The Blogger's Centurion - Mission Failed

This is my hundredth blog.

A worthy candidate, but there's no end in sight
The moment of realisation that hit me yesterday upon noticing the '99' in the lower right corner of my blog page was a pretty sobering one. The prospect of reaching such a milestone brings with it a kind of self-expectation to create something special, and memorable. While I have a lot of ideas for potential blogs right now, none of them seemed fit to mark my hundredth entry on this website. Before I realised this, I was planning to write a piece on my refusal to buy an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription. While that might have been memorable in a controversial sense, it wouldn't have been anything particularly special - after all, anti-Microsoft rants are a dime a dozen on the Internet. Another possibility was the seventh episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, which I would have enjoyed writing, but wouldn't have anything about it to set it apart from all the other episodes I've written to date. I briefly thought about waiting for a while and saving my hundredth blog for my thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII. That certainly would have been a special entry, given my history with the franchise, but I think I'm still quite a way off finishing the game and I'm not prepared to hold off on other content I have lined up just for that. After giving it some careful thought, I decided to sleep on it and see if inspiration would hit me. 
 
Turns out that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of sources. Those of you who've been following me for some time will be aware of my girlfriend, Karen, who I've been with for just over a year now and who I've shared some pretty memorable game-related moments with in the time we've been together. She's not all that clued up on the games industry, but she does own a Nintendo DS, loves playing Animal Crossing and Viva Pinata, and has been known to encroach on my own gaming experiences from time to time. Anyway, last night I played some Just Cause 2 just before bed, and when I'd turned off the 360 she asked me to try and explain what I liked about the game to her. What followed was an hour-long conversation that I won't try to recreate word-for-word, but Karen threw up some really interesting points that I'd never really considered before. Before turning off the light I jotted down some notes, and vowed to blog about it when I finished work the following morning. This is the result. I've tried to condense everything as much as possible into a somewhat comprehensible form, but it was derived from a conversation that didn't ultimately lead to a conclusion so I'm sorry if I leave any loose ends hanging. I'll just have to trust you all not to pull on them too much. 
 

Mission Failed - The Role Of Victory In Video Games

 In hindsight, I realise Just Cause 2 was a poor basis for hypothetical examples of the consequences of failure
One of the aspects of Just Cause 2 that seemed to interest Karen most was the way it handled its missions. I explained to her that it worked pretty much the same as any other open-world game - missions were divided into story missions and side missions, and side missions could be taken on in pretty much any order you wanted. She went on to ask me what happened if I failed any particular mission. I told her that if I died or failed any objective during the course of a mission, I'd simply start over and have another shot at it. "Can you keep doing that as many times as you want until the mission's won?" she asked. Well and truly settled in the gamer's mindset now, I said yes. She sighed and signed off with, "Well that doesn't seem very good, does it?" 
 
The point Karen went on to make is that games don't penalise players for failure in the long term. In the short term, sure, you can have your weapons, ammo, or money taken away, or even be forced to reload and completely start over from your last save. But mission failure in games never has any long-term consequences for the player. The unwritten rule of games seems to be based on the old adage "If at first you don't succeed, then try and try again". Of course, in contemporary open-world games, this has evolved to the more complex "If at first you don't succeed, then go do something else and come back later for another go", and Just Cause 2 is a prime example of this. If I'm struggling with a mission, there's nothing to prevent me from ignoring it and exploring Panau for something else to do. Any failed mission is merely something I can re-attempt later. Hell, if it's a side mission, I might never go back to it (especially if it's one of those devilishly difficult aeroplane time trial challenges). 
 
The key question that Karen brought up was, what would happen if a game was made where failed missions stayed failed? What if, rather than feeling safely reassured that after some rest and relaxation we could re-attempt something that hadn't gone quite right, we instead had to live with the results of our in-game actions, no matter what their ramifications? To situate a hypothetical example, what if Rico Rodriguez failed to recover all the lost memory cards in Just Cause 2's first mission? What if the Panauan government had got hold of that data, and the consequences of that could be tangibly felt for the rest the game (for example, perhaps a more powerful military presence on Panau)? Such an eventuality could be one of two or more possible outcomes of that mission, each with different consequences for success and failure. 
 
