Thursday, April 7, 2011

An alternative to reloading

Failure is not an option.

That's not just a cheesy line from a 1980s action movie, or the title of a self-help book that has become required reading at your workplace. It's an unwritten commandment in virtually every single videogame that's ever been made. The rule is simple: You cannot continue until you've beaten the previous level. This, in essence, is why we're stuck with reloading - which, as I mentioned in my last post, tends to diminish a game's storyline.

For most games, it's hard to imagine things any other way. How exactly would you structure a platformer that allowed you to blunder your way through levels? The whole point of most games is to be successful while improving your skills... so you can be even more successful while improving your skills even more... and so on. If you no longer require success, you no longer have a game.

But this is one of those cases where RPGs are special - in theory, if not in practice. In an RPG, the game is at least partly about crafting your own character and story, and that often includes subjective decisions that have nothing to do with winning the game. For example, the choice of gender, appearance, race, and personality are largely cosmetic, but those customization options are often highly valued by players.

I want my Shepard to have a bad mustache, and damn you if you try and stop me!
What I'm getting at is, failure could be an option in RPGs. Winning or losing a key battle could represent a branch in the storyline, and if done well, the preferred path wouldn't necessarily be as obvious as it might seem. Sometimes failure, at least in the short term, makes for a more interesting story. Sometimes it could even allow for more satisfying gameplay.

OK, forget sometimes. Let's talk about Crossroad Keep. Unless, of course, you're scared of musty old Neverwinter Nights 2 spoilers.

To me, the Battle of Crossroad Keep represents one of the most frustrating missed opportunities in RPGs. In case you're not familiar with it or your memory of ancient history is hazy, Crossroad Keep is a castle that falls into the PC's lap in Neverwinter Nights 2. Ingeniously, the game takes a popular feature from Baldur's Gate 2 - strongholds - and places it at the center of the story. Much of the gameplay involves managing the keep - repairing walls, recruiting guards, setting tax levels for the local merchants, and so on. All of this leading up to a big battle where all those fiddly little decisions determine the outcome of the game's marquee event.

This is going to be EPIC! Right... ?
But disappointingly, that's not how it actually works. Regardless of how well (or poorly) you manage Crossroad Keep, the battle is solely determined by how well the PC fights. The only difference is that the PC earns some extra XP for winning with a nicer keep.

I can see the design problem here. You can't allow the player to save the game in an unwinnable state, so making those earlier decisions matter is really tricky. But that's why this was the perfect opportunity for a storyline that branches based on success or failure. I'm not going to go through the pointless exercise of brainstorming changes to the story that could have allowed this, but I'm certain it could have been done. The PC could have been allowed to lose this battle, but still finish the game.

The only question - and it's a big one that applies to these sort of branches in general - is whether players would accept failure. Would they follow the "loser" branch, or continue to bang their heads against the wall trying to win an unwinnable battle (until quitting the game in a fit of nerd rage)? This is what makes this sort of branching risky, which is maybe why we haven't seen more of it.

The face of nerd rage.
One strategy for encouraging the player to accept failure would be to present the encounter as being unfair (and because winning is optional, the encounter could in fact be very difficult). In a kidnapping scenario, the bad guys could ambush the PC when he's alone and unprepared. In a duel, the PC's opponent could cheat by using potions or other underhanded tactics. In a timed sidequest, the quest giver could express pessimism that it's possible to complete the task in time. Talking up the challenge makes it easier for the player to swallow failure (and as a side benefit, makes success seem all the sweeter).

Good writing never hurts, either. Far from being detrimental to a story, having the protagonist fail on occasion can actually work nicely. From tv tropes:
Heroes sometimes lose. It's pretty common and, with a few exceptions, it's the general rule of fiction to the point of being a near Omnipresent Trope. That said, losing in Acts 1 and 2 doesn't mean a hero won't beat the villain in Act 3; this is a good way of establishing conflict and drama.
Interestingly, Dragon Age 2 actually forces failure at various points in its story in order to make the PC a more tragic figure. Without delving into spoilers, I think it would have been much better to give the player a chance of success, however small, in order to bring the player's feelings into alignment with the PC's. However, the fact that failure results in the more compelling story - at least in the eyes of Bioware - just shows that success/failure branches can be weighted so that an individual's preference for one or the other isn't such a no-brainer.

Having said all that, I admit it would be gutsy for any RPG developer to allow the PC to fail at a key point in the plot. With RPGs getting easier and more dumbed down, players are becoming accustomed to charging at enemies head-on and winning. I can already hear complaints about "difficulty spikes" and how "unheroic" the PC is.

But then, there's an easy comeback for players who don't appreciate a story with a less-than-perfect hero: If you don't like it, you can always reload.


  1. That would be cool - almost cool enough to get busy on another mod... but not quite.

    Actually, IWD2 did this a bit at the climax of the first act with the battle at the Shaengarn Bridge. You were sent there to keep the enemy from destroying the bridge, but that was actually a non-trivial objective, as you had to weed through the enemies - and stay alive - before the ogres bashed through the posts. Afterwards, the game gave different rationales for heading to the goblin fortress depending on whether you succeeded or not.

  2. Good call, Tiberius. I'd forgotten about that part of IWD2.

    I probably should have mentioned some of the cases where it *has* been tried. It's not my own brand-spanking new idea. For example, I seem to recall quests in the IE games where you were supposed to be disguised, and if you blew your cover, you had to fight everyone. As I recall, the one in the drow city of BG2 was pretty easy to fail.

    Gothic 2 also has a page in your journal titled Failed Quests. Not sure how easy it is to fail quests in that game.

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  4. There is a problem with incorporating a decent "fail path" into a cRPG: it takes too much time! ;) In PnP, the DM has the opportunity to work with a player's failure "on the fly" and turn it into something "good" ... something that can add to the drama and pace of the overall story. When trying to deal with the same thing in a cRPG, it usually either comes across as a simple failure or contrived. i.e. It would raise the question, "Can I actually win in this situation or was I supposed to fail just to advance the story?" Of course, if the builder has coded for both paths, then great, but accounting for every potential failure is impossible.

    I think the best solution is good planning / story writing that does manage to account for most player actions, but in some situations, the player is going to be manipulated to get the most out of a "failed" event. Having treasures that can be found or not, that can affect the game are good accountable degrees of "failure", as is coding for poor player management of their resources. This kind of failure is then arbitrarily applied and the player can see that they could have done better if only ...

    But is losing a battle (or a castle) really failure? Is the game over? Not really. In other words, it depends on how you define "failure". In my opinion, you have not failed the game unless you lose the entire party in a combat and there is nobody left to continue the story. In this case, the reload option is unavoidable. However, everyone "fails" when the story ends, because there is no other place to go or game to reload into. And we can only blame that on the writer ... but they need a break now and then. ;)

  5. Lance, yeah, accounting for every single failure isn't possible. What I'm talking about is an occasional point where this can happen. So it wouldn't be a replacement for reloading, exactly, but it would help reduce the number of reloads - especially since these "set piece" encounters would probably be the most difficult in the game.

    You're right that communicating that failure is an option would be a challenge for combat encounters. Many players, myself included, don't wait for the death screen to pop up, and start reloading as soon as the situation seems to be unrecoverable. Those players could potentially get very frustrated if the encounter is difficult, or just miss out on an alternative path.