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[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago
Commended by JJJ-thebanisher on 3/5/2017 4:22:25 PM

[Same thing, putting this in Writing Workshop]

Alright, we've established that players (particularly veterans) hate Non-Standard Game Overs (NSGOs for brevity) in storygames. But while they are pretty much universally hated, they do serve a purpose. They build in a form of consequence.

You can't have the character's every action be consequence-proof, that if he jumps into shark infested waters with open wounds he'll either land on an previously unseen trampoline/be saved by an unmentioned passing pod of dolphins/have him learn telekinesis and fend off the attack. It just makes for very weak stories. Video games get to pull NSGOs without many grudges because it's a form of feedback that is accepted.

Now, there was a good article on game consequences by Ashton Saylor (thanks End for the reference), from which I'm quoting the highlights verbatim for this discussion.

  • Death: The one everyone hates and involuntarily rates games down for
  • Loss of Items: A tried and true method of consequence, you can always dock stuff from the player. Players hate losing things, so use this method with some caution. Items, especially unique items, are a certain measure of progress for players, so taking their shit away can feel even more devastating than a death--especially if it's permanent.
  • Lose Everything: Even more devastating is to completely strip everything from the player. This can be a great story technique as it introduces challenge and struggle, and at the end of the day, the player can feel even more heroic when they get all their cool shit back, knowing they don't actually need it to succeed. As long as they get their cool shit back sooner or later.
  • Lose a Companion: This is a technique I used in Peledgathol: The Last Fortress (pronounced Peh-led-gat-hole btw; no blurring of consonants). Early on you are introduced to Ghuzdim Halfjaw, a stalwart dwarf warrior who swears to protect you, the young king, with his life. He is quite earnest, and will, in fact, protect you with his life. The first time you die in combat over the course of the story, if Ghuzdim is with you, you instead get re-directed to a section in which Ghuzdim leaps in at the last moment and takes the blow for you. He dies of course, and he isn't there to protect you next time, but it gives you one "get out of jail free" card over the course of the story, while still making the failure seem meaningful.
  • Fall to a Different Story Thread: This is one that I'm using in the project I'm working on now. There's one whole part of the book in which, if at any time you fail too severely, instead of dying, you get captured as a slave and must fight your way free. It's a different story thread, and it permanently bars you from succeeding at your original goals for the chapter, as such, but it also opens up some new opportunities that you might never have had otherwise, such as a new companion who you can meet in the Arenas. Also, it's cool. (I actually use this technique several times in said upcoming project...)
  • Future Consequences: Maybe the consequences of a player's actions won't kick in right away. Maybe you won't know until later on what really came of the decisions, or failures, that you just went through. I'm using this in my current project as well; in my case, if you fail at sneaking into a certain location and get caught, you won't get killed, but word gets around that you were doing something sneaky. Later on, you will find certain doors closed to you. This is an extremely open ended option that packs a double whammy: not only does it suffice as an alternate method of doling out consequences, but it also gives the world a sense of breathing realism. What you do has an effect, and you'll see that effect for time to come. That can be a very rewarding game experience.
  • Lose Points: Rather prosaic, but surprisingly effective, if your story has some measure of tracking progress (dollars, units of time, number of zombies killed/acquired) you can clearly signal success or failure to the player by manipulating the point numbers. Everybody likes their numbers to be better.

To these I'll add my own ideas,

  • Revive: A passing deity/phlebotinum sets you back up after you've died in the story otherwise
  • Respawn: I mean it, take the reader back to a Checkpoint page and have them figure out the correct choices (may be more than one) (this differs from a pure maze in that you get reset to the start, instead of continuing to blunder on). A good example of this in movies was Edge of Tomorrow. 

