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  • The Importance Of Try/Fail Cycles

    - Gregory Pellechi

  • Every story we tell, every joke we relate, every quests we take is about one thing - causing change

    If nothing changes then we don't have a story. That change can be internal or external. But the best stories, the most memorable tales, the sagas that stick with us are those that have both - the world changes and the characters change.

    Characters change in the most interesting ways, and create the most dynamic stories when they aren't the ideal person for a given situation. But that idea isn't conducive to the power fantasy games like to provide.

    Because I didn't talk about Firewatch and Gone Home & Tacoma in the previous episode, I have to now. Henry is not ideal, he's not the smartest, he's not the most physically fit, he's not in a healthy position mentally or in his life, nor does he have any special skills that make him standout. But would there be a story if Henry wasn't a misfit? Henry feeds into our love of the underdog because he doesn't have the skills to handle every situation perfectly. It's not like he's faced with major obstacles either, but he's not really a person who would handle the isolation of his position in the Wyoming wilderness in a healthy manner. And that's why we have Delilah and how they play off and change one another.

    Compare that to Gone Home and Tacoma, in each of those instances the player is a character that is the ideal person for the game because the story isn't about them. Sure they have motives and ties to the world, but they are by and large player-sized holes. Kaitlin Greenbriar in Gone Home and Amy Ferrier in Tacoma don't change, nor are they underdogs because they don't have any obstacles to overcome. So the entire premise of a try/fail cycle is irrelevant.

    Contrast that with Geralt in the Witcher 3 and you've got a character who walks a middle line between being the ideal character and not. His role and skills as a witcher, a hunter of monsters for hire, make him the ideal person for moving through the violence-prone world of the game. But because so much of the game is about conversing with characters and interacting in "civilized" environments, about playing politics and getting NPCs to react he isn't the perfect person for the job.

    The Witcher 3 may walk the line of a the perfect/imperfect person for the story, but it still lacks the try/fail cycle in terms of its combat because should you die then the world will be reset and the game will reload you to an earlier point. The conversations are another matter, the sheer ability to avoid combat all together or inadvertently fall into it provides that very dynamic. And being dynamic is what it's about. A flat line whether it's ascending or descending is still just a flat line and is undoubtedly predictable. Predictable is boring. Boring means people aren't engaged in nor will they remember the story. Flat lines offer no change, no difference, nothing new.

    "At its most basic, a scene starts one place and ends another. It starts with a positive (man meets woman of his dreams) and ends with a negative (woman rejects man's advances). Or it starts with a negative (rejected man calls his best friend for consolation) and ends with a positive (friend convinces rejected man to get a dog and try again). It can also begin negative and end double negative (someone falls...and then gets hit by a car) or positive and end double positive (man wins a hand of blackjack, puts it all on a number at roulette table and wins big)... That's about it." - Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid

    Games have scenes, generally they're called missions, sometimes chapters, other times they more closely resemble scenes in novels, movies or plays. The relevance of this idea depends on the type of game and its mechanics, so make of it what you will. But the point is games rarely turn in the manner Shawn Coyne describes. Each mission tasks the player with moving closer to their end goal with nary a setback or outright failure. It's the equivalent of each scene beginning positive and ending positive. That lack of variation is boring and leads to a flat line.

    The emotional core of a game, let alone a story, needs to vary. It needs to have a different pattern than others, even if it is following the three act structure or resembles the hero's journey. You don't want it to plateau, because as so many have said before if a game is always at 11 then before you even reach half way it feels like a 3. Richard Lemarchand during his appearance on Tone Control said that.

    Varying the outcomes, varying the emotions is dynamic. And dynamic is interesting

    How you add that dynamism to a video game narrative depends a lot on the game and its mechanics. If they aren't going to allow for try/fail cycles without resetting the world then you need to write sections where the character fails to accomplish their task. Destiny 2 starts out this way. Your first mission as a player to to repel the attack by the Red Legion, only you fail at it. In failure your powers are stripped from you and your world is broken. It's great, it's compelling, it gives you hope that Destiny 2 might actually be on its way to telling a memorable story.

    Only it doesn't. Destiny 2 never has you fail at any other point. You regain your powers with a little effort. You get the band back together and make new friends. You accomplish new feats all with the goal of taking down the big bad. At no point in that journey are you diverted, nor do you experience any obstacles beyond the ones you keep shooting out of your way. So if Destiny 2's story were drawn as a line it'd look like this - a straight drive towards the final boss with a minor dip in the beginning when we first encounter the Big Bad Gaul. And ultimately that's boring.

    If you're going to write games and design narrative, even ones that are about the power fantasy, don't just have success after success. It's overcoming failures, in the plural, that gives that feeling of accomplishment and power. It's what makes tales of underdogs so intoxicating. And it's why soap operas and comic books keep throwing more curveballs to their characters.

    But more on soap operas, comic books and what we can learn from them in a future episode. Just like we'll explore more of the Yes But/No And idea, as well as player-sized holes. There's still so much to come in this series. I hope you're looking forward to it.

    Thanks for taking part in this episode of The Writing Game, I'm Gregory Pellechi. Everything I do can be found at and I can be reached there or on Twitter @OneGameDad if you want to talk writing, games, this show or even working together. The Writing Game is hosted by Third Culture Kids which can be found at, where the full transcript of this episode is available. Please be sure to like & subscribe or rate and review this show on whatever platform you find it. I'll see you on the next episode.


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