Learning from Encounters in Games

It’s easy enough to imagine life as a roguelike game as they both share some commonalities, especially when it comes to random encounters. As with everyday life, you can have streaks of good or bad luck, depending on the conditions and how prepared you are for all eventualities. I’ve come to a realization that perhaps those who play roguelikes and other games that feature encounters and events that call for careful decision-making and may lead to either reward or undesired consequence.

As with all things in life, humankind is affected by the all-encompassing power of cause and effect, most of which are affected by one’s decisions and how they affect all other factors involved. It may seem that people who are fond of playing certain games are more familiar with that level of anxiety-inducing uncertainty.

A Fateful Train Ride

One day, I was riding the train on my way to meet up with someone. It was past rush hour, so there weren’t a lot of passengers and space wasn’t scarce. During the commute, I spotted a train ticket on the floor and picked it up after a bit of hesitation. I then put it up to see if anyone would claim it, and one of them pointed me to someone in the next car. Sure enough, it was his and I happened to have saved him the trouble of having to pay a fee for losing it.

The ticket had been right there next to the feet of the person who pointed me to its holder. There is much talk about the bystander syndrome and how it keeps people from doing good deeds and helping their fellow human beings, perhaps due to and fear of being conned and/or shamed. However, this is not a blog post solely for lamenting the apathy and inaction of other people in the urban environment, but a look into what these instances have in common with random encounters in video games — something that came up in my mind soon after I gave that man his ticket back.

I’d like to think that I acted in that instance, even if it took me time to decide on it, not because I’m superior to everyone else on that train but because I had been in that situation before thousands of times already, or at least “in simulation.” As I put down notes on my phone for this post while I arrived at my destination, I looked back on the games that featured similar situations.

Roguelikes

As the most prominent genre (more like super-genre) these days when it comes to random encounters, it’s possible to get good at roguelikes by playing them a lot and learning every single possibility in them. However, there’s still the randomness to deal with, and that’s mostly how a roguelike game retains a good bit of replay value as players would never know what can happen next, even if they’re prepared for most eventualities.

The most important thing in roguelikes is the lack of save/load feature, so whatever happens cannot be undone for that playthrough. Along with permadeath and the ever-present spectre of negative consequences, the element of regret is what the genre is all about and is what resonates most to players, who either love it for its resemblance to reality or hate it because it’s like the exact opposite of escapism and power fantasy.

Playthroughs are greatly affected by chance and probability, and many have felt the brunt of catastrophic failure after choosing to go through with an action that had as small as a 1% failure rate. In such cases, it can be said that it could certainly happen, no matter how minuscule the chance of botching it. In the real world, a 0% chance to fail is virtually non-existent, thus the prevalence of sayings like, “Failure is always an option” and “Fall down seven, stand up eight.”

This genre of games is for those who aren’t into video games just to feel super cool and powerful all the time because those who are tend to get salty when they play games like FTL: Faster Than Light or Darkest Dungeon and get screwed by either RNG or just not having the right stuff in a playthrough that eventually leads to loss. Most people are not comfortable with that feeling of regret, which is why plenty of gamers tend to quick-save so much in single-player games.

Traditional Computer Role-playing Games

It’s not like roguelikes since the best that most traditional CRPGs have done in this respect are things like randomly-generated dungeons like in the Diablo series and random enemy encounters in JRPGs. Perhaps you get to choose when and how you get into the fight, as well as what stats and skills you take and the items you buy or pick up in order to best address the problems ahead.

This genre does give us an idea on how we acquire our skills and tools, as well as how to explore surroundings and pick our battles, both in a figurative and literal sense (the latter to a certain degree). I don’t know about you and what you think of such grind-y games, but daily life itself is a grind anyway.

Visual Novels

Whatever the hell they call them these days, whether it’s a dating sim, a bishoujo game, an eroge, or so on, they’re mostly not random since they traditionally have a more strict progression with some branching paths to different endings. You follow the story and make decisions at certain points, the pivotal ones being called “flags,” and they constitute the majority of the actual “gameplay” in these titles.

These flags can dictate whatever major that happens in the story, like romancing a particular character in a dating sim. Perhaps these games teach players more about long-term decisions and how being able to look ahead can mean the difference between a good, bad, or neutral ending.

Tabletop RPGs

They aren’t video games, but they’re even better at this. The flexibility of the “analog” format means that DMs can put players in various situations where they have to decide whether they should intervene or ignore without the limitations of programming and having to strictly adhere to the system.

Particularly good (and sadistic) DMs can even put players in situations wherein there’s no “correct” choice, either it’s just a straight-up lose-lose scenario wherein something has to be sacrificed in order to achieve a greater goal or the party loses something valuable that can never be retrieved.

Conclusion

Such things that end up being notes and marks on a character sheet can also be related to whatever happens in real life, from the death of a loved one, getting caught in an accident, being accosted by criminals, absentmindedly leaving a personal possession in a public place, receiving a grim medical diagnosis, and so on.

The same can be said for encountering people in distress and/or need, whether it’s someone who fucked over on a really bad day, a tourist who can’t find his way around, or a homeless person looking for some temporary relief from his constant troubles. Most people wouldn’t even bother, but maybe you could.

If that person really was in need, you’ve done well and a bit more faith in humanity has been restored. But if it’s a con man or just someone who doesn’t deserve the attention, then maybe that’s just tough luck. You’d never know with these things, as if you were in the mercy of fate itself during the whole time.

Despite the similarities, the biggest difference between games and real life is that the former was certainly written and scripted beforehand by someone, so it’s more or less set or at least dictated by percentages, while the latter has little to no preordained rules governing how it either rewards or punishes your decision.

The ways of the world are dictated by a chaotic set of rules and non-rules, often elusive to the ways of logic and reasoning. But with some of these games, it may help us make sense of things through some sort of mental and emotional practice. At least it’s better than being naive from that familiar pang of regret whenever a mistake or wrong choice comes up.



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