THIS PIECE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR HALO: REACH THAT YOU WOULD HAVE PROBABLY ALREADY KNOWN FROM THE FIRST TEN SECONDS OF THE GAME BUT WHATEVER SPOILING WARNING. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Despite some protestations to it, “video games” seems to have pretty well stuck as the term used to describe that thing that we all like to argue about on the Internet. Some say that calling the medium “video games” limits the sorts of experiences the medium encompasses. “Game” implies certain things that may not necessarily apply to all the things that we call video games. Does there have to be a challenge in a video game? Does there need to be a possibility of failure? Does there need to be a possibility of success? Is a certain level of competition, whether against other players or the game itself, required? Recently games like Proteus and Gone Home have raised these questions as they’re rather outside of mainstream game design. In most games, you do the thing the game tells you to do well enough until the game ends. And really, when you think about, is this not terribly limiting for a medium that is trying to establish itself as a legitimate way to tell stories? If a game requires success out of a player in order for them to experience the whole story, does this not limit, in a fundamental way, what that story can say and do?
In Call of Duty, generally your goal is to get from one end of an area to another. Sometimes you have to hit a button when you get there, or sometimes a scripted sequence will start, but it doesn’t matter. The point is, most of the time you have to go from point A to point B. The problem is that there are things in your way that will stop you from getting to point B. If they stop you, your progress is rolled back to a certain predetermined point, and you are tasked with doing the scenario over again. You are given a number of tools that will stop the enemies from stopping you, and by using these tools you can reach point B, where you are then rewarded for your success. In this structure, Call of Duty is asking you to be better than the things trying to stop you. You have to shoot them enough times, before they shoot you enough times. The game requires you to be better than your enemies, or else you won’t progress.
This is a very simple description of it, but this basic structure is very common in gaming. Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Gears of War, Halo, God of War, etc. Stripping away the story, characters, settings, styles, themes, and so on, this is basically what many games come down to. Get to point B, if something tries to stop you, get rid of it. In essence, these games tell the player that they have to be better than every single enemy in the game, from the first grunt to the final boss. But what if the developer wants to end the story with the player character dying?
The example that springs to my mind is the Modern Warfare series, which has become rather infamous for taking control away from the player in order to kill off the player character. But the problem is, if the player character fails in the same scenario that the player has been made to succeed at the whole time (e.g. killing all those guys before they kill me) then the player is going to feel pretty cheated. It’s sort of like if you played through a puzzle game, figuring out even its most complex challenges, only to get to the end, and being told, without even being able to try it, that your character couldn’t solve the last puzzle. The player is basically trained throughout the game to succeed in certain situations, and then the developer takes the controller out of their hands and says, “Sorry. You didn’t succeed this time and now you’re dead. The end.”
Halo: Reach had a clever solution for this problem. The player character was supposed to die at the end, bravely staying behind in enemy territory to make sure others could escape to safety. After the final showdown, the player is left in a desert wasteland teeming with enemy soldiers. The game only ends when the player inevitably succumbs to the enemy onslaught. Here, the player’s inevitable death feels justified because it’s a result of the player’s actions. Plus, the player feel like a noble badass for going out in a blaze of glory while saving others. This solution is more natural than what the Modern Warfare games usually employ, but it’s certainly more limiting. It requires a specific setup and scenario that may not be applicable to all stories or characters.
Do games like The Wolf Among Us mitigate this problem by allowing failure to be a natural part of the story and gameplay? Some action scenes don’t require you to win. Sure, you need to succeed in certain critical moments, but the fight can end with you definitively being the loser. What if you got to the end of the game and the story left the player character defeated? Perhaps the player would feel less cheated because they would have doubts about their own ability to succeed if they had been given the chance. Even if the player had perfectly completed every action scene prior to the finale, the game could present an insurmountable challenge at the end for the player to struggle against and ultimately fail, like requiring more QTEs than the player could possibly complete.
But is giving the player the illusion of success a legitimate solution to forcing them to fail? Unbeatable enemies are common in RPGs like Final Fantasy where the character’s failure is required by the story, but usually when these battles occur the player doesn’t know they’re doomed to failure. From the very beginning of Reach, the player knows that they won’t survive the final encounter. In Final Fantasy, this information is hidden from the player (although sometimes it’s kind of obvious). If players recognize that they game is forcing them to fail, but is trying to withhold that information, does this not feel like a cheap move by the developers anyway?
All these problems extend from gaming’s ongoing problem in incorporating failure in gameplay with coherent storytelling. Dying and simply restarting a few feet back sort of takes the punch out of death, making an actual canonical death either feel hollow or cheap. Some games use permadeath as a solution, which forces the player to place extra value on each and every attempt through a game. Games like Prince of Persia (the reboot in 2008; using the name of the original game as the name of the reboot is a problem for another time…) separate death and failure, coming up with other reasons for the player to be set back or penalized. Whatever the solution, this a problem that game developers need to sort out. A “one size fits all” approach won’t work as video game storytelling matures to tell deeper stories.
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