Games Are Best When Things Go Wrong

By Jim Rossignol on October 23rd, 2012 at 3:00 pm.


That headline doesn’t refer to the times when games break and throw up oddball bugs for our amusement, but rather when games throw so many problems at the player that they become a sort of jeopardy-based experience in crisis-juggling. Earlier today I was running through my game collection and thinking about what I might like to play. It wasn’t Dishonored. Three things other stood out: Day Z, FTL, and X-Com. I began to think about what those had in common which, and what that said about my enjoyment of this year’s immersive masterpiece.

And I realised it was this: peril.

Now you might argue that most games contain peril, and that would be true, but what’s interesting about Day Z, FTL, and X-Com is just how badly things can go wrong and the ways in which they can go wrong. Many games offer perhaps one or two ways for things to go wrong: your health can go down, perhaps you’ll die. Perhaps your hi-score at the end won’t be enough to unlock achievement x. But in the games I’ve listed here, and many more besides, the structure of their jeopardy means there are multiple vectors for peril.

It’s something people who play Roguelikes have been explicitly aware of for years: that the more systems a game has for doing horrible things to your character(s), the more interesting the situation is it possible for them to generate. I remember Kieron writing something like an eight-page article in PC Gamer about a decade ago, with accounts of just what a terrible mess he’d gotten in to, time and again, in a particular roguelike (ZangbandTK – Kieron). What was fascinating was not how successful he’d been, but how he’s starved to death just metres from his goal.

From there look to Dwarf Fortress, and the power with which its intricate portrayal of dwarven dooms is imbued by the knowledge of your certain destruction, and the ways in which that might occur. The Dwarf Fortress player is a repository of anecdotal situations of emergent disaster in his subterranean kingdom.

What’s thrilling about Day Z is the way in which any encounter can leave you horribly maimed, the world turning pale as your blood drains away, in desperate need of food, medical attention, and even antibiotics. Your chums might be in an even worse state, and need immediate attention to keep them on their feet. The terror of realising you need to find your way into a hospital if you’re going to survive, or that you are just too weak to survive another encounter with an enemy, is where Day Z excels. While it’s rare to actually starve to death, it’s not impossible, and the sheer variety of ways you can end up with flies buzzing around your corpse has turned Day Z into a sort of death-simulation anecdote generator. Looking into Chernarus, in the rain, with your temperature dropping, and gunshots in the distance, is far more thrilling than any power fantasy other games could provide.


What’s thrilling about FTL is that time when you were boarded, as the ship was in orbit around a sun, and you ended up venting most of the ship to try and deal with the boarders and the fires, but ended up with no oxygen supply at all. At the end of the battle you face the rest of the campaign with a single surviving crew member, who faces the next three battles on his own, running around the ship fixing systems and hull-breaches, before finally dying to a rebel fighter when he was too slow to get repair the shields. He was a rock man, after all.

What’s thrilling about X-Com is coming out on top when so much is against you. Half your men are in the infirmary, half in the grave. The rookies that make up the team seem hopeless, and half the world is in the grip of panic over the alien menace. And yet you still manage to come out on top. The worse things in a game can become, the better it feels when you beat it.

And then I wonder why I don’t want to play more Dishonored. And I think the reason comes from Arkane’s own admission that the game is a power fantasy. In some ways, games are better when they are – and this is a peculiar-sounding phrase – a vulnerability fantasy.

Interestingly, Dishonored’s own designers say that what’s exciting about stealth is the feeling of vulnerability. And it’s true that you can get overwhelmed by enemies if you’ve been discovered in Dishonoured. But what doesn’t really happen – as happens in the other three games I’ve mentioned – is that you get put in a far worse situation that you then have to manage. The worst that can happen to Corvo (death aside) is that he gets injured, and/or the guards are alerted. He remains a superhuman killing machine. Most of the features in the game – the various powers – are about killing, rather than managing disaster. And that’s what Arkane intended. It’s a brilliantly pitched power fantasy – far more subtle than any run and gun. I love it for that. But it doesn’t bring me enough peril.

Novelists and scriptwriters have understood this trick for years: piling problems on to the protagonist, in as many different ways as possible, is what makes for a good plot set up. How the protagonist brilliantly resolves or overcomes those problems (or not) will decide how good the story actually is.

