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A sort unspoken rule in game design is that players should be able to lose. Just about every game has some kind of fundamental mechanic that is possible to fail. Whenever this happens, the player needs to try again and repeat the process until successful. This is thought to add drama, tension and also make the player’s actions count. It seems to be believed that without it games would not be games and instead some kind of boring linear entertainment. I think this position is wrong, extremely hurtful and if not fixed, will become the downfall of the medium. In this post I will explain why.
In a book or movie it is common that the reader/viewer need to experience very upsetting events, that can be very hard to read about/watch. This is especially true to horror, where the goal is often to upset the reader/viewer and to evoke emotions such as anxiety, fear and disgust. It is also common to have more boring and slow sequences in order to build mood, explain character motivations, etc. These are not necessarily very fun/easy to experience but will make up for it later on and acts as an important ground to build the story from. Note that these “hard to repeat” moments are not merely handy plot devices or similar. They are fundamentally crucial for creating meaningful experiences and many (if not all!) of the great works among books and movies would not be possible without them. Yet, at many times the only reason one can put up with these kinds of sequences is because one know there is an end to it. Just keep on reading/watching and it will eventually be over and hopefully an important payoff will be given.
This is not true for games. Whenever in a situation where loss is possible, the player is forced to meet certain criteria or she will not be able to progress. It is not possible to just “stick with it” to complete these kinds of sequences. The player needs to keep playing the same passage over and over again until proper actions have be performed. Not until this is accomplished is the player allowed to continue. This either comes in the form of skill based actions (e.g. platform jumping), navigational problems (e.g. find the way out) or some sort of puzzle that needs to be solved.
For sequences that are meant to be emotional this can be devastating. Often the player is not compelled to relive the experience and/or any impact the sequence was meant to have is lost. Also, it sets up a barrier and effectively blocks certain players from continuing. How can games possibly hope to match the impact of books and movies, when the ability to have critical “hard-to-repeat” moments are nearly impossible because trial-and-error?
Case Study: Korsakovia
This problem is very evident in the game Korsakovia. The game puts you in the role a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome and is played out in a sort of dream world, interwoven with dialogs between you and your doctor. It is a very interesting experience, but also a very disturbing one and the game is extremely brutal on the senses. Even so, I felt compelled to continue and it felt like worthwhile experience. This was until I the gameplay started. Korsakovia has all problems associated with trial-and-error (skill, navigation and puzzles) and this combined with the exhausting atmosphere made it impossible to for me to complete it. It was simply not possible for me to replay certain segments of the game and what was the first time around immersive turned into an annoyance and a (literal) headache. I am convinced that the game would have been a lot better, and possibly a truly great experience, if the trial and error mechanics where removed.
I do not mean to trash Korsakovia and I think it is a really interesting experiment. However, it is such a fine example of how trial-and-error can go wrong and I urge you all to try it out. Considering that it is a research project, I think that is mission accomplished for the creator!
Allowing The Player to Play
The problem with players not finishing games is something that recently have gotten more and more attention in the games industry. After analyzing stats collected, it has become quite evident that something needs to be done. For example, less than 50% of players ever completed Half-Life 2-Episode 1 which, considering the game’s length, polish and difficulty, I am sure that is a very high figure compared to other games. This means that more games have started to try out methods at solving the problem. Some examples are:
- In Secret Files: Tunguska one can choose to show all of the interactable areas in a scene (reducing pixel hunting).
- Alone In The Dark allows the player to skip chapters in order to force progress in a game.
- New Super Mario Brothers Wii has a mode where the game takes over control and completes sections for the player.
- BioShock never really kills the player but instead just teleports them to a different part of the map and leaves the enemies and environment in the same states as when the player “died”.
While this might sound like steps in the right direction all of these solution suffer from the same problem. They are all ad-hoc and breaks the immersion. The solutions are after thoughts, do not really belong in the game world and feels more like cheats than a part of the experience (BioShock possible excluded as it actually works it into the story). When the player chooses to display items and other interaction points in the game, it turns the game from a living world into an abstract interface. By skipping chapters in Alone in the Dark the player effectively skips part of the narrative and misses out on parts of the experience. The trick used in Super Mario removes any interaction from the game, which is definitively not good for immersion.
Finally, although BioShock is by far closest to having a working solution it still feels tacked on and can easily lessen immersion (for example when forced into respawn, charge with wrench, repeat situation). The player still also needs to overcome certain challenges and are forced to repeat sections over and over. However, there is never a moment where the player is unable to progress, given that they are willing to stay at it, no matter their skill level. It is far from an ideal solution, but a lot better than blocking players from progressing.
