The Viewtiful View: Bad Design vs. Bad Player

Who is at fault if a someone can't beat the game: The designer, or the player?

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Hello, dear reader! Welcome to the first installment of a new series I’ve started called “The Viewtiful View”. Watch your step, that last one is a doozy. I told the owner of this building to get that fixed. If I had cookies to offer you, I would. No one will trust me with the oven…and rightfully so. But that’s a story for another time, hmm?

*clears throat*

In the videogaming world, often times there are aspects in which people are, or could potentially be, divided on their opinions or viewpoints. In this series, we will look at some examples of this within a certain game or gaming in general. We’ll walk through the situations and provide the stories for both sides, and hopefully shed some light on the situation, sparking some discussions along the way.

The first topic I want to bring up has already been demonstrated in a video made by YouTube user “whoisthisgit”.

The video above shows how it’s possible to get completely stuck on an island in Pokémon Platinum for the Nintendo DS. On Route 226, there is a small island that can only be accessed by using Surf. On the island, the player will find a man who wants to trade you a Magikarp for a Finneon. If you used your Finneon for Surf and no other Pokémon in your party can use any of these moves—Surf, Fly, Dig, or Teleport—you will be stuck on the island because Magikarp cannot learn Surf. This can ultimately be a game-breaking situation if the player decides to save their file after they’ve traded their Finneon for the Magikarp and are still on the island.

The situation described is difficult to just stumble upon: a number of unfortunate events and guidelines would have to be followed for the player to be truly stuck. The opportunity for it to be game-breaking during a normal playthrough of the game is slim to none, as long as the player is aware of their surroundings and the situation they could possibly get into before making any brash decisions…

…which brings us to the question of the article: If you found someone caught in this scenario, would you blame the designer for making the flaw, or blame the player for getting into the situation?

Let’s do some analysis on how this scenario could be entered, how it can be exited, and how the player could indeed be spending the rest of their adventure on a tiny island because they’re too damn lazy to swim on their own. Restating the requirements listed previously, here is what the player would have to do to find themselves stranded:

  • Trade away the only Pokémon on their team that could use Surf (in this case, Finneon).
  • Have no Pokémon in their team with Fly, Teleport, or Dig, or any that could learn these moves via TMs and HMs.
  • Saving their file after trading away Finneon.


Assuming the player has met all three of these requirements, they would find themselves seemingly stuck on the island for good. Really stuck. Tom Hanks in Cast Away stuck—with no Wilson, to boot! Luckily, there are two methods to getting off of the island without cheating, and they rely on the player having at least one fishing rod on hand. The first method is to find a way to evolve the Magikarp. While Magikarp can’t learn Surf, its evolution (Gyrados) ultimately can. They would then be able to teach it Surf, also assuming that they had the HM on hand to do so. Since there’s no terrain on the island in which to find wild Pokémon, the player would have to resort to fighting Pokémon via fishing or using Rare Candies. The second method is only possible if the player has a fishing rod, because Rare Candies won’t save you from this one. If the Trainer keeps fighting Pokémon until their party has all been defeated, the player will be sent to a Pokémon Center and be free from the island. Adding this aspect to the equation, the player could still be stranded if they meet the next requirement:

  • Not have a Fishing Rod in their inventory.

Recapping for simplicity, the player would have to follow all of the requirements in the first set, and then follow it up by failing to meet the most effective requirement to get off of the island: having one of the three possible fishing rods. Steven Wright once said, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.” He couldn’t be more right: either you fish or you’re going to be that idiot.


On one hand…: It is a design flaw that indeed brings up the possibility of breaking the game for the player should they be unfortunate enough to find themselves in this predicament. The fact that the player needs Surf to get to and from the island, and that Finneon is a Pokémon that can learn Surf is a variable that can spell disaster—especially if the player is not aware that Magikarp (a Water-type Pokémon) cannot actually learn Surf, being one of only three Water-types in the entire series that cannot learn it. Why have the Pokémon required to trade possibly be the only one in a Trainer’s party that could get you to that location in the first place? For example, if you had to trade a Geodude instead, then the Pokémon you used for Surf would still be in your party after the trade has been done since Geodude cannot learn Surf. It brings up the question why Finneon was programmed to be the required Pokémon to trade, or why they decided to put the Trader on an island with very limited means to reach to begin with. The player is not required to have a Fishing Rod to complete the game so it’s definitely possible to not have ever gotten one when they get to that point, or at least not have one in your inventory at that time.

On the other hand…: The player would have to meet incredibly odd requirements for the situation to be dubbed game-breaking. Requirements that would be difficult to meet while playing through the game normally and not trying to finish it by doing certain gimmicks. I’m looking at you, “Bidoof-only” challengers. The biggest requirement in question is saving their file after they’ve traded away their only means of transportation. It should be a huge red flag to the player if they stumbled upon this island while using a Finneon as their sole source of Surf and transportation in general, and were asked to trade it away after just surfing on the Pokémon ten seconds ago. Realistically, the player would almost have to work to put themselves in that situation, instead of just falling prey to the design flaw.

The designers definitely produced a broken design, but the player has also made very questionable decisions leading up to getting stuck. Who deserves most of the blame here?

