Friday, August 23, 2013

On Failing in Games and Going Back for More

I read a provocative gaming article over at The New Inquiry called Born to Lose by author Christian Brown.  It is about the inherent ability of gaming to give the player the true experience of failure in a very lifelike fashion. (Actually, it's about a lot more than that, go give a read, I'll wait here.)  Brown notes that this feature of games is distinct from movies or books - "We can let the protagonist lose and force them to try again. The cycle of dying and starting the level over forces players to empathize with the character who toils in spite of certain failure."  Brown goes on to say that in some games "... the difference between “winning” and “losing” is obliterated ... we are forced to confront the personal experiences of the characters involved.

As an avid gamer, I found this article to be really interesting.  This is unquestionably a feature that draws me to this kind of gaming - it requires determination and resiliency to continue when you've already died a million times, and when you are not even sure you are doing the right thing.  No matter how hard you try, there is no guarantee things will turn out well. 

For example (Spoiler Alert - Dragon Age II) there is a scene late in Dragon Age II where one of your party members (Anders) appears from nowhere, rants a bit about his personal crusade, and then blows up a very important building with a lot of people in it.  That action forces you to choose between two sides, instead of finding a way to forge a peace.  The first time I played the game I actually screamed in pain and outrage.  Both because the guy blew up a church, and because the character had taken my options from me.  Feeling indignant and betrayed, I played the game several times trying to get the "good" ending where I was able to make peace between the sides.

If you know the game you know that ending does not exist.  Anders always appears and always blows up the Chantry.  I was stunned when I realized this really was the conclusion - that the game was written so that so many of your choices become moot.  In spite of this, I kept on playing the game.  I played it even knowing the ending, just for the experience of really exploring all the moral ground and ideas the game offered.  Had the ending been more black and white, I doubt I would have spent the time.

I feel similarly, although less strongly about Mass Effect (Spoiler Alert - Mass Effect 3).  This is a game in which you become quite invested.  First of all, as the author of the above mentioned article notes, you can become quite empathetic to a character that has died and come back a million times, through three entire games.  Some battles take a dozen tries, especially when the game is on harder difficulty settings.  Then there is the ambiguous ending to the whole series.  Three choices are offered - none of them good.  The canonical "best" choice is one where you force a change on every person in the entire galaxy without their consent.  Yet, I was not as impacted as I was by Dragon Age II.  I simply didn't feel the characters had enough life of their own, and the final choice was too divorced from every other choice made in the game.

Other games I've played have toyed with this concept.  Say like the Fable Series (Spoiler Alert - Fable 2 and 3.)  Fable 2 has three endings, one patently evil, but two that are good and bad in different ways.  The first has you saving everyone, but losing your family and truly beloved dog that has been with you the whole game.  The second has you saving the family and dog, but losing everyone else.  Fable 3 puts you in a position where - unless you play very well - your nicey-nice decisions can leave you without the resources to defeat the final onslaught of bad guys.

These were nice twists, and I enjoyed the tension.  But to really get it "right" - like how I feel about Dragon Age II - a game has to have a suite of characters with deep motivations and personalities, it needs to be very internally consistent, and it needs to make you feel as though you just might be able to win.  You have to have this sense that if only you'd made that one certain choice, it all would have come out differently.  This hearkens back to the article that got me thinking about all this, where the author says, " ... let us experience trying to unravel the betrayals and corruption ourselves and letting us fail and fail again. Letting loss and failure sluice over the viewer until they know there is nothing else that could be done."

For some reason, this works at creating a truly compelling gaming experience.  Well, at least it does for me.  Gives me a hankering to play Dragon Age II again.  Surely I can save the world this time, right?

J.A. Grier

Image Credit - photoxpress.com

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