Stakes in Games
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I finally managed some time to read Dr. Pulsipher's exposition on consequence in games, and it was an excellent and thought provoking read (please do read that article for context). But I also found myself somewhat dismayed by its unfortunate-decline-of-games thrust. I don't want to get too adversarial here, and I greatly respect a designer of such experience, but I believe the premise—or really premises—of the piece is flawed.
To get to the point, "Consequences in Games" neglects the fact that there are few consequences as material as time spent. Saved games reduce the amount of retreading required to be sure, and thus the severity of the costs of missteps, but that's all they do in the end. They don't restore that "wasted" time; that most significant of consequences has already been paid.
Moreover, the statement, "Tabletop games have always had consequences when you were playing with other people, because you can't go back and try again," implicitly assumes that a tabletop game, once begun (and/or failed), somehow cannot ever be replayed again. Because otherwise its just a difference of how far back you need to go to restart. Essentially, it's always about "[going back]-and-try[ing]-again-until-you-like-it", to use Dr. Pulsipher's phrasing. That's simply what we do when we play a game more than once.
The distinction Dr. Pulsipher makes, then, between "games" and purported "playgrounds", between "rewards" and "consequences", seems arbitrary and unnecessary. As long as players remain invested in their definition of "winning" (and no game is a game without such definitions), again, the consequence of a poor early decision is the same as the consequence of having to reload to a previous save: time lost until "win" conditions can be sought again, the only difference being degree.
The difference in degree is, of course, a rather significant caveat, but at that point it's almost more of a philosophical question. Is "wasting" 20 hours compared to 20 minutes qualitatively different? If we examine the fact that it is just as difficult to ask co-players to retread 5 minutes of game time as it is to retread 50 minutes of it, we can see that the answer to that question is probably no.
And the psychology of loss aversion tells us much the same. For many players, its not so much the degree as it is the loss itself that is consequential.
Let's consider another point Dr. Pulsipher brings up. He states that "the move to reward-basis is far stronger now" after the advent of MMO and, in particular, F2P games because these games must keep the player in the game long enough for them to pay for something. "So players are constantly rewarded, and practically all the consequences of their actions are good for them." I would say, however, that the opposite is true.
It's interesting he points to F2P MMOs because it is precisely in that genre of games that we can see that "consequence", or rather permanent failure, is not necessarily a good thing. For instance, the strategy of many Eastern MMOs is specifically to build in mechanics that can result in massive failures in order to cause players to "ragestay", so to speak, or simply cough up the cash to bypass such failures.
Progress in these games is often based on what is basically deeply punishing gambling (upgrading jewelry in Black Desert Online, for instance), and the whole mechanism of grinding for gear is reliant on the player's repeated failure to obtain the desired results. Otherwise there would be no need to grind. In other words, the odds of "rewards" versus "failures" in MMOs have always been heavily stacked toward the latter, and the permanence of "failures" is the engine that drives pay to win design. Obviously, the "goodness" of such design is clearly debatable at best.
So while I would wholeheartedly agree that games without consequence are not really games, I have to strenuously disagree that consequentiality = permanency of failure. What matters far more is that there are stakes, and crucially, that the player is invested in them. Without investment, there are no consequences, and permanence can absolutely be damaging to that.
To really highlight the primacy of stakes over permanency, examine the following question. Would Alien: Isolation even work without saves? Probably not.
I mentioned earlier that essentially every game is about going back and trying again. Few players ever play games to lose. Unless they are actually just socializing (or going along for the ride), they play to win, they play to have their efforts reflected, whether it's through reaching particular mechanical outcomes or particular story ones.
Which is to say that they play for their stakes, in all the myriad ways those stakes are defined. It has ever been so. Nothing about having or lacking save game capabilities changes any of this. All that changes is how much time the game forces the player to pay to see those stakes mature, or gives up on them because the time costs are too prohibitive (note once more: social costs also ultimately derive from time costs).
And I would strongly argue that how much time that should be must be determined by the characteristics of each individual game, and not by what is ultimately an ideological stance in either direction.
It doesn't particularly seem like a design success to me if players are forced to trudge along with an agency curtailed hours ago, settling for an experience they are no longer fully invested in. That is, even in games with permanent "failure", it is the hope for restored agency—the ultimate "reward"—that keeps the player gaming through failure. Similarly, I would seriously question the assumption that games that allow concentrated retrying is necessarily of poorer design.
I do understand Dr. Pulsipher's suggestion that retries must be a design crutch for games that can't keep players interested through failures. And to be sure, such games exist. But consider that one of the most powerful experiences in games is to repeat a previously unbeatable scenario over and over until one finds oneself suddenly able to effortlessly execute the seemingly impossible.
What would Dark Souls be without bonfires? We would excoriate it for its opaque gotcha-ness. Extend the length of Hotline Miami levels too much, and suddenly it becomes an entirely different, entirely less personal, game. And Edge of Tomorrow remains one of my all-time favorite films, almost up there with Vertigo, because it shows this personal development in action. As any athlete knows, only focused repetition with instantly tangible feedback makes such immense self-improvement possible.
To put it another way, forcing players to damage control and compromise their goals is equally as "good" design as allowing players to master their skills and understanding through intense practice. And that's absolutely not automatically the same thing as save scumming a game to completion. From a design perspective, we should be careful not to conflate games with single mechanical solutions with games that have devices a player can abuse to brute force a single mechanical solution. "Fairness" in play execution, after all, has always, always been up to the player in even the most rigorously controlled games.
I think the real point of contention here is not reward vs consequence, but that our definition of when a game is finished has shifted. It's true, players now often refuse to accept that a game is over when "loss" conditions are reached. But we should question whether that's actually a bad thing, because really it doesn't have to be.
For the sake of argument, I would even flip Dr. Pulsipher's toy/game distinction on its head by taking acceptance of loss to its extreme. Say that a player is actually okay with a "lost" game, or that she doesn't feel the need to "go back and try again" (and not from being too disheartened or disengaged to do so).
If the stakes for the player are so low that she's satisfied with any outcome, is she actually "gaming"? That is, is she exercising invested player agency to overcome obstacles? Clearly not—she's just going along for the ride. And this scenario, to me, seems far more like a "playground" or "toy" than any game which the player strives to conquer to its finish. (This, of course, is not saying that such a philosophy is bad. In fact, in many ways such imperturbability in the face of loss is admirable.)
The irony here is that not accepting loss conditions is in fact what makes loss conditions consequential: again, if the player finds both losing and winning a game equally desirable and satisfactory, the player effectively cannot lose. There are no stakes and all consequences are rewards—they're not "consequences" at all. It's the difference between gaming and observing a game.
To recap, consequence is not at all the same thing as permanent failures in games, and it should come as no surprise to us that different games have different pacing. Permanence enhances some games, but merely bogs down others. So the idea that permanence is the only path towards consequence seems to be making a "closed game" of game design. There are more ways than one to achieve consequence, and we should be looking for them, rather than prescribing permanence as the only "correct" way.
Finally, I would go so far as to say that the capacity for repetition is the one thing, if there even is such a thing, that is unique to games, that makes the magic circle magic. Whether it's through an entirely new game session or an old game save, it's repetition, relatively free from previous failures, that lets us experiment and try new things, to slowly expand our range of understanding. That, to my mind, is a good thing.