Thursday, 9 December 2010
The Theory Behind In-Game Failure
followed by a discretionary amount of replaying from the last checkpoint. To a certain degree I'm sold on this concept. Particularly in these days of casual, persistent and console gaming, developers are always seeking ways to avoid those ugly words,
and allow the player to proceed without breaking the fiction (see my discussion on Bioshock's Vita-Chambers). Sometimes this cuts short your options: if you're escorting an NPC how do you handle that NPC's potential death? Invulnerability? Branching story lines? Massive text redundancy?! Sometimes a good old fashioned
is all you need.
On the flip side, I love games that incorporate player failure not just into their fiction, but into their gameplay. In fact I think they're far more rewarding experiences. I believe this on the basis that its not just challenge that is central to good drama, but failure. With that in mind, in order for failure states to be meaningful they need to be incorporated into the both the game's fiction and, more importantly, the world of the game's mechanics.
I see three ways in which failure is modelled:
1. Game over
2. Forced fails
3. Gameplay incorporated
Game over (yeah, line breaking for 'game over' is getting annoying now) definitely qualifies as a failure, but in most cases it's mechanically unrelated to everything else in the game. You step back in time and turn that failure into a success in order for the narrative and interaction to continue.
Forced fails are when the story demands the character strike out, and the game forces the player to embody this. There's a time and a place for this, but clearly as soon as you're scripting player action to reflect the story, rather than the other way around, you've given up a core tenet of interactive narrative. In both game over and forced fail, failure acts as a barrier to interaction rather than a part of it.
The better approach, as I see it, is the smaller scale stuff that's handled by the game mechanics. That's things like getting shot, taking too long, or making poor decisions. These are things which, combined, might lead to a Game over, but which can usually be taken on the chin. I played a lot of RTS and management games when I was a kid, and I think one of the appeals of those genres is that game over is far rarer than in action games, and that failure is Incorporated into the flow. Messing up in Theme Hospital doesn't make the level unplayable; you don't have to redo the half hour since the last check point. What it means is having to hire new specialists. What it means is having to stare at the monstrosity of a Bloaty Head treatment machine you just built when all your patients are dying of Broken Hearts. What it means is being punished proportionately, in a way that's cohesive with the fiction and the game structure, and in a way that forces you to work harder to overcome your self-wrought challenges.
What it arguably means is a far truer interpretation of interactive drama.
Of course, there remain sticking points. How do we tell a story which revolves entirely around a protagonist's failure, but keep the player motivated? How do we tie this approach not just into the gameplay, but more thoroughly into a complex narrative?
I'm going to go play Theme Hospital (well, its open source clone) and think about it some more.