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Success and Failure in Games: The Dialogue Approach

In response to our Accessibility post, we received a comment about the lack of failure in Dialogue, and how that affected the game. This is something we thought about while designing Dialogue, and it seemed important enough to share these thoughts. The comment is found in the Accessibility post, but here is the part we’re responding to.


But the fundamental flaw in the thinking here, I believe, is not considering failure as content, frustration as part of the fun and responsibility towards the content you get as inversely proportional to accessibility.

I mean, there’s a difference between a game being easy and a game being always winnable. I’m not suggesting Dialogue should have had game overs, nothing of the sort – I just feel if you can always track back and play every scene again and not be really responsible for whatever results I get storywise, then what’s really mine in the game? Am I really playing the game if all I’m doing is systematically winning?

Losing – and having to deal with the loss – are powerful artifices to engage the player and making them feel like the journey they’re on is truly theirs. It makes relating to characters easier, makes you feel like no one else can take your playthrough away from you because hey, you failed there and then, but this made you see what only you could see – something that shouldn’t have happened, but you saw it.


The Really Short Answer

Yes, definitely… and it’s complicated, depending on the game and the player.


The Short Answer

There are a few ways we could talk about this. I do consider failure to be content, and frustration as one potential part of fun. There is definitely a give-and-take between any one person’s experience being unique and the number of people able to access and share in a given experience (accessibility). Losing and loss are powerful game design tools and they always deserve to be considered for a game. I often see these perspectives represented in games, sometimes to great effect. I also sometimes find myself getting tired of it, so I like to see games experimenting in that space. Inevitably, and unfortunately, some of that experimentation (like Dialogue) will rub some people the wrong way.


The Long Answer

This comment makes me think of the Challenge and Expression aesthetics in the MDA framework (a useful framework for anybody interested in game design). I bring this up because different people play games for different reasons, and we’re trying to touch upon different aesthetics in different ways. For Dialogue, we wanted to emphasize the Narrative and Discovery aesthetics in particular, while still including Challenge and Expression as secondary aesthetics. That is to say, we wanted a game that would allow a player to challenge or express themselves, but in a way that never got in the way of narrative and discovery being the core experience. In short, I think the perspective on loss and failure of this comment is completely valid, but it’s not the only perspective that can be used to make games, and since I personally think it’s over-represented, I lean towards making something different. It is still a very personal thing, though.

There is another way to look at this, which converts ‘failure’ and ‘responsibility towards the content you get’ into the player’s time. Have you heard the game assumptions below?

Failed? Try again until you succeed.

Want different content? Do another playthrough with different choices.

Many games use these assumptions, and it’s generally considered ‘good game design’ not to waste the player’s time:

If they failed, you get them back in the game as quickly as possible.

If they want to replay, make it easy to skip sequences they’ve seen before.

In some senses we’ve just taken this a step further by not requiring a full re-play to unlock different content (although you can choose to replay the story from the beginning if you wish). We point this out to the player in advance because different games handle it differently, and not everyone knows for sure what to expect in this regard. Being clear about this removed an unnecessary layer of tension, which was important in a game that isn’t meant to be very tense.

As is pointed out in the comment, there is a relationship between the time you spend getting something and how you feel about it, and this can make things tricky. In our modern world, if you saw the same story as someone else, does that make you feel connected, or less special? I personally think the relationship is not exactly inversely proportional – there are peaks and troughs, and it varies depending on the person and the game. It may be anecdotal, but we’ve had testers thank us for having told them in advance that nothing was miss-able, which means something to us.


Bonus: Soft Failures

Even the long answer doesn’t completely cover the questions posed by this comment, because there are certain design choices we made to make things a little inconvenient (but not impossible) for certain playstyles. For example, we have cooldown timers in the Exploratory conversations. This often baffles people – after all, they can still solve the Thoughts using brute force, it just takes more time and isn’t that just annoying?

The tricky thing is, when there weren’t cooldown timers, most people solved the Thoughts using brute force (by trying them on every panel), because it seemed inefficient not to. We could work in something like a three-strikes system, whereby you can no longer answer a Thought if you get it wrong too many times, but that has multiple issues which ripple through the rest of the game. Instead, we decided to try nudging players towards what we think is the best experience rather than forcing it, and added cooldown timers a sort of ‘soft failure’. The timers are long enough that most people stop to think about the right answer, or at least try a few good ideas they have before resorting to brute force. At the same time, they’re short enough that if a player is stuck, they can still force the answer without getting too upset at that oddly worded thought or panel. Perspectives work similarly, but it’s more of a daunting prospect to brute force, so the player can feel more pride in answering them.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it has the effect we wanted for a large portion of the game, even if sometimes the player may be frustrated or a bit confused.

As far as feeling a certain ownership of your playthrough, we think there is enough of that even with a similar overall plot. We think each player can have their own journey through the story, the same way readers have different mental images of characters, or thoughts about the storyline. It will still be more different than two readings of the same book, because their choices as Lucille will help flesh her out as a character/avatar, and lead to different responses from the other characters. It was also important to us that players experience the game without feeling like they’re conversing in the wrong way – after all, in real conversations you don’t really have definitive feedback about whether you did well or not, and it’s not even clear what ‘doing well’ even means in many conversations.


The Conclusion

We had something specific in mind we wanted to achieve with Dialogue. We wanted it to be a game that let the player explore the narrative at their own pace, but when they were ready, to have challenges and ways of generating their own playthrough. Making this happen involved many intersecting goals, and many possible systems. These decisions affect each other, and there’s no one way that works for everyone, but we tried to achieve our goals and create something that people could enjoy.



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