Skip to content

The Designer’s Dilemma: The Freedom to Fail

A specter is haunting the world: the specter of my newest game!

However, there’s another old ghost that’s been haunting my mind, lately. When the news of the Fed’s proposed plan to bail out Wall Street was announced last week, I was reminded of an old line I always attributed to Ronald Reagan, though I’m not sure he was the one who said it. “The problem with communism,” as the Gipper might’ve said, “is that it takes away your freedom to fail.”

Now, I’m no fan of Reagan (warning to anybody else who watches TMC regularly: “Knute Rockne, All-American” sucks) and I’m smart enough not to consider myself a Marxist-Leninist (at least not openly; more on that later) but there’s always been something about that line that struck me as interesting, from a purely non-political angle. Since this is a game design blog, it stands to reason that the freedom to fail must have some relevance to how we design games, particularly when it comes to the losing.

A while back, I talked about how I liked games for the therapeutic value they hold as an occasion where consequences don’t matter, paradoxically because they do. Winning-and-losing only exists inside of the magic circle, but it’s precisely that binary set of values that allows the boundaries to stand, and for players to be able to set aside victory or defeat once the game is done. Winning-and-losing in a game doesn’t matter in real life, so once you’re done playing, you can take that experience as a lesson in either how to succeed in life or at least how to accept the opposite as a good sport, and start again.

It’s true as a maxim for the world’s greatest tourist trap, that one-of-a-kind mirage of an oasis that sprang up in the deserts of some half-crazed mobster’s daydreams: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

That’s what Reagan was talking about, if indeed he was the one who said it. Losing is an opportunity that individuals deserve, and allowing the state to sweep in and save you from the consequences of your own actions robs you of a certain kind of agency. There’s a name for that idea, or perhaps two, depending upon your point of view. If you’re a conservative, you might call it “lassiez-faire”. If you’re liberal, you might call it “pull yourself up from your bootstraps,” with a sarcastic twang in your voice (I know I would). If you’re a game designer, however, you call it something else, though the thing you call it by might not even really exist, anymore.

You’d call it “game over”.

Now, back in the days of Reagan (Oh, okay, Carter too), the “gave over” screen was usually something you saw at the end of playing at an arcade cabinet, and didn’t have any more quarters to buy yourself back in. There, the whole notion of continuing, either from where you left off or even right from the beginning, was tied into the capitalist/consumerist instruments that the arcades themselves are. While at the same time there were plenty of computer games available for home use where you could save your progress as you went ahead, the dominant mode of arcade games went on a pay-for-play basis. Games were designed to be difficult chiefly to get players to spend money for extra lives and continues. Even without checking the high-score tally, you might’ve been able to pick out the best gamers back then solely by listening to the sound their jeans made when walking away from the cabinet, and guess how much change someone had left-over in their pockets after playing.

Home-console ports of arcade games and even original home-console games, being more influenced by arcade-style design than computer-games, adopted the same design strategy of pay-for-play difficulty, except with one caveat– there was no way to pay. This is one of the reasons a lot of old classic Atari and Nintendo games carry with them the reputations of hardcore difficulty– they owe their whole structure to a philosophy of gameplay which was dependent upon a regular subscription fee. There’s no way to let the buyer beware if he isn’t able to buy himself back in after spending three live’s worth getting through the game, so eventually the designers for home-console markets started to wise up and use computer-games as a better model– allowing players to save their progress after completing big tasks or reaching certain checkpoints, giving them passwords to enter later and begin from that point again of their choosing, or simply letting them choose to “continue” where they left off as many times as they wanted before turning off the game.

Before going any further, let’s quickly recap– in arcades, you had to buy yourself back in, while at home (eventually), the games bought you back in, themselves. Arcades kicked your ass to the curb, while home-consoles would bail your ass out, no matter how deep the shithole you’d buried yourself into.

Is my point clear yet? Don’t worry, I’ll keep going.

Now, people nowadays have spent a lot of time complaining about what home-console and computer gaming has turned into, thanks to the advent of checkpoints, passwords and continues. Hardcore gamers often rightly criticize the quicksave-culture such options have wrought, and take modern games to task for mollycoddling their players with far too many safety nets along the way to let them bounce back should anything unpleasant happen. Those who know games (the “Collecognoscenti”, if you will) often shake their heads at commentators who talk about “finishing” a game rather than “beating” it, but nowadays it’s the more descriptive term. Thanks to quicksaves, checkpoints and unlimited continues, how difficult is it, really, to beat a game once you factor trial-and-error into the mix? You can’t really lose a game anymore– all you can do is quit, or if you’re comparing with other players, take a lot longer than them to finish, and win a far lower score. Back in the old days, losing was all some people know. Players would’ve been forced to pick up and start right back from the beginning, like it or not, turning each game into a Sisyphian labor as much as a Herculean adventure.

