Failing Forward: How to Find Fun In Failure

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At 9:00am on 4/18/2018, I attended the presentation “Failing Forward: How to Find Fun In Failure”, Presented by Rebecca Slitt of Choice of Games, at the 2018 East Coast Gaming Conference in At the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, NC.

Failing Forward: How to Find Fun in Failure

Rebecca Slitt is an editor and partner at Choice of Games, LLC. She is also the author of the interactive novels Psy High and First Year Demons. She has also contributed to the tabletop games Timewatch RPG, Noirlandia, and Geist; and is the author of the forthcoming Dark College Years. Before joining Choice of Games, Rebecca was a professor of medieval history, specializing in the aristocratic and military culture of twelfth-century England. She has presented on game design and interactive fiction at Worldcon, Arisia, the Villanova University Popular Culture Series, and the International Medieval Congress on Medieval Studies.

Failure can be awesome

For a story to have meaningful stakes, the protagonist needs to fail. Indeed, the best stories can come from overcoming failure to fight towards a final victory. Would Return of the Jedi be quite so satisfying if it didn’t follow the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when all seemed to be lost?

It’s easy to build this kind of structure into a book or a movie, but what about an interactive narrative medium such as a videogame? First, you can’t necessarily predict when the player will fail, or at what task. Second, if the player fails too much, they become discouraged, unhappy, and disengaged from the story – but if the player never fails, the game is boring: the stakes don’t feel real, and victory doesn’t feel satisfying. Third, failure can sometimes stall the story: if the only outcome of failure is “try again,” then the player can get stuck in a loop.

As a creator of text-only interactive fiction, Choice of Games has made “failing forward” one of its core design principles. Even if the player fails at an individual task, the story must keep moving forward; even if the player has a horrible failure overall, there must still be something awesome about that failure. In my presentation, I will examine some techniques of narrative and mechanics that can help maintain narrative momentum and player satisfaction through failure, such as multi-layered success, multiple goals, success-with-complications, and more.

The player can’t doo everything. Sometimes the story requires it and building the drama of fighting back or items which can show the player they are invested, even though they’ve failed.

What is the mechanical and narrative role of failure, techniques to make failure satisfying, and then some specific examples of how to make failure move things forward with scene-specific ad game-level failures. we ‘ll see some tools and create some awesome failures.

The goal is not to convie that failure happens., but rather to discuss why failure is awesome- how they fill needs. The mechnaical role of failuremechanicla role offeres constratint and boundarieis, rules, and teaches the plauer what they’re allowed to do, what good at, and what they should do. You can get better by trying and failing, and learning my experience.

Narratively, failure evokes emotions, stopping them from doing tng s they want to do and effectively making them wanting it more. Building drama makes sweeter the positive emotions of success.

All of this is caught up in stakes. IF the player cannot fail anything, the story doesn’t feel real. for the story to free real, there must be a chance to fail and also chance to succeed. If there is no success, no way to succeed, they will check out, and not be invested. As narrative designers and writers, we must communicate to the player, why they fail, what happens next, that they could have succeeded, and that there is still something to be done- a reason to continue the story.

Sometime the story line or arc requires failure. Sometimes the story suggests that success should exist, but it does not.

What comes after failure?

is it game over, is it try again immediately, is it a try again later mechanic? Must you go away, build up skills, and try again? some games have different mechanic and they aren’t the right tools for the job in particular.

 

Choice of Games

At this point in the presentation, Rebecca talked about the materials with Choice of Games. This portion of the material did not strike a chord with the audience because it seemed like product-specific marketing. she discussed her projects, the choice software that she used, and the decisions that she and her team wanted to make. As many people worked in diverse genres of gaming, talking about a pinpoint design that few if any use, it is mainly a wasted moment in the presentation.

Often, a presenter is interested in showing themselves, but the audience is trying to take the information and apply it to their industry or projects. While these items are specific to the speaker, and make the speaker feel good, the point of a presentation is to speak to the audience about a topic they want to hear about and apply. A presentation is not to pat yourself on the back.

 

Tiered success: partial success

Tabletop games make success and failure a part of the narrative function. They incorporate partial success- not either a success or a failure. One that does this wonderfully is Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meg Baker. Even without a success, you can get some success but still have a consequence of failure. Another tier success model such as found in Archipelago by Matthijs Holter is Yes, But… and No, But… These tiered success and tiered failure models are heavily used in improv.

In tabletop gaming, these items are clear. Its harder in a digital context, as the code is hidden. So we need to find ways to communicate it to the player.

Then there was an example from one of her games. At the mechanical level, the stat is tested. You can succeed well, succeed poorly, or fail. Narratively, at the top tier, you are the star, at success you get a small part, at failure you are out, but there is still a chance to get involve in an alternate fashion.

Similarly, she discussed a 2 items test: You might give bad orders and they are not followed- people die. You give the right orders but no one follows them- some people die. You give the wrong orders but they crew follow them- some people die. You give the right orders and everyone follows to the letter and everyone does well. As a result of this double-test, you may gain or lose TRUST in the crew which can be tested later.

Partial success gives you complexity in story branches. It allows for granularity in tests of character abilities- giving a greater sense of dynamism in the narrative, and a greater sense of customization.

The other major success is a yes… but result. Let the player know  the strengths and weaknesses, and how they might play to those strengths. If failing, yes, the story moves forward, but you lose resources and time. In a No.. but result, failure keeps the story moving forward, but you do not do what you’re supposed to and everyone thinks its brilliant.

Yes/No but… gives you and economy of story branches- introducing new stories through failure. It also allows for interesting tradeoffs among resources. This raises the stakes in different ways.

 

Extrapolating into long-term success and failure

While success or failure may seem as though it should happen now, digital games have an advantage in that a previous success or failure can reappear much later in a seemingly unrelated way. Rather than setting up a game where you can lose without and item from partway through the game- a 1 to 1 correspondence for satisfying failure may not exist. We need to revisit the top 4 strategies above and find new ones as needed.

Rather than failure-now or failure-later accounting, a system of “cumulative successes and failures” can be used. Small cumulative failures can add up to a point where later in the game a full failure is approached based on previous set of failures. Examples might include failed bluffs in the past, arrests, escapes when confronted, etc which might make you more known, causing you to be caught in the act due to recognition. Another example might be that a small failure might cause a guard to be more wary or more… on guard (on alert) making the chances of success lower and/or the alert levels to rise to make discovery easier.

 

Multiple goals

Having multiple goals allows for differing levels of success. It allows for strong replay value as you can try again to push a different result. You may be feared or beloved, may have many assets or few assets, may have tons of experience or lesser experience… multiple goals allow you to have specified results and a more personalized experience or also allowing a replay to include a better result at what your players truly desired.

With multiple goals, you can never get them all, you’ll have to make choices. By directing your gameplay, players will have the ability to choose the success and challenges that they wish to emphasize. Increase drama and investment by allowing your players to try, fail, and have a responsive environment which breaks out. You can always try again and succeed.

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