel like they wasted significant time by fighting back. This not only prevents frustration, but also had two beneficial effects to the purpose of the forced loss. One, it is good pacing to have the moment of defeat happen early on to set up the theme of growth for the rest of the story. Two, it will tell the player that losing is part of the game early on, and they will be more receptive to facing challenge down the road and using their failures to learn, especially when it comes time to use what they learned from that first failure to get revenge.