No one really wants a fair game. For the most part, we want a game that skews to our advantage so we can finish it and move on to the next game. It’s unfair, but it’s unfair in our favor, which makes it fun. Generally, when a game is unfair to our disadvantage we call this out as a negative, something to be rectified with a patch or update. However, after having recently played Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation, I’ve come to appreciate how unfair those games can be. They prove that balance and fairness are overrated because the most exciting moments in these games stem from the systems that are stacked against us.
In Shadow of Mordor there are times when you’ll get into a fight that you simply cannot win. This is especially true in the early game, when we’re missing many of our more powerful abilities. There is the inevitable moment when things spiral out of your control, and your hunt for a single weak captain turns into a fight against five strong captains and the horde of orcs that they’ll be bringing with them.
No fight starts off this way. No fight begins beyond our control. Rather, every kill, no matter how lowly or lonely our victim may be, has the potential to escalate a situation to the point of inevitable disaster, and those larger conflicts are disasters, make no mistake. We are outgunned and out maneuvered, with no time to attack between dodging the spears and arrows and swords and explosives hurled at us. It is all we can to just to survive, but we can only do that for so long. It’s a chaotic and confusing battle, with so much stacked against us that it feels legitimately unfair, but that’s what makes it exciting: That escalation of scope, that slow unraveling of our perfect plan. This is a game that forces us to participate in a train wreck of a fight that we can’t escape from.
What’s exciting about Shadow of Mordor is that for once in a big-budget game, we’re a genuine underdog and our survival is not guaranteed with a magical “Continue from checkpoint.” Well, okay, it kind of is, since we do just come back to life after defeat. However, my larger point is that we’re allowed to die and fail and that there are actual repercussions for that failure to give it meaning. Time doesn’t reset when we respawn, it continues forward to our disadvantage.
This imbalance is a good thing. People like it when the odds are against them. It’s a testament to our love of imbalance that people are actively trying to make Shadow of Mordor harder, that they’re disappointed by our ascent into orc-killing-machine, and that they would prefer to keep themselves the underdog for as long as possible.
Similarly, I find it odd that one of the major criticisms of Alien: Isolation is that the alien seems at times to be unfairly prescient, that it seems to know where you are even as you hide silently. Horror, of all genres, should be unfair. Fairness and balance implies a predictable system, and anything that’s predictable isn’t frightening.
Isolation actually reminds me a lot of Homesick, a game I highlighted a year ago during Indie Horror Month. In Homesick, we’re stalked by a crazed killer in a dark house. We have to find several keys in order to escape, but their locations are randomized, so we open every drawer, closet, cupboard, or desk that we find, knowing that at any moment that the killer could appear. The catch to Homesick that differentiates it from similar games like Slender is that Homesick is happy to screw you over. Slender has rules about sprinting and light-use and can be gamed to give you an advantage in fleeing when Slenderman inevitably appears. In Homesick, we have no such advantage. All you have is luck, and as such, it’s a game that reveals just how much divine/authorial intervention is required for any protagonist to survive a horror story.
Alien: Isolation is a big-budget game with that same indie ethos. The developers refuse to intervene and assist with your survival. It’s just you against a far more powerful foe, and as such, it’s natural that we die more often than we live.
Isolation is an honest take on what an Alien encounter would be like. In the movie, Ripley only lived because the story demanded it. We players don’t have that narrative protection and that exposes us to the sad, horrifying truth of our situation—a truth that most modern games would rather ignore in favor of accessibility and fun—the truth that we are oh so fucked and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Isolation embraces that truth and makes it a cornerstone of gameplay, which certainly makes the game less fun, but it also makes the game more frightening.
Fairness only really matters in competitive games, when we’re meant to match our skills against other players in some virtual arena, though even then there’s been a slow rise of multiplayer games in which one player is given a hefty advantage, and it’s up to several other weaker players to take that player down (see: Evolve). In a single-player narrative context, the idea of fairness is meaningless because the mechanics of such a game should reflect on the story. They shouldn’t be a closed ecosystem unto themselves.
Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation both eschew “fair” systems in favor of systems that make for a more memorable experience.