Failing Forward

2019-04-01 · by Bruno Dias
tagged Columns

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is out at last and so I’m thinking again about the perennial theme of FromSoftware’s loosely-connected Souls series: Failure.

Failure is part of life, and it’s an ingrained feature of storytelling. Writing-101-type story structures often incorporate some aspect of failure: heroes make mistakes or are set back by their inability to deal with adversity, before ultimately moving on.

Failure has always been a tricky subject to approach in game narratives. Games often introduce the possibility of failure on the part of the player, and then have to figure out how that will play out narratively.

After all, if the player makes a mistake, it may be ascribed to the player character if the player recovers and keeps playing rather than rewinding to an earlier save. This alignment of failure can feel consonant or dissonant, and it’s important to think about the tone of failure in your game. Is the player failing to live up to their character? Are the player and character learning together through trial-and-error? Is player error a sly joke, a pratfall played off with physical humor? All of those have been done successfully.

Of course, the same questions exist from the other end of the screen. What about character failures that are not driven by player error? After all, almost any interesting story will contain some element of setback or failure to it. Some games might find that tonal arc in their systems and mechanics, hoping to tune their difficulty such that players will experience that cycle of failure and success. But some games might not emphasize or care about player skill, and instead lean on different forms of interaction.

In a visual novel, for example, you might not want a skill component to the game. In a choice-based narrative, asking a player to make the “right choice” without some underlying system or methodology that players can learn to use will feel like a guessing game. We usually don’t write branching narrative to test the player in this way, but given a traditional character arc, we do need to write points of failure for the character. How do we square those two?

It’s easy to fall into a trap of suggesting to a player that they did something wrong. We do so much to make the player believe that their choices have significant outcomes for the characters in the story; when those characters face a bad turn, how do we make this a satisfying narrative beat and not an invitation to reload a save? And in games that do have a skill component or some mechanical aspect that allows for failure (such as an action game or an RPG with random rolls), how can we think about failure in more narratively rich ways?

Failing forward – A common term in tabletop RPG design, “failing forward” means the general principle that all failures must advance the story; you can’t fail in a way that halts the plot or imply invites a retry. This is also a common principle employed in gamebooks, visual novels, and other choice-based stories; you are guaranteed forward plot movement and interesting developments whether or not you succeed. In a tabletop game, this principle is employed to encourage risk-taking and prevent stalls. In a single-player narrative experience, it encourages living with failure and letting player errors fold into the ongoing narrative. It’s also closely tied to…

Watching things burn – This is where Sunless Skies lives a lot of the time. If your failure branches bring the player a gruesome, perverse pleasure; if the player character breaks open like a cross-sectioned cake, showing his interior to the world in the process; if the player can be made to feel more as an agent of chaos than of a particular agenda… then there might not really be such a thing as failure. Failing forward gives your player safety to do risky (or even reckless) things; the related principle of entertaining fires means that players are rewarded for going there. Interactive comedy can get a lot of mileage out of those ideas.

Choosing your poison – This is a more serious approach that is found in a lot of Choice of Games pieces. Here, we look less at failure so much as paying a heavy price. We give the player multiple priorities and ask them to juggle; when they drop a ball, it’s the ball they chose to let go of.

As always, those are a starting point to think about the issue: Failure is a fact of storytelling (and life). And so it’s also another lens through which to look at the sewing together of mechanics, structure, presentation, and story.


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