I think that the proper way to solve this is to incorporate it as a feature in the game from day one. Making sure that players are not unnecessarily blocked from continuing, is not something that should be slapped on as a side thing. It is also very important that players do not feel that the game is holding their hand every step of the way, something that can be very hard unless planned from the start. It is crucial that players feel that the performed actions and choices are their own and that they are not just following commands like a mindless drone.
Fixing this issue is really important. Games can not continue to deny content to players and demand that they meet certain criteria in order get the full experience. Not only does it discourage people from playing games, it also make it impossible to create more “holistic” experiences. By this I mean games that require the entirety of the work for the player to truly appreciate it (something I aim to talk about an upcoming post). It will be very hard indeed to insert deeper meanings into games unless this problem is dealt with.
Less Challenge, More Immersion
Allowing the player to get the full experience and not having win-to-progress situations is a good start, but just the first step in the right direction. As with Bioshock, the game can still have trial-and-error like moments, where the player is forced to play section over and over in order to continue. This brings us back the problem that I mentioned in the beginning: that repeating a certain experiences will either lessen their impact and/or discouraging the player from progressing. As these “hard to repeat” sequences are crucial in order to expand the horizon of the medium, it is essential that we find ways of adding them. And in order to do so, trial and error must go.
I think that first step towards this is to throw away the idea that a videogames needs to be a challenge. Instead of thinking of a game as a something to be beaten, it should be thought of as an experience. Something that the player “lives” through rather than “plays” through. Why designers are unable to do this probably because they are afraid that it will lessen the sense of accomplishment and tension of a game. Many seem to think that trial-and-error based obstacles are the only way of creating these emotions. I think this untrue.
Let’s first consider accomplishment. While this is normally evoked by completing a devious puzzle or defeating an enemy, there are other ways to feel accomplishment. Simply performing a simple act that changes the game world somehow can give this feeling. For instance planting a tree or helping out an NPC. There is no need for these to be obstacles in order for one to feel accomplishment either and thus any sort of trial-and-error is removed. It can also come in other forms such as just reaching a destination. Also, if designed correctly one can trick the player into thinking they accomplished something, for example escaping a monster even though there was no never a way to fail.
Creating tension is not only possible without using trial-and-error; skipping it may even lead to increased tension! When the player fails and is forced to repeat, there is no element of surprise left and it often also leads to immersion being broken. For example when playing horror games like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill I can be play for quite some time without dying, feeling highly immersed. However, once death (which is part of the trial-and-error mechanic) occurs I am pulled out of the atmosphere and suddenly realize that I am playing a game. This means death lessens the immersion and breaks the flow of the game. But will it not make the game more scary?
Regarding death and fear-factor, consider the following:
1) If the player fears death because of a trial and error system, she fears an abstract mechanic and not something of the game world. By worrying about a game mechanics, the player is pulled out of the experience.
2) Once death has occurred, the player will know what to expect. If killed by a creature that jumped out from behind a corner, the next time the encounter will have far from the same effect.
Instead of punishing the player, I think it is better to add consequences. Even just making the player believe that there are consequences (which Heavy Rain successfully does) can be enough. Also, if one keeps the player immersed then it is also easier for the players to roleplay and convince themselves that they are truly in great danger even though they are not. In our game Amnesia, we are doing our best to reduce the amount of trial-and-error and still retain a really terrifying atmosphere. So far it is looking very good for this approach and we have only seen good things come out of it (I guess time will tell if we pull it of or not). If horror games, that are notorious for using trial-and-error mechanics to enhance their mood, can do fine without trial-and-error, I see no reason why other genres shouldn’t.
To sum things up: When one relies on abstract game mechanics for creating emotions, one does so at the cost of immersion and the players ability to become part of the game world.
Of course trial-and-error should not be banned from game design. Many games like VVVVVV and Super Mario thrive on the trial-and-error and has it as an integral part of the design. Likewise, many adventure games are supposed to have tricky puzzles, and could not do without them. Some games are meant to be “just games” and to be a challenge to the player. I am not in any way opposed to this kind of design.
However, in other games trial-and-error is just bad and really drag down the experience. In its worst form trial-and-error:
- Discourages players by setting a standard of what sort of players are allowed to continue.
- Greatly lessens the emotional impact of events by requiring repetition.
- Breaks immersion and makes the player focus on abstract game mechanics.
- Forces games to focus on moment-to-moment fun and discourages a holistic payoff.
It is extremely important to be aware of this and to ask oneself if a trial-and-error mechanics really serves the game right. It is only by breaking free of conventions like this that it will be possible to take games into new and existing directions!
I would like to end with some wise words from funny man Dara Ó Briain: (Check at around 3:18!)
(From a British program called Gameswipe, which is well worth watching in its entirety)