As I see it

  • Death > Gets reviewers mad
  • Loss of items > a slap on the wrist unless the items were the MacGuffin and triggers a 'failure state' wherein you have to quest to get back the MacGuffin (Failbetter would call this Losing the Mark)
  • Lose Everything > Requires making sure the player can survive with nothing, and a whole new plot line in most cases (at the very least, no-item options in the story when prompted to use an item)
  • Lose companion > Requires you to give them a dog to potentially kill
  • Fail to a different thread > Requires that thread either be plot neutral (nothing happens while you're on it, e.g. being sent to Limbo) if you don't want to disrupt the flow of the rest of the game, otherwise you'll have to build in new routes every time there's a decision that would cause a risk to the player's life. Painful from a storywriting point of view, because at times you really just want to hammer a message and not pay the price in building an entire new arc
  • Future consequences > Still manageable if the consequences work with advanced scripting. Frankly, one of the more reasonable options but you still have to explain why the person survived a death-trap, and you can't pull more than two of these in a row (and even that's iffy)
  • Lose points > Possible, but may not have as much impact as other methods (such as killing them)
  • Revive > Needs a Deity on standby, tricky to justify and encourages needless risk taking behavior amongst story options
  • Respawn > Creates a problem of stretching willing suspension of disbelief unless weaved into the story (such as in Edge of Tomorrow)

My personal angle in this comes from a good deal of feedback I got on my story from players unhappy with the two early deaths (NSGOs) I'd built in (and accordingly rating the entire work lower, though in my eyes those deaths were more Aesops and so early - 3/4 pages in out of roughly 18 - that no meaningful death sequence/state could create a satisfactory ending for me or the reader), and me trying to figure out a better way to convey that a 1% probability is not a 0% probability. In my case, I think Respawning could have been a viable design option. 

TL,DR : Ways to show consequence without triggering the NGSO gag-reflex players have

I'd love to have your thoughts on the matter, and thank you for reading.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago
Commended by JJJ-thebanisher on 3/5/2017 4:22:41 PM

Consequences of failure eh? This is quite a hard topic but I somewhat disagree with death. I know that some deaths in stories are very... surreal and make some weak games. However, if deaths are evenly distributed and well thought than maybe it could keep a player going. Deaths in a few games like End's Ground Zero are well crafted and despite being surreal, fits the sci-fi genre. Non-Standard Game Overs are also good for some genres like Horror and Fantasy as it invokes one's imagination. However, this is just my opinion and please correct me if i'm wrong as I may have mis-interpreted the meaning of Non-Standard Game Overs.

Losing items or all items feel really tedious and overused for me. Getting them back is a hassle especially if the story is horribly done. There are some exceptions like when it's really well thought out and makes you feel the glory when you get them back. There's always exceptions for everything. Another exception is some sort of barren wasteland or island adventure which are a little common but it's acceptable to lose items because of natural means. This is a good consequence to readers assuming it's not common (Looking at you Lone Wolf Internet series) and gives you a feeling of glory or accomplishment.

Losing companions? Not sure how I feel about this but it must require great character development for it to work. I feel only experienced writers or writers capable of expressing emotions should do this in their stories. I think the dog in your story game The Devourer had a tiny amount of character development but it didn't really stick out much for me. The dog had so short screentime and though possible to invoke emotion in a short time, the dog didn't have much character development and for me, had no flaws rather than the reckless type. No offense to your great story though, it was a great read.

Revival makes death pointless especially if the death was well thought out. Though it can give you another chance for glory, it feels like death has lost all it's meaning if this was too common. A good way to balance this is to maybe try making it a chance effect or make it only possible once in a story. Respawning is though a a good idea, too overused. This should only be used a few times per game and only if the story is really long.

Future consequences stick out the most to me. It's one of the few reasons why I read and play CYOAs. This is a thing I always want from a linear story. It's usually worth it even if it requires a lot of advanced scripting. Even the subtle differences can make a reader care more for the story. I think I read a story before called Magium or something of the sort and wow, each and every consequence are extremely subtle and the writer is really experienced at writing them with vivid imagery. As you just mentioned earlier, you can't pull two or more of these assuming it was really big. If it was a subtle difference than it would be alright to do that.

