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How do you make a video game where losses really matter?

Keyboard GeniusesKeyboard Geniuses is our occasional glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the community’s discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity.

I’m A Loser, Baby

William Hughes’ For Our Consideration about learning to accept loss and the narrative power such failures can hold inspired a ton of great conversations in the comments. I’m going to do my best to sum it up, but there are way more insightful posts than we could possibly hope to share. I suggest heading to the massive comment thread and checking it out at your leisure.


ErikPeter was the first of many to introduce the concept of “failing forward” into the conversation:

Would-be video game developers should embrace “fail forward” storytelling like a good Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master does. Instead of failure meaning death, a game over, and a reload, just change the stakes and change the narrative. Have an item get stolen and requiring a side-quest to re-obtain it; have a beloved character get kidnapped for the time being; have the hero get captured and have to escape; etc. etc.

But as Ben explains, that kind structure would be prohibitively difficult to develop a video game around:

The problem is games aren’t Dungeons & Dragons. A DM can react on the fly to what their players are doing and write the next week’s scenario based on the actions of the previous week. A game has to be completed before anyone ever gets to play it, so instead of your players going to a bar and chatting up a buxom orc and having to write a scenario about that, you instead have to write and flesh out a scenario for chatting up every single person in the bar, or not going to the bar, etc. The DM gets the liberty to only write what that specific group is experiencing; a game has to plan for every single outcome that anyone would get. It’s a way harder thing.


Microchops pointed out that sports games might actually do this best:

XCOM kinda does this though, right? If you lose a mission and all your people die, you just get some more people, dust yourself off, and keep going. The issue is player mentality. You’re conditioned by so many games where you have to win all the time forever (unless it’s a scripted loss) that when you encounter a game with less severe punishment for failure, you just save scum around it anyway.

Something that got me really thinking about this a while ago was playing sports games like FIFA or Madden. Losing a game in career mode or season mode isn’t the end of the world; it’s just a normal part of those games, just like in real life. But it’s actually somewhat radical within video game narratives. I was playing one of the THQ UFC games, and my career mode character, who had won basically everything there was to win multiple times over, lost his final match (mandated because your career only lasts 10 years or something like that) in a brutal knockout to a relatively unheralded opponent. In terms of an actual career, that makes sense, but for a video game narrative, it was very strange.


NMiller7192 wondered if the answer to the save-scumming problem is to offer more varied outcomes:

“Fail forward” is a brilliant way to design a game (difficult, maybe, but it can be fascinating) but is there much motive for game designers to actually do so? I mean, as William points out, most people just repeatedly reload and try again when they screw something up. They don’t actually face the consequences of their failures.

So how can game designers circumvent this issue, when it’s largely a user-thing? How much motive do they have in implementing a “fail forward” design when most players are resetting to prevent the “failure” in the first place?

I think a smart thing to do would be implementing “mixed bag” results. Build more moments that don’t amount to “all good things happen or all bad things happen.” Hell, maybe add some extra quests if a character that can die actually dies. Reward the player for failure, just in a different way. For instance, a character dying usually just leads to lost content. There is little motive to not do a soft reset after something bad happens.

Mordin Solus in Mass Effect 2

Elsewhere, Ultrabithorax reckons Mass Effect 2’s finale is a great example of a character’s (or characters’) death being made more emotional because it stems from your failures as opposed to the game’s script:

The Suicide Mission in ME2 is one of the best examples of what this article is talking about. Your success or failure (read: how many of your squadmates die) isn’t about how good you are at shooting bug-aliens in the head. Rather, throughout the game, your mission has explicitly been to build a strong team. The only way to get the best ending (where everyone lives) is to have gone the extra mile for your team, not only gaining their loyalty, but also getting to know them as characters. Mordin is an option for the mission’s “security expert,” but while he’s a tech genius, his specialty is biology, not computers. If you mistakenly just think “Oh, he throws fire in battle so yeah, sure,” then he’s going to die. Miranda is an option for the biotic bubble and even volunteers herself for it, but while she’s a powerful biotic, she’s also overconfident in her own skills, and you’ve got two of the most powerful biotics in the galaxy on deck. If you don’t know your team, then your team dies.

Because of this design philosophy, loss in Mass Effect 2 isn’t scripted (like on Virmire in ME1 or countless, less impactful deaths in ME3). It’s your fault, and often the only way to “undo” it would be to go back and play the game a completely different way. The game sets up those stakes very carefully, and it creates this sense of tension throughout its entirety, where you’re constantly wondering what you can do to improve your chances. Personally, it took me a couple of playthroughs to actually get the best ending, but all the losses along the way made finally getting everyone out alive all the sweeter.


The_Misanthrope took this a step further, recalling how utter failure in Mass Effect 2 led to an otherwise unattainable relationship in Mass Effect 3:

My Mass Effect 2 ending was a slaughterhouse. I lost many beloved characters. I was really saddened to see Mordin die. ME2 didn’t even give me a stirring death scene for him; I just saw his prone body as our troops retreated to the ship.

But without his death, I would have never got to know Padok Wiks better. He makes an appearance in the game even if Mordin lives, but he acts as his replacement in the story if he doesn’t. And what a unique, delightful character he turns out to be! Whereas it might have been easy to assume Mordin’s efficient manner was common to all Salarian scientists (you space-racist!), Padok acts as a contrast. Where Mordin often spoke in clipped phrases, Padok is a warm and personable speaker. His thoughts drift to intangible concepts like beauty and philosophy while Mordin was pure science. Padok is reflective and thoughtful; Mordin was excitable about his work, often to the exclusion of other matters. And of course, there’s also this fun, poignant story.


Let’s Playlist!

This week also brought about another of our community video game-music playlists. The theme this time was “Bass of operations: themes from video game headquarters.” As always we got plenty of nominations down in the comments, and now it’s time to reveal the final product. We added 25 more songs to our list, bringing the total up to 35 tracks. You can find them all embedded in the video above or by heading to YouTube via this here link. Here’s the full list of community nominations:


And that’ll do it for this week, Gameologisaurs. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!


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