Kris Graft is Editor-in-Chief, Gamasutra
Once you start letting some random, sentient entity (e.g. a human) poke around within the confines of the narrative framework of your video game, things often get broken. It's not just the vision of the creator that is often unceremoniously set aflame, but also the expectations of the player. And it's really difficult to accommodate for players poking around in your story, not because you're an egocentric artiste of a game designer who doesn't want their vision tampered with, necessarily, but rather because of things like, I don't know, production and budget limitations.
Nevertheless, a version of you recently fired up a story-based video game and then this happened:
Video game promises you will be part of an amazing story
Game: “Be a part of my amazing story! I promise, it'll be amaaaazing!”
You: “Ok! I will be part of that amazing story!
Amazing story begins to take shape
Game: “See? SEE? Told you so. I got this, I got this.”
You: “You do! You DO got this, Game! We’re not past the first cut scene yet, but I believe in you because you made me a promise!”
You start to play (i.e. interact with Game)
You: “Ok yeah. This is working. Wow, Game, you should run an auto repair shop because you have excellent mechanics."
Game: You’re doing it! You’re driving the story, your actions make a difference! WE’RE DOING IT. I love you so much right now!”
You: “I love you too, Game!”
You get your character killed in the game
You: “Oh wow, I died! How will this momentous narrative event serve this amazing story that we agreed to experience together, Game? I mean, the protagonist just died.
Game: “Wait, what?” [Fades out.]
Game restarts you at the last checkpoint
Game: [Fades in] “All right, let’s get back to it! Amazing story lies ahead!
Game: “What’s wrong?”
You: “Oh, nothing.”
Game: “It feels like I did something wrong here. You’re mad at me.”
You: “Well, not mad. Just a little disappointed.”
Game: “Am I too punishing? Was my checkpoint too far back?”
You: “No, that’s not it. Really, I’m fine.”
Game: “Be honest with me. We’ve been together for 20 minutes now. How can we have a relationship if we’re not honest with one another? HOW.”
You start having an extended dialog with the inanimate Game
You: “Ok, fine. When you promised an amazing story, I expected that you would take into account my victories as a player as well as my failures, and everything in between. So sure maybe your story is great, but your narrative—how the story is told, the journey through the game—is…not so good. As soon as I fell outside of your very specific expectations (e.g. surviving), you selfishly yanked the promised experience away from me. When I 'fail' the story should bend to that, if indeed failure is an option. The failure ought to be part of the narrative and should feed and enhance the story.”
“And you know what, if you can’t meet those expectations, don’t make that promise! Don’t extend your hand, offering a deal in which we make a mutual agreement, only for you to yell “PSYCHE,” then reset me at a checkpoint, all the while pretending that what should’ve been a massive narrative turning point—like the main character DYING—meant nothing.
By the way, I want all of this narrative stuff to work seamlessly along with your otherwise excellent gameplay mechanics. Also I want I want the actual story to be good.”
Game: “That sounds hard.”
You: “It is hard! And depending on the story you want to tell, it might be impossible! But listen: I don’t get sulky about narrative when I die in Dark Souls because the expectation of death is part of that handshake before you even start to play (I mean, c’mon, the marketing campaign was all “Prepare to Die”). Also, death is tied into a light storyline, and it’s meshed into the game’s mechanics, narrative, and level design, not to mention when I do get canned in that game, death is my own fault, thanks to those excellent mechanics. And when I find myself at fault, the game deals with my failure, my death. I can say a lot of the same about XCOM, you know? I mean, can your story at least acknowledge that I died, please? With so many of the story-focused games that actually do work, it’s so obvious that one of the first questions their creators asked was “How do we deal with the fail state?”
Game: "So this is about fail states?"
You: "Just partly. I mean your fail state is why we're here talking. So often, death in games KILLS the narrative. Fail states need to feed the narrative, if a narrative is what you’re promising. The narrative shouldn’t just choose to ignore failure. Could you imagine if The Sixth Sense ended when Bruce Willis’ character was killed? It’d be like a 20-minute movie. You know what I wish more of you video games would steal ideas from?"
You: "Yeah, SPORTS. You know, like MLB The Show or Madden NFL or NBA 2K, but in real-life."
Game: "There are real-life versions of those?"
You: "Yeah...anyway, all of the systems of these sports that have been around forever are designed for MAXIMUM NARRATIVE DRAMA™. The draft, the playoffs and tournaments, player salaries, the fans, the venues, all the way down to the most minute rules for the games themselves (see: the PSI rating of a football), are all coiled up and ready to spring some MND™ on everyone involved. All of these components are the steel beams and nuts and bolts and welding joints that provide the framework for the narrative that drives countless storylines, from the unlikely success of an underdog to the rise and fall of the steroid abuser. The game provides for metagames, and when the human element—that flesh and blood and brain variable--is thrown into this finely-tuned framework, all of the drama, comedy, tragedy, and victory that we associate with a good story inevitably happens."
"Now, getting back to fail states; in real-life sports—heck, in video game sports—when you fail, that’s part of the story. Sports rely on success and failure over varying periods of time. Like success, failure can take many forms in sports—a dropped pass, a misjudged fly ball, a blown playoff game, or if you’re a famous golfer caught with a mistress. I mean, the Boston Red Sox failed to win the World Series for 86 years. Even as failure happens, the system of the sport, the framework, endures, because it is accommodating to, nay, requires failure, whereas your typical story-heavy games are intolerant of failure."
Game: "So, I’m INTOLERANT now?"
You: "Well, kinda yeah, intolerant to failure anyway. I’m not saying to make failure impossible, necessarily, or to coddle people who play you, but instead acknowledge 'failure' and use it as a narrative component. Maybe even though players say they care a lot about story, they actually care more about narrative—how the story is told, and how they move within it. And by the way, tell that story with excellent mechanics."
"Jeez, sports really have had this 'failure-as-part-of-the-narrative' / 'tell-a-story-through-game-mechanics-and-systems' conundrum figured out for a while now."
Game: "So, I have to be a sport to be worth anything? Like baseball or League of Legends?"
You: "No, no, no, I’m just saying look at how the framework of sports, and that of really good video games, serve as the basis for a great story. And as part of that, think about the value of failure in that framework."