Personal verdict: I would give the player most of the blame. While I do consider the design to be rather annoying and definitely something that shouldn’t have been overlooked, it’s just too unconventional for a player to truly find themselves stuck there. They would have to meet too many odd requirements if they were making logical decisions, and the biggest one would be to willingly save your file in a questionable situation. Even if you should meet the first two requirements in the first set, not saving your file would save your whole adventure. Simply shut it off and reload your game. Sure, you may have lost progress, but you wouldn’t have lost all of it. You’d save yourself hours upon hours of frustration and probably your DS since the possibility of it being chucked into a meat grinder would be significantly decreased.

What is your take on this scenario? Do the designers need to be strung upside down and used as a pinata at a child’s party? Does the player need to be tossed into some type of torture device? Let’s ring the bell and throw down.

15 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 1015 votes, average: 5.27 out of 10 (You need to be a registered member to rate this post.)

About the Contributor

From 2013 to 2013


  1. Oh man! This is a big issue in adventure-game design, both for players and for developers. Back In The Day, it was pretty common to allow players to get into unwinable situations (because they forgot to pick up an item, and now they can’t go back, or because they used an item for Problem A and now they need it for Problem Q, stuff like that), but now it’s basically been beaten out of the genre, because nobody wants to have to replay half a game to make sure they got the fish BEFORE they entered the spaceship, or whatever.

    It’s a fun challenge as a designer to make sure situations like that can’t arise, particularly when you’re dealing with items that you pick up early on in the game, and then don’t end up actually using until much later. You have to do things like make the player automatically receive the item–maybe they’re given it by an NPC after solving a different puzzle, or maybe they just can’t leave a room until they pick it up, even if it has nothing to do with whatever the current puzzle stuff. Or just make sure they’re always able to return to the location where the item is and pick it up whenever.

    To go back to your original question, I’d still place most of the blame on the developers here. They allowed for a situation in which the player could arrive somewhere and then immediately lose the means to escape it; that’s something they should’ve noticed. Particularly since the way to fix it (on their end) would’ve been so simple: ensure that Magikarp either has or can easily get the Surf ability.

  2. I love this question, and I think you could easily devote a whole column just to exploring the answer for different examples across gaming history.

    As a general rule of thumb, I believe it’s the developers’ responsibility to set up a framework where the players can play the game in any way they wish without any fear of accidentally breaking it. It’s unreasonable to expect that testers and developers will catch every possible glitch and design flaw before a game goes out the door, but it’s not unreasonable to expect them to catch the ones that might arise from the player playing poorly or foolishly (or TOO well), no matter how rare the circumstance may be.

    From a fairness perspective, unwinnable scenarios are only problematic if the expectation is that you CAN’T dead-end your game. I would wager that, outside the adventure genre, the only time you’ll encounter an unwinnable scenario is if you quicksave a split-second before some terrible catastrophe befalls your character, or hard save after a point of no return and then discover you weren’t as prepared as you should’ve been. Pokemon players probably know to be careful about saving in places that’ll make the game PRACTICALLY impossible to beat, but there’s no reason for them to believe they can render the game LITERALLY impossible to beat by simply walking around and talking to people.

    So, I agree with Paul: Blame the developers.

    1. Possibly my favorite all-time example of “oops, probably shouldn’t have quick-saved there” was in Portal 2, where the game auto-saved after I made a bad jump, and then auto-loaded after I died–resulting in an infinite loop of me going AHHHHHHH…SPLAT. AHHHHHH…SPLAT. over and over again until I turned the game off and reloaded a manual save.

      1. I did that once in Jedi Knight II, hitting the quicksave key instead of the quickload key halfway down a bottomless pit. Except I refused to settle for restarting the level, so I put my speed typing skills to the test and hurriedly opened up the console and enabled “noclip” flying mode to float me back to safety. Took a few tries, but I finally made it back to solid ground. And proceeded to quicksave about one second before getting vaporized by a sniper. I think I ended up restarting the level eventually anyhow.

        1. I did that on FFXIII once. Saved state at the beginning of a boss fight, then died, hit the save state button instead of load state. Lost myself like an hour to that mistake, could’ve been worse.

    2. I think I need to leave some instances of my own “shouldn’t have saved here” situations, to keep up with the tradition of these other unknowns:

      One time that was entirely my fault was in Morrowind, I went into a tomb or something with a Fire Atronarch, and I was yet to be ready for that sort of rock-em-sock-em, so I ran out of the cave, casually saved my game, then immediately get owned by said Atronarch that chased me out. Dead save right there.

      One time that WASN’T my fault was in the grindfest that is Lost Odyssey, after spending an hour in the first two screens of the game, running back and forth, I was finally leveled up enough to beat the first boss. So I went on to the next area and I was already sick of fighting things, so I carried on, only fighting what was in my way, then the game prompts me to save at the end of the area, basically before a cutscene begins. THIS WAS A TRAP. I saved because I was like “yeah, sure, why not, I’d hate to die and have to restart my save from before this area”. Then the cutscene immeadiately transitions to a boss fight. One I had no chance of winning because lolunderlevelednoobgitgud. And so I was like “oh, that’s freaking fair. AND I can’t just go back and grind, now.” and gave up on the game right there. Now that I think about things, were all RPGs on the 360 crappy in their own special way?

  3. 1- I forgot finneon was even a pokemon, and I’ve caught them all on platinum.

    2- Shame there weren’t any more of these, I love this sort of thing.

    1. I had a number of these planned back then, but between my music, work, and the apparent disapproval of my articles from the community, they never saw the light of day. Maybe someday in the future they’ll come to the surface!

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