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Forced Failure and the Undignified Hero
by Mark Filipowich on 07/26/12 03:43:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Games are about agency. They also blur the line between character experience and audience experience. The audience is the main character in a game, and the events of the story impact the audience directly. All that holds immense narrative potential, of course.

In a game, then, the hero’s victory is the same as the players.  In a sense, the character’s thoughts and emotions are not left up to speculation. The player doesn’t need someone to tell them how powerful a villain is; they find out themselves when they fight with that villain. The player doesn’t need an explanation as to why their victory is sweet; they already know because they are the one that earned it. But one potential shared experience that is so often neglected in video games is shame. Too often developers are reluctant to put their heroes (and their players) in undignified positions.

When a hero fails in a game, it usually means a game over or that an earlier save state can overwrite it from ever happening. This either means that defeat is so absolute that the game cannot continue or the failure is so inconsequential that it can be avoided entirely. What games don’t often do is force players into a situation in which there is no right answer, in which one might suffer a deserved punishment and then carry that burden onward. There is always at least one “right” answer.

There are plenty of major choices in the Mass Effect games, but even the heaviest ones often prove to be entirely meaningless. It doesn’t matter what you do, the story follows the same basic structure and what seemed to be an important decision at the time usually doesn’t hold the major consequences that one would expect. That has always been the problem with the series—a problem that culminated in its controversial ending. But Mass Effect is just the most visible symptom of the problem: games don’t make players carry failure with them. Whether it is developers being too skittish to write failure into a scenario or players being unwilling to accept an unavoidable failure, it is rare that a hero in a nonlinear game is kicked to the ground and forced to stay there.

Everybody remembers standing there helplessly as Sephiroth killed Aeris, Andrew Ryan’s death holds weight because the player has no power over their avatar and then realizes that he never really did. Some of the best moments in games happen when the game takes control away from the player and makes the hero into just a person. Imagine if Buffy didn’t hesitate against Angel in season two or if Luke didn’t have his breakdown after Vader sliced his hand off. Iron Man must be an alcoholic and Indiana Jones must be afraid of snakes. Because games are all based on the player’s ability to progress, it is tempting to put nothing but surmountable challenges in their way (if anything, it’s necessarily difficult to do so). But it is hard to take a threat seriously when a wandering mercenary need only check off a grocery list of quests to fix everything.

Watching a hero get his way for twenty hours of gameplay before riding off into the sunset doesn’t mean anything. Watching somebody capable being fooled into doing something horrible is powerful. Taking the role of a magnificent, larger-than-life person and being reduced to a piddling, helpless mess makes for effective drama and more believable and more memorable stories. When a hero is humanized it makes everything feel more believable. When the Prince of Persia is duped into killing his own father and left for dead, it hits far closer to home than watching Kratos decapitate all his problems with a single stroke. Even space marines have dirty laundry. If they were forced to air it more often, then the concept might not feel so heavy handed.

It is impossible to take a threat seriously if a neckless, gun-toting thug or a demi-god can waltz through plan A without a hitch and put all the world’s problems to bed in one fell stroke. Games need to force more disasters on their players, put more insurmountable obstacles in their way, and make them take responsibility for more unavoidable failures.


Originally posted on Popmatters

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Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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On one hand I agree with making characters relatable. On the other hand, the other school of thought (according to Tim Schafer) is game characters are about wish fulfillment for the player, giving them the chance to be something they can never be in real life. There are players who want fun without the emotional baggage that some games deliver. I'm not saying this is an all-encompassing rule, just a different school of thought.

There are players who think Cloud or Squall is an "emo" in a derogatory sense. I'm not siding with them, but all I'm thinking is, "maybe I need to consider their point too when I'm making my game".

As for meaningful choices, I heard The Witcher 2 does that.

David Navarro
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If I wanted to have all agency removed from me, I'd watch a movie.

Jason Wilson
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If every choice is the right choice and all paths lead to the same place in the end what agency do you really have? Choice is meaningless if you can't make the wrong one.

