Failure Is Not An Option

Verisimilitude is defined as the property of resembling reality, in games easily conveyed as realistic feedback for player input. Despite it possessing the word realism, verisimilitude is what allows immersion in all interactive narrative experiences. It's why we couch gameplay mechanics with narrative devices, it's the game version of 'naturalist' acting methods. It allows you to look beyond your controller and absorb a fictional reality.

Now, in an interactive media format, the most important factor in building this is input resulting in feedback. Action resulting in consequence. At first it was enough that there was feedback at all, a player was borderline expected to try every form of action on every object and AI in the game, and what we were hoping for was a reaction. Physics engines are installed in games that do not use physics as a game mechanic... why? Because it increases the consequence of actions (stray bullets ripping through soda cans, defeated enemies splaying across uneven terrain), it increases the realism of that world. We expect the push and pull of gameplay systems, we even go along with them (as Patrick stated in his explanation of The Stanley Parable, we play by the game's rules rather than attempt to break it), because they are in place to establish the verisimilitude of the environment.

Now, what does this have to do with 'failure'? Because in order to create a game that can be won, it is necessary to create a game that can be lost. Everything can be looked at in pass-fail states. To start, let's talk about mechanical fail states. These are hard-coded into the game, the game itself will not allow you to travel forward, because your actions do not allow it to continue. These include the player character being defeated, a timed objective being incomplete, an objective needing protection being undefended... in order for the game to continue, it requires success. The reason is to establish the aforementioned verisimilitude. If Marcus Fenix spent the last minute of gameplay in several bloody chunks, it would break immersion to see him grunting at Anya in the next cutscene. If Isaac Clarke doesn't fix the ship's gravitic thrusters, the game ends a lot earlier than originally intended. Failure is not an option by the mechanics, you can restart checkpoints, load your last save, or start the game over again. But they can't move forward in such a state.

"FEEL FREE TO LOAD YOUR LAST SAVE, GUYS!"

Another fail state is designated by the player themselves. It is caused by an overwhelming rationality, a reasoning that actually breaks the verisimilitude of the game, sometimes in tragic ways. The player seeks to complete the game, a long term goal. Every encounter and sequence is a part of this overall goal. However, in many games, the results of an imperfect encounter can negatively impact the possibility or difficulty of achieving the long term goal. This creates scenarios where a player may achieve short term success (completed Encounter 15), but did not accomplish it in an optimal fashion. What this is generally connected to is resource management. In most games, particularly older games, the relative scarcity of necessary resources to complete the game causes this increased dissatisfaction with suboptimal results. In fact, as the challenge increases, as resources become more scarce or more meaningful, the player's tolerance for error decreases. The mechanical in-fiction fail states are not at work, it is a player-created fail state that preempts them. The game does not end, it does not demand the player retry... the player demands a stricter interpretation of failure.

"Jill, you're an herb waster. And for that, you must die."

This is a key point to make in the changes in modern games. This long term focused, player-created lack of error tolerance, these ego-driven fail states force the game to be played in ways that shatter its verisimilitude. Reloading saves because of player defeat is unfortunate, but a necessary mechanical contrivance, and reinforces the reality of the world... in action games, bullets are harmful. In games where you play a lawyer, presenting the wrong evidence too many times loses the judge's patience. Reloading a save because of resource scarcity only reinforces the game's qualities as mechanics. This is what leads to some players developing hoarding tendencies, becoming concerned that they'll have to save the magnum bullets and first aid sprays to fight Tyrant, using only the starting pistol and the knife for the entire game, reloading every time they take damage. The narrative has ended, or at least is put on hold between 'safe' cutscenes. Mechanics designed to invest the player in the consequences of the world are forgone as players focus on their long term needs, driven not by the desire to experience the game, but the ego-driven need to complete it. Consider how most of us played a game like Deus Ex a decade ago; constantly quick-saving and quick-loading every time we made a minor slip up, activated a guard, or took 'too much damage' in a combat we survived. It broke verisimilitude wide open... being surprised by a patrolling guard led to a quickload, and the player prepared for a situation he could not expect.