The same kind of method can be true in games. The brilliance of FTL is that I can find myself in a situation where have no missiles left, three crew dead, a hull breach, and a fire in the medbay, and that there’s still a way out. The satisfying consequence of all this is that I can still come out the other side of it alive, overcoming both my enemies and my problems through my own skill. I can be the brilliant hero-protagonist who times his repair team’s race to the breach, with the venting of the air from the airlocks, with the ion-pulse which disables the enemy ship’s systems and saves the day.

There’s no rule of thumb here, I think, other than to make that point: the more ways things can go wrong in a game, the more ways players can have to be heroes. Multiplicities of jeopardy are not appropriate to all games, but I suspect that if you are a designer who wants a game to be the kind of game that players then go on to tell long, detailed stories about, then creating systems which heap problems on your player from many different directions might be the way to go about it.

__________________

« | »

, , , .

192 Comments »

  1. astronaute says:

    I also don’t get the Dishonored hype, it is so easy and newbie friendly that I gave up after few hours on hard.
    FTL is good frustration wise but is maybe too random at times.

    • twig_reads says:

      That’s where difficulty setting comes in.

      • Torn says:

        Stealth is still broken even on highest, and the counter kills are just so easy to pull off.

        I think Dark Souls needs to be added to the list — the amount of times I’ve dragged my character through by the skin of his teeth, and the amount of times when things have gone hilariously wrong — it feels a little like laugh or cry!

        • Pindie says:

          Not sure about Dark Souls, to be honest.

          I did not feel there was much terror to getting killed. It is a very good game and the fights are tense but if you die you just respawn with all your stuff a’la Bioshock. You need humanity back but that’s not a big deal.
          There is persistent element in the game that saps some of that tension.

          • Torn says:

            In Dark Souls you also lose all of your souls when you die, which is the currency for buying items and levelling up. Sure, you keep the items you find, and you keep your levels, but making progress is really challenging.

            I was *constantly* on edge playing Dark Souls the first few times through. Things can (and mostly did) go incredibly wrong – hello again my old friend the YOU DIED screen.

            It doesn’t have to be a permadeath roguelike to feel challenging / perilous.

          • SuperNashwanPower says:

            Dark Souls.
            Walking into a room of those lower level pink zombie things. Getting cocky. Getting swamped by pink zombie things. Stun locked. Dead.

          • Exkaiser says:

            I’ve felt it in Dark Souls a couple times. Like the time I was carrying 100k souls and nine humanity through my first trip into the Crystal Cave. It was pretty damn tense inching across those invisible bridges and then I ran into the room full of killer mollusks.

          • sanasb1989 says:

            That is quite heavily touted as a feature in COD multiplayer.
            Recommended: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdkDjsBiO58

          • dee says:

            Spam bot: are you even trying?

      • caljohnston says:

        Not in my experience. I thought the prison was the hardest, ironically. You have no powers and you’re still getting used to the stealth tresholds. After you get blink half an hour in (and especially blink 2), the game becomes easy even on very hard. And the past level is practically a 5 minute cakewalk.

        • Marik Bentusi says:

          I had a really weird feeling when I got Dark Vision, especially after getting the second level. It just laid out everything before you and stole so much tension and made the little peeking-through-the-door-lock feature unnecessary which I quite liked. In fact, all of the abilities felt really overpowered, no matter the difficulty level, and getting caught never really was a problem for me whether I picked skills for lethal or non-lethal playstyles. Blink alone makes the game really easy (tho the combat also very fluid and fun, just too easy).

          The Heart I enjoyed as well for its exposition, but as I developed a tendency for pulling it out regularly to farm rune after rune I didn’t really need and mainly collected to get a better end score, I just felt like there was something really wrong about rewarding exploration on the one hand and then being given the walkthrough in the same tutorial.

          Dishonored has so many great elements from other games I liked, but it seemed rather hollow for me. Just something wrong about the mechanics I can’t explain with the limited vocabulary of a non-gamedesigner. I really wanted to like it, but it just made me play the games it had taken notes from.

          (plus aside from the little “whales are magic” thing I thought the world and its characters were pretty dull)

    • gladius2metal says:

      FTL has one serious issue: the narrative tells you that you need to inform your Allies fast, but so far I only managed to beat the game, when I visit every jump-point possible, hence arriving as late as possible to my Allies.

      • Pindie says:

        I have to agree, although it did not catch me by surprise personally.
        Having played games in 90s I am used to misleading flavor text that was added to game before later balancing decisions.