 What if failing missions didn't take you to this screen?
One of Karen's most plausible suggestions borne from this idea was actually in the context of an action-adventure game with an innovative take on the branching story line concept, where mission involvement rather than mission success dictated story progression. The game's main story would be made up of a series of missions with multiple outcomes, both positive and negative. Regardless of whether or not missions were completed or failed, the story would continue, with the end status of the mission bringing its own long-term repercussions to the game in a manner relative to the nature of events, and maybe even having an effect on peripheral aspects of the story. For example, say the first mission is to infiltrate an enemy facility, procure some documents and secure the building for your own use. You might succeed in getting inside the building and taking it over, but the enemy might escape with the documents you were supposed to nab. As a consequence, you'd have a new base of operations, but you wouldn't have intel that might make things easier in a future mission, or give you co-ordinates to an area where a useful weapon is kept. Failure to get in would mean not only missing out on that intel, but also remove the player's chance to gain control of that facility for their own cause. Another idea we toyed with was the mortality of all named NPCs. Say your squad commander dies in action. Somebody would have to replace him. If you've been doing well in missions, maybe you'll get that promotion and get to give orders to the others in your squad. If you haven't been doing quite so well, somebody else might get promoted instead. If your squad suffers incredibly heavy losses, maybe you'd end up alone as a solo operative, giving you less tactical options and no support.

Taking such an approach with the role of missions in video games is something that I personally have never seen before in anything that I've played up until now, but after sleeping on it and thinking about it a lot at work this morning I think it's an idea that has incredible potential, at least from a creative perspective. Done well, it could allow for developers to really show themselves off and produce something with a totally innovative structure and premise. Story writers could also have a field day, with the different permutations of the gameplay allowing for a multitude of subtle variations in telling the same story. Probably the biggest selling point for me personally is the potential for something that is genuinely tailored to the individual. For the first time, we could see a game where everybody's experience is not only different, but pretty much unique. Some people could play the game through being largely successful, getting promoted and achieving their end goal with relatively few losses, while some others might experience a similar level of success but with multiple casualties, resulting in their experience being a much more solitary one. Some players might suffer several mission failures throughout their campaign, but still succeed in achieving their ultimate end-goal, while others could breeze through most of the story missions only to make a fatal error in the game's closing moments and witness a completely different, less successful ending. The prospect of no two playthroughs panning out in the same way is one that's thrown around a lot these days, but with a game system like this in place it could finally be justified. 
 
If I ever get around to playing Mass Effect 2, I intend to adopt a 'que sera sera' mentality
Of course, there would be multiple problems with actually executing such a premise. The obvious one is an issue of balancing the game in preparation for all eventualities - how would you manage to create a game that is possible to play both as an entire squad and as a sole operative, while maintaining a level of challenge for all players? Questions like this would of course need answering. However, I think the biggest obstacle to overcome would be the "victory mentality" that video games have instilled in their players. Simply put, gamers are used to winning. Unlike the passive nature of books and film, we have control over events in the games we play, and we've been conditioned over the years to strive for the best eventuality possible - from the days of arcade machines and their high scores, right through to the present day with the lure of 1000/1000 Gamerscore and Platinum Trophies. Even Giant Bomb puts its hallowed S-rank on a pedestal. Whether it's explicitly stated in kill/death ratio leaderboard tables or more subtly implemented with moral permutations, almost all games place their emphasis on the player's success. This is because success is usually rewarded, either with progress or with certain 'perks', and it often encourages players to strive for the best possible outcome of a game scenario. The best example I can think of right now is Mass Effect 2's suicide mission. While I haven't played the game myself, I remember seeing multiple forums threads and blog posts springing up right here on Giant Bomb at the time of the game's launch, concerning how to prepare in advance and ensure nobody died in the suicide mission. This kind of mentality that is now an accepted part of what it means to play video games could really break a game of the type described above. 
 
I think I've pretty much exhausted what Karen and I said on the subject last night now. I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts about the ideas outlined above, and whether or not you think there's room for them in the future of the video games industry. Personally, I'd love to believe that we can break free from the self-imposed confines of the winner's mentality. I think that by doing so, we'd really be opening up what is and what isn't possible in the realm of interactive entertainment, particularly with regards to storytelling, and also in terms of getting even closer to providing every gamer with a unique experience. Ultimately, creating a game where failure is permanent and has long-term consequences will not deter people from getting online and seeking out the optimal way of doing things, nor will it stop them from quitting and reloading if something happens that they're not comfortable with. For those of us who are willing to try and get past this way of looking at games, I think the prospect of long-term consequences for failure could really shake up the industry. Thanks very much for reading, guys. Not just today, but always. I'll see you around, and I'm really looking forward to finding out what the next hundred blog posts bring. 
 
 
Dan
 
--- 
 
Currently playing - Just Cause 2 (X360)
6 Comments
6 Comments
Posted by dankempster

This is my hundredth blog.

