Rolling With Failure


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.



8 thoughts on “Rolling With Failure

  1. I think Fire Emblem does a fairly good idea with this concept because if a character dies they never come back to battle for you. If a plot relevant character dies, they may still show up in cutscenes, but you can’t use them anymore. Of course you do get a game over if someone too important dies.
    This also adds a choice to the game. Do you continue with the dead character and suffer the rest of the game, or save, restart, and go through the (sometimes nearly impossible) task of keeping them alive.

    • How about some characters in game dying actually being part of the ‘best’ path…got to break the keep em all alive mentality. I can remember grinding to a halt in Dynasty Warriors Tactics precisely because of this a shame as I was really enjoying it until then!

      Half-life had NPC’s dying left and centre..this is more realistic and brings home a ‘slight’ sense of mortality.

  2. I liked the idea of “meaningful” death. When you described it I realized this has been what’s so unattractive to me about games with permadeath. They don’t all make death interesting and I think if that mechanic is employed it really needs to not only add to the experience, but be an experience itself.

  3. I sometimes wonder at the extremes that games naturally engender when it comes to success and failure. Death is the game’s way of telling you you’re not winning. Most mmos have as their objective the outright killing of the opponent. Why death, as an objective?

    If I play a pick-up game of basketball, my objective is not to kill as many of the other players on the court as possible before time runs out. Instead, I need to have a completely different skill set to dribble, pass, shoot, defend… I was just thinking about this in reference to PvP. Is Huttball successful in taking the emphasis off of destruction of the other team? When all you have is a blaster, every problem has a targeting reticule superimposed over it.

    What about thinking in terms of different levels of death? Think about the Priest ability in WoW, where for a short time after death the priest still retains some healing ability in the angelform. What about having a few levels of incapacitation: when you reach the first threshold, perhaps you lose all damage capability but you can still move and use defensive abilities. In a dungeon you still retain some value to the party perhaps by casting slows and snares or limited healing, cleansing or buffing.

    At a further threshold you might severely restrict movement as well, but perhaps you can still crawl out of danger, and can be rezzed by other players during combat. (you’re only “mostly dead” ).

    • Glad you mentioned it. Death is an easy source of conflict/risk in game stories, and an easy source of action in game mechanics. It’s not a cop-out exactly, but just a quick, easy way to stimulate the gamers, and designers unfortunately rely upon it like a crutch.

      Guild Wars 2 (at least last time I checked) would leave you “mostly dead”, struggling to survive/get back up. During a certain window, another player had the opportunity to come around and heal or lift you back up to your feet, at which point you could rejoin the fray with a hit to your health. I thought this was a clever way to rely less on death as a punishment, without eliminating the thrill from having the risk.

      With the presence of a GM, you could make the players feel at risk, but only reserve actual death for meaningful moments. Instead, you could roll with near-death situations (such as being overwhelmed by guards) and continue the story. Perhaps the lead guard calls for the others to stop, so that they can “take you alive” for interrogation, at which point the story becomes about escaping from prison. You could even continue the story from there (rather than having the prison story be a “side-story”). Perhaps being thrown in prison opens new doors (ironically), such as meeting a key NPC who is also in prison.

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