Darren Tomlyn
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There is a massive difference between choice and power (and even influence). Games are about the latter, not the former - and it's the lack of recognition about this, that is why people are failing to understand and recognise the difference between games and puzzles, especially...

How a player's power within a game is exercised can involve choice, but it's either merely PART of the subjective perception on behalf of the player(s), or subjective application on behalf of its creator(s), so long as its overall context is consistent with a game in the first place.

I suggest you read my blog, even if I'm in the process of re-writing the first couple of posts (again) because people still have trouble understanding the nature of the problem we have - (a failure to recognise and obey the basic rule/s of the language as it applies to the words game/puzzle/art/competition etc.).

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David Navarro
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@Jason: In games, most of the time, the journey is the destination.

Jason Wilson
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I don't understand what you're saying and I don't really like having to do homework to understand someone's reply. I'm sorry if that sounded snarky, but I honestly have no idea what you're trying to say.


My argument was to suggest that meaningful failure can add agency rather than remove it. If all choices the player makes are correct and lead to the exact same place than the player has only the illusion of agency. The choices don't actually matter, everything will turn out in the end.

If the player can make incorrect or less correct choices this provides an avenue for loss. If the player can lose something in a choice it adds weight to that choice. If that loss is carried through to the end the world is completely changed by that simple choice.

Darren Tomlyn
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(I hope English is your main language? I don't really like having to explain basic dictionary definitions of words that are not currently a problem, (and inconsistent) - (my blog exists to discuss matters which are). I will, however, give you a brief idea of why these words are different and apply in different ways to what the word game itself represents.

The word game represents an application of behaviour (things that happen) (when used as a noun in such a manner).

However, the type of such a thing, is very particular - it's an activity. The word game, is therefore an event which can (and will) contain many different (individual) actions.

The behaviour (things that happen) that the word game represents an application of, therefore, is NOT an individual action at all, but a TYPE of general behaviour.

The word choice is NOT suitable to describe such behaviour at all:

1) it is too specific in one respect, and not general enough, being linked as an application to an individual thing that happens (choose).

2) The word choose, (and its application, choice), has meaning for behaviour beyond that specifically represented (as an application thereof) by the word game itself - it has meaning for puzzles and competitions too - (especially for puzzles as one of it's main methods of application - (1. Interaction with creative stories being told, by manner of choice, discovery or inquiry).

The word game represents something a person does 'for themselves' in a structured, competitive environment - (or, to put it another way, they're about people competing in a structured environment, by doing something 'for themselves'.

Games are not about things that happen TO people, which is why choice, in itself, which can rely on such an element, is not suitable to be used to describe the word game itself.

The ability to do something, and therefore play a game, can be seen as involving (and using/executing) power over something or someone - (eve if it is yourself).

Games are therefore about people competing in a structured (governed by rules) environment (time and place) by doing something 'for themselves'. (Without any necessary interaction beyond the setting itself).

(I don't really like the phrase 'for themselves', because I don't think it's descriptive or precise enough, and so choose the phrase 'writing stories' instead. (To understand how and why that is applicable, I suggest you read my blog at the link I gave in the post above)).

So games are about people competing in a structured environment by writing their own stories - which naturally involves using the power they have TO write such a story in the first place.

Making a choice between stories that have already been written, is NOT consistent with such behaviour. For this reason, any discussion of choice, must only exist within the framework of a written story - and not a story being told, beyond the setting - in order for it to be consistent with the word game itself.

Games are about writing stories.
Puzzles are about stories being told which require interaction.
Competitions are about competing to be told a story.

Only games involve true, undiluted, power - the ability to do something - ANYTHING - that does not already exist.

A game does NOT exist (as an activity) until it is (being) played.

Note: The act of choosing to do something, is not the same as actually doing it - the latter is what the word game represents, not the former.

(I might get around to finishing my blog post on this at some point, but not until I've got the first posts right...).

