Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Consequences of Failure

Generally speaking, video games differ from reality in a number of ways, but of those, one of the most prominent has to be the "failed state."  More often than not, losing equates to death.  Granted, there are usually mechanics to partially negate this harsh penalty in the form of a save system, checkpoints, continues, respawns, etc.  Outside of Rogue-likes, perma-death is pretty rare.  Almost as rare in a single player experience is the notion of a game proceeding after failure.  Let me pose the following question, What if the player's on-screen avatar survives, but is unable to complete whatever goal the game designers expect them to accomplish?

The overwhelming majority of the time players are simply slapped with a "mission failed" message which necessitates a restart.  Almost as if the player were an actor on a film set and the movie director yells, "cut!" over and over again while demanding a scene do-over.  Not every game embraces this concept fully though.  When it comes to reality you win some and you lose some, but regardless life go on.

Based on the above axiom it comes as no surprise that simulation games, particularly combat flight-sims, were one of the earliest examples that I'm aware of that accounted for the possibility that you could lose some battles, but still win the war...or at least survive to the conclusion of hostilities.  There also seems to be a tendency for games that don't do "game over" screens to operate in a small area with a narrowly bracketed time frame.  I know that's awfully vague and, depending on how you define it, a lot of games that sound like a good match (such as Way of the Samurai or Majora's Mask) don't really fit.

The fundamental benefit of narrowing down a time and place is it allows game developers to trade breadth for depth. The two previously mentioned examples inch toward the concept, but stubbornly cling to a directorial series of events. To some degree, I get why they do this. Even if you make the exchange, developer resources are still finite.  It's a problem Telltale is well aware of, I'm sure.  Still, I think the more than can be influenced by the player's actions, the better.  It's like that movie "Groundhog Day" except instead of passively watching Bill Murray's character experimenting with various possible outcomes, the player actively gets to do so.

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