A worthy candidate, but there's no end in sight
The moment of realisation that hit me yesterday upon noticing the '99' in the lower right corner of my blog page was a pretty sobering one. The prospect of reaching such a milestone brings with it a kind of self-expectation to create something special, and memorable. While I have a lot of ideas for potential blogs right now, none of them seemed fit to mark my hundredth entry on this website. Before I realised this, I was planning to write a piece on my refusal to buy an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription. While that might have been memorable in a controversial sense, it wouldn't have been anything particularly special - after all, anti-Microsoft rants are a dime a dozen on the Internet. Another possibility was the seventh episode of Enduring Final Fantasy VII, which I would have enjoyed writing, but wouldn't have anything about it to set it apart from all the other episodes I've written to date. I briefly thought about waiting for a while and saving my hundredth blog for my thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII. That certainly would have been a special entry, given my history with the franchise, but I think I'm still quite a way off finishing the game and I'm not prepared to hold off on other content I have lined up just for that. After giving it some careful thought, I decided to sleep on it and see if inspiration would hit me. 
 
Turns out that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of sources. Those of you who've been following me for some time will be aware of my girlfriend, Karen, who I've been with for just over a year now and who I've shared some pretty memorable game-related moments with in the time we've been together. She's not all that clued up on the games industry, but she does own a Nintendo DS, loves playing Animal Crossing and Viva Pinata, and has been known to encroach on my own gaming experiences from time to time. Anyway, last night I played some Just Cause 2 just before bed, and when I'd turned off the 360 she asked me to try and explain what I liked about the game to her. What followed was an hour-long conversation that I won't try to recreate word-for-word, but Karen threw up some really interesting points that I'd never really considered before. Before turning off the light I jotted down some notes, and vowed to blog about it when I finished work the following morning. This is the result. I've tried to condense everything as much as possible into a somewhat comprehensible form, but it was derived from a conversation that didn't ultimately lead to a conclusion so I'm sorry if I leave any loose ends hanging. I'll just have to trust you all not to pull on them too much. 
 

Mission Failed - The Role Of Victory In Video Games

 In hindsight, I realise Just Cause 2 was a poor basis for hypothetical examples of the consequences of failure
One of the aspects of Just Cause 2 that seemed to interest Karen most was the way it handled its missions. I explained to her that it worked pretty much the same as any other open-world game - missions were divided into story missions and side missions, and side missions could be taken on in pretty much any order you wanted. She went on to ask me what happened if I failed any particular mission. I told her that if I died or failed any objective during the course of a mission, I'd simply start over and have another shot at it. "Can you keep doing that as many times as you want until the mission's won?" she asked. Well and truly settled in the gamer's mindset now, I said yes. She sighed and signed off with, "Well that doesn't seem very good, does it?" 
 
The point Karen went on to make is that games don't penalise players for failure in the long term. In the short term, sure, you can have your weapons, ammo, or money taken away, or even be forced to reload and completely start over from your last save. But mission failure in games never has any long-term consequences for the player. The unwritten rule of games seems to be based on the old adage "If at first you don't succeed, then try and try again". Of course, in contemporary open-world games, this has evolved to the more complex "If at first you don't succeed, then go do something else and come back later for another go", and Just Cause 2 is a prime example of this. If I'm struggling with a mission, there's nothing to prevent me from ignoring it and exploring Panau for something else to do. Any failed mission is merely something I can re-attempt later. Hell, if it's a side mission, I might never go back to it (especially if it's one of those devilishly difficult aeroplane time trial challenges). 
 
The key question that Karen brought up was, what would happen if a game was made where failed missions stayed failed? What if, rather than feeling safely reassured that after some rest and relaxation we could re-attempt something that hadn't gone quite right, we instead had to live with the results of our in-game actions, no matter what their ramifications? To situate a hypothetical example, what if Rico Rodriguez failed to recover all the lost memory cards in Just Cause 2's first mission? What if the Panauan government had got hold of that data, and the consequences of that could be tangibly felt for the rest the game (for example, perhaps a more powerful military presence on Panau)? Such an eventuality could be one of two or more possible outcomes of that mission, each with different consequences for success and failure. 
 
