It's weird to think that there exist solitary entertainment experiences wherein you can experience failure. Not failure through a cipher, but you, yourself, failed to do something correctly. Video games are unique, or at least uncommon, in this respect. Maybe some variants of solitaire have unwinnable deals, but those are wholly random. It's much harder to fail at reading a novel, listening to a song or watching a play.
I think this is actually a very good thing. After simply having agency at all, it's probably the most distinguishing characteristic of games. But it also affects how we perceive games. It may cast games as things to be overcome, rather than understood. Things to be beaten, rather than examined. For a lot of games, this alone can be deep, rich and fascinating. But I can't help but think this might be impeding our ability to communicate through a game's mechanics.
When I talked about why indie darlings are so often 2D platformers, I noted that part of the reason why so many creators opt for 2D platforming as a style is there are probably more players who are literate in that style of game than any other. It's not that the challenge or possibility of failure has been necessarily diminished, but rather that the basic structure is very well understood and internalized. Move from left to right, avoid hazards, gravity and timing behave in certain ways, etc. You place a random person in front of a 2D platformer and ask them how to succeed, and they'd probably have a good guess. Getting the same after putting someone in a random spot in Red Dead Redemption is probably far less likely.
In the comments to that post, Michal Wisniowski remarked that bullet hell shoot 'em ups are also quite prevalent in the indie scene. Which made me wonder what would be required to communicate some kind of tonal/aesthetic message through a shmup's mechanics. A great deal of that style's appeal comes from its unrelenting difficulty and split-second timing. This makes them less accessible than more playable platformers though, even for pretty experienced gamers. I mean, I look at Ikaruga, smell copper and then pass out. I enjoy some games with an intensive manual dexterity component, but shmup's are a bridge too far for me.
Given that there's so much emphasis on overcoming challenges and avoiding failure, I wonder how much cognitive space is really left for a player to pick up on anything more subtle. Of course, there's nothing to say shmup's have to be well suited for these kinds of experiences. But it seems like any type of game that does desire to communicate some kind of message that isn't just through exposition and dialog might do well to consider exactly how much emphasis is being placed on "winning." If too much emphasis is placed on moment-to-moment survival, it could be difficult to encourage thinking about the game as a larger, more cohesive statement.
The other unfortunate consequence here is that it becomes difficult to encourage players to explore outcomes that seem "negative." It's quite rare to find a game that doesn't just jump to something checkpoint-ish as soon as a failure state has been reached. Roguelikes are a rare style of game that, due to a brutal and unforgiving difficulty, failure is almost an information gathering process. Each failure grants further insight into the world and its rules. Most games do this to some extent, but the majority cast failure as an optional thing. It feels avoidable and unintended when it occurs. I'm not sure what it would look like, but I'd be very interested in a game that encourages probing "failure" without the merciless character of a roguelike. I just can't help but think we haven't seen this yet because such a game would seem bizarre and antithetical.
As an aside, Jon Blow gave a good talk at MIGS where he discussed the tension in games between progress (continue the story, allows things to evolve) and challenge (keep things from changing until certain conditions have been met). Listen if you haven't, it's solid.
Games can be thought of as a conversation between creators and players. A great deal of the time, the player is just trying to keep up with the conversation until it's over. We've seen some great experiments that helped players hear and reflect about what was really being said by slowing the conversation down, by using common parlance and familiar words. I think we'll see even more of these experiments in the future and I'm definitely excited. Maybe before long, we'll see games where you "fail" because you want to, not because you didn't do things right. As long as we've still got plenty of good healthy challenge in other games that appear alongside it, I'm totally on board. You?