Tuesday 30 November 2010

The Quest for Quests: Part Eight (Enumeration 2)

You may want to start this series with part one, two, three, four, five, six or seven.

I would argue the primary function of failure in games is pedagogical: failure is used to demonstrate in a learning situation that you are approaching a problem in the wrong way - or simply lack sufficient ability in the skills required for play. This means we can draw from the large body of work when discussing failure in games.

In the pedagogical sense, there is no failure state while playing a game, except one where the player is unable to or discouraged from learning further - that is, switching the game off. The loss of a life, or permadeath in roguelikes, is merely a behavioural stick to go with the carrots of shiny lights and loud noises. Interestingly, research seems to indicate that dying in a first person shooter actually causes you to relax, which points to a model of tension while learning, relief when freed from the requirement to learn, that fits this learning-based argument. I find it helpful to break down pedagogical failures into two distinct types: failure to learn, where the player is unable to acquire the skills necessary to progress in the game; and failure to engage, where the player stops playing because they have no incentive to play further.

Note that failure to engage doesn't always simply result in switching the game off. Another possibility is that the player stops playing the game that the designer intended: by artificially limiting themselves by deciding that the some of the rules fall outside 'acceptable' or 'believable' behaviour. One example I am particular fond of resulted in the player feedback "I feel like I'm cheating". This is sufficiently different from vanilla failure to engage, because it can result from the player buying into the fiction of the game too much, but usually this results in elevated difficulty, rather than a failure in the strictest sense.

Cheating itself is an example of failure to engage. Cheat codes and 3rd party tools break down the magic circle of the game as designed, but still allow play - just not on the level playing field of the original design. In fact, both cheating and artificial honesty are sufficiently different from failure to engage in the game at all, that they are better termed 'failure to play by the rules' - whether those rules are underexploited, or ignored. If you think these two approaches should be separated out, consider the difficulty that experienced poker players have in playing with a complete neophyte: much of high level poker play is predicated on a mix of bluffing and rational behaviour that a player unfamiliar with the game will be unable to adopt and therefore can be as disruptive to play as someone cheating outright.

But there are clearly issues with failure that move beyond the framework of simply training and engaging the player. I've already discussed failure to win - where we agree within the magic circle of the game that one player has won, but another has lost, accompanied for the losers by some sense of psychological defeat and (in competitive games) lack of financial remuneration; and the failure of choice - where a game system is understood to the point where there are no non-trivial choices to be made.

There is the necessary condition of identifying as soon as possible that the game has entered an unwinnable state. The player may have lost items which are pre-requisites for puzzles later in the game, or lack sufficient resources in order to survive confrontation with the remaining enemies that they encounter. This is again a magic circle based argument, because the actual player experience may still be an enjoyable, learning-based experience, and the blame for the game continuing in this state doesn't fall squarely on the player - it is as much the responsibility of the designer to detect when a game should have ended. I'll label this type failure to finish.

Reloading a game from an earlier save is a type of failure: failure to honor outcomes, that is distinct enough from failure to play by the rules that it warrants its own category. A reload still plays within the game rules, but effectively the player is exploring all possible outcomes of those rules in order to get the preferable choice. The reload can on one level be seen as a cheat tool but a game supported one, in the same way that trying all your letters in a space in iPhone Scrabble to see what is accepted as a valid word is a way of cheating that is completely supported by the software. But it is also a way of constructing a preferred narrative, or merely an alternate one, that itself be construed as valid play - the roguelike Save Scummer takes this to a logical extreme.

Within the magic circle of the game, it is possible to see a thousand incremental failures - death through a thousand paper cuts of lost strategic units. The failure to honour outcomes is as much a way of playing the metagame of choosing which loses to accept within the game. The reaction of many players to a game like Fire Emblem shows that players strongly resist the idea of losing assets that they identify with. This suggests you should design the game so that assets are clearly disposable - by procedurally generating them, for instance. X-Com seems to strike the right balance: the soldiers are clearly expendable, but by naming them, it is possible for the player to begin to begin to identify with them should they survive for any length of time.

There is, through ambiguity, design failure or deliberate intent, the opportunity to create a 'failure to be consistent', which can occur both within the game rules - most commonly board games, and actual play. The masocore genre prizes this as a success rather than failure, and some game designers include deliberate rules ambiguity to make agreeing to the rules of play a fundamental part of the game itself. Likewise, the player can be their own arbitrary god: fair one minute, fickle the next.

Finally there is a failure best termed 'failure to have a sequel'. Games engage the player in a way that constructs not just a narrative within the game, but a whole metanarrative of conjecture, supposition, fan fiction, back stories, promotional material, web sites and wikis, both canon and non-canonical. Players are embedded in this larger narrative, choosing to accept or reject this additional material, but also construct it by the choices they make as they play the game. If a game is not financial successful enough to have a sequel, or the intellectual property becomes mired in complex legal entanglement, or even the direction chosen for the technical sequel does not match the player expectations, then this type of failure occurs. Games are unique though in the way that the player choices must also be honoured or ignored in the sequel: a few (Deus Ex: Invisible War, and Morrowind) are sophisticated enough to posit that all possible outcomes a player was capable of making, in fact occurred.

We move to another brief interlude in part nine, before pressing on towards our goal.

Friday 26 November 2010

Two roguelike podcast mentions in as many weeks

Troy Goodfellow from Three Moves Ahead, discusses his comfort game... Dungeon Crawl.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

One Life Respect

I've always maintained that roguelikes have a huge amount of goodwill from the wider gaming community.

Nethack was reviewed by Ste Curran in last week's episode of One Life Left - a formerly award winning UK radio show about games - and it manages to get a score of 7 out of 10, despite its age. Unfortunately, due to the postponement of this week's episode, we may never learn what Ste thinks of Angband...