May 27th, 2009 - 9:50 am

Jonathan Blow first brought up the conflict between story and challenge back in November 2008 at MIGS. Blow describes the problem as a conflict where “the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going.”  As of January 2009, Blow doesn’t seem to be any closer at resolving the issue. I remember when I first heard his argument; I was really taken aback by how blind I was to this obvious yet pervasive conflict. It stumped me, plain and simple. The solution isn’t to tell stories without challenge, or challenge the player without story. That doesn’t really get us anywhere. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that instead of trying to tweak story or conflict individually, we need to look at the fundamental assumptions that put challenge and story into conflict in the first place.

Plot in games is almost always set up as a gated experience. The player is presented with a few plot points before a gate is reached, and the plot can’t progress until that gate is unlocked. To unlock a gate you have to successfully complete a gameplay challenge. If you make the challenge too difficult, the player will have to experience the same plot points again and again as they restart the challenge, effectively ruining the game’s storytelling. On the other hand, making the challenge too easy negates the thrill associated with challenge based gameplay. Interestingly, these two approaches mimic two different play styles. Some players play for the story, and when the game gets too hard resort to cheats and walkthroughs to get through it, or they just plain quit. Other players play for the challenge, will be bored unless they are challenged and see the story as fluff or context. There are of course several shades of grey in between—I think I fall in the middle somewhere—but what this divide really does is beg the question: what are we trying to do here? Is the addition of storytelling to games a misplaced fantasy? Should we be purists and acknowledge that what games do best is challenge us and that what other forms of media (film, theatre, comics) do best are tell stories?

I think this is a really easy argument to make, but it isn’t the one we should be making. Like with every innovative idea, it’s always easier to keep doing things the way we have always done it rather than change the way we think about things. Here too it’s the way that we think about story and challenge, our fundamental assumptions, that is keeping us back.

The first fundamental assumption we need to break is seeing story, or story progression, as a reward. This is the core of the story vs. challenge conflict. We create challenges, and we reward our players with story. If the player fails the challenge, then they don’t get their story. If instead the story is detached from the challenge and a supplementary reward is offered, challenge no longer impedes story. Take for example Calamity Annie, a lesbian fast-draw cowboy romance shooter with an old-school retro feel. The challenge is straightforward and amusing. Using your mouse you try to out-draw and kill a list of lone gunmen, and meanwhile an interactive love story is slowly revealed. Taking someone out rewards you with a bounty based on their difficulty, how quickly you drew your gun, and a bonus for disarming them (with a satisfying TING! as their gun flies away). The gameplay is unforgiving. You are given three lives and each new set of gunmen get faster on the draw. If you die, you start all over with a score of 0, but interestingly you can chose to continue the story from where you left it. You can enjoy the challenge while still experiencing an unobstructed plot. This may be all well and good for a freeware game, but this kind of implementation wouldn’t really work well in a AAA title. Plus, it reinforces the disconnect between story and game, which should be avoided.

Simply removing the association between gameplay progression and story progression doesn’t solve, in a satisfying way, the issue of the game stopping when the story wants to keep going. To get past the gameplay progression issue, we need to examine our second fundamental assumption: that the only correct resolution to a challenge is success. Game stories are likely the only stories where everything absolutely always goes the protagonists’ way (in an ideal play through). The reasoning is easy enough to understand. We’re here to entertain our players and ensure that they have fun. Losing is not fun, so losing is never an acceptable resolution. However, this assumption forgets that many of the greatest stories ever told have moments where everything goes wrong for the protagonist. In fact, you can reliably predict that at around the 1 hour 15 minute mark in any Hollywood movie, after everything goes perfectly right for the protagonist(s), everything will suddenly go horribly wrong. As much as I hate this cookie-cutter predictability, Hollywood uses it because it has consistently worked so very well for them in the past. Why would Hollywood, always keen to entertain and please its audience, introduce these negative feelings into all of its stories? Because it creates dramatic tension, it leaves you guessing, it brings you deeper into the experience and makes the final victory (or loss) at the end that much more powerful (if it’s done well, of course).

We as designers need to learn how to integrate failure into our gameplay and stories, and the biggest hurdle to accomplishing this is our third fundamental assumption: failure means death. Death itself is a tricky, hotly debated subject, and I freely admit that I don’t have all the answers; but I do think I can provide some insight by re-jigging the assumption in saying that it’s actually failure means punishment. Designers have been talking for years about not punishing the player to the constant consternation of gamers that love a challenge. I also don’t consider the simple removal of punishment the final solution, obviously, since I think we should let the player fail and feel bad about it (in the right way) to create dramatic tension. The key is in controlling the dramatic experience, which is something we’re not very good at because the tools and know-how aren’t out there yet. Our young industry hasn’t arrived at that point yet, but it’s getting there. It’s easy to imagine…

Imagine a game where, instead of having failure mean death, failure meant alternate, parallel plots and less reward. Imagine a game that could produce a fun experience even when the player fails every challenge while still progressing through the story, and an awesomely fun experience when the player succeeds at every challenge. It would require a masterfully designed game that changes the meaning of failure in the player’s mind. I’ll believe it when I see it is a perfectly acceptable reaction to this idea.

Specific implementations aside, the point of the post is this: If we want to beat the story vs. challenge conflict, we need to upend our fundamental assumptions about them:

  • We need to stop considering story as a reward for the successful completion of challenge.
  • We need to avoid thinking that success is a challenge’s only correct and acceptable resolution.
  • And we need to find a way to avoid or improve on that classic game mechanic: failure means death.

Can it be done? Absolutely. I have some vague ideas, maybe you do too?

Spake gian mancuso, tagged as: opinion

  1. I’ve written and thought a lot about this over the years. If game mechanics communicate meaning, as I contend they do, then they do not need the cultural baggage of challenge that video game designers tend to saddle them with.

    In my table top RPG experience, the best character defining moments have been failures. I seek to emulate that with my game design.

    Comment by Corvus — May 27, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  2. ***
    Imagine a game where, instead of having failure mean death, failure meant alternate, parallel plots and less reward.

    I would love to see more games like Wing Commander. The alternate plot lines due to success or failure in any individual mission made the game much more interesting.

    Comment by GBGames — June 1, 2009 @ 11:40 am

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