Alternatives to Failure

Scott Martin over at Gnome Stew posted yesterday about failure in tabletop roleplaying games. Or rather, the alternatives to simple failure. There’s any number of reasons why players of an RPG might fail: bad die rolls, bad choices, or simple failure to turn the right direction at an intersection. But often, failure is a bad thing for everyone.

Character failure isn’t always a bad thing– if you step back from your character’s eyes and think of the game as a story, you might even root for your character’s failure at times. Failure can show adversity…, create sympathy…, feel right…, provide material for character introspection, and more. But when you get to the climax of the story, it sucks when the dice come up ones and you’re just a sidekick and someone else laps up the glory.

This is a problem in tabletop RPGs and in digital games. Does the game master or developer/game engine just allow the Total Party Kill, even if the fate of the world is at stake? If the player misses her chance to find a vital clue, is she out of luck? Martin lists an array of possibilities, and they’re equally applicable to digital games as to tabletop RPGs. I’ll discuss how digital games can deal with failure after the break.

Digital games generally handle important failures in two ways: either make the player fail, and force her to reload a saved game; or construct the world in such a way that failure is impossible. Digital games usually take the former approach with regard to injury and death. You die, you get a game over. System Shock and its successors, as well as Planescape: Torment, offer alternatives to this. Death is not permanent… within certain parameters. The latter approach, where permanent failure other than death is impossible, is very common, although many games allow the player to get “stuck.” See, for example, Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as many more of their games. The impossibility of getting stuck, however, often feels like railroading, being forced along a path with no choice.

I’d like to see a digital game system that could do what Martin talks about: adapt to player failure, allowing the failure to occur but letting the game go on. This would require a certain amount of artificial intelligence, to realize that a clue has been missed and reposition it, or to generate a realistic scenario for why the player character isn’t torn to bits by the zombie dogs. There’s been research in story-management AIs like this — in fact, my own senior thesis was on a similar topic — but I don’t recall ever seeing one actually made into a real game. Façade had a drama manager, but it didn’t really deal with failure in any interesting way.

But in the absence of an awesome story-management AI, game developers can deal with failure by just considering it in their design. In Deus Ex, the player has several opportunities to kill minor protagonists Navarre and Hermann, and only the last confrontation is required. Even then, each of the two can be killed easily using their cybernetic killswitch passwords or, if the player missed the clues to do that, killed with conventional munitions. Failure is handled well, here. Life is made more difficult if the player fails to kill the two early on, or chooses not to. There is a consequence to failure. However, the failure doesn’t derail the game; the game neatly recovers and allows the player to make up for it later.

So, developers should think about failure. Is there a way to handle it without railroading the player or forcing her out of immersion with a Game Over screen? And if you, the reader, can think of a game that handled failure in an interesting way, let me know in the comments.

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3 Comments

  1. Scott M on 15.09.2008 at 11:09 (Reply)

    Thanks for continuing the discussion. You’ve made some excellent points about computer games– I know that’s one good reason flesh and blood GMs are still around. Of course, video games are getting better all the time– you’re more able to interact with the environment now and “open sandbox” type games allow you to wander all over the place before getting back to the plot on your own schedule. I hope the trend continues.


  2. Em on 30.09.2008 at 10:30 (Reply)

    Question: Is there a reason you use the pronoun “she”, rather than “he”, or even “the player?” It seems that if you do this as a countermeasure to the fact that “he” is used so colloquially, I could contend that using “she” is equally… unequal.

    Just curious ;)


  3. Gregory Weir on 30.09.2008 at 12:22 (Reply)

    English doesn’t have a real gender-neutral pronoun, and using “he/she” or “the player” every time is awkward. In longer pieces of writing, I try to mix the genders up, but in short pieces I default to using “she.” I figure enough folks default to “he” that I’m helping balance things out. It’s not that I’m deliberately using it as a countermeasure; I’ve just chosen to make it my default generic gender in short pieces like the ones on Ludus Novus. In longer pieces, I usually try to balance between “he” and “she.”


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