There are many reoccurring themes and tropes of video game stories that tend to crop up again and again, and among these is the popular convention of the supposed-to-lose fight. This is the tradition of a game giving you a fight or challenge, usually early on in the game, which is literally impossible to succeed in, and incorporates failure in to the actual plot of the game. This can take the form of losing in a cutscene or literally making an impossible segment of play. They’re most common in RPGs, due to their emphasis on story, setting up villains, and growing stronger over the course of the game.
Now how useful these encounters can be is up for debate, but there’s no denying that how effective they are varies. I’d like to go over several examples of this subject and examine which are better or worse and why; because depending on how they’re used they can be either a good narrative device or absolutely infuriating.
Perhaps a good place to start would be to examine why designers use supposed-to-lose fights in the first place. Generally, I’d say there are two primary reasons to do so. The first is to introduce or emphasize the power of some villain or character. The second is to induce a feeling of helplessness or futility in the player, to make them feel week and sometimes to motivate them towards becoming stronger. Almost every hero has some failures along their path to eventual victory, and the advantage of doing this through gameplay instead of cutscene is that experiencing it firsthand ideally causes a greater connection between the player and the protagonist. These seem pretty straightforward, but as with most things in narrative there’s plenty of ways to screw it up. So let’s look at some examples.
Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy, being a sprawling RPG series with 14 entries (12 discounting online ones, and ignoring spinoffs and direct sequels entirely), obviously has had a storied history with supposed-to-lose fights. I’ve played and enjoyed quite a few a few of the games, but 9 is the one I’ve played most recently, so the memory of its example is freshest in my mind. This isn’t a judgment on the game overall, just the fight itself. Which game is the best or which protagonist has the best hair stylist is a discussion for another time.
See also: Best Disinterested Expression
So in Final Fantasy 9 there is a re-occurring villain early on by the name of Beatrix, head of the Alexandrian army. You have several encounters with her in which you actually fight her, but can never win. The way these fights work, however, is that you must do a certain amount of damage to her, at which point she uses her super-attack that brings the entire party down to 1 health and ends the fight. If you die before that, you can and will get a game over, as I’ve tested myself. There are several problems I have with this approach, not the least of which that it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever from a narrative standpoint.
“Oh I’ll kill you alright, but only if you don’t hit me enough.”
Another problem is one of the common ones you can encounter with supposed-to-lose fights in games, and that’s the one of limited resources. By the third time I was fighting Beatrix I was rolling my eyes and trying to “kill” her as fast as possible so she could get on with “defeating” me, but I didn’t have the benefit of foreknowledge the first time and wasted a lot of items unnecessarily because it isn’t established that you can’t win until the very end of the fight. It also has the problem of feeling like kind of cheap shot. This is somewhat unavoidable when using this type of fight, but can be mitigated by the right delivery.
These problems probably seem a bit like nitpicks, and they are, but it doesn’t matter. If the approach you use irritates or bothers the player in some way than it doesn’t matter if it’s a big obvious thing or a small thing like this, either way it’s going to reduce their total enjoyment. In addition, these types of derivative narrative tropes and manipulative methods can slowly erode a player’s patience over time, and each subsequent time they’re irritated by them they notice them more and more. In all fairness to Final Fantasy 9, this approach isn’t all bad. I like how they had Beatrix defeat you in combat using an in-game attack rather than a cutscene, I just wish that they had tried to find a way that felt less cheap.
Kingdom Hearts has a couple of supposed-to-lose fights that it takes a slightly different approach to. In both the first fight with Leon at Traverse Town and the first fight with Cloud at the Coliseum you can actually win the fight (which arguably invalidates its spot on this list, but hang on a second). However, after the fight the result is the same, with only a slightly changed cutscene and a paltry experience bonus. The fight with Cloud is the same because after it ends it always goes into cutscene and is interrupted by Cerberus busting in and stomping on Cloud.
You’d think with that hair it’d be like stepping on a nail
This isn’t really a supposed-to-lose fight, and I’m fine with it apart from the fact that Cloud doesn’t give much experience or reward despite being a very tough fight. In the fight with Leon, on the other hand, the cutscene after the fight has a slightly larger difference. If you lose the fight, you fall over and Leon presumably drags your unconscious ass over to
exposition dump a nearby building. If you win the fight, you begin panting
about how you’ll finish him off, faint and fall over, and are presumably
dragged over to okay hang on a second.