As always, thanks for listening to my rambles and opinions that may or may not help you.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago

Thanks for that, that was well thought. While all have their merits and demerits and areas where they're better and worse suited to, I suspect future consequences is the most important IF the character lives. A one time sacrifice / permanent impairment could also work (am considering changing Axe the dog's fate from guaranteed death to optionally savable if you amputate the affected limb in a later rework for the game), but again that leads to combinatorial explosion down the line (in my case, writing lines and meaningful interactions about the dog's alive/death status and areas where the dog adds value to the story). 

I like the One time get out of jail free concept, a random save that only happens once in the story. Alternately, if we're getting systems driven here, I could see a 'luck' or a 'Leeroy Jenkins' skill wherein the character faces otherwise fatal challenges at a lower risk (though that could affect other stats adversely, such as intelligence).

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago

I usually find losing items/everything a lot worse than dying.

I’m reminded of some of the older Grand Theft Auto games in this regard. In GTA if you get busted by the cops you lose all your ammo and guns and it was usually a pain in the ass to get them all back since you typically had to go out of your way to go buy everything all over again.

If you got wasted however, you just lost some money and you could just jump back into the action since you still had your weapons.

I was more likely to reload after getting busted rather than getting wasted since you just respawned at the hospital anyway.

Losing points usually doesn’t mean much though. Especially if they’re really easy to get back and don’t mean anything in game. It’s barely a consequence.

About the only 3 I ever use is Death, Fail to a different thread and Future consequences. Though future consequence is typically just a variation of failing to a different thread. The failure just isn’t immediately known.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago

Losing items is worse than dying if you're still alive, but sometimes you have to send the guy to death, and expect them to play better next time (permadeath as roguelikes call it). However, this usually makes sense where the player expects challenge from the get go (Darkest Dungeon, XCOM)

Another mechanic I've just remembered from the Dark Souls series is 

Stat Impairment. In Dark Souls 2 the more often you die (fail), the more your base HP is reduced. The loss can be slightly reclaimed through one use items, but those items themselves are rare, finite, and fairly hard to find. I believe HP can fall to 50% of what you start the game with this way. In a different form, this can also capture loss of respect from a faction. This method would work in games with parametric skill checks.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago

There is a slight variation of “Death” that I guess doesn’t really have a proper name. I usually just call it “premature ending” nowadays.

This is where you don’t die (Or go insane, or something equally horrible) but the story just ends.

I usually use these to break up all the potential death endings especially if getting killed just wouldn’t make that much sense at the time. These types of endings are usually more on the neutral side of things or even “good” in some cases. You just didn’t get the “epilogue” ending.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago

That'd be a sort of a Non-Standard Game Over, as in it's not what the author/designer expects the ending to be. This is debatable, I liked a couple of these you'd put in in Eternal more than some of the 'canon' 16 ends, so calling it 'premature' seems... well... premature. You'd still be putting in a End Game link, it's just that the player didn't achieve the 'full' potential of the story. Abrupt end / (potentially) Unsatisfied end / Incomplete end (the story arc most likely wouldn't be complete) / Unresolved end are potential names for nomenclature's sake.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago
Commended by JJJ-thebanisher on 3/5/2017 4:22:56 PM
I guess I missed this when it was first posted, but it's an interesting topic so, hope no one minds the necro.

I don't really see early deaths as a problem in a game, and I've never gotten the impression other players do. I mean, to a degree. Being killed after the first click, or having deaths used a little too obviously to shepherd me along the one single path the author felt like writing, that's the kind of thing that will annoy me, because it's just lazy and makes any choices pointless.

But some are expected simply because the number of branches have to be pruned somehow. If not deaths than other endings, bad or otherwise. (Killing the player just doesn't make sense in some scenarios, for one thing. Not every part of every plot involves a life or death situation, and completely random deaths just feel of cheap.)

