If you're reading this, then I'm betting that you arrived here with an idea of what the subject of this editorial is going to be. Of the many cliches that are relied upon as crutches to help demonstrate some aspect of an RPG's story, this one has got to be one of the most annoying. We've all encountered it. While it may not stick out the most in your mind when you think of your overall reaction to how good or bad an RPG is, it's there...mocking you.
RPGamers love to improve the characters of the games the play. In fact, mastering an RPG's gameplay elements necessarily involves a perfectionist-friendly enterprise of careful planning of the development of characters' abilities; the focus is usually on maximizing each character's strengths and minimizing his/her weaknesses. And RPGamers are good at this. We're relentless in our quest to make sure that the opponents of the characters we control will have a hard time in bringing down our protagonists.
Eventually, however, one of those opponents does give our characters a run for their money. Victory seems almost impossible; no matter how much you multiply your efforts, the enemy shows no signs of defeat. Then, with the same amount of confidence you once had in your party's abilities, you come to a grim, yet all-too-familiar, conclusion.
"I bet this is one of those battles that you're forced to lose. This enemy cannot be defeated, at least not now."
Your defeat is now set in stone. Because the creators of the game you're playing couldn't be original enough to find a new way to demonstrate your party's ineptitude in confronting a particular enemy, you're forced to bear witness to the slaughter of your protagonists.
Sure, this mandatory defeat does carry a certain amount of dramaticism that is meant to help illustrate your enemy's strength, your weakness, or something tied to the game's story. But hasn't it gotten a bit tired? The point at which players began to be able to anticipate these mandatory defeats was the point at which the dramaticism tied to these defeats began to plummet. It has long since become cliche, and now it's just downright annoying.
So what should be used in place of these "mandatory defeats?" How else could your party's inferiority be demonstrated? At this point, I think any alternative would be superior to continued use of this trite cliche. There's a variety of ways the dramaticism that is conveyed by a defeat could be otherwise communicated. Instead of having the future last-boss-of-the-game intervene in your daily saving-of-a-monster-beleaguered-town wipe you out, give you a cryptic message about your forgotten past, then leave you for dead, why not simply make said villain do something horrific, something that makes you want to hate him or her? If the primary goal in having the player's party suffer a mandatory defeat is to invoke anger on behalf of the player, this goal can probably be thus attained through other means. If a mandatory defeat's purpose is to demonstrate the strength of your opponent, then this could probably be better demonstrated by making the opponent do something completely unbelievable or awe-inspiring. Besides, wouldn't a villain's strength be more effectively emphasized by having said villain refuse to even meddle with your characters on account of his/her being so much stronger than you?
Whatever purpose RPG creators think that mandatory defeats have, it seems clear to me that they can be achieved through other means, ones that don't involve the invocation of tired cliches.