Back in the days of Reagan, players had the freedom to fail. Nowadays, however, we have the NASA philosophy, where failure is not an option, and in the eyes of many gamers and designers, it’s just as big a waste as going to the moon, for some people.

I, on the other hand, have always been grateful for the save-option in days of ours, and witness with it something more than mere expediency on the behalf of the game designer. There’s a generosity at work behind the motivation to let the player save, a charity for players who can’t speedrun everything. Arcades and arcade-style design is certainly the norm for sheer, overwhelming difficulty, if you want a game that’ll genuinely tax and challenge you to finish in one sitting (body language notwithstanding), but home-console games are there for a broader spectrum of players.

In the end, the less you allow a player to save or continue– the more you push that “game over” in their face– the more you’re inviting only an elite to bother playing, and the more you allow players to save or continue– the less frequent “game over” becomes– the more you’re inviting everybody. The more “game over” becomes less of a permanent state, and more of a transient phase. The more “winning-and-losing” is replaced by “finishing-or-quitting”, the more you have something that’s less of a game, perhaps more than a game, and something else entirely– a puzzle, a riddle, a do-it-yourself instruction manual with all the instructions blanked out. The more you have something geared with a lesson to be learned as the chief concern, the primary motivation, instead of merely the player’s play, itself.

In short, what you have is propaganda.

I love propaganda, because in a sense, it’s the most honest form of communication in the arts, the most naked, bald-faced route for expression. Like a fable, a piece of propaganda begins with a single, motivating lesson it wants to teach– a moral– and that’s ultimately what dictates everything from aesthetics and narrative to gameplay and mechanics. Most of my favorite games can be considered propaganda, in their own ways, just by judging how easy it is to tell what the game is saying– Zelda and Metroid say that exploration is the key to everything, even when you can’t find the lock just yet; Ico and Shadow of the Colossus talk about how symbiotic and connected people are to one another, both in striving to save life and violently extinguish it; and of course, in the words of Metal Gear, Big Boss is always watching you, and two plus two does not always equal four (sometimes it equals “flamethrower”).

It’s very important to remember that none of these games could ever have really worked if you weren’t able to save at some point– after beating a boss, after being beaten, after reaching the elevator. They’re all games with long-term messages, and therefore with long-term finish/quit states. Of course, they’re still built upon short-term win/loss stages, where you’ll still always find yourself at least just challenged enough to pay attention. Still, these are games that are built not exactly for players to play, but instead for players to win– if you pick up a game like these, nowadays, it’s part of your expectation that you’ll be able to beat it, no matter how good you are. It’s become part of our gaming vocabulary now to blame the designer for making a game that doesn’t effectively teach the player how to win, and while we sometimes whine about things being made to easy for us, or hand-holding, at the end of the day, if someone doesn’t finish Portal, is it their fault, or Valve’s for not playtesting it another hundred times?

In the arcade, the player was in charge, and therefore it was their fault if they couldn’t beat the game– or their parents, for not breaking a dollar and coughing up a couple more coins. At home, however, it’s the designer’s fault if a game isn’t finished– after all, with that little standing in the player’s way, anymore, there’s that much more at stake for a game to be worth playing, in the first place. And sometimes the best way to tell if a game is worth playing is if the game itself tells you it is– there’s something a little suspicious when a game believes its own hype, and maybe something a little bit sad, too, because a game like that doesn’t know that it’s not a game.

In the end, the most bittersweet games are the ones that don’t know what they really are– manifestos.

If you haven’t been able to tell by now, I’ve long been a secret admirer of communism, and I call it that because I’ve got enough common sense to know there’ll always be something unrequited about my affections for it. Whenever I get into a debate about this with my somewhat more conservative friends, I’m always quick to point out that you’ve never really seen a communist state rise up in the properly evolved circumstances, from a petty-bourgeois democratic society in which the means of production and legislation are already there. Whether you’re talking about Lenin and the Bolsheviks revolting against Czarist Russia or Che and Castro aiming their guns at Batista’s Cuba, communism always seems to be the cause celebre of the downtrodden victims of militaristic, totalitarian dictatorships and imperialist regimes– which is exactly the wrong place for it to blossom. I always mention this, and while my friends will concede the point that from Vietnam to Red China we’ve never really seen a proper communist state take its place on the world stage in the way that Marx and Engels outlined, they’re quick to insist that if anybody were going to follow that little red book right, they would’ve done it already.

And hey– they’re right.

