The Enemy of my Enemy is Also my Enemy

So one of the two video games I got for my birthday is the Lord of the Rings inspired game called Shadow of Mordor. I know, I’m way behind the times. This game has been 0ut for some time now, but I am just now getting around to playing it. I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews – the gameplay is solid, but the replayability is terrible, etc – so I approached the game with caution. But I was excited to test out the nemesis system, and so far I have not been disappointed.

If you’re not familiar with Shadow of Mordor and the Nemesis system, the idea is that the politics of the enemy forces are affected by your gameplay. Defeat a powerful captain? A new one will step in. Get murdered by a nameless enemy? Watch as that Uruk gets promoted and begins to grasp at power. Let someone escape your wrath? They’ll learn to fear you and spread word of your deeds. It’s a cool idea that in my experience so far has been well-implemented.

I’ve recently experienced a similar concept when my tabletop group began playing Dungeon World. The book recommends that you track the story in the form of fronts – this comes from the idea of “war on two fronts” and illustrates the fact that life goes on even when the player characters aren’t around. While the players are focused on one front, the other one progresses and changes. If they ever come back to that other front, they’ll find that things are drastically different from before. In some cases, ignoring a front may mean that the front will come looking for them.

Both of these games capture an element of realism that I think video games can really benefit from. That realism comes from the fact that, in the real world, life goes on when you’re not around. People and places don’t freeze in time when you stop perceiving them (get mad, postmodernists). Lots of folks my age come to this realization when they go off to college. Returning home to find that their parents have been promoted, or changed the house, or had another kid, can be pretty shocking.

Here’s the thing – a lot of games ignore this. When you take a quest, that quest freezes in time until you come back. You can promise to rescue a princess from an evil wizard trying to sacrifice her, do every sidequest in the game first, and come back to find the princess just as unsacrificed as she was two weeks ago. In reality, the lack of your princess doesn’t mean that the evil machinations of the wizard have ceased.

With the Nemesis system, it’s satisfying to see how your actions change the enemy forces. In Dungeon World, it’s satisfying to see how the actions you didn’t take are just as important as the ones you did. These mechanics help their respective games reflect the real world, and it’d be awesome to see more games do this.

Just imagine it. Playing a game where falling for the soldier’s clever trap gets him promoted to captain. Or where ignoring a sidequest means that the bad guy wins this round, and justice doesn’t win because you can’t save the entire world by yourself.

Maybe to some people, the idea of not being able to do everything in one playthrough would ruin the game. But is that not a part of replayability, something that most reviewers factor into their scores?

Let me know what you think, readers. Would you like to see more games where your actions AND your inaction have consequences beyond the immediate? Where the game changes based on your success or failure? Discuss it in the comments!

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