James Wallis levels with you


I’ve been musing recently on the nature of courage, bravery and heroism, and their role in games and game-narrative.

It’s been spurred by this photograph: Life magazine’s photograph of the week from October 1949.
Sea Fury crash on HMS Illustrious JPEG

It was taken by an automatic camera on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, during trials of a new design of Sea Fury. The pilot has come in too high, the undercarriage has caught on the crash barrier, and the plane has somersaulted and burst into flames, trapping the pilot in the cockpit.

It is the job of the man at bottom left to get the pilot out.

Does the fact that it’s his job make his action—rushing into that inferno in a thin asbestos suit—any less brave? Of course not.

Let’s talk about this in the context of a videogame. Can we as designers replicate the sensation that must have gone through his mind: the conflict between duty and stark terror, the very real risk of injury or death? It’s a yes/no choice: either he goes in, or he funks it.

Players, of course, face no actual risk. But even so games have, in recent years, lessened the amount of virtual risk that the player faces. It has become progressively harder to die, and the ‘punishment’ for doing so has been reduced. Therefore, as the games themselves have become more action-packed and realistic, the opportunities for the player to experience any sense of risk, or of consequence of failure, have almost evaporated.

(One notable exception—possibly the only one—is Steel Battalion, the g-robot simulator for the Xbox, with the dedicated and terrifying three-foot controller. If your bot is destroyed and you fail to punch the ‘eject’ button in time, your save-game is erased. Brutal? Absolutely. Awesome? Oh yes.)

Without risk, without the possibility of failure and loss, there can be no sense of bravery. Sure, the sargeant can tell the rookie private that he’s a gutsy kid, and the cut-scene can show the GI studying the photo of his wife and the new baby he’s never held before plunging into combat, and the genetic supersoldier can understand that the fate of millions rests on his actions to try to create the story-context and emotional state for an act of heroism. But if the character’s cut to ribbons in ten seconds, and comes back to life at the last checkpoint, then you’re not going to feel like a hero, you’re just a pawn trapped in a tactics-puzzle. Your bravery is irrelevant. It’s taken for granted that you’re going to rush into the fire-fight. And yes, the Royal Navy took it for granted that the Naval Airman in the picture would run into the fire, but he knew there were real consequences that went beyond his own physical wellbeing or likely punishment if he refused.

It’s primarily sandbox games like GTA and World of Warcraft that let the player avoid anything that smacks of bravery. Find a fight that looks like it might be a bit tough, why not wander off until you’re a couple of levels higher or you’ve picked up a better gun and some more health? It’s the tightly scripted, linear stuff that moves closer to capturing the essence of heroic action, and that’s more by punishing a lack of adventureousness—’No more gameplay for you!’—than by presenting challenges with actual risk involved. There are, at present, no good solutions.

Of course, a lot depends on how the player views their avatar, whether they regard the game-character they’re controlling as ‘me’, as a companion who they care about, or as a disposable camera and weapon-wielding tool. I’ve got a long post in the works about that.

But basically players don’t like risk. They like the appearance of risk, the semblance of heroism, but they really hate it when you make them feel like failures or take stuff away from them. Try telling a player that because they screwed up they broke their magic sword, or they’re going to have to sell their plasma-armour to pay for their half-body med-regen. They want to progress on all fronts, not just story and accomplishment but stats, equipment and fortune. It goes back as far as traditional tabletop RPGs: D&D lets you heal away injury and even death with cheap spells and potions; while also-rans like Runequest, T&T and Traveller were far more stingy with their cures.

Is there a way to get past this give-the-player-what-they-think-they-want mentality, this spoonfeeding of pseudo-emotion rather than the actual exhilaration of taking a real risk and having it pay off? Yes, yes there is. Actually challenge your players. They’ve bought your product, they’re locked in, they’re going to experience the gameplay and narrative the way you want them to. Don’t pander to them. Let them invest in their damn character for a change.

And give them a real narrative, one that lets them actually fail. If they screw up a set piece, don’t respawn them ten paces back and let them try again and again. Move on. They wake up in hospital a week later, and Pode, their hated rival from Company B, has grabbed all the glory for storming the machine-gun nest. Does this mean that they could play through the whole game the first time in thirty minutes of stupid, ignominious deaths? Yes it does, and they’ll get the suck-ass ending: the war ends, they go home to their girl, and she’s pregnant with Pode’s ugly baby.  “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, as Beckett said. Let them know that the possibility of failure exists, not just in game terms but in narrative terms as well, that screwing up affects the story, and the successes will be that much sweeter. Better than bottlenecking them at a hard part until they get it right through luck or quit through frustration, I think you’ll agree.

As for the man in the asbestos suit, Naval Airman Simon Wallis was my father. The Sea Fury pilot lived, and Dad received the King’s Commendation for Bravery. My dad was not the bravest man I’ve known, but he was proof that ordinary people can and will do extraordinary things if it’s demanded of them, and if they’re given a chance.

Categorised as: game design | narrative


  1. Steve Dempsey says:

    That thing with your Dad was amazing.

    But do gamers want failure? I don’t know. I do know that if a game defeats me for long enough, I’ll give up and play something else. I want fun not frustration.

    I would rather not feel safe in any game I’m playing and when I’m in the moment, stalking down corridors with only three shots left in my weapon, I’m not sure I think about save points. But it’s a fine line and I can see why you might be frustrated that it’s gone too far one. You could always delete your saved games yourself.