Communism is a beautiful idea– perhaps too beautiful an idea, which is why it’s always so destined to fail in real-world circumstances. Going back and reading the original Manifesto, it feels less like a political scroll that should be placed on the bookshelf alongside such eminently practical texts like Machiavelli, but instead ought to be shelved with more fantastical concoctions like Moore’s Utopia, because the world it imagines can’t possibly exist, or at the very least, not yet. There’s an element of giddy science-fiction to the way that Marx and Engels seem to believe the industrial revolution justifies a state-controlled economy, though perhaps centuries from now, when we’ve finally perfected nano-bots, clone armies and all other the Bambi-eyed wonders of technology, it might. Until that distant, more enlightened point in the future, however, there will always be one crucial roadblock standing in the way of communism’s success, and it’s that crucial roadblock that keeps socialist dreams at best impotently idealist, and at worst irresponsibly naive.

That roadblock is the central factor in human nature– greed. It’s also, ironically, the main motivating factor of why we play games.

Simplified to its kindergarten-level understanding (perhaps the only level at which it really can convince people) communism is all about sharing, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist on either side of the Berlin Wall to understand that human beings don’t like sharing. Human beings want– call it passion, call it desire, call it hunger, craving or any other more poetic term you want, but being human means remaining in a constant state of wanting something, and it’s when people want something that somebody else already has, and isn’t willing to give up, that problems tend to start. Games are a kind of low-scale, no-risk expression of want, which feeds into the whole language of contests it remains a part of– both of us want to win, but only one of us can. Winning means you get to keep what you want, even if that only turns out to be the status of having won in the first place, and if you lose, it can only mean one thing, a mantra that survives even today.

Obviously, you didn’t want it enough.

Human beings want, but not all human beings can have. Perhaps this is why communistic tendencies can work in games, while they can’t in reality, because thanks to the simulated reality of games, designers and players don’t have to worry about the restrictions of actual means of production getting in the way. Every game that allows you to continue, quicksave or checkpoint your way to victory is building your success on top of a planned economy of one-up lives and second-chances along the way. In home-console games, you never have to worry about your budget of save-slots on your memory card running out the way you might suddenly find your pocket empty in an arcade, and because of that charity of mechanics there’s something much less cutthroat about modern games, no matter how intense, hardcore and challenging they try to be.

How difficult can a game really be when you can put it down and return to it whenever you want? How important are your actions if the game is designed to make sure those actions either lead to victory, or only momentary delays? What’s the point of playing a game when the designer is really the one in the driver’s seat, and you’re only just along for the ride?

The answer is simple: Human beings like getting what we want, but we don’t like fighting for it. We like participating enough just to make sure that what we want is ours, but we don’t want to be put in the position of being totally responsible, and therefore risk losing it. We like going on safari to hunt for our game, but we don’t necessarily want to get out of the car, for fear the lions’ll catch us. We like we like riding shotgun.

If Ronald Reagan were a game designer, he probably wouldn’t be happy with the state of modern games– he’d say that without the risk of really losing, the player loses a vital piece of agency. And the old, Alzheimer-addled bastard might’ve been right, too. But if Karl Marx were a game designer (technically, he was) he would call winning and losing bourgeois concepts, and emblematic of the corruption at heart in a pay-for-play society. He’d champion the cause of games that anybody can win, because as propaganda, every game is a model for the state, and the state should provide every opportunity for the common man to triumph. It doesn’t matter if victory and defeat barely register as relative values in a society where the latter is legislated against with impunity– the point is that as long as the spirit remains, it doesn’t hurt anyone to let the game hold your hand and guide you along. As long as it’s worth playing, a game’s ultimate moral duty is to bail you out and buy you back in as many times as you want.

Provided, of course, that somebody else’s quarters aren’t on the line.

It’s something worth considering in games nowadays– the five-year plans and voodoo economics of finish/quit and win/lose, considering how the mess the we currently find ourselves in has just as much to do with game theory as financial ones. When Wall Street suits play the Stock Market with as many continues as they want, only for it to turn out on the American taxpayer’s dime, the question rises as to what type of game which side is playing– how can a home-console game for the NYSE turn out to be a pay-for-play arcade cabinet for everyone else? How much is the freedom to fail really worth when failure becomes the only option? What happens to the concept of the magic circle when high-price gouging resembles high-stakes gambling?

What happens when what happens in New York doesn’t stay in Vegas?

And what the hell does any of this have to do with the game that I’ve posted, way back at the top?

Good question. No idea.

Anyway, I suppose that’s enough to chew on for right now. The new game takes in most of the criticisms from last time, though I have to thank our erstwhile contributor Kunal Gupta for making it clear as possible. I’ve simplified the controls down to the bare minimums to make it as easy to understand as possible, without all that extra free-range getting in the way. As in all totalitarian regimes, communist, capitalist or otherwise, the important thing is to know how to play by the rules, instead of being constantly greeted by the freedom to fail.

Until next time, pleasant dreamers, allow me one more bit of propaganda-mongering: players of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your games!