      • El_Emmental says:

        I agree with you, they should instead say something along “Keep the Rebel fleet chasing you as long as you can so the Empire main base can prepare the defenses ! Don’t forget to upgrade your ship on the way there for the final battle, you’ll need it !”.

        Maybe add a “speed run” mode, where making as less jump as possible (or necessary) (= it means you get less bonus/scrap to enhance your ship) will grant you a big scraps/weapons bonus when you finally reach the Empire base, because they have the time to fit and upgrade your ship before the Rebel Mothership is there. One would be more about the adventure, the other one about the challenge.

        ps: being a mid-90s gamer, I automatically “reinterpreted” the text too (who needs to be epic and fit the backstory)

    • Sic says:

      Play on hard, turn off all UI and play it for the atmosphere and story (no, not the story told, the story of Corvo, live in his skin for a few hours).

    • arccos says:

      My feeling is that its supposed to be easy. You make your own difficulty by deciding how to approach each situation and what your player-enforced rules are.

      • Tacroy says:

        I think that’s kind of the point of Dishonored, really – “here’s all these super powers, and a variety of unsuspecting targets. What kind of person are you? What kind of person do the powers make you?”

        • Pindie says:

          But then it’s a case of “you can do whatever you like but you must not use those powers or Chaos points will increase and you’ll get the bad ending”.

          The proper way of designing a game would be to make enemies you can relate to and feel sympathy for – so that you genuinely do not want to kill them. Games like this are few in between… (Witcher?)
          Designing bad guys who are presented as evil and then giving you what basically comes down to ingame bonuses for not killing them even though there really is no reason to spare them… Not so sure.
          The guards and baddies are as human as Combine in HL2.

          They did try to do it in one case, when a maid asks you spare her uncle and gives some exposition about how he is a good man, that was good writing actually.

          It all reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!”, where in the opening he notes those guards running into chamber just to get mass murdered by some hero saving his princess could actually have a personality and life but nobody cares…

          • Phantoon says:

            I dunno. Maybe my expectations were lower than everyone else, but I liked to sit around and listen to the conversations. I spared a lot of guards who were just doing their jobs. Some of them even talked about their families, it became more important for me to not kill these schlubs.

            But of course, I actually liked Bioshock 2, so take that as you will.

          • Soulstrider says:

            Dishonored may have it’s issues but that isn’t one of them. Guards are usually people just doing their job and if you use the heart on them or just approach them in stealth you will see they aren’t just bad guys like for example I remember in a mansion finding a guard talking with the maid he was engaged with or on the tower level near the place the empress was murder one with a servant reminiscing about the crazy past weeks and how everything is going to hell.

            Sure it’s not on the level of witcher but it’s still enough to make me avoid killing them.

      • dannyroth says:

        Different game, but that’s how I approach Skyrim. Sure, you can run through pretty easy, even on the hardest setting, once you know how to do everything, but it’s my own rules sometimes that make it hard. Like doing a run without merchants, for example. Or maybe just using magic. That’s hard.
        As long as it’s a decent game, coming up with your own way to play, for me, is very fun. I also do enjoy FTL, and Day Z, but again, I make more of my own rules. I do the same with minecraft, living without a permanent shelter in single player (when server is down) living like a nomad.

    • SavageTech says:

      I’m pretty sure Jim likes Dishonored and gets the hype, considering he wrote “Is everyone as jubilant as I am that we finally have this game? . . . . It overflows with master craftsmanship. Beautifully made. It’s a luxury construct. . . . So we’re recommending people buy it? . . . . If they don’t, then I will be sad. (For them.)” He’s likely not playing it because he was “deep into [his] second run through Dishonored” two weeks ago and has thoroughly exhausted the game by this point.

      BUT CARRY ON, I KNOW HOW WE GAMER TYPES LOVE TO TAKE THE MOST TANGENTIAL OF REFERENCES AS AN INVITATION TO SAY HOW MUCH WE HATE SOMETHING POPULAR.

      For the record I agree that it was too easy, but any game can be easy when you abuse the piss out of quicksaves ;p I started playing again with no mid-mission saving and it’s a lot more fun.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        I’m waiting for the Steam christmas sale for my copy. Saw too many ads, which kind of made me feel I’d seen it all. Lost interest, then people said “too short, too easy”. I want to experience the world, but I dont feel like I want to pay £30 for it. £15 sounds better.