  2. Matt Stevens says:

    I agree 100%, and talked about this when fantasizing about a pulp MMO. The best solution may be to radically reduce the amount of combat. The alternative — a combat-oriented game where death is realistically, well, deadly — would be far too frustrating for most.

  3. […] “JimJamJom Jimbo” Wallis writes about Heroics: Of course, a lot depends on how the player views their avatar, whether they regard the […]

  4. Great storytelling in this post, James!

    I agree to a great extent with your conclusions as well. Part of my frustration with my recent Halo 3 experience was that at the default level difficulty, the campaign felt far too short and at the most difficult it was tedious. Master Chief seemed, at that most difficult level, to die fairly randomly until I learned where snipers lay in wait on each level and I tuned out the music and imperative voice-overs encouraging me to hurry with my actions. When I learned to take my time and ease through each level gingerly, I was successful but the story lost its edge. No more rush to save characters (that I knew precious little about anyway) or to escape from dangers (that patiently waited for my actions to conclude).

    At the end, I didn’t feel like I’d saved the world, “finished the fight” or even that I was part of the larger story. I was still just a gamer pushing buttons until I got quick enough to complete the task placed for me. Even my trusty companion didn’t suffer for my actions, resurrecting on cue for the next installment of the story.

    I hope that game authors take your thoughts to heart and give us real consequences.

  5. Ian says:

    whenever I play computer games, which is not much, there is always that feeling of disappointment when the crossover from running around shooting things is replaced with the dawning realisation that the game is actually a puzzle that you get to play through an infinite number of times until you do all the right things in the right order to get to the next level (or whatever). This is probably one area where proper RPGs really win out, as the players are going to have a much stronger sense of engagement with their character and a more real sense that the character can go down.

  6. Ian Sturrock says:

    Awesome piece of writing, James, & awesome Dad.

    Programming costs mean that the ideal — a narrative game in which, if your character dies, you don’t get to play the game again at all, but instead move on & play a different game — might be impossible, at least with today’s technology. That said, a game whose plot had an element of randomness, as well as the (more common) random world, so it really was different every time you played, could deal with the issue of player investment without pissing the player off completely by making him/her do the whole level again.

    One of my favourite GW computer games, Chaos Gate, had a kind of “iron man” option as the highest difficulty level — you could only have one game saved at a time, & could only save when exiting the game (& indeed couldn’t exit without saving). That was tough — you felt every lost Space Marine, because you knew you couldn’t replace him.

  7. Alan De Smet says:

    Let them know that the possibility of failure exists, not just in game terms but in narrative terms as well, that screwing up affects the story, and the successes will be that much sweeter. Better than bottlenecking them at a hard part until they get it right through luck or quit through frustration, I think you’ll agree.

    Except you haven’t changed anything significant. To avoid the crappy ending, or even the crappy mid-game cutscenes, players will try to frequently save or will engage in the overly cautious tactics you want to discourage. When it becomes clear that they’re on track for a crappy ending, possibly because they can’t save or use cautious tactics, a player has incentive to start over. At that point you’ve added grinding, the destroyer of fun, to your game. Some percentage will become frustrated and give up. You’ve repackaged permadeath, but either way the game ultimately says, “You suck, try again.” Permadeath is good for players with the skills to almost always avoid it. It’s good for less skilled players with lots of free time to try repeatedly. It’s a total failure for players with less skill and limited time. You’re telling such players that their choice is a crappy ending or they can replay the game over and over again. Hardly fun.

    (There is of course a market for such gameplay, thus the success of NetHack or hardcore mode in Diablo II. And I believe it’s possible to design games where permadeath will be acceptable to more players, but those games will look very different from the sorts of games we’re talking about.)

  8. Eloquent and moving and true. Thank you.

  9. TS says:

    You ask and the market tries to answer:

    Feel the Pain –

    Now admittedly, it isn’t emotional pain, but go figure.

  10. Sally Rose says:

    I was sent this post and I would say I agree. Let the players expereince a consequence that changes the outcome instead of re-spawning and doing a task until they get it “right”. What do they learn if they do that? Nothing. But if they have to deal with the consequences of a mistake, they learn to do it better.

    Thank you for sharing this. There is only one thing I can add which is if they want to experience real risks, players need to go outside of their houses and do it. These are just games.

    And thanks for sharing about your Dad.

  11. Rob F says:

    I think there’s something here that comes down to the the fixed, mass-appeal nature of computer RPGs versus the more focused, tailor-able nature of tabletop RPGs, something that I’ve kicked around my noggin every now and again for the last year or so. I’ll posi it somewhere over the next few days.

  12. Jason says:

    You know, the original Wing Commander let you fail missions and branched off into a different campaign if you did. I always liked that… and not just because I failed a lot of missions.

  13. John Kovalic says:

    So there I am, reading along, thinking “wow, what a super-spiffy think piece,” when BAM, I get to the last ‘graph.

    Sucker-punch to the gut.

    Powerful. Moving.


  14. Steff Davies says:

    Ever played any of the Roguelikes (I can recommend Angband in particular)? Unless you cheat, you run a constant risk of losing your entire character with anything up to months of work behind it and the balance between bravery and boredom is key.

  15. NickD says:

    Finally commenting on this rather late… I love the idea of the story branches depending on your successes or failures. The what the player has to lose are the possibilities, it also would increase the replay value of the game a lot.

    However is that what game manufacturers want? Shouldn’t players have an enjoyable but relatively short game, so they then buy another one?

    Meanwhile… yes, one of the weaknesses of Halo3 is that there is no real reason to rush through a particular area in order to save a character or complete a task, the world will patiently wait for you. A pity.

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