  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    “The more ‘winning-and-losing’ is replaced by ‘finishing-or-quitting’, the more you have something that’s less of a game, perhaps more than a game, and something else entirely… The more you have something geared with a lesson to be learned as the chief concern…”

    This argument makes no sense. It does not follow that removing ‘winning/losing’ somehow make a game more or less didactic.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  2. ((I’m considering changing my name to my more funny punctuated married name.
    just kidding, vote on the itp mailing list or something.))

    First of all, I only cursorily played it, so my feedback might be invalid.

    The first thing I want to say is that this is a minigame. An incredible minigame that can take place of dialogue trees in games like baldurs gate or mass effect etc etc. Instead of just exploring tree options, as you walk around a city, you kinda have to battle with your wits in a lot of your conversations as you navigate an RPG city map, most NPC of which may be harmless and not really even have endings that take away your life bar, but a lot of NPC’s which might involve more careful wit and conversation tree navigation if you’re to come out alive. I actually really love this. Really allows us to get past the fucking HP hack and slash shit I’ve been playing recently (erm.. earthbound and ff4… so its to be expected)

    So that’s my main complaint. The story seemed awesome if it was part of this really expansive rpg in the universe you’d set up. It would be really fun to move around monopoly country and central planning country and experience a variety of citizens.

    On the other hand, it was sort of ok to play it as a game itself.
    The graphics on screen were really good and weird style.
    The interface graphics, including the text, really suck, and don’t live up to the images for the characters. They kinda look like matt fargo made them… I think his style works really well for though.

    I would advise you to be more holistic in your design and match the interface graphics and even text to the illustration graphics.
    I think this will make a big difference, because your game has a lot of text and requires patience.

    That’s really my main complaint. Otherwise (and this might just be a font issue, but I’m not sure…) WAY TOO MUCH TEXT.
    I can’t read every screen. I can’t tell if its because it’s ugly or not, but I just kinda look for key words. Maybe I’m too caffeinated, maybe it’s too much text, or maybe the text is too ugly next to the pretty graphics. I bet its just too much words. Really.

    oh cool i just killed natasha


    I guess it feels rather arbitrary and opaque to me why answering or questioning or saying no or saying yes in situations wins me points or not, but it’s actually kinda fun and natural.

    Your story is kinda twisted.

    Yeah I’d say its ok for a full game, but its an even cooler as a demo for a type of game play.

    If you deal with it that way, you can kinda figure out how to tweak more of the feel of the gameplay itself with the aim of being as natural as like jumping on an enemy in mario brothers.

    woah i won.

    ok so now my feedback is ok, so there’s a rhythm to the lightbulbs right, and the game gets to feel very natural, although i only find myself reading 1/3 of the text, and care about the changing situation more than the actual particulars of their debate. so that’s good, the game kinda makes sense – yellow bulb means really be careful, red bulb means go aggressive, both bulbs mean weigh the options … its neat that way. but really htis game falls into Q, A, Q, A, Q, A, Q, A wins everything.


    But I like it now that I understand it, I’d say just break the pattern more, so being careful didn’t mean almost always pressing A but something slightly more thought-wrenching!

    yEAH Y

    Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 4:58 am | Permalink
  3. But actually , now that we talked about it, I think you’re totally on the right track, just like i started to perceive as I finished your game. You’ve made so many conversations games now, but if they were in fact shorter, closer to the lifespan of a battle in an RPG, you’ve got a lot of material already to throw together.

    Like.. just imagine another top down 3/4 perspective game like an earthbound town,… but I wander into one building and I get a weird cinematic dialogue moment with a twisted doctor,
    and I wander into another area and I suddenly have an almost romantic conversation about fucking ayn rand or whatever…

    Basically, it’s like baldur’s gate’s, with really in-depth npc’s, but way better method of exploring them than the usual dialogue tree or item purchase or HP battle. I find this research (collection of mini games you’ve produced so far) really enticing.

    Each one individually is just rather LONG , but that actually might fit well after all, becuase it’s really only about 5 mintues or 15. like intense side quests in a full world.

    I like this shit. I dunno. You need to slam out at IGDA more and get some members on a team. You’ve done enough work I think, just think for a while, wrap it all into some compelling world and concept, and get a team together.

    Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 5:04 am | Permalink
  4. Charles Joseph wrote:

    It would be unfair to hold you to a different standard than I hold other game designers, Bob, so with that in mind I think that my final verdict is that you’ve followed this path as far as it’s going to go.

    The intrinsic problem with your project is that you’re not really making games. There’s nothing emergent about your work, they each have extremely small possibility spaces. As such, what you’ve really done is create Interactive Fiction without the typing.

    Because what you’re making are basically puzzles, they fall into the trap that all puzzles do: they are either frustratingly obtuse or trivially simple.