        • The Random One says:

          My thoughts exactly. The ads overload actually made my decision to buy it cheaper easier to endure, because by the time it came out I was already sick of it.

  2. communisthamster says:

    Spot on.

    • BooleanBob says:

      Yes. “Games are better when they are – and this is a peculiar-sounding phrase – a vulnerability fantasy” is a masterful observation. It’s why I liked (bits of) Mirror’s Edge so much.

      • enobayram says:

        Now I can see AAA game designers catching up on the idea. A game where there are 200 perils around, but there’s a button for avoiding each of them… (And a tutorial pop-up that tells you to press the button each and every time)

  3. 1Life0Continues says:

    I like the sneaky ‘U’ placed into Dishonored in that 4th paragraph.

    I have to disagree with a previous poster. Maybe it’s just me, but Dishonored is intensely difficult, even on normal. I play with the intent of being a ghost, and killing no-one while collecting everything. It’s how I played DXHR and it’s how I liked to play Thief as well. And with that goal in mind, the game becomes very much more difficult, to the point where for three days now, the first assassination mission has made me grind my teeth in frustration. Perhaps it’s my own fault, but regardless I find the game far from newbie friendly.

    I think it’s common for people to remember when the bricks came tumbling down. As a philistine tabletop roleplayer, the best stories I have are of when the odds were stacked and we came out by the skin of our teeth, or often when we went out in a blaze of glory. We like to win, but we like to lose too, so long as it’s fair and fun to do so.

    • Snidesworth says:

      There’s a lot more ways that Things Can Go Wrong in Dishonored if you really care about playing elegantly. I’m running through it on Very Hard and trying to be as sneaky and non-lethal as possible but refusing to reload (except on death, which sends me back to the start of the mission). If you’re just trying to get through the game via whatever means, however, it’s almost trivial. Corvo is a highly efficient killer before you start throwing wizard powers at him, after which he morphs into an unstoppable force of murder. If you allow yourself to quick load whenever something goes wrong there’s no tension at all.

      That said, even with the difficulty ramped up and those self-imposed restrictions I haven’t quite reached the same level of “oh fuck what do I do now?” that the likes of XCOM and FTL have had me experience.

    • x1501 says:

      I’m sorry if if this comes off as arrogant, but if you’re finding the stealthy part of Dishonored so intensely difficult that there were three-day-long first mission attempts and even teeth-grinding involved, you must be a complete action game newbie or you’re doing something horribly wrong. Buy a handful of tranquilizer arrows, get an extra point in Blink, and perhaps a point or two in Dark Vision, and you’ll have all the tools you’ll ever need to leisurely stroll throughout the entire game on any difficulty. Oh, and use the roofs for movement and even the lousiest of objects for covers. If there is even a small height difference or a see-through cover between you and an NPC, the simplistic AI of most enemy types won’t ever notice you even if you’re standing right in front of their noses.

    • Zanchito says:

      I too feel the way to get the mot out of Dishonored is to play trying to not just not kill, but to not KO (choke, gas, etc.) anyone. True ghost. Satisfyingly difficult! But I agree the game is fundamentally different from the other examples.

    • Yosharian says:

      No, the game is not intensely difficult. It’s incredibly easy. Insultingly so, even.

      • Pindie says:

        Well, to me it’s a case of “oh shit, he saw me, this might cause my Chaos to rise and I might get the bad ending”.

        In a well balanced game it should be “oh shit, he saw me, now I have to fight for my life!”

        In Dishonored I really do not feel the enemies can hurt me, even if I ignored all the offensive upgrades and spent the runes on sneaking related stuff.

        Plus the knife is always in my hand even if I use powers and crossbow exclusively. Bleh.

  4. Vorphalack says:

    I’d add Thief to the list of games that do tension well. I’ve been playing TG again this month and it still holds the fear of being spotted, with guards that cross half the level hunting you, call for help, set off mission wide alarms, and most importantly become more alert once you have been seen. No other stealth game has ever given me that same feeling.

  5. Outright Villainy says:

    Even without permadeath, a game can really rack up tension with clever save systems. The original resident evil for instance, would have you stressing out since you had decided to conserve your typewriter ribbon, and now you were 1 hit from death and an hour from your last save. And then you’re just constantly on edge, hoping the next blind corner doesn’t throw a zombie at you and end it all. I haven’t played Dark souls yet, but from what i’ve heard they’ve also limited saving to checkpoints, which also respawns enemies, so there’s more risk/reward. In the hitman games your saves are your most powerful weapon, so your ammo as such is limited in higher difficulties.

