Agency and Failure
Posted by Blessing of Kings [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 December 2012, 12:00 am
Milady wrote a really interesting post last week about Agency and Powerlessness. She contends that gaming narratives are immature in part because the hero always succeeds.

I agree and disagree with Milady. Gaming narratives are often immature because the hero is always successful, sometimes verging on omnipotence. However, Milady attributes this to the general maturity level of the gaming industry, suggesting that the gaming industry prefers adolescent fantasies. I disagree with this view. I think gaming narratives are the way they are because of the fundamental structure of games.

Failure in games is different than failure in novels and movies. In novels and movies the writer controls both the protagonist and the challenges she faces. Thus the writer can have the protagonist fail, and the audience considers it a valid failure. Similarly, in real life it is person versus the world, and if the person fails, that failure is valid.

But games are innately adversarial, either player versus the rules, or player versus the game writer/designer. For failure to be considered valid, the player must fail because of a choice she made. Failure that is simply imposed by the rules or game designer is not considered valid, not considered fair. Every situation the game puts the player in must have a solution.  If a player fails to find the solution, that is a fair loss. But if no solution exists, the game is flawed.

To put it another way, Kobayashi Maru situations are innately bad game design. The audience instinctively understands this, and when James Kirk reprograms the simulator, they applaud his ingenuity.

It is fundamentally a question of the balance of power in gaming. It is trivially easy for the game designer to make a no-win scenario. Thus it is bad form for one to actually do so. You see this in tabletop RPGs. The Game Master can easily wipe out the player characters whenever she feels like it. But a GM who actually does this is considered a bad GM, and accused of "railroading".  Failure must come from the players' actions, because the GM has all the power.

So from this we see the problem that games have. All situations the game puts the player in must contain a path to success to be considered fair, valid, and good game design. But, especially in an age of saving and reloading, the player can take all successful paths, and end up with a narrative where the hero is effectively omnipotent.

Sometimes games get around this by offering paths which are partial successes and partial failures. For example, in Mass Effect there is a choice on Virmire. The player can either save Ashley or Kaiden. She cannot save both. So that situation is one way of making the player fail in a "fair" manner.

Similarly the game can make the player fail by having the player make the choice to fail. Where failure is actually the right choice. But this is extraordinarily hard to do without making things feel artificial and forced. Of all the games I have ever played, only Planescape: Torment and Bastion have ever come close to this.

A Solution

My solution to this issue is a gamist solution. The problem is caused by the nature of game mechanics, and thus it must be fixed by game mechanics, not narrative ones. We desire a narrative game where the player does not always succeed. But the player's failure must come from the choices the player makes.

My solution is to have narrative success constrained by a resource the player controls.

You always hear political pundits declare that "the president must spend his political capital" as if political capital was an actual resource that is accumulated and then cashed in. So let's borrow that idea.

The narrative game should have a resource called Influence. The player earns Influence in some manner, and can spend Influence to adjust the outcomes of situations. But the player does not have enough Influence to affect the outcomes of all situation. She must chose which situations she must win, and which situations she can afford to lose.

This sets up a game where every given situation has a solution, but not all solutions can be taken. The player will fail sometimes, but she always fails because of her own choices. Either she spent the necessary Influence on other problems, or she chooses not to spend Influence on this problem, that she can live with the default outcome, and saves Influence for a future problem.

Games are not like other works of art. Failure must be handled in a form true to gaming. It cannot just imposed from above in order to create a mature narrative.

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