(I mentioned in this post that it’s fun to think of ways to fill the gaps we spot in entertainment. With that in mind, what follows is one of a three-part series (a TBS first?!) about designing a better RPG – or what I currently think of as better – with each post focusing on one unique or not-seen-often-enough game feature.)
(today’s post: 500 words)
Last post, I wished developers would offer gamers a go-for-broke in-game strategy to allow for greater dramatic flair. I talked about the rewards, but what happens when the player lays it all on the line and fails? That leads us to our next entry: the idea of failure as a mechanic to advance the story.
Precious few games have used failure as a forward-moving plot device. I know that the The Witch’s Wake allowed you to die to access an area that you couldn’t otherwise. Similarly, Planescape: Torment. Some games even give you the task of completing 3-of-5 objectives so that if you mess one up you aren’t blocked. There may be a few other instances here and there; if you’ve got some examples, feel free to add them in the comments.
And while these are innovative and commendable, and impactful from the point of view of the story, this isn’t exactly what I’m thinking.
I’m thinking more along the lines of a mission where you’re tasked with safeguarding a caravan that is escorting a holy relic to a nearby sanctuary. In game terms, you must protect the relic for five minutes. Normally, you fight off some would-be robbers, protect the caravan, see the relic safely delivered, and enjoy a moment of happiness-and-unicorns at the end. And if you fail? You re-load and do it again until you figure it out.
Imagine if, instead, you failed. But the game didn’t force you to re-load. Lying on your back, near unconscious (thanks to your actions and not some intruding cinematic), you watch your fellows similarly beaten – some of whom are killed. The rival faction steals the relic you were protecting and leaves. Maybe they take you with them as a hostage – something you don’t find out until the next day when you wake up in chains, on a ship at sea. Not only is there the realization that it was OK to lose the fight because the game is moving forward, but there’s the tension of being side-tracked from delivering the relic and wondering how this new path impacts that old route. What new possibilities are there?
It throws the gamer off-guard, and that’s a good thing.
The funny thing is that the better developers like to be creative and create “replayability”, allowing alternate routes through a story. They’ll provide options where you can charge a gateway, or distract everyone guarding the door and sneak through it, or let you bribe one of the guards into helping you sneak through the lesser-known sewer route. And gamers love discussing the way that they proceeded through the story to contrast it with their friends’ decisions.
My contention is that failure is an alternate route, too. And a potentially exciting/rewarding one. But right now, developers are afraid that gamers will be demoralized from failing. Or that gamers will stop trying because they think they can succeed no matter what. And those fears (or is it something else?) are blocking developers from seeing the available avenues. Like my prior post, I know this is no small undertaking. Games with options are complicated to make – but a) we’re getting better at procedurally-generated content, and b) we need at least a few more 10-hour wide-open games to compete with the bevy of 100-hour linear games.
Feel free to comment! Until then, stay tuned for post #3.