I’m not sure how I feel about this method of delivery. I like how they had at least some difference shown when you win the fight, but the ending to it feels a bit cheap. Though it’s of course essential to the plot that you go with Leon, I felt a bit cheated that their explanation for why is that you got tired after the fight. I mean, that’s more or less the same as if you lost the fight, just presented in a slightly different way. Surely they could’ve come up with something that undermines the players sense of accomplishment less, like some heartless (the bad guys) ambushing you or perhaps you just talking it out? Of course, these would probably be a bit more work to implement. Overall I’d call this example kind of average. There are worse ways to force the player to lose, but there are definitely better as well.
Golden Sun was an excellent RPG for the GBA, but I’m trying to focus on just the fights in question so I’ll have to talk about why later. Even on the topic of its supposed-to-lose fight, however, it may be my favorite on this list. The game opens several years before the main story takes place, where child versions of two of the protagonists awake to find that thieves have just attempted to steal a sacred artifact from their town. You encounter these two thieves Saturos and Menadri, who later become the main antagonists of the game. The game uses an approach which I quite like here, which is to throw the literal bosses (possibly with some minor stat modifications, though I’m unsure) from their fight later in the game at you near the very start.
Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t go well
Obviously this is easier with RPGs than other genres, and even then grows more difficult to balance as you get further in the game. However, this simple approach has a few things to recommend it. It makes sense in the universe of the game (and in fact even fits with the characters and their motivations that they wouldn’t kill you without reason). It shows off the power of the villains using in-game mechanics, and therefore feels authentic. In the end it accomplishes exactly what the trope is supposed to, which is a feeling of awe at the antagonists power and in turn a feeling of accomplishment when you surpass it.
Of course, one of the potential problems with this system is that of the player possibly becoming too powerful and destroying an enemy they weren’t supposed to. This encounter happens at the start of the game, so there’s really not much danger of that happening. However, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible. Looking on YouTube I found people who hacked the game and defeated the pair, only to see the same cutscene of you unconscious afterward. There are enemies before the fight, so theoretically it might be possible, through thousands of fights tediously grinding on the weakest enemies in the game, to beat them without cheating. This is assuming that the game designers didn’t just stop the random encounters or experience at some arbitrary point. Either way it’s somewhat of a non-issue because it would take such a colossal amount of time that it’s more or less guaranteed that the player won’t stop to grind for something like a hundred hours without foreknowledge that they will always lose plot-wise. Anyway, this one sets a good standard for the trope.
Mega Man X
I’ve never owned or really played much at all of the Mega Man X series, though I’m aware it’s good and it’s certainly on my list of games I should play some day. However, it’s interesting to mention because it’s a rare example of a supposed-to-lose fight that isn’t in an RPG of any sort.
The end of the first stage of Mega Man X has a fight with a villain by the name of Vile. I first heard of the supposed-to-lose fight in a show called Sequelitis. This video by professional internet funnyman Egoraptor talks about why Mega Man X is so great and lauds the fight with Vile for a number of reasons. Rather than parrot those off disjointedly, it might just be quicker to throw you the video itself.
The whole video is pretty good stuff, but the part about Vile specifically starts around 12 minutes in. Oh, and strong language within.
Now I more or less agree with the positive points the prestigious Egoraptor mentioned about the fight. Making the player feel helpless, giving them a villain to gun for and a motivation to advance, that’s all good stuff. However, there’s just one small problem I have with the sequence. The video mentions how the lack of health bar makes it unclear whether the sequence is scripted or not. All well and good, but watch Vile’s attack patterns. He moves forward and punches, moves forward and punches, and, when he really feels likes mixing it up, moves forward and punches.
“I, who have learned both the advanced military tactics of moving and punching!?”
You can’t jump over him, and although it might not be immediately evident to newcomers, when trying to keep something from feeling cheap it may be in your best interest to assume players will be as cynical a bastard as I am. Also, as I mentioned earlier the tiny irritations of these types of encounters build up when the issue is pressed, so post combat taunts like the ones above are something you should certainly be careful with.
However, this presents an interesting problem that I don’t necessarily have an answer to. In RPGs, where the combat is determined ultimately by numbers, you can indeed make it physically impossible to succeed in a way that fits within gameplay, and therefore doesn’t cause any sense of disconnect. But with any other type of game doing this in a way that doesn’t irritate anyone becomes a bit more of a challenge. This is because in these types of games skill and reflexes are always the deciding factor. Sure things can be made easier with upgrades and so forth, but ultimately the norm in these games is that absolutely every attack is at least possible to dodge through raw skill alone. Taking a game based on skill and making a fight where you’re required to lose is a paradox that there really isn’t a solution for.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some ways of mitigating it. How you do so would I guess depend on the way you planned on doing the fight. If you wanted to make the player uncertain of whether the fight was winnable or not you could make increasingly complex attack patterns and have the unavoidable parts slipped into the fight in a way that could plausibly seem avoidable. If you wanted to be blunt about it so there’s no confusion you could make the unavoidable attacks big and bombastic. If you wanted to compromise you could pull a method similar to that of FF9 out and have a regular fight end with a super-move the player can’t dodge. Really this example is still a decent one, but it’s clear from this analysis there isn’t really an easy way of doing a convincing supposed-to-lose fight outside an RPG.
