Pick Your (Player’s) Poison

How to handle player failure in games is a topic often written about, and even more often debated at great length. The industry is divided between those who feel harsh penalties beget greater overall player satisfaction and those who insist that the best player experience is one unencumbered by arbitrary penalties. The truth is that the sagest of industry experts will remind us that there is no correct way to handle player failure – only incorrect ways of handling it in your game. And the consequences of mishandling player failure can fundamentally shift the player’s perception of your game world. This is the first in a sequence of articles on Sulli.ca about how handling player failure in different ways can benefit or detract from different kinds of games.

Most games are framed by a narrative, however transparent or contrived it may be. Sonic the Hedgehog is tasked with freeing the world from Robotnik’s animal-roboticizing shenanigans, and Mario must free Princess Toadstool from Bowser’s clutches. The narrative in most games is not so much the actual content as it is the framework for the true content – the gameplay. The world of Mario is interesting not because it is fantastic and full of otherworldly (and admittedly cute) creatures, it is interesting because it is a fantastic world in which things happen – things that player actions can impact, even if only in the binary of success and failure.

So what happens to the narrative framework when Mario dies? He starts the level again as if he hadn’t just died a gruesome death of slow digestion in a pipe-dwelling piranha plant. This is the equivalent of Alice from Alice in Wonderland being killed by the Queen and then having to re-read the chapter again in the hope it won’t happen again (knowing it very likely could). This strange deceit can be termed the Divergent Realities method of handling player failure, and it is well demonstrated in the following video:

Dubbed “Quantum Mario“, this video serves to demonstrate just how many alternate-realities are created before the one “true” Mario makes it to the end of the level. This classic, but flawed, use of the Divergent Realities method is disengaging as the player’s belief that their actions are inconsequential within the narrative framework is reinforced. The deceit here is obvious and, despite our familiarity with its use, jarring.

This strange discontinuity of narrative retelling and divergence is reserved almost exclusively for games. Much like movie-goers were at first confused by how different scenes and characters could be juxtaposed with other disparate scenes and characters with a simple film edit (this isn’t how our real-world perception works after all), gamers have adjusted to the fact that their game actions, and especially failures, are subject to special and unexplained rules, the conventions of which are as arbitrary as they are confounding to non-gamers.

For these reasons most modern games have taken steps to minimize, or at least lampshade, the use of this mechanic, but some games have successfully embraced it. When the player fails in the recent Batman Arkham series of games, the player is treated to a short scene of a prominent villain taunting Batman for his failure before, presumably, killing him. This use of the Divergent Realities method stands out because the narrative actually benefits from this what if moment. Due to the interesting characters and the player’s investment in Batman’s mission, players actually feel rewarded when watching these scenes by peeking behind the curtain of the story. Thus, player death in the Arkham games actually strengthen the narrative framework.

In summary, the Divergent Realities method of handling game failure, perhaps the oldest known to the gaming world, should be handled carefully. In most instances it serves only as a deceit to cover obvious player failure at the expense of the narrative framework and realization of the game world. Only if it is tied closely with the game world your game is trying to establish should it be implemented.

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