    With your newest game I didn’t even read any of the text, I just pressed buttons until I divined the pattern and then I repeated. I would have beaten the game, but unfortunately there’s a bug towards the end that makes it freak out and start you back at the beginning.

    The thing is, there’s no way for you to make this more difficult without just making it more complex, which will ultimately just delay the point where the pattern is memorized without really adding anything to the game.

    This is why I suggest that you move on to a new project. I think that these experiments have been good, and you’ve discovered some interesting things, but I think that you need to stretch your brain around a different problem. Maybe you can return to this one at a later date with a different perspective.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 4:55 am | Permalink
  5. Bob wrote:

    Both you and Kunal are pretty much saying the same thing– this isn’t a game, but a mini-game. Essentially, it’s a turn-based battle system with a narrative twist, driving dialogue instead of combat character animations. It’s something that would fit inside of a larger game, but doesn’t work on its own, and that doesn’t surprise me.

    I’ve only ever thought of these as basic proof-of-concept demonstrations, something to show an idea that would best thrive when contrasted against regular navigation gameplay. It’d work in an RPG, as Kunal suggests, which is more-or-less where I’ve always envisioned this fitting. With more of a focus on brevity, and less of a reliance on patternization, it could shine a lot more than these simple Flash exercises. But until I get better at solo-game development, put a team together, or get hired at a place that thinks this is a good idea, experiments like this represent the sum of my abilities.

    So yeah– save for further refinement of the text-amount and pattern-variety, this is as far as it can go, outside of Game Maker, or something. Which frankly, to me, is fine. I’m glad to make interactive-fiction without typing, because you don’t need it to make fiction that’s interactive. I’m glad to make puzzles, because I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again– that’s all non-competitive games are, anyway. As long as the willingness to continue outweighs relative ability, there’s no such thing as winning-or-losing in a game, but only finishing-or-giving up. So many things we call games are things we solve rather than beat, and sound awfully like what you’ve described. These are the things I call propaganda, because yes– there is something didactic about a game that wants you to win, and I’m proud to be a part of that.

    Allowing emergence isn’t as important to creating an experience as we might like to think it is– it’s merely a different flavor. Sometimes limitations are better than limitlessness. Sometimes restrictions, boundaries, rules and regulations help create more interesting responses than unhindered performance. They give us something to rebel against, something to fight, something to try and figure out, and see if we can outsmart. They give us a purpose in life, or at least give purpose to the vacuum that all those horizon-free liberties threaten us with.

    It’s okay for games to be fascist, totalitarian little things, because sometimes, slavery is freedom. Winston Churchill called the Soviet Union a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”– in other words, a puzzle. When you get right down to it, that’s what a one-player game is, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. So until I figure out programming or team-recruitment, maybe I’ll just keep making puzzles like these, because after all, the world could always use a little more doublespeak.

    But hey, if anybody’s listening, you’re always free to join the cause, comdrades…

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 5:54 am | Permalink
  6. Charles Joseph wrote:

    You are over-simplifying things.

    There are single player games that are not ‘puzzles’, in the sense that I am using the term. Ironically, Tetris is one of them. There are also two player games that are ‘puzzles’. One such game is Tic-Tac-Toe, where the possibility space is so small that solving it is trivial.

    On the grand scheme there is a chance that all games are puzzles, but that scheme is so grand that it might be meaningless.

    Emergence is important, it is not simply a flavor, because it is the critical standard of our artform. Making a puzzle is easy, making a good puzzle is a little more difficult, but neither is near as hard as making a good game.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Bob wrote:

    Obviously, we’re not talking about the same thing when we talk about puzzles…

    Emergence is not essential because there are plenty of good games (if that’s what we want to call them) wherein there are challenges that can only be passed by a single strategy. Yes, that strategy can be gleaned and discovered quite naturally by the player, without outside intervention, but at the end of the day, it represents an example of the player doing what the designer whanted them to do, not the designer allowing the player to do what they wanted.

    How do I define emergence? To me, emergence is what happens when the player succeeds by doing something the designer hadn’t anticipated. In that basic sense, as long as the designer is smart enough to see as many possibilities for how somebody could use the tools they’ve provided, emergence is something that never really happens.

    Playtesting is all about experimenting to find what a game is capable of, and then editing and adjusting it to make sure it’s only capable of what the designers want– emergent strategies may arise during test-sessions that they weren’t initially aware of, but at the end of the day, only the emergent strategies they approve of will be supported by the final rule-set.

    Not all games are puzzles– only the ones where the range of emergence is contained by the designer’s scope of authorial vision. As long as you can’t discover a new way to beat a game that the designer didn’t already know about, it’s a puzzle– whatever that may be– because it represents an example of a game as an act of artistic expression, of the designer successfully comunicating an idea to the player. In the grand scheme of things, there’s nothing more meaningful than that.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles Joseph wrote:

    “Emergence is not essential because there are plenty of good games (if that’s what we want to call them) wherein there are challenges that can only be passed by a single strategy.”