Back to the RPGs, we have another excellent one from my childhood with an example of this trope right in the first fight. The game opens with Peach inviting Mario and his stalwart
equal brother Luigi to a party she’s throwing at her castle. Now, I want you to
think very hard of who could possibly come in and crash that party.
If you guessed Wart or Tatanga then congratulations! You’ve utilized an extensive and intricate knowledge of Mario history in order to be completely wrong!
To the surprise of absolutely no one except the characters in the game itself, Bowser bursts through the windows and proclaims his intent to punch plumbers and pluck princesses. He does this after flying Peach’s castle into space with a castle he built directly underneath it. How he does this is never explained, but I like to think the princess dismissed it as a warren of Monty Moles, or perhaps that some toads were forming a really enthusiastic, really bad metal band in the basement. Anyway, the game introduces you to its RPG combat and the first rounds go about as expected, when Bowser pulls his ace in the hole out of…uh, somewhere on his person.
Yes, by explaining the source of all my power and one weakness I’ll get him right where I want him!
Seems he has acquired the Star Rod, an artifact that grants wishes. And with the characteristic lack of foresight of fictional characters in possession of an all-powerful wish he uses the rod to make himself temporarily invincible. The characteristic rainbow glow of the Mario series that surrounds him, along with his constant quips in combat, make it clear that this is a scripted sequence. However, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this approach.
On one hand, it forgoes building up the villain himself and instead makes it a matter of “All powerful McGuffin that you must find a way to stop”. But really, there’s no need to build up the villain as powerful at this point. It’s Bowser. His strength is well-documented at “pretty strong, but not quite as strong as Mario”. In addition, the game’s more light-hearted tone naturally makes it easier to forgive a bit of this type of thing than in a grim and serious RPG where the flaws in logic would stick out more. Overall, I’d say that though this “clearly invincible” method might not be the best of way of doing supposed-to-lose fights it’s perfectly serviceable and I have no problem with it.
Mega Man Battle Network 3
When I first thought of Mega Man Battle Network in relation to supposed-to-lose fights, I assumed it was chock full of the things. But on reflection that’s not really the case. What it has in great quantity instead, especially in its third outing, is supposed-to-lose moments. The series absolutely loves to pull the narrative device where you have to be saved from danger by a third party, but it almost always takes place outside of combat. There are a lot of problems I have about this narrative anyway and I’d love to rant about it but given that they’re not actually fights I should probably save my thoughts on them for another time.
Oh don’t worry, I’ll be back for you one day. You aren’t getting off that easy…
There’s only one example I can think of wherein the game actually forces you to lose a fight. Fairly late in the game, you encounter an enemy by the name of Bass who holds massive power. You take him on in a boss fight but like the example with Bowser the guy is literally invincible due to a shield you can’t damage. Just like in the aforementioned Bowser fight, I don’t really have any problem with this approach. It’s slightly more confusing because it’s less explained than in the Bowser fight, but it still works.
I technically never said I was going anywhere with this examination, but let’s see if we can’t wrest some type of moral out of all this anyway. So what have we learned? Well, we learned that supposed-to-lose fights are a useful narrative device unique to games in that the player can experience them directly. They generally increase the player’s connection and empathy for what’s going on more than a cutscene could. However, the disadvantage of not using pre-determined scenes is that, well, they aren’t pre-determined. If the chance of the player winning the fight is anything beyond absolutely positively miniscule then some players are going to win these fights even if the plot demands otherwise, which is of course bad.
“It’s a good thing you stopped Bowser before he could use the Star Rod!” “Oh man yeah, that would have been terrible! Could you imagine?”
This in turn makes it more difficult to craft supposed-to-lose fights in games that are skill based, due to the fact that they can’t be controlled by numbers. We learned that using narrative devices like this repeatedly or drawing attention to it with things like combat taunts isn’t something to be done lightly. It draws attention to the seams in your work by focusing the player on what are potentially tiny plot holes or weird gaps in character motivation (that is, why will they kill me then but not now). We also learned that the tone of a game is something to take into account when crafting fights like this, as a more serious tone can make the player less forgiving of plot holes.
Oh, and we learned that I can spend a hell of a lot of time discussing just a few examples of a single trope and only scratch the surface of its possible use. tl;dr? Game design and narrative is hard.