In "The Strengths and Limits of Using Digital Games as 'Empathy Machines,'" a UNESCO working paper released in 2017, authors Professors Matthew Farber and Karen Schrier discuss the flawed design of the poverty simulator SPENT and offer as a counterpoint, the autobiographical game That Dragon Cancer, as an example of where forced failure may be acceptable to players. As in most cases, the forced failure baked into SPENT and That Dragon Cancer are intended to generate and reinforce feelings of hopelessness and frustration.
These story moments of despair are not uncommon, especially if a storyteller blindly follows the stages of the Hero's Journey in games. At the midpoint, the hero reaches the Ordeal, the deepest, darkest, lowest point of the journey, the trials of which drives the hero to ultimately succeed in glorious fashion. Sometimes, this low point is conducted off-screen or in a cut scene, but other times, the player is given illusory agency in a mission destined to fail.
These forced failure story moments have left players with sheer frustration and anger, especially when the player wants to win and not fail. In one anecdote, a player tried repeatedly for hundreds of times to save his NPC buddy from predestined death, only to end up shooting the NPC immediately in realization that the NPC could not be saved.
Unlike in SPENT, it's clear that the story is paramount in That Dragon Cancer and that the goal is not to win through points. When the player can't calm the child down no matter what is done, this is a story moment that is very emotional. In this game, the player tacitly agrees to go along with the emotional journey.
Sometimes, when a story is engaging enough, a player will forgive a lot (e.g. bad controls, bad art, bad gameplay). The player wants to know what will happen next in the story. I cynically remarked about the game Missing that without forced failure, the player would not know the story of what happens to sex trafficked girls.
For me, I find Missing to be a better example of how players can blithely ignore forced failure in deference to the story. In Missing, there are clear dialog choices and actions that lead the player to an escape opportunity. Maybe it's possible that the protagonist can escape and end the game out of harm's way. If so, please send me a screenshot! In my gut, I feel like this is most likely a situation where no matter how many times I evade the thugs, steal keys, or hide, that last guard at the last door will always grab me (if another guard hasn't already).
Sure, I will feel like I have agency and that escaping the bad guys is within my grasp, but do I really?
Was this dramatic moment manufactured? I mean, I was this close to freedom.
The fact that I fail highlights the hopelessness of protagonist Ruby's plight. I can't help her escape. I recognize that this is an important plot point in her story. Perhaps I would play the escape level over and over or perhaps I would accept that this is how the story goes. If I understand that the game is about depicting the tragedy of sex trafficking, then I'll have to see it through to find out what happens next.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.