    How are you qualifying these games (which ever ones they are) as ‘good’?

    Either way, all systems have emergence, it’s simply a matter of how much. Even puzzles have a possibility space that emerges from their ruleset, it’s just that it’s very shallow.

    I’d be happy to go example by example at some point with you, but needless to say it’s a good rule of thumb that a game with more possible paths to success is better (as in it better fulfills the unique and historical potential of games) than one with fewer.

    Also, don’t think of ‘possibilities’ in only the macro sense, as in you always have to beat Air Man before you get to Wily’s Castle. A possibility space can also be found in the granularity or physics of an avatar’s movement (see Flywrench).

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  9. Bob wrote:

    “How are you qualifying these games (which ever ones they are) as ‘good’?…it’s a good rule of thumb that a game with more possible paths to success is better (as in it better fulfills the unique and historical potential of games) than one with fewer.”

    Is this what it’s come to? That we’re arguing over the meaning of the word “good”?

    Try “successful”. Try “effective”. Try “proven,” perhaps, as in certain games exploit the track-record of mandating a single way of winning. Is it shallow? Yes. But oftentimes, it works.

    Take “You Have To Burn the Rope”– just from its title alone, its both a prime example of this phenomenon and a kind of ironic commentary on it. Besides following the advice of the title, there’s plenty you can do– jump around on the platforms, engage or avoid the enemy, throw your weapon, etc. All of those things, and hey, maybe even some more, are possible, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

    Why? Because you have to burn the rope.

    It’s the ultimate anti-emergent game, and even though it’s making fun of the convention of bottlenecking a player’s options to encourage only one real win-strategy, it’s also an example of how natural a fit it is for games. Spelling that strategy out for you from the very beginning deliberately robs you of the experience of finding it out for yourself, but also helps to underline its emphasis as an illustration of the fact that there’s enough game beyond finding-out the solution to a challenge in the act of actually carrying-out said solution.

    Is that where a bit of emergence comes in? Perhaps, but honestly, it doesn’t mean much. Kojima’s notorious for building boss-battles around “burn-the-rope” style tricks– once you figure out you have to build the makeshift flamethrower, unplug the controller or inject the nano-bot syringe, there isn’t that much real challenge left to the fights against Big Boss, Psycho Mantis or Vamp. Not much emerges from those fights, but it doesn’t negate the cleverness they display and encourage the first time you play through them.

    Emergent strategies are interesting when they make a difference between what’s hard, and what’s easy– What does it mean, in “Super Mario Bros.”, to throw fireballs at Bowser instead of running underneath when he jumps to destroy the bridge? Is the ease of the former a reward for the skill displayed at keeping your power-up for so long, or is the difficulty of the latter more fulfilling in the careful combination of timing and effort it dictates? Would Miyamoto have been saying more if Bowser had been invulnerable to fireballs, or was a little variety necessary for a task you’d have to do at the end of every castle?

    What if you only fought Bowser once? Would fireballs be a little cheap, then?

    Having multiple paths to success is all well and good, but it produces a different effect from only having just one. Sometimes linearity– in the macro and micro contexts– can be just as interesting to play, even if it’s only really challenging the first time, when you have to figure out the solution to the puzzle. True, if you have too few solutions, at times, it can be a little preachy, a little static, a little uninvolving if you finally succeed by mere trial-and-error, and therefore don’t really know exactly what it was to win. On the other hand, however, if you have too many solutions, the game can become unfocused, arbitary and irrelevant. Yes, it might mean something to you personally to say “This is how I beat the game,” but if the range of possibilities is too wide, then there isn’t much to say in the way of shared, common experiences.

    “Another World” is the perfect example of a game built on “burn-the-rope” style challenges– the only way to beat the game is to play and lose enough times to figure out exactly what you have to do in any given situation, and then get your timing as perfect as possible. There’s no emergent gameplay in it whatsoever, as everything the player either can or has to do is clearly signaled by the game’s graphics or has to be discovered through trial-and-error. Once you’ve played and beaten it once, the only thing left to do, really, is try and remember exactly what you did, and playthrough it with as few deaths as possible.

    In other words, to speed-run it.

    Usually, when people talk about speed-runs, they look at them as a primary emergent principle in games– the player discovering the shortest possible route from beginning to end and exploiting it to its fullest extent in a manner that the designers responsible for the game couldn’t have possibly anticipated. This is what happens when a game has a constant and consistently wide set of options at their disposal and a narrow range of challenges, and you can see it when people speed-run “Mega Man 3″– all the challenges in that game are rudimentary, consisting mostly of shooting enemies and jumping from platform to platform without falling into traps, and with all the weapons and items you acquire throughout the game, there’s an endless amount of ways you can approach each level, not even taking into account which order you play them in.