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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@David: From What I understand, the post is not about removing agency at all, but advocating for a game to allow the player to continue playing even after defeat, without resorting to resetting the story (i.e. load game, respawn). Defeat here is used in a loose sense, it could be failing to achieve your quest objectives, or losing a battle, etc.

Making relatable characters is a separate concern, though the author mixed it in his article.

Lou Graziani
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This post makes me think of another recent article about Medieval fights that were often not lethal, an option that is not possible in most fantasy games.

Many games would do well to let the player fail WITHOUT dying. You could be knocked unconscious, robbed, beaten up, tortured or whatever, and then the player would eventually have some reason to approach that situation differently next time.

Gerald Belman
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You should play Mount and Blade. It will entertain you for a good month before you get bored(pretty damn good nowadays). Highly reccomend it.

David Navarro
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Dying slowly of a septic wound is also not an option in most fantasy games. What games generally offer is, of all options, the subset that are entertaining.

Dying offers you a fast trip to the last spawn point, whereas being tortured and robbed may set you up to re-do a whole lot of gameplay you've already put behind you. I certainly know which one I'd prefer, most of the time.

Andrew Armstrong
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I'm surprised that this article fails to mention Heavy Rain, in which failure of any given chapter is a natural part of the story progression, and has a real and lasting impact on the outcome. Also, (and I should note, spoiler warning for Mass Effect 3) the events on Thessia are clearly a forced failure - I won the boss fight, but the character was railroaded into losing the encounter. There was such an absence of agency or involvement in this sequence that I felt completely detached from the character; the impact of the scenes that follow aboard the Normandy was diminished because in my mind, I hadn't been beaten, and I certainly wasn't going to mope about it. Contrast that with choosing between Kaiden & Ashley in the first game; as you put it, there is no right answer, and while I'm being forced into loosing someone, I have a choice to make, I have agency and so /the consequences are mine/.

Alfe Clemencio
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In Heavy Rain, a few of the main characters seem a bit too much interchangeable in the ending. In a sense they feel like "lives" in a video game once you understand what's going on.

John Evans
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This article is a lot of vague assertions with only two small examples as evidence.

Ted Southard
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Good post. Games can definitely benefit from the failure option- especially those that advertise as being a "role-playing" game. If all problems are solved with violence, then how many different roles can you possibly play? If your character can never really fail, then where is the connection between the player and the game?

It's been long-established in psychology that intense situations bring about bonding between those who share in it, and for early video game- before a lot of us knew better- we felt the intense situations and bonded with characters such as Link and Mario. Now, it matters very little to me how many times I fail a mission in Black Ops (except in sometimes getting frustrated at lack of progress), as I have very little connection to the characters, even though I do have interest in the game's story. However, in Fable II, my wife found herself connected to the dog, especially after (SPOILER!) one of the choices left her dog permanently dead after the climactic battle (it was a true moment of loss to have to make a choice, and no matter what you chose, you know that you're missing out on something). That lead to the replaying of the entire game, and is a good example of getting the player involved.

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Jonathan Jennings
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i don't like the idea of " FORCED failure" per se but I do enjoy the option of failing and having to live with the consequences there of . as a player i like to feel that i have control even in a helpless situation i enjoy the feeling that my character can bet the odd but i don't think it's fun to know that it's been pre-decided whether i will succeed or won't.

I think one example i truly enjoyed is the first time the play comes across Leon ( Squall from final fantasy VIII) in kingdom hearts. You fight him pretty early in the game and if by that point you haven't gotten use to the combat system you will pretty much lose but if you manage to beat him you get a small different cut scene and a few items that make the early game easier .

I think the designers expected most players to lose at this point but the slim chance of success is gratifying if you can win defying both the expectations of the developers and winning a nearly hopeless situation.

the fact you have to enter this fight and while their is a high possibility of failure that slim possibility of chance makes me as a player care about the result of the fight and makes the slight difference in cut scene mean more even if it doesn't greatly change the path it does make me as a player feel slightly more evolved in the way events play out.