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!