Among its advice for how to create and stage a game scenario, was a decree that has stuck with me to this day: “Failure is boring – the credible threat of failure is very exciting.”
What Laws means by this is that not only can it be frustrating to lose in a game scenario, it can actually become dull. Let’s look at an example situation, in the Dungeons & Dragons context. First of all, if you’re totally unfamiliar, the Dungeon Master (or more unversally, Game Master) is a player that leads the others, by describing the world around them, what they see, and providing the obstacles and adventures the other players encounter. With that in mind, say players are in a game where the Dungeon Master has their adventuring party delving in to a deep, imposing cavern. They fight their way past the goblin guardians, and then, at the bottom of the cavern, there is a locked door. The party has no key to this lock, so it’s up to the party thief character (called a rogue in modern editions) to pick the lock. Unfortunately, his tool to do this is a die roll, and he doesn’t roll high enough. He fails to open the door. Because of this, the party has no choice but to turn back, and ignore the adventure that might be hiding beyond that locked door. It’s failure at a difficult task, and the person who invented that task was the game’s Dungeon Master. It’s also just boring, because nobody gets to see the rest of the adventure behind that door.
I feel like I just opened up a bit part of my DM’s toolkit by giving this advice away, though there’s more where that came from in the book.
I’m merely astonished that, among gaming cricles, the “credible threat of failure” is not a more well-quoted phrase. I feel that it should be right in the game analyzer’s handbook, somewhere next to “ludonarrative” and “series of interesting decisions.”
Yes, I’m talking about video games now.
The comparison works best when discussing a video game that has an intended narrative. For example, the other day I remarked to a friend that I had picked up a copy of the King’s Quest Collection at an electronics closeout. This is a game series of remarkable vintage and legacy, but his follow-up question was not uncalled-for. “Why,” he asked me, “do you hate fun?”
Old Sierra-style adventure games involved a lot of dying. In order to prime yourself to play such a game, you have to prepare yourself for the possibility of lots of unfair, uncalled-for failures. Sometimes these failures aren’t telegraphed. There’s no way a player would expect that walking on one certain pixel or entering a screen at the wrong time was going to spell doom for their avatar. Other times, the source of these failures is not apparent at all. Fail to get a necessary item early on in the game, and the game will have no way to further progress. It doesn’t give the feedback that is needed to understand the failure, nor the means to correct a mistake made perhaps an hour ago in the game.
The arcade’s first attempt at story-focused games involved a lot of dying, too. Games like Dragon’s Lair are simple exercises in quarter-munching: fail and fail until the player finally pushes the button, basically at random, that leads to victory. A player could retry a few times, thanks to extra lives, but couldn’t retry forever before seeing that Game Over screen and having to insert more money.
In other words, when we were Prince Alexander, or Dirk the Daring, we didn’t need the credible threat of failure. It was replaced with actual failure, and lots of it.
So the first part of the axiom. “Failure is boring.”
Which, it is.
But it’s often a necessary part of a video game experience; otherwise, the threat of failure is not credible.
Part of the Problem
This brings me to discussing, with apologies, games I haven’t actually played, but read and watched lots of critical review about: the games in the Modern Warfare series.
The common wisdom is that players buy these games for the multiplayer, leaving the single-player campaign as just a one-off exercise. Maybe multiplayer enthusiasts never even touch it; many critics seem to play the campaigns with apologies, stating they realize that isn’t “the point” of the game.
So, to reiterate, I’ve never played Call of Duty: Black Ops. I just think this video is hilarious.
The video – which is long, but worth it – shows an annoyed player and his experience with the first mission of Black Ops. It turns out that this mission (which serves partially as a tutorial, but is an enormous set piece of its own right), can be completed without any real combat action from the player. NPCs and AI take out most of the heavy targets, leaving the player to shoot his weapon only during a few scripted sequences, if he chooses. During those sequences, you basically can’t miss, and so while the scene is very cinematic, there is no real challenge. The player, a PC enthusiast, blames console gamers for this cinematic simplification. “If you own an XBox or Playstation, you are part of the problem.”
Last week, John Walker posted an editorial on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, when he said Modern Warfare 3, at least in single player, is an “un-game.” This is in response to Brendan Keogh, who argued with his original review, saying that going along with the game’s story conceit is just how to have fun with it. But Walker essentially says he doesn’t feel like a participant, rather, that the game is often playing itself for the most cinematic outcome.
Skyrim was actually the game that made me start thinking about this subject again. In Skyrim, the first real enemy creature you encounter is a dragon, the dragon. It is attacking the site where the player-character is about to be executed, its dramatic timing saving the Dragonborn’s life.
The dragon is devastating. People run from it in fear, as the ground quakes. Once-stoic soldiers scream and panic at this horrifying sight. But because this serves as the game’s movement tutorial, and is played just after character creation, this is a situation a player is likely to play through more than once. On subsequent plays, the set dressing falls apart, starting to reveal the cardboard stand-ups that make failure only a threat. As it turns out, it’s very difficult to die during this sequence. If you are brave, and keep moving, you can run right past the dragon with out much worry. The only truly deadly plan is to stand tauntingly in front of it, and wait to be devoured.
Later in the game, you will fight dragons, and many of them. The first few encounters are exciting and intense. The dragon has been built up in the lore to be a creature of great mystery and impossible power. People scoff when you claim they exist, and run cowering when a dragon appears. However, dragon encounters will soon become mundane, as you encounter them repeatedly, and off them with relative ease.
This makes it all the more bizzare when a random bandit with a greatsword can easily decapitate your mighty, dragonslaying hero in one fell swoop. Why isn’t that guy out slaying the dragons? Narrowly succeeding against a dragon, a beast built up by lore to be the greatest of all monsters: very exciting. Getting beat up by a regular human with a slightly bigger sword than your sword: pretty dull, by comparison. Guess which scenario is more common in Skyrim?
The en media res tutorial is a new trend that adds excitement to the start of a game. It gets past the idea of a game starting up slow. However, this design element risks removing the credible threat of failure early in a game’s play, because it presents a scenario that you will replay frequently. The threat of failure then becomes less credible in subsequent replays. I see a lot of videos on YouTube of people training skills on the unkillable NPCs in Skyrim’s tutorial. Once discovering how this scenario was stacked in their favor, players exploit it for experience points and laughs.
The New Failure
Nobody likes to fail. But if games don’t have a “credible threat of failure,” they become boring, or patronizing, to many gamers. One way of combating this in recent designs is the masocore genre, where you can fail as many times as you need to before you succeed. Another popular design is the one used in hard RPGs like Demon’s Souls, where preparation and planning are the keys to success, but real (if temporary) failure happens often, forcing you to regroup and retry.
On Gamasutra, Margaret Robinson talks about how meaningful she finds the repeated failures in Demon’s Souls, once she is in the right mindset to accept failure. Obviously, some other gamers disagree, returning to the creed that failure is boring. They would rather play games to relax and feel good. No one is really “right” in this situation, but it’s obvious some people can shrug off failure much quicker than others can, and some would rather not experience it at all.