    That’s why I think it’s silly when people see lack of quicksaves as an inherit flaw, when it’s really a design decision. A game with quicksaves has to be balanced around that to have any sort of difficulty, and even at that, it’s hard to sustain tension. A game without quicksaves can have moderate or even low difficulty, but the fear of failure can be the engaging part.

    • SavageTech says:

      If you like the games you’re describing, you should really give Dark Souls a spin. The save system adds a lot of tension even though you’re technically immortal, because dying once robs you of two important resources and you have to return to where you died in order to recover them. If you die again on the way there, say goodbye to hours of work spent grinding in order to save up for your next upgrade. You use the same resource for level ups as you do for items and everything else, so while you’re technically not losing much progress in a physical sense you can lose your ability to progress further.

      It’s brilliant really. The areas between each save point feel like discrete levels even though the world is sprawling, and while you have to repeat the challenging parts (killing all the dudes over again) you don’t have to loot the same chest 50 times just because you’re having trouble with a section.

    • seniorgato says:

      http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TooAwesomeToUse
      Yeah, this trope always stuck in my head. Freaking too awesome to use. I hate that.
      Ever play Breath of Fire V? They give you ultimate power a few hours into the game. But if you use it too much, I think you die.
      So at the end you have a full meter and you’re still like, “uh, but what if there is a boss after this one? Or a second form?!” And you end the game with near full ultimate power or full saves.

  6. pretty fiendish says:

    I had that very situation happen to me in FTL a couple of nights ago. Complete disaster very early on (nothing to do with me attacking a ship described as heavily armed which hadn’t seen me while I was completely without upgrades), fires raging, and crew dropping like flies. Victory, such as it was, left me with one crew member desperately trying to fix the oxygen supply with the rest of the ship exposed to the vacuum of space to vent the fires. The desperately lonely feeling of him going around the ship, slowly repairing each system (with frequent trips to the med-bay) before jumping again was interrupted by the desperate panic of trying to fight enemies which shouldn’t have posed a problem, now suddenly much more challenging when you don’t have time to repair the shields. Of course the ship was destroyed, but he got further than I expected.

    The point of all this is that it was so much fun! It was clear almost immediately that I had very little chance of getting anywhere near the end, but the panic and desperation are a lot of fun when so many games these days make it almost impossible to fail. I think I’ll get X-COM tonight.

  7. Pindie says:

    I think there is the other side of coin people seem to miss: non-fatal failure.

    Most failures in FTL are non-fatal. People often complain about RNG not realizing the fact you need several bad RNG results coupled with bad decision one sector earlier to really see Game Over.
    It becomes obvious if you watch others play the game.
    Even if you end up in badly generated sector and need to backtrack trough rebel fleet it is still not a failure and you can recover.
    Poor preparation, lapses of judgment or poor understanding of game mechanics get blamed on RNG.

    In X-com while it’s perfectly possible to lose 2-3 man to a very lucky alien with good reaction fire or grenade throw it is absolutely impossible to loose all 10-14 team members solely because of bad luck. Even if that somehow happens it is not a failure, you can buy new recruits and equipment and unless it happens 2-3 times in a row it should not result in Game Over.
    You might get your team wiped out due to bad preparation or your piss poor play style but you are extremely unlikely to loose 14 man to bad luck alone unless you send in rookies with harpoon guns on a late game mission.

    In both FTL and old X-com you are far more likely to fail due to slow sinking process you initiated by bad decision sectors/months ago than RNG rolling bad values twenty times in a row.

    Now the sad part is game designers do not get it. The new X-com has 4 squad members early on. If one of them is shot, second one will panic and shoot the third guy dead that’s 3/4 of your team dead due to one random event.
    Loosing a base to alien invasion and bad preparation was fine if you had 3 other bases. With one base limit they felt they needed to get rid of it and sadly I agree (I still think they messed up the base aspect, mind you).

    Similarly loosing one guy to a lucky shot while in full cover is tolerable if you have 13 more soldiers but not tolerable if there is only 3 left and 2 of them will panic.
    I think the makers of new XCOM got the failing part right but not the recovery part and as a result you can make valid complains about random nature of the game.

