Living with Failure

Mission Failure... but is it the end?

Mission Failure... but is it the end?

I’m not interested in self-help or anything of the like today — don’t let the headline mislead you. It’s a popular theory that video-games with someday evolve in to software that can write a story for you, so that a player’s adventure through a game will be unique to them and their actions. People who naysay this are on pretty stable ground, because we have a long way to go before our games will look anything like that. In fact, these days most games are something of the antithesis of that; you’re limited to a small number of choices across of linear storyline, and the choices you can make are either scripted or trivial.

So how to we get to that place where our games are completely open? Well, we have to start by designing them open ended. Sandbox games do try hard to let players operate independently of their storyline, but these games don’t have dynamic stories. Eventually you have to follow the painted line to the end of the story. Additionally, the world around you doesn’t typically react to what you do, except by whatever is scripted.

Dynamic stories and worlds to house them — that’s a daunting task. So with that preamble out of the way, I want to talk about Failure. In the vast majority of games, failure is a brick wall, completely impassible. Virtually all action games feature quick-save and quick-load now-a-days; when they don’t, players tend to get pissed. Quick save/loading is to let players avoid the reality of failure in these games, where dying means the game immediately ends and the player will have to restart at the last major check point in the game.

The question should be: why? In violent conflicts, people die all the time. So why does the game have to end there?

The quick answer is that because we can’t just have an infinite number of characters or an infinite number of story lines to accommodate them. Gorden Freeman is at the center of the Half-Life story, so if he dies the story sort of falls apart as it is presented to the player. This is a problem presented by the linear story-telling, which makes no allowances for a character to fail — in fact, in most of the games you not only have no allowance for failure, but no allowance for variations of success; it’s either all in or nothing at all.

Roguelikes are a good example of games with a division of character and story. In terms of story complexity, they’re very similar to older linear games, but they aren’t as locked down on their plot — players create characters and they progress through the game world. If they die, that’s the end of that character, no lives, no reloading a save file. However, a lot of the time, that character’s impact on the game world remains. (I believe that some games even rely on this temporary nature of their characters to advance the greater story.)

Let’s take a different example. In a military campaign, missions are won and lost all the time.In fact, it’s very difficult to seperate individual engagements from a larger war in a lot of cases as they take place in the same location or very near by; the individual successes and failures in any particular engagement and the magnitude of those success and failures can impact each consecutive mission.

However, in most strategy games, turn based or real time, each mission is entirely self contained. The number of units and other resources are predetermined by the mission — it doesn’t matter if you saved every scrap and steamrollered your opponent, or if you just barely survived the last engagement. Each scenario is entirely independent, which can give the overall sensation that you have no genuine impact on the effort. And while some games support branching of the story for winning or failing particular engagements,  generally failing a mission ends the game.

The reasons why are not that difficult to figure out — the archecture of these games can make it very difficult to add these kinds of elements; it means adding a whole new superstructure to the game to take in to account the overall state of the game world. But why?

And here we come to the biggest major hurdle: The reason why  games are unable to easily add these large-scale elements is because because they exist beyond the scale of the game itself — they’re too big to be an afterthought for the game’s design, so they need to be taken in to account from the very beginning. However, most games are designed derivatively, based on prior games. It’s well understood that WarCraft is at least inspired by the Warhammer table top war game — Warhammer doesn’t take in to account the big picture of a war, as it’s too much data to track in a table top game.

With WarCraft derviving the instance-based gameplay of Warhammer, it also fails to take in to account the large-scale reality of war. While WarCraft isn’t the first RTS made, it (and other major games in the genre) is very inspirational to other later games in the genre.

The same can be seen in the FPS genre, like Half-Life. These games can trace their lineage to DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D; games concerned with a very personal level of engagement. Like most games expanding on previous efforts, their designers have been less concerned with creating a legitimately real experience and more concerned with refining the personal level of the experience; better physics, better visuals, better enemy AI. But we’re still dealing with the small scale — most games ignore the large scale and replace it with the story, which is unchanging.

The solution isn’t simple, because it’s untread ground, but it starts with the scenarios and person-level encounters we’re used to, and reverse engineering how these situations impact a greater world. Once we’ve figured out the interactions of the large and small scales, we can start designing the large scale — something probably as difficult as producing a whole game on its own. Not easy, but I’m willing to be that it will be better.

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One Response to “Living with Failure”

  1. Quick Post: Heavy Rain « The Art of Game Says:

    […] sense. It does however follow similar lines of thinking that I was discussing before in Living With Failure a while back (which then cascaded in to some design […]

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