 What if failing missions didn't take you to this screen?
One of Karen's most plausible suggestions borne from this idea was actually in the context of an action-adventure game with an innovative take on the branching story line concept, where mission involvement rather than mission success dictated story progression. The game's main story would be made up of a series of missions with multiple outcomes, both positive and negative. Regardless of whether or not missions were completed or failed, the story would continue, with the end status of the mission bringing its own long-term repercussions to the game in a manner relative to the nature of events, and maybe even having an effect on peripheral aspects of the story. For example, say the first mission is to infiltrate an enemy facility, procure some documents and secure the building for your own use. You might succeed in getting inside the building and taking it over, but the enemy might escape with the documents you were supposed to nab. As a consequence, you'd have a new base of operations, but you wouldn't have intel that might make things easier in a future mission, or give you co-ordinates to an area where a useful weapon is kept. Failure to get in would mean not only missing out on that intel, but also remove the player's chance to gain control of that facility for their own cause. Another idea we toyed with was the mortality of all named NPCs. Say your squad commander dies in action. Somebody would have to replace him. If you've been doing well in missions, maybe you'll get that promotion and get to give orders to the others in your squad. If you haven't been doing quite so well, somebody else might get promoted instead. If your squad suffers incredibly heavy losses, maybe you'd end up alone as a solo operative, giving you less tactical options and no support.

Taking such an approach with the role of missions in video games is something that I personally have never seen before in anything that I've played up until now, but after sleeping on it and thinking about it a lot at work this morning I think it's an idea that has incredible potential, at least from a creative perspective. Done well, it could allow for developers to really show themselves off and produce something with a totally innovative structure and premise. Story writers could also have a field day, with the different permutations of the gameplay allowing for a multitude of subtle variations in telling the same story. Probably the biggest selling point for me personally is the potential for something that is genuinely tailored to the individual. For the first time, we could see a game where everybody's experience is not only different, but pretty much unique. Some people could play the game through being largely successful, getting promoted and achieving their end goal with relatively few losses, while some others might experience a similar level of success but with multiple casualties, resulting in their experience being a much more solitary one. Some players might suffer several mission failures throughout their campaign, but still succeed in achieving their ultimate end-goal, while others could breeze through most of the story missions only to make a fatal error in the game's closing moments and witness a completely different, less successful ending. The prospect of no two playthroughs panning out in the same way is one that's thrown around a lot these days, but with a game system like this in place it could finally be justified. 
 
If I ever get around to playing Mass Effect 2, I intend to adopt a 'que sera sera' mentality
Of course, there would be multiple problems with actually executing such a premise. The obvious one is an issue of balancing the game in preparation for all eventualities - how would you manage to create a game that is possible to play both as an entire squad and as a sole operative, while maintaining a level of challenge for all players? Questions like this would of course need answering. However, I think the biggest obstacle to overcome would be the "victory mentality" that video games have instilled in their players. Simply put, gamers are used to winning. Unlike the passive nature of books and film, we have control over events in the games we play, and we've been conditioned over the years to strive for the best eventuality possible - from the days of arcade machines and their high scores, right through to the present day with the lure of 1000/1000 Gamerscore and Platinum Trophies. Even Giant Bomb puts its hallowed S-rank on a pedestal. Whether it's explicitly stated in kill/death ratio leaderboard tables or more subtly implemented with moral permutations, almost all games place their emphasis on the player's success. This is because success is usually rewarded, either with progress or with certain 'perks', and it often encourages players to strive for the best possible outcome of a game scenario. The best example I can think of right now is Mass Effect 2's suicide mission. While I haven't played the game myself, I remember seeing multiple forums threads and blog posts springing up right here on Giant Bomb at the time of the game's launch, concerning how to prepare in advance and ensure nobody died in the suicide mission. This kind of mentality that is now an accepted part of what it means to play video games could really break a game of the type described above. 
 
I think I've pretty much exhausted what Karen and I said on the subject last night now. I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts about the ideas outlined above, and whether or not you think there's room for them in the future of the video games industry. Personally, I'd love to believe that we can break free from the self-imposed confines of the winner's mentality. I think that by doing so, we'd really be opening up what is and what isn't possible in the realm of interactive entertainment, particularly with regards to storytelling, and also in terms of getting even closer to providing every gamer with a unique experience. Ultimately, creating a game where failure is permanent and has long-term consequences will not deter people from getting online and seeking out the optimal way of doing things, nor will it stop them from quitting and reloading if something happens that they're not comfortable with. For those of us who are willing to try and get past this way of looking at games, I think the prospect of long-term consequences for failure could really shake up the industry. Thanks very much for reading, guys. Not just today, but always. I'll see you around, and I'm really looking forward to finding out what the next hundred blog posts bring. 
 