Modern games have gone to great lengths to attempt to wean players off of this. Resource scarcity has changed to resource abundance. Developers are honor bound by the nature of the 60 dollar transaction to answer the question "what if I'm out of resource X later?" What if the player is not a high enough level, what if they have little health, what if they've spent all their intuition points on the last interrogation? This has been described as 'dumbing down' by critics, when really it is a shift of reward by the developers. To increase the verisimilitude, to increase the player's investment and immersion, the developer seeks to reduce the amount of immersion-breaking rationalization the player requires to defeat the game. Frequent checkpoints, resource abundance, the developer's ideal is to have the game enter a fail-state only through the mechanical, in-world fail states they've created; the player is advised to 'use more skill' rather than quick-save/quick-load their way out of any minor mistake. Even then, if the reasoning parts of our minds can piece together an 'ideal scenario', failure to achieve the ideal scenario in perpetuity can do the same. In the modern Deus Ex game, being unseen by guards delivers an XP bonus (and two levels of achievements). Those resources become mandatory to the ego-driven, it is not that total success delivers that XP bonus, but failure to achieve it punishes the player and reduces their long term ability.

"I never asked for a binary fail state."

Lastly, we come to the last, and I feel most interesting fail state. It also happens to be the one that appears to directly cause the most anger and can by itself generate unreasonable demands on the ego. It could have many names, the narrative conscience fail state, the golden ending fail state... it is actually on display a couple times in 2010, by our same Bradley Shoecrafter. The two examples are Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3. In both games, actions that have unforeseen consequences play out near the end game. In both cases, it results in the death of non-objective non-player characters. And both these results caused considerable anger and regret, along with a sense of violation (the sense of entitlement towards control and distinct anger towards unforeseen consequence that the typical video game power fantasy creates is something I want to talk about in another blog). Now, in neither case is the player prohibited from finishing the game. These are mechanical results that do not trigger a fail state, they are fully there to increase the player's verisimilitude. And yet they are treated much like the previous ego-driven fail states... whereas those were driven by the rational need to complete the narrative, this dissatisfaction is caused by the player's moral conscience. The player realizes that they mechanically could have prevented these scenarios, if they had known their actions would have consequences. What's more, the player is actually willing to suppress their own desires and enjoyment (case in point, Jeff grinding the gold to achieve the 'perfect ending') for it.

I've tiptoed around Freud's structural model, but here's where I want to reference it whole hog; The super-ego, the moral and self-critical center of the psyche, demands perfection, and punishes misbehavior with guilt. And in order to avoid these endings, Brad reloaded an old save and played through hours to get his 'perfect' ending. The reality of that game world is broken, the seams have been revealed, and the verisimilitude is done. And that, along with his sense that the game was at fault, is super interesting. Absolutely would not tolerate an ending without complete perfection, even if it was beyond his ability to expect. Compare this to the quickloading mentioned earlier.

"Hey, you wanted to do side quests."

Consider LA Noire. There was a degree of anger about the inability to fail a case, to not make an arrest; if the player had the option to fail his interrogations so badly that the case ended, would the player accept it and move on? We have multiple instances of players hitting the power button every time they made a single error in the interrogation sequences, I suspect no player would tolerate narrative failure. Consider Heavy Rain, where everything about the game's marketing suggested this; meaningful, narrative failure. Autosaves after every decision, whether the consequences were apparent at first or not. The first thing players figured out was how to subvert it. Many through claims that 'the game screwed me over'.

"Sorry, my mistake. Part of the job, you understand."

Is there a way to create this narrative failure, to limit the demand for the golden ending, without completely suppressing the ability to enjoy verisimilitude? Is it even possible for a player to accept guilt in an interactive setting? Especially for unforeseen circumstances?

