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At my first job in the industry, working in the single-player department at the now defunct Stainless Steel Studios, we were strictly forbidden to create scenarios with anything even vaguely resembling defeat or loss in the story-lines. So, being the stubborn sort, after we finished our first game, I immediately sat down and made a scenario, for myself, that was all about defeat.
I chose the Spanish Civil War for a setting, pitting the player against Franco’s overwhelming invasion force. The goal was to let the player rewrite history, a glorious triumph against all odds. I placed fourteen major cities across Spain, each and every one of which, except the capitol of Madrid, would go over to Franco’s side when he marched against them. There was nothing you could do. You could not fight, because your troops would defect in the face of enemy fire. You would get the hint sooner or later, and pull the rest of your troops farther and farther back, until only Madrid was left. A siege was announced, and the player was then told to hold out for so many minutes until European reinforcements arrived to help your cause – and you could go on to kick some serious Fascist butt.
My goal was to take the player’s expectations for a strategy scenario, dash them, and then make it absolutely clear that they were utterly doomed, before showing them a single glimmer of hope. I’d like to flatter myself that the scenario was moderately successful, both fun and dramatic (it did fare well on the fan mod sites). At any rate, I have never stopped being proud of engineering that retreat – of capturing a little whiff of the tragic moment in a game, in order to make the subsequent victory that much more glorious.
It’s easy to understand many designers’ knee-jerk reactions against putting dramatic defeat situations in their games. It’s not very hard to get such setbacks muddled with player failure. The line is pretty darn thin. The iron rule is that if a player so much as suspects that they could have avoided a bad turn of events, or that it was a fault in their performance as a player, you have not only pissed them off, but you have killed the drama you had worked so hard to build.
Books and movies have a huge advantage in not incurring regret in their audience. Their “players” have no agency; as much as they may dislike a twist in the plot, it’s not their fault. As game designers, we must reckon with regret. Our players have to do more than like the story; they have to accept each turn of events and roll with them, and never wonder if they should have gone back to get it right.
At Stainless, we steered extremely wide of these dangers. “What’s the fun in losing?” and “The player should feel successful at all times” were our ruling directives. But this reasonable precaution comes at such a price! Without real, down-and-dirty reversals, you could never have Lando Calrissian turn on his old friend; you could never have Edna Mode, in the Incredibles, turn to Mrs. Incredible and say, ominously, “Do you know where your husband is?”; and you could never, as in Braveheart, after the battlefield betrayal by the Scots nobles, have the man at the English King’s side raise his helmet – revealing none other than Robert the Bruce. (Not to mention having Boromir try to take the ring from Frodo!) Setbacks provide some of the most intense and moving moments that humans have learned to produce in storytelling. They are a cardinal station on Joseph Campbell’s mythic wheel, indispensable to the patented Hollywood movie formula, and the spur that is required for every hero to rise to their greatest deeds.
Games are no exception. Some of the most memorable moments in games depend heavily on reversals to kick their dramatic arcs forward, from Planetfall to Fable to Beyond Good & Evil to Deus Ex. And yet, as an industry, we clearly have a lot to learn – and a lot to invent. So, then, how do you draw a clear line between player failure and dramatic reversal? It is a question well worth pondering. And, I contend, it is one that we can begin to answer.
The earliest, simplest method of creating dramatic setbacks in games would be the cut-scene ex machina. One of my earliest memories of this venerable technique is in short clips between levels in the very first Ninja Gaiden, but the same effective ploy can be found in the likes of Diablo II, not a few Final Fantasies, and to wonderful effect in Grim Fandango. It’s safe. You are not likely to think you failed in a scene you had zero control over, especially as they tend to take the form of rewards for completing a section of the game.
While there is nothing wrong with this device, we have, as an industry, been moving away from cut-scenes, or at least cutting back on them. There seems to be a general consensus that cut-scenes are fine, but placing your dramatic moments in-game is far better – less disjunctive, more immersive, and so much more powerful. And power is exactly what we’re after.
Of course, this brings us back to the problem that moving these reversals into the gameplay is not a simple affair. Under the hood of every game is the same simple mechanism: we give the player a set of skills to master, and then run them through the paces, demanding effective performance of that skill-set. To know that they did well, the player requires feedback. If the player thinks they screwed up, but the game doesn’t send a clear message to that effect, they will understandably be frustrated and put off. Not to mention that the drama will not be read as drama. This means that player’s actions – and their results – are not good contexts for setbacks or reversals.
Of course, a setback that relates to gameplay is a good thing. In a game that involves a lot of jumping, making the player ‘unfairly’ fail a jump would be bad; but blocking the player’s path of egress by causing pillars crumble behind them is good. In fact, it’s got class. Other things under the player’s control, possession, or purview are also generally off limits: power-ups, special skills, equipment, accumulated points of any kind. Don’t take them away and don’t stop them from working, not for the purposes of the story. As with all things creative, there are surely ways to successfully break these rules – but generally speaking, it’s not a good idea.