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  • The Importance Of Try/Fail Cycles

    - Gregory Pellechi
  • We love the story of the underdog, the person for whom things don't always go right, those that face a struggle and still manage to overcome. Unless of course we're playing video games.

    "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." - Helen Keller

    Video game protagonists are so often not just power fantasies but the best person to handle a given situation, so their struggles are often physical ones. They're related to the obstacles placed in front of them.

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    Puzzles, platforming, enemies - each is an obstacle to be overcome

    Some through physical exertion, some mental, others it's just a matter of time. And occasionally there's a conversation. But whether it's a dating sim or a first person shooter the player character is the one and only person capable of solving the problem.

    These characters are this way for two reasons - 1) the aforementioned power fantasy and 2) they readily create a player-sized hole. It's the second that enables anyone to pick up a game and slot themselves into it.

    But it doesn't make for very interesting or compelling stories. A big reason, and one often discussed in the gaming press, is the inability of such blank slate characters to be committed to any one cause or story for fear of turning off the audience. We're not going to discuss that in much detail on this episode because I think plenty has been said on the issue.

    What's more interesting and relevant for this show and the writing of video game stories is how little the narrative actually plays in to the difficulties faced by the protagonists. Those obstacles differ depending on the genre of game but they often present little in the way of the character's development. The character and the player may be faced with arduous and dangerous tasks but more often than not the sheer tenacity of continuing to hammer at their head against until it falls before them. Or as some people who want to go the pacifist route do, run past.

    But it's the player who must truly contend with any obstacle. The character simply exists and is not affected one way or another by a particular problem. Overcoming it doesn't change them, it may improve their situation in regards to the game at large but the next task placed before them is no different than the last. It may be harder, it may be different, but in terms of the story nothing changes.

    That's because failure is so rarely an option in video games.

    Games like to reset upon failure. Pick a series - Halo, Destiny, Diablo, Far Cry, Dark Souls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Baldur's Gate, Assassin's Creed, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, etc. all reset upon failure. It can be a mission failed or death and yet the game goes back to a previous state.

    Some of that is by design, especially in games like Dark Souls or rogue-likes. Those are games with a very particular type of story that's based on the player and their experience. They may have a narrative within the game and the mechanics play into that story to some degree, but even then it's limited.

    There are some games that accept failure as part of the narrative, not resetting the game but pushing you forward

    Moon Hunters for example. But these games are few and far between.

    Stories rarely contend with the death of the protagonist. They may get injured, maimed, lost, disenfranchised, or captured. But death is rarely an obstacle they have to overcome. So the world doesn't reset. Unless we're talking comic books, but that's a special attribute of that medium. But that's really the only other medium where the hero can die and return.

    And no Gandalf doesn't count, because he's nothing more than deus ex machina in human form. He's quiet literally placed on Middle Earth by the Gods.

    The degree to which a game resets varies greatly. The Dark Souls series repopulates its world, bosses return to full health and the player must traverse the same path once more. Diablo and other action RPGs simply require the player to traverse the space again. Sometimes without their gear, other times if it were a boss fight then the boss is restored to full health. Does any of this mean anything in terms of the story? No. Unless it's Dark Souls, but that's an exception... As that game always seems to be.

    The Far Cry series tows a middle line with its revive mechanic. Yet even that at some point can fail and the game resets, especially in the modern incarnations. Rarely do you as a player get revived and feel the need to run away because things have gotten out of hand.

    The undeniable best of the series, Far Cry 2 could overwhelm you with its fire propagation, weapon jamming, limited ammo and medical supplies, the death of your AI companion, and an unrelenting slog of enemy NPCs who just happen to keep rolling up on you. Gods that was fun... Why did I go for Far Cry 5 and not just buy 2 again now that it's backwards compatible on the Xbox?

    The failure to take an outpost or complete a mission didn't add to or change the story in the game in anyway. It was part of the narrative you as the player would tell when talking about the game, which is something procedurally generated and systems-driven games are good at. But the outposts, while they would reset, would never increase their level of security. There wouldn't be new, harder enemies.

    Dying and resetting or even incremental progress impeded by being knocked down/disabled is unfettered success in most games. For a game that attempts to tie story-elements and difficulty increases to failure, look at Shadow of Mordor or Shadow of War. Falling to an orc increases their power and can change the world as they move up the ranks of the orc hierarchy. That affects the player's story, but not so much the game's story missions are still pass/fail.

    This resetting creates a difficulty curve that's similar to puzzle games in that there are spikes that quickly drop even as the overall difficulty increases. Narratively, these spikes make for a more interesting story but by and large we don't see that in games. Outside the aforementioned puzzle genre, but more on those in a future episode.

    The straight forward success of completing missions, whether they're side quests, incidental encounters or story segments is boring. It offers the character and the player no chance to learn or change. But it does reinforce the power fantasy - look at how all fall before me!

    It creates a straight line from the beginning of the game to the climax, where the player character plows through all obstacles before them. To better illustrate this, check out this clip from Brandon Sanderson, the author of numerous books such as the Mistborn series and the Stormlight Archive. He's also one of the hosts of the excellent podcast, Writing Excuses. You'll find links to all of that in the show notes.

    The sheer variability of the try/fail cycle, as Brandon Sanderson points out, makes for a more interesting story. It also allows for more dynamic storytelling, not just books but TV shows. Matt Stone and Trey Parker use the Yes But/No And technique Brandon Sanderson mentioned to write South Park.

    Games do try to do this. Far Cry 5 and its constantly interrupting Seed family of antagonists attempt this very thing. The player character's constant capture by the Seeds is meant to be a set back to your continual progress in rooting the Seed's particular brand of evil out of Montana. "Meant to be" is the key phrase, because even in these forced instances these set backs aren't driven by the player character but moments of deus ex machina. It's factors outside of the character's control that takes over the story and influences the situation.

    Even these events don't truly create a try/fail cycle. They merely sidetrack the player momentarily and occasionally disempower them by stripping them of weapons. These missions are pass/fail as well, resetting to a save point should you die. Those interruptions are an attempt to implement a try/fail cycle on the story in the unleashed and undirected mayhem that is an open world game.

    I keep harping on about the try/fail cycle for two reasons not related to the gameplay mechanics. And not just because it's boring without it. It's vital for change and characters. Change is vital to storytelling. Change is vital to missions and quests. Change is vital to feelings of success.


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