3 Comments
3 Comments
Edited by Brodehouse

Verisimilitude is defined as the property of resembling reality, in games easily conveyed as realistic feedback for player input. Despite it possessing the word realism, verisimilitude is what allows immersion in all interactive narrative experiences. It's why we couch gameplay mechanics with narrative devices, it's the game version of 'naturalist' acting methods. It allows you to look beyond your controller and absorb a fictional reality.

Now, in an interactive media format, the most important factor in building this is input resulting in feedback. Action resulting in consequence. At first it was enough that there was feedback at all, a player was borderline expected to try every form of action on every object and AI in the game, and what we were hoping for was a reaction. Physics engines are installed in games that do not use physics as a game mechanic... why? Because it increases the consequence of actions (stray bullets ripping through soda cans, defeated enemies splaying across uneven terrain), it increases the realism of that world. We expect the push and pull of gameplay systems, we even go along with them (as Patrick stated in his explanation of The Stanley Parable, we play by the game's rules rather than attempt to break it), because they are in place to establish the verisimilitude of the environment.

Now, what does this have to do with 'failure'? Because in order to create a game that can be won, it is necessary to create a game that can be lost. Everything can be looked at in pass-fail states. To start, let's talk about mechanical fail states. These are hard-coded into the game, the game itself will not allow you to travel forward, because your actions do not allow it to continue. These include the player character being defeated, a timed objective being incomplete, an objective needing protection being undefended... in order for the game to continue, it requires success. The reason is to establish the aforementioned verisimilitude. If Marcus Fenix spent the last minute of gameplay in several bloody chunks, it would break immersion to see him grunting at Anya in the next cutscene. If Isaac Clarke doesn't fix the ship's gravitic thrusters, the game ends a lot earlier than originally intended. Failure is not an option by the mechanics, you can restart checkpoints, load your last save, or start the game over again. But they can't move forward in such a state.

"FEEL FREE TO LOAD YOUR LAST SAVE, GUYS!"

Another fail state is designated by the player themselves. It is caused by an overwhelming rationality, a reasoning that actually breaks the verisimilitude of the game, sometimes in tragic ways. The player seeks to complete the game, a long term goal. Every encounter and sequence is a part of this overall goal. However, in many games, the results of an imperfect encounter can negatively impact the possibility or difficulty of achieving the long term goal. This creates scenarios where a player may achieve short term success (completed Encounter 15), but did not accomplish it in an optimal fashion. What this is generally connected to is resource management. In most games, particularly older games, the relative scarcity of necessary resources to complete the game causes this increased dissatisfaction with suboptimal results. In fact, as the challenge increases, as resources become more scarce or more meaningful, the player's tolerance for error decreases. The mechanical in-fiction fail states are not at work, it is a player-created fail state that preempts them. The game does not end, it does not demand the player retry... the player demands a stricter interpretation of failure.

"Jill, you're an herb waster. And for that, you must die."

This is a key point to make in the changes in modern games. This long term focused, player-created lack of error tolerance, these ego-driven fail states force the game to be played in ways that shatter its verisimilitude. Reloading saves because of player defeat is unfortunate, but a necessary mechanical contrivance, and reinforces the reality of the world... in action games, bullets are harmful. In games where you play a lawyer, presenting the wrong evidence too many times loses the judge's patience. Reloading a save because of resource scarcity only reinforces the game's qualities as mechanics. This is what leads to some players developing hoarding tendencies, becoming concerned that they'll have to save the magnum bullets and first aid sprays to fight Tyrant, using only the starting pistol and the knife for the entire game, reloading every time they take damage. The narrative has ended, or at least is put on hold between 'safe' cutscenes. Mechanics designed to invest the player in the consequences of the world are forgone as players focus on their long term needs, driven not by the desire to experience the game, but the ego-driven need to complete it. Consider how most of us played a game like Deus Ex a decade ago; constantly quick-saving and quick-loading every time we made a minor slip up, activated a guard, or took 'too much damage' in a combat we survived. It broke verisimilitude wide open... being surprised by a patrolling guard led to a quickload, and the player prepared for a situation he could not expect.

