Friday, September 21, 2012

Failure and Death in Gamebooks

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how to impose consequences for failure in gamebooks. The traditional method is with death, but how much fun dying is for the player is questionable.

To be sure, a well-written, colorful death scene, especially in the right tone of book, can be a lot of fun. Some of the most memorable moments of those old fighting fantasy books are some of the crazy death scenes you can get yourself into.

But from a game flow perspective, it just ends the game for the player. This jars them from the game experience, possibly causing them to stop. It's not as fun to fail as to succeed. And it may force them to re-do material they have already gone through, which is not fun, and depending on how demanding that material is, may be tedious enough to drive the player to set the book aside rather than try again.

On the other hand, though success is more fun than failure, success loses that fun factor if failure isn't very likely. If success is spoon-fed to you, it loses it's significance.

So, we're looking at a few factors here:

Challenge Factor: This is a measure of how difficult real success is to achieve. Generally, this is like salt: more of it is better, until you have too much.

but this must be balanced against...

Tedium Factor: Generally, given that this is not real death we are talking about, death in a game means going back and doing it again. For highly content-based games, forcing the player to re-do material they've already done isn't fun the second, or third, or fifth, or tenth time around. Even for more gameplay oriented games, repeating material isn't usually as fun unless it is part of honing the skill of the game.

The only time I see repetition being fun is when the death was a learning experience, and now you get to go back and try again, with more knowledge and skill. When repetition means trying again at something you failed at the first time, learning and trying again until you get it right, it's fun. But if you have to repeat stuff that's not related to why you died, just to get back to the challenge that actually challenges you, that's not as fun.

So the question becomes: In gamebooks, what cost do you impose on the player for failure? Death is just one option for that cost, and effectively what it amounts to is, "go back and try again, you loser." There are two costs in death: one is the cost to status and self-prestige. It's a message to the player, "you didn't make it, try again." The other is a cost to time, in that they are then asked to replay a certain portion of the game. On the other hand, that cost is only a cost if the repetition is unrewarding. Theoretically, getting to try again could be a good thing if it throws you right back into the meaningful, fun part of the gameplay. In that case, the cost of death is only the status cost, the "you failed" message. But while that's not awesome in and of itself, it can heighten the full gameplay experience, if the player feels like they could succeed. In that case, he or she is driven to try again, and success is all the sweeter when it's achieved.

The concept of death in video games perhaps made more sense when these were arcade games, and the cost of failure was a very real one: another $0.25 to keep playing. But even then, the only lure to keep playing is the feeling that you could have gotten it right, with another try maybe you can achieve mastery.

So, what I'm coming to is that ideally, player death in a video game should take them back right to the point where they need to do something different. This presents it's own problems, though, in that perhaps the thing you would need to change is a puzzle, and finding it is part of the challenge.

Let me rephrase: Ideally, player death in a game should reset them to the beginning of the challenge which they failed.

As a followup tenet from that, achieving success with repetition should be a matter of honing player skill, not a matter of luck. There is no satisfaction to hitting a button again and again till it comes up with the "you may proceed" screen. There IS satisfaction in improving personal skill and achieving mastery of a game mechanic.

Hmm... this post has been sort of a random, disorganized rant, and I wound up talking more about how to use death effectively rather than alternatives to death, but I think there's enough here to go ahead and post it. Maybe I'll do a followup on this topic later.


  1. There are many alternatives to death: limited imprisonment, slavery (until the next character entering the adventure rescues you, for example), being sent to another adventure (in Tunnels & Trolls, characters are sometimes punished by being sent to Naked Doom or to the Arena of Khazan, and if they die, they get to play Abyss), losing all or part of your equipment and/or attribute points, etc.

    1. You make a good point, Grimtooth, and actually my original intent in writing this blog post was to discuss some of the alternatives to death. But I got sidetracked in speculating on how to use death effectively as a game mechanic.

      I think in the next week or two I'll probably come back and do another article on other forms of consequence in gamebooks. This list will be helpful, then!

  2. This is something I tried to resolve in Wings of Lightning ( There's a LOT of combat--probably too much, in retrospect--but subsequently I knew that the player would occasionally just die to dumb luck, which isn't fun. So I put in "checkpoints." Whenever the player dies, he or she can return to the most recent checkpoint instead of needing to completely restart.

  3. There was a great scene in a T&T solo (I can't remember which) where it's possible to spend decades in a hell dimension. You can emerge 100 years later with upped strength but a minus charisma, since you're now a demon.

  4. I've often thought about this issue and as you say, it's difficult to come up with a fun way of punishing a player for mistakes. The idea of resetting a player to the point where they began the challenge they failed sounds ideal, but may not work very well in practice. For instance, a stand-alone puzzle would simply give the player infinite attempts, making the challenge inconsequential. On the other hand, some challenges may be multi-staged, with unrelated events in between, such as collecting several items required later on. If the player misses one of these items, they would be sent a long way back and forced to re-do large sections. Perhaps in these situations, punishment via attribute or item loss would be more appropriate than a death-and-reset mechanic.

    It seems that addressing the issue of player death is not simply done by changing what happens to them when they fail. Doing it effectively may involve fundamental changes to the nature of the challenges they face, and perhaps the structure and plot of the gamebook itself.

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