Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Choices, or Why I like Failure

This week, Rob Donoghue has been posting a compare-and-contrast about video games and tabletop games. On Tuesday, he said something that’s been brewing in my head for a bit.

The key point from that post, for my purposes, is that video games are very tolerant of failure—there’s almost no cost for failing, just the time invested in the failed attempt, because you can keep trying until you get it right. (I hope I’ve done his point justice, anyway.)

That didn’t sit right with me. Not because I don’t think he’s right—I do. That is a property of video games. But I think it’s purely a flaw.

Austin was playing some Resident Evil game recently, and I was procrastinating on my own work by watching. I asked him at a certain point whether there were any choices that he could make in the game. He paused it, considered, said no, and put down the controller.

There were, of course, some choices—tactical ones. But none of them allowed for any branching in the events of the game. I saw Ian Bogost talk the other day, and among his points, he said that, in contrast to a novel, the experience we have with a video game emerges from the interaction of our choices with the rules of the game, and thus can be different every time. Not to go all semiotic on this point, but while there may be choices in a game like Resident Evil, they’re none of them meaningful—that is, they don’t change any of the meaning in the game.

And this is why I profoundly like failure in a game—any game with any kind of narrative, that is. A video game like Resident Evil is the worst kind of railroading, but even a game like Mass Effect doesn’t allow for failure, despite having a compelling narrative. If you die in a combat, you just reload and try again.

These stances towards failure may appear to be intrinsic to each medium. But I have counter-examples on both sides: a video game with interesting choice-based failure, and an RPG with save-and-reload.

The video game is Riven. I’ve played through, I’m pretty sure, every possible ending to that game, and two of the most interesting are failure. In one case, certain actions lead to Gehn monologuing at you and then shooting you where you stand. In the other, I idiotically trapped myself in my own prison book. Both, though admittedly more the first, were satisfying and made interesting stories.

In the other example, I once ran a game of D&D in which things just took such a bizarre shit-storm turn that we just rewound and did things again. There were two problems here: the first was that things got there in the first place—never use the second edition wild magic rules if you want any kind of control over your story. The second, though, was the “fix”. It left a bad taste in our mouths. Part of that was the way our actions denied the internal rules of the game’s magic circle or whatever, but part of it was simply that we felt denied the chance to see how that story would have gone.

I find games with story more interesting than any other kind. If I don’t get to chose where the success and failure in the story lie, and how they’re shaped, I don’t feel that I have much involvement or claim in the story.

I think this is a manifestation of the point we’ve been hammering lately to make failure interesting, but it’s also part of a related point I want to expand on in the future, which is to trust your players, both as a GM running something, and as a designer writing something. Role-playing is an inherently cooperative activity, at some level, and anything that denies this, from railroading to disjointed creative agendas, is the worse for it. Choices, for everyone involved, can help a group stay away from the railroading end of the spectrum, at least.