In The Devourer, I'm pretty sure it wasn't 'non optimal endings', but the forced restarts that were the cause for complaints. So, not so much that the game ended, but that it didn't end when the character died. I was fortunate in not running across any of those my first play through, but it may have negatively effected my first impression of the game if that hadn't been the case. It's been an annoying tactic used to manipulate ratings or outright troll so many times that it's just become a pet peeve for many here even when done without that intention.

Losing items really only applies to a more gamelike game that has items to begin with. In a story-based game 'losing everything' is just good drama. And a loss of a companion works the same in a CYOA as in a regular story, it's meaningful only if the author has taken the time to make them matter.

'Fail to a different thread' I'm not seeing as meaningful different than winding up at a major branchpoint through any other means. It would just me making a choice that sends them to get involved with an alternate plot line, wouldn't it?

Future consequences is an interesting one, it's what I plan for in a lot of my stories (sometimes just in callbacks and other small ways) and I love when I come across it in others. It's one of the best ways to show that yes, choices do actually matter and the characters and events of the world are reacting to them. I'm not sure what you mean by 'death traps' exactly, but limiting this one to deaths specifically feels kind of a narrow usage of the idea.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago
Thanks for the response, and I agree that not calling those early resets 'final' would be aggravating, in hindsight.

On early deaths, I'd say that if there hasn't been enough time to establish just why the player is at risk of dying, it's a problem (they need to have a working mental model of what kills and what doesn't). In those cases the deaths come across as random.

Losing everything can be fairly empowering. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one DLC chapter knocked out all your items and your upgrades. Surviving the encounters till you get your gear back was fairly fun, once you acclimatized. Basically this option makes sense if and when the player still has options to solve problems through learned skills (such as negotiation/charm/throwing rocks) and not item linked skills (shooting/software aided hacking)

Fail to a different thread is kind of being thrown into purgatory, it's a chore getting out of there and the pain of it all becomes a sort of discouragement to silly behavior. It's not a part of the main plotline, more like an island you get sent to for misbehaving, and earn your way out of. It's like sending a kid to sit in the corner while the rest of the class (story) moves happily along. A savvy designer would include a hidden stat such as demonic affinity so that each time you're sent into it, it has future consequences (say the demons attack the city and spare you because you told them jokes in Purgatory or something similarly interesting). An example of this > Jail in TES: Oblivion - either you lockpick your way out, or stay and lose skills for being jailed. The jail itself is boring, and the boredom is the punishment.

I think most of the genre runs on well designed future consequences, but they're also the hardest things for a newbie to do (they require planning and writing multiple alternatives). Also, not sure which death traps you're referring to here.

Aside, this gives me an idea for a game wherein you have a virus/other issue. You can die at any page (but the probability increases every ten pages, say), and get weaker/uglier every time you have a bout of the virus, and you have to find medicine to keep you safe during this (reduce probability of death rising). That'd be a really interesting game, about surviving in the world.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago
The death trap thing was something you mentioned in the OP, in the description of Future Consequences. I don't know either. :P

Anyway there's some interesting points here I can't respond to individually right now, but I think we're getting out of general storygame stuff and into specific ideas you could build an entire (heavily scripted) game around, in some cases.

I think story-focused games are always going to heavily outnumber the ones more centered around gameplay, but if the latter became more common that would open up whole new areas of discussion here, because at that point you'd have to be taking game balance and the like into account in addition to what works best narratively.

[Game Design] Consequences of failure

5 years ago
Ah yes, I remember now. Re: Death-traps, I meant that events which tradeoff clear and present danger for long term repercussions (Grendel situations) should not be placed back to back. Placing them close to each other will give the player a false sense of invincibility in the short run, though you're going to kick their teeth in later - will cause an unbalanced experience in their minds / skew their mental model.

True, some mechanics are more useful at the core of entire games than in a general storygame. For now, as it's harder to create (code) a storyGAME, I agree we'll see more STORYgames in the foreseeable future. Still, hoping this thread can be helpful to anyone reading this now or then. And yes, if and when storyGAMEs become popular, the next big topic will be game balance, with respect to play and to narrative coherence.