 
Dan
 
--- 
 
Currently playing - Just Cause 2 (X360)
Posted by DaemonicGrim

Genuinely enjoyed reading this post. Got to mention though, Heavy Rain is pretty damn good if you want to be forced to live with the result of failure. I realise that's a tricky prospect without a PS3 on hand. I suppose the odd thing about that is that most people wouldn't consider it a game in the conventional sense whether they think of that as a bonus or a detriment is a whole other issue.
 If you consider Heavy Rain compared to other games then one thing that may spring to mind is the various possible endings (at this exact moment in time I have suddenly remembered dead rising... theres a game where you live with your failures whether you like it or not. Nice balance is that if you completely cock up you can simply save your character progress and start again from scratch or try to continue from your previous save which is often quite far back) whereas most games tend to have a single conclusion or perhaps two if there happens to be moral choices involved in your personal development. So almost by definition they need to guide you down a specific route to the ultimate end of the game meaning that they can't afford to allow you to fail unless they want to create a vast selection of endings for each decision you make.
This is turning into an essay... and so I stop.

Posted by ApolloJ85

A lot of what you mention about failure changing story lines is something the Mass Effect series has tried to address, with some success. It is certainly possible to drastically alter the way the minute details storyline plays out over the two games, but the core experience still remains the same for all players. The problem for Mass Effect arises when they have to carry those consequences over to the next game in the series, leading to the situation where they have to render some of your choices moot, because designing a game around them would be simply too difficult.  

And I think that therein lies the problem with designing such a game, it's extremely difficult to allow for player choice if those choices have the potential to break the core narrative.  After all, how many endings can a game have, or is the developer willing to make? Will a developer allow a player to come to an ending thirty minutes into the game because of poor judgement? And if they do, what's to stop the player from going back and reloading a previous save and doing things differently? 
 
It seems that these days fewer developers are willing to make games containing harsh consequences for failure because of the consumer mindset doesn't accept failure as an acceptable outcome. There are still games out there that will punish a player for repeated failure (Demons Souls is an extreme example of this), but fewer consequences for actions seems to be ongoing trend in the video games industry at the moment.

Posted by natetodamax

That was a great read. I think the concept you and Karen discussed is really interesting and I never would have thought about it before, but unfortunately I think it would take a very long time for a developer to be able to successfully pull it off in their game. This is especially true with the Mass Effect series, where decisions you make actually carry on into the next game. Despite that, this concept is really something I would like to see done in the future.

Posted by mariussmit

 I would just like to congratulate you on a fantastic 100th blog post. I think you've provided thorough discourse on a compelling topic in the interactive entertainment space. I agree with you that gamers would have to grow up or be coached past the winning mentality for this approach to gaming to work, but the gaming space and especially open world games would be better for it.  
 
Imagine an open world game where your side is driven to the absolute brink of extinction only to fight back and eventually conquer. This type of experience can be found to an extent in competitive multiplayer games, but it would be refreshing to have something similar in single player experiences, especially considering the possibilities for emergent narrative and long-term satisfaction. This would nicely contrast with the current paradigm of constant reward (perks, achievements, etc) which provides faster satisfaction, but ultimately a lessened sense of accomplishment.    

Posted by RagingLion

Finally got round to reading this blog post and it was a good read.  It is something that I've thought about before and I may write a blog post quite soon about something similar if I feel it is a worthwhile set of ideas to throw out there.
 
I haven't played it, but have followed all journalistic coverage very thoroughly, and so for the majority of the blog was just thinking that Heavy Rain fits pretty much perfectly with the idea you're outlining.  Apollo is write that it's a huge undertaking for any developer to plan for this because of the extra work involved.  Maybe something like what you describe could be set up procedurally but I don't think we're at a stage where a game created int that way could create a particularly compelling story in which case every possibility has to be planned for.
 
Apollo, like yourself, also brings up the issue of if players could be willing to 'fail' and not get aggravated by the game in the process.  That could be quite a big barrier to overcome and a risk that few game developers would take.  The trick, of course, would be to make even apparent 'failure' turn into a compelling strand of sotry and gameplay so that the player doesn't mind (or even better doesn't notice).  Again a big challenge for developers with even less created content being seen by all players and a hence a low efficiency of working practices.  I also had the thought that if players' mindsets can be chaanged fundamentally that they only really get one shot at a mission then they will change the way they play the game going into it in the same way that people playing Far Cry 2 permadeath playthroughs change their strategies to minimise risk.  That's definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but playing it that can bring a certain kind of special fun with it.
 
At the end of the day I think Just Cause would probably be one of the worst games to add any kind of imposition on the players into it since people love it exactly for its no- consequence-try-crazy-stuff-sandbox nature which makes it funny that this is where this discussion originated for you.