    “Another World” is the opposite– you have a narrow set of options at your disposal, and an increasingly wide set of challenges which you must solve using that limited skillset. What it boils down to is finding the most expedient way of doing precisely what the designer wants you to do. It’s shallow, but it’s remarkable.

    Is this what games, historically, have done? No, and that’s why games such as these, and the moments inside of them, aren’t quite games. They’re examples of what a game can do when it acts like a puzzle, instead of a game. “Ico” is a pretty shallow game, when you get right down to it, but it’s breathtaking. Ueda’s a big “Another World” fan, and it’s something that shows pretty plainly in the structure of his works. When “Shadow of the Colossus” came out, people even described each colossus as a boss-fight and a dungeon combined, essentially a walking, fighting puzzle, where the solution came in finding its weakpoint, a way to reach it, and exploiting it. Bossfights in general have been growing steadily and steadily more puzzle-like over the years, an occasion for the player to test their mind as well as their in-game proficiency, and usually that means boiling everthing down to one solution the player has to discover on their own.

    In your opinion, all of these games have emergence, just not as much as other games. I’d argue that the shallow emergence they have isn’t quite that, because in each case the emergence is something the designers design for, and emergence isn’t really something that you can design, exactly. Disagree with me if you like, but it’s more of an organic reaction to the player’s performance with the game’s mechanics. Perhaps it can be provoked, like all natural phenomena, but just like all experiments, when that happens the most important thing isn’t the phenomena itself, but the experiemnt the men in white lab-coats are carrying out with it.

    As a rule, this is how it feels to me– the deeper a game’s emergence is, the more the player is in control, and the more shallow a game’s emergence is, the more the designer is in control. I’m more interested in games that follow the latter’s example, but that’s not at the expense of the former. Perhaps games with less emergence don’t have as much in common with the unique and historical tendencies of what we commonly think of as games– maybe puzzling-affairs like these represent something new:

    The future.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 10:12 pm | Permalink
  10. Charles Joseph wrote:

    “I’d argue that the shallow emergence they have isn’t quite that, because in each case the emergence is something the designers design for, and emergence isn’t really something that you can design, exactly.”

    Bob, I’m not sure you know what ‘emergence’ means. One can definitely design emergence. In fact, that is exactly what a game designer does.

    “Perhaps games with less emergence don’t have as much in common with the unique and historical tendencies of what we commonly think of as games– maybe puzzling-affairs like these represent something new:

    The future.”

    Actually, they kind of represent the past. All genres that have relied too heavily on puzzle-solving as their main draw have eventually died. Adventure games, both text and graphical, being the best example.

    Even now we see RPGs, which are highly linear, basically faltering creatively, with their mechanics being applied much more interestingly in other genres.

    Well, I’ve gone on long enough. If you want to keep talking about this outside of the comments send me an email, but I think it’s run it’s course in this venue.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  11. Bob wrote:

    “Actually, they kind of represent the past. All genres that have relied too heavily on puzzle-solving as their main draw have eventually died… Even now we see RPGs, which are highly linear, basically faltering creatively, with their mechanics being applied much more interestingly in other genres.”

    They represent the future in terms of how video-games follow analog games. If anything, the more non-linear games become, the more they owe to games of the past, where linear progression wasn’t there as much as successive rounds of the same thing.

    Sandbox games like “GTA” owe more to “cops-and-robbers” than they do to “Zelda”, because they take the emphasis off of the designer’s sequence and onto the player’s freewheeling play. FPS games, especially in multiplayer, are less games of their own and more digital extensions of real-world war games– even by calling them “death match” or “capture the flag”, it’s basically an admission of that.

    The more openworld and non-linear video games are, the more game-like they become, in a classical sense. The more restictive and linear, however, the more they become something else, which is what I find really interesting.

    By the way, Charles, I know what emergence is. And I have a bracelet, too.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  12. “Bob, I’m not sure you know what ‘emergence’ means. One can definitely design emergence. In fact, that is exactly what a game designer does.”

    No, not exactly. But I know what you mean. A game designer tries to shape an experience (or a performance) for the player to explore. To say a game designer designs for emergence is true, but leaves the the definition of what a game designer aims to do short of its true essence. And I think the debate that’s “emergin’” on this comment thread showcases the two kinds of game designers: those that aim to give the player more space to explore (sort of dynamic game design) vs. those that aim to craft a specific experience (static). I’m with you Pratt, I prefer the former… but under the current umbrella of discourse, both styles are lumped together… although they are as closely related (or lack thereof) as improv theater and the novel, in my opinion. And both have their rewards for the consumer. I do believe this conversation highlights the deep need in game discourse for a new word (or two) to separate the forms of “games.” Afterall, we don’t always call improv and the novel both storytelling, now do we?