Modern games have gone to great lengths to attempt to wean players off of this. Resource scarcity has changed to resource abundance. Developers are honor bound by the nature of the 60 dollar transaction to answer the question "what if I'm out of resource X later?" What if the player is not a high enough level, what if they have little health, what if they've spent all their intuition points on the last interrogation? This has been described as 'dumbing down' by critics, when really it is a shift of reward by the developers. To increase the verisimilitude, to increase the player's investment and immersion, the developer seeks to reduce the amount of immersion-breaking rationalization the player requires to defeat the game. Frequent checkpoints, resource abundance, the developer's ideal is to have the game enter a fail-state only through the mechanical, in-world fail states they've created; the player is advised to 'use more skill' rather than quick-save/quick-load their way out of any minor mistake. Even then, if the reasoning parts of our minds can piece together an 'ideal scenario', failure to achieve the ideal scenario in perpetuity can do the same. In the modern Deus Ex game, being unseen by guards delivers an XP bonus (and two levels of achievements). Those resources become mandatory to the ego-driven, it is not that total success delivers that XP bonus, but failure to achieve it punishes the player and reduces their long term ability.

"I never asked for a binary fail state."

Lastly, we come to the last, and I feel most interesting fail state. It also happens to be the one that appears to directly cause the most anger and can by itself generate unreasonable demands on the ego. It could have many names, the narrative conscience fail state, the golden ending fail state... it is actually on display a couple times in 2010, by our same Bradley Shoecrafter. The two examples are Mass Effect 2, and Fable 3. In both games, actions that have unforeseen consequences play out near the end game. In both cases, it results in the death of non-objective non-player characters. And both these results caused considerable anger and regret, along with a sense of violation (the sense of entitlement towards control and distinct anger towards unforeseen consequence that the typical video game power fantasy creates is something I want to talk about in another blog). Now, in neither case is the player prohibited from finishing the game. These are mechanical results that do not trigger a fail state, they are fully there to increase the player's verisimilitude. And yet they are treated much like the previous ego-driven fail states... whereas those were driven by the rational need to complete the narrative, this dissatisfaction is caused by the player's moral conscience. The player realizes that they mechanically could have prevented these scenarios, if they had known their actions would have consequences. What's more, the player is actually willing to suppress their own desires and enjoyment (case in point, Jeff grinding the gold to achieve the 'perfect ending') for it.

I've tiptoed around Freud's structural model, but here's where I want to reference it whole hog; The super-ego, the moral and self-critical center of the psyche, demands perfection, and punishes misbehavior with guilt. And in order to avoid these endings, Brad reloaded an old save and played through hours to get his 'perfect' ending. The reality of that game world is broken, the seams have been revealed, and the verisimilitude is done. And that, along with his sense that the game was at fault, is super interesting. Absolutely would not tolerate an ending without complete perfection, even if it was beyond his ability to expect. Compare this to the quickloading mentioned earlier.

"Hey, you wanted to do side quests."

Consider LA Noire. There was a degree of anger about the inability to fail a case, to not make an arrest; if the player had the option to fail his interrogations so badly that the case ended, would the player accept it and move on? We have multiple instances of players hitting the power button every time they made a single error in the interrogation sequences, I suspect no player would tolerate narrative failure. Consider Heavy Rain, where everything about the game's marketing suggested this; meaningful, narrative failure. Autosaves after every decision, whether the consequences were apparent at first or not. The first thing players figured out was how to subvert it. Many through claims that 'the game screwed me over'.

"Sorry, my mistake. Part of the job, you understand."

Is there a way to create this narrative failure, to limit the demand for the golden ending, without completely suppressing the ability to enjoy verisimilitude? Is it even possible for a player to accept guilt in an interactive setting? Especially for unforeseen circumstances?

Posted by Dagbiker

You know Gene Kranz never actually said "Failure is not an Option" but every one thinks he did.

Edited by Brodehouse

@Dagbiker: Bam, you nailed it.