The line in games between risk and frustration is very thin, so developers have to tread carefully. From the legacy of old-school games, we have the concept of ‘save points’ so that failure is real, but not entirely disastrous. Some games have a ‘hardcore mode’ where a single death means you’ll be starting over from the very beginning.
As I’ve said before, games can have two major aspects: the game itself (fun, competition, mechanics, achievements…), and the story of the game (either hand-made by developers or the emergent experience). Due to the rather… permanent nature of death, we typically write it off as a “game” aspect only. It’s usually just another realism that doesn’t add to the fun, and so we gamify it.
What are some ways we can allow the game to simply continue, incorporating that failure into the game in a story-like manner? (Or at the very least addressing it)? This is especially important when it comes to the ultimate ‘failure’ in a game, the death of your character. I’ll highlight a few bright ideas and examples from a previous ODIN Brainstorm:
- Allow erasing your mistakes and starting over, but incorporate that mechanic into the lore (Sands of Time)
- If death is permanent, you should only die if it makes sense in the story, and makes for a good resolution (Sacrificing yourself to save another, “Fly, you fools!”, etc…). You shouldn’t die simply because you accidentally drank the wrong potion, tripped backwards over a ledge, etc…
- Note that with the above death example, you should still feel some sort of risk (if you’re invincible except in plot-heavy moments, then it’s not exciting for most of the game).
- Branching storylines where you might pass or fail an objective, leading to different branches that still make sense.
- Perhaps in the case of death, your character has friends or relatives who they can pass the ‘legacy’ on to, and you can subsequently play as a new character. While you can’t play the old character anymore, you can still visually see their influence in the game world, so it’s kind of cool.
In a pre-scripted story, we should only have a failure occur when it would further the plot, cause dramatic conflict, set a mood, or lead to a masterful, emotional scene. What to do then, when the player accidentally backs off a ledge and falls into lava? What about stumbling into a hive of monsters and being overwhelmed while flailing about clumsily looking for an exit?
In order to fully roll with failure, the game (and more importantly the story) must be capable of continuing and adapting to your failures. Perhaps there’s another type of game which could accomplish this:
Consider Pen-and-paper RPGs, in which players fail all the time. Campaign players often surprise their Game Masters with the sheer idiocy of their plans sometimes. “Wait… you’re going to try and seduce the guards? They’re level 92 Blackthorn Demons. They don’t even have emotions!” And yet… a good Game Master can actually roll with their player’s strange ideas and unexpected failures, turning it into an interesting (or at least humorous) plot twist.
Fully rolling with player failures would require a GM (either human or AI) to continue creating story regardless of what the players actually do. I’d say a really good GM could solve this problem and walk the fine balance of making players feel risk as well as reduce their frustration from failure.