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 4:11 am | Permalink
  13. Charles Joseph wrote:

    I hear what you’re saying Charley, but in this case I think that it’s just not a tenable position.

    I’m afraid I’m sticking by my statement that all game designers deal in emergence. All game designers create rulesets out of which certain situations, possibility spaces, arise (or ‘emerge’). This is not something that is specific to game design, or necessarily all that a game designer does, but it is intrinsic.

    My point is also not that puzzle design is somehow an illegitimate form of game design, just that it is not a very advanced form of it. I’m sorry, but designing a static puzzle is not as hard as designing a dynamic game.

    I’ll leave with this: I do not believe that these are two categories (static and dynamic), because formally they are equivalent. To me Tic-Tac-Toe is a puzzle, but to a child it is a game. As I said at first, in the grand scheme it is likely that all games are really just puzzles that we haven’t solved yet.

    Call me a Modernist, but I believe that the only rational basis for critiquing a game is based on what game designers frequently call ‘elegance’, the relationship between the scope of the ruleset and the size of the possibility space. Games where the possibility space is basically the size of the ruleset are not as elegant (so in my opinion not as good) as those where a small ruleset gives rise to a large possibility space.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this, as I think Bob and I are not going to meet on this subject. So tell me: Am I crazy? Am I missing something?

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 5:58 am | Permalink
  14. Bob wrote:

    “Am I missing something?”

    Besides the text in my game that you didn’t read? Nope, nothing I can think of…

    I agree with Charley, in that both dynamic and static game design deal in varrying degrees of emergence, but that their shift in where that emergence takes them marks a difference in where their priorities lie. A static game can still be “elegant”, in that it can have few rules and many potential consequences, but that doesn’t make it any less of a controlled experience that a designer is explicitly manipulating behind-the-scenes.

    I don’t agree with the whole idea of “elegance”, however, because I believe there’s a central lie at the heart of the whole “ruleset-scope < possibility-space = elegant-game” argument. At the end of the day, the ultimate possibility space of all games (if that’s what we want to call them) is still either winning or losing. In that strict, binary sense, unless your game has only one rule, elegance is an impossibility.

    Now, sure, people are talking about the shape of how the game transpires BEFORE winning-or-losing kicks in when they wax poetic about how elegant it is or not, but overlooking the state of a game in favor of the shape of a game in its final state is contrary to the entire point of gaming in the first place. Sure, if I can win a game of “Risk” with my friends by sabotaging one of them in North America and keeping hold of Australia by attacking either side of the board through a Kamchatka gambit, that’s interesting– but not nearly as interesting as the fact that I WON.

    Perhaps elegance, then, amounts to a double-bottleneck– small number of rules giving rise to an infinite number of possibilities that dwindles down into either winning or losing. There’s countless ways to win “Risk”, and perhaps that’s what makes it more intrinsically gamelike than, say, “Metal Gear”, where the only real variable leading up to the win-state is the type of weapon you use to beat the last boss (unless you’re playing “Metal Gear 2″, in which case you don’t even have that as a variable). However, the lack of elegance that most video-games accept is partly due to one of their primary natures, something they do which games, for the most part, tend to avoid on a classical level.

    Video-games, for the most part, tell stories. Games, on the other hand, do not.

    The modern video-game is more of a narrative-instrument than anything else. It’s a contained, fabricated experience with a beginning, middle and end. Sometimes it can have multiple beginnings, middles or ends, but it still survives on the strengths of that imposed narrative sequence– rising action, climax and denouement. Even the most basic games attempt to make the last section the most difficult, which isn’t something that always happens in classical games– at the end of a basketball game, whether or not your team is outmatched depends mostly on how well you’ve been playing up until the final minutes; at the end of, say, “Zelda”, on the other hand, you’re always going to be outmatched by Ganon, because it’s harder that way, and at that point the deciding factor in the game’s difficulty is that the story dictates it.

    There is something artificial about that, but that’s why I like it. There are boundaries that I can see, boundaries that I can push and shape to my likings. The more games are used as storytelling tools, the more static and puzzle-like they become, which is where I prefer to stand. In the end, even puzzles are stories, because they arrive at the end with a solution. They ask a question, and arrive at an answer. The same can be said of all narrative-mediums, from film, literature and theater to riddles, mysteries and enigmas.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Infovore » links for October 29th on Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

    [...] Game Design Advance » The Designer’s Dilemma: The Freedom to Fail "Losing is an opportunity that individuals deserve, and allowing the state to sweep in and save you from the consequences of your own actions robs you of a certain kind of agency." Fantastic article about the difference between win/lose and quit/finish. Lots of good stuff in here – a must-read. (tags: games communism design play success reagan ) [...]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

Comment spam protected by SpamBam