Handling Failure

Tuesday, June 8th 2010

This post applies to game design, so if you're a family member looking to keep up with what's going on in Greg's life, be informed that this isn't a post about something at which I've failed recently.

I've recently become aware of a game mechanic which I really enjoy, and it's a game mechanic which can exist in both video games and tabletop RPG games. It has to do with the handling of failure.

When I played the Playstation 3 game Heavy Rain, the thing that struck me most about it was not the graphics, nor the story, nor the way it abstracted everyday actions to controller gestures. Granted - all these things were great, and I enjoyed them all very much. But what really struck me about Heavy Rain was the way in which it handled player failure and resultant consequences. In so many games, when you fail you must replay the sequence. Over and over until you succeed. This is a huge part of the reason that so many games frustrate me. It may in fact be my least favorite thing about video games in general. But in Heavy Rain, when you fail at something, the story continues. It was a failure, and it doesn't halt the progression of the story. Maybe you missed a vital clue that could have helped later. Perhaps you were beaten to a pulp by that mugger. Maybe you even allowed someone to die. Too bad. That person is dead, and now you've got to deal with it rather than reload and have the story turn out the way you might have wanted. More so than any other game I've played, choices and failures in Heavy Rain have consequences, and I absolutely loved that.

Now that I'm back in Connecticut, I'm running a 4th Edition D&D game, and despite my initial resistance to the system, one thing that saved it for me is the system for Skill Challenges. Whereas battles generally have a single consequence for failure, (player death) skill challenges must always allow for a fork in the story as a result of player failure. Failure is an option. And failure can allow the story to move in very interesting directions.

So pardon my stream of consciousness here, I just noticed the similarity between the two games and realized that I was enjoying the same thing in each. I needed to share with the Internet.

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