Last week I attended a very interesting keynote talk by Jesper Juul in the tenth Brazilian Symposium on Computer Games and Digital Entertainment. The theme of Juul's talk was failure in games, how it's different from failure in everyday life and why those differences might be what attracts us to playing games.
The idea (or rather, the way I understood it) is that failure within a game's magic circle can still be emotionally and cognitively meaningful but it doesn't carry further consequences. We still avoid failure in games but when it happens, we can deny it, and try again. The fact that we can afford to fail in a game gives us freedom to explore different possibilities. Therefore, games without the possibility (or with very low risk) of failure become boring or uninteresting. An important point is that failure doesn't have to involve learning. Games of pure chance don't have any learning about them but the lure of succeeding or failing in a controlled environment is still there.
I'm a big fan of Jesse Schell's approach of seeing games through different "lenses", so after the talk, I started thinking about how would a "lens of failure" apply to solo tabletop gaming. The magic circle is still there, with the solo player constraining his actions to what the rules allow. It's possible to see how failure is still there too. Very often, solo games or solo conversions are about adding elements of unpredictability, in a way that has to be coped with during the game. Solo games often have very high failure:success ratios (take for instance Zombie in my Pocket or Island of D.) Mythic GM Emulator is another fine example: much of its appeal comes
from the random events and modified scenes, which bring "mini-failures"
to our planned narratives. I would say that, from the standpoint of Juul's theory, solo game systems are about adding possibilities of failure. JF of Solo Nexus has expressed a similar feeling when commenting on solo skirmish games: "The concept of a player who commands both sides AND has complete control on each turn is not, in my opinion, gaming."
The conclusion that I draw from this is that adding risk of failure may be more important than creating a very detailed and complex simulation for the "virtual opponent." A set of rules that results in some coherent behavior is still desirable, especially because a competent oponent increases the risk of the player losing -- but it becomes a means to an end. This brings two questions for me to think about:
- How success and failure are experienced by the player during the solo game? In a Mythic GME-mediated solo RPG session, success and failure occur on a per-scene basis. Would it be possible (and desirable) to add such dynamics to the course of a miniature skirmish, for instance?
- Most examples I can think of in solo games add risk of failure through chance mechanics (the prime exception being playing a deliberately unbalanced scenario.) Are there other mechanics that add to the risk of failure, or make failure more interesting?