Gradation of failure in IF

Hit points in Street Fighter vs lives in Pac Man

Gradation of Failure is a discussion of large and small failures in IF that compliments my recent series on frustration in IF, and I highly recommend reading both it and the comments thread.

To summarize: failure can be swift if a mistake is made (large gradation) or gradual with an accumulation of mistakes (small gradation). IF (if it has it at all) tends to be focused on instant failure. If something goes wrong

*** You have died ***

rather than the situation becoming slightly more complex or difficult to handle.

Given that the site Renga in Blue is the only exclusively IF focused blog I’m aware of, and we’ve blogrolled it here at WRT, I’m a bit embarassed that I hadn’t already read this - it certainly would have helped clarify my thinking and my vocabulary in the frustration series. Here are some observations on comparisons and contrasts in our approaches.

I describe frustration during a discrete interaction - what I called a “micro-defeat” - whose distinguishing characteristic is lack of forward progress (the forward impulse plus the lack of progress being “frustration”). Despite using the term “setback,” I generally talked about setbacks that were really delays or elaborations in progress rather than the undoing of previously made progress.

Renga discusses the evolution of designed-failure in IF in terms of parallels and disjunctions with arcade and console games. In contrast to my “setbacks” or “micro-defeats,” the Renga article uses the term “failure” (large gradation) to mean “you-have-died, insert-coin, do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-200-dollars” - in other words, a true setback, not just an aggrevating delay.

While I think my ideas can be applied to IF generally, after reading the Renga piece it became more clear to me that had I written with a particular IF style in mind - the contemporary, artsy, non-scoring, narrative-style. In contrast, Renga sketches a bigger picture of IF, better rooted in the history of the medium and more focused on games. That sketch of historical trends in IF design looks right to me: Scoring systems have shrunk, become rigid, and eventually disappeared over time, while commands like UNDO and RESTORE have become standard. While players once traded points for resurrections so that they wouldn’t have to start all over after a failure (like the pinball / arcade game model of “earning extra lives”), the interest of IF designers and interactors gradually shifted towards continuity and the ability to quickly work around sudden-death situations (or not have to face them at all).

Renga concludes by suggesting that gradual failure (i.e. failure, small gradation) could be worked into the plot, punishing early mistakes by increasing the difficulty of later challenges. For example, triggering a house alarm might increase the number of guards. Presumably these gradual failures would become an object lesson after the large failure (being caught by guards and ending the game) and the interactor would gain the skill / insight necessary to avoid the alarm in the first place.

At first I was baffled by this design approach, since it is so different from the sort of design that I’m interested in, but it makes sense when considering how Renga describes the parallels evolutions of IF and console / arcade games such as Rastan. As fight and side-scroller games advanced, instant-death models that gave you “lives” (e.g. Pac Man) were complicated by the introduction of hit-points (e.g. Street Fighter).

These are carrot and stick perspectives on a similar problem. While we both head towards considering fine-grained events, the Renga proposition is that IF could have hit-points for the plot, punishing early failure by increasing the difficulty. By contrast, my focus on the aesthetics of error messages reacts to early frustration by providing additional support and information.

In other words, I seem to be dropping health and power-ups. =)

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