    • NathanH says:

      I don’t think the new XCOM is bad in this regard, because if you lose most of your squad through bad luck you can just abandon a mission and it often doesn’t hurt you that much. Abandoning a UFO mission is OK, abandoning an abduction mission hurts but not fatally. It’s only terror missions that can really hurt. And even so, losing a few countries doesn’t actually matter unless you’ve satellited them—all you’re really losing is access to their continent’s special ability.

      • Pindie says:

        I am just saying:
        in old UFO you had a chance to recover from random event even within the mission.
        The new game gives you one or two less chances to fix the mistake/effects of bad RNG throw.
        You have by far less soldiers both in mission and back at base and in new system soldier experience is much more important, so loosing one to insane shot all across the map is a much bigger problem and cripples you a lot.

    • Trithne says:

      This is certainly a thing.

      In old X-Com, I lose a guy or miss a shot, I’m miffed, but I can work around it. I’m able to adapt to the new situation, I’m able to have backup plans I can fall back onto. It’s an expected scenario because rarely will a single shot be the ‘THIS HAS TO HIT’ moment. Because those moments are fewer, they mean more.

      In new XCOM, the loss of a single soldier or missing just about any shot induces apoplexy, because the tactical game is so much narrower that a single error or accidental move or just plain RNG fuckery can cost you the game, because they wanted to make EVERY shot a critical moment, which just makes it more aggravating when several of them go sour.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        If you are playing such that you regularly need “this particular shot to hit” you simply are not very good at the game.

        I just made it through classic ironman losing 3 guys total, all of them to criticals that were in excess of their hit-points right before I got the next level of armor which would have saved them.

        You cannot just run ahead alerting aliens left and right. Move slowly, use overwatch. Do the missions in 30 turns instead of 5. If you want to do the missions in 5 turns play normal.

        • Trithne says:

          Thank you for your insightful observations, which are mostly pointing out the obvious and making broad assumptions about both myself and many other people in these threads, all with the nice veneer of being an utter ass.

          I didn’t say it was too hard. I said it was aggravating. And it is. Firaxis said it themselves: They wanted every shot, every choice to be critical and important. And all that does is annoy the player more. Doubly so when I still set up backup plans and those too go sour (seriously, I know it’s possible but missing three 80%+ shots in sequence is pretty fucking unlikely).

          And then there’s just plain annoying mechanics. Like free movement.

        • Grygus says:

          The fact that any given shot from any alien can kill any soldier on a crit until you get Chitin Armor means that by bragging about only losing three people, you’re suggesting that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your extreme skill, assuming you’re not just lying, doesn’t keep them from getting shots. Even if you carefully move so that your squad always gets the first two shots on every alien (which would be very skillful indeed,) missing two relatively high-percentage consecutive shots in XCOM is a regular occurrence, and now he gets a shot, which is all he needs to kill a soldier. You may well be great at the game, but you also got lucky. If you don’t realize that, then you don’t know as much about the game as you seem to think.

          • Joshua Northey says:

            “The fact that any given shot from any alien can kill any soldier on a crit until you get Chitin Armor means that by bragging about only losing three people, you’re suggesting that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            ???Don’t get shot at when out of full cover. Period. It is not hard. Use nades, use fleeing in terror, use flanking.

            Its not extreme skill, it is just common sense. Don’t leave men in the open ever, period. Always be in good cover if at all possible. Half cover is a death sentence if more than one alien can shoot at you. If you actually act like these are lives and not chess piece sit isn’t that hard not to lose any. People are smart enough to play the game well, they just are too impatient.

          • Filden says:

            @Joshua

            It’s not necessarily common sense, though. That’s unfair to people who might have just come from Normal difficulty, which teaches you that hanging out in cover is a fairly safe thing to do that you can get away with most times. In Classic mode, cover is moderately *less* dangerous than being out in the open, but not close to being safe. It is a risk. The only reliable cover is line of sight.

            It was quite a shock when I first learned that lesson the hard way, and chest thumping about how obvious it is probably isn’t helpful to people still in the learning process.

    • PikaBot says:

      “The new X-com has 4 squad members early on. If one of them is shot, second one will panic and shoot the third guy dead that’s 3/4 of your team dead due to one random event.”

      People keep saying this, but I’ve played for fifteen hours and I’ve not once see this actually happen. I have seen my soldiers panic and shoot at each other before, but only seen them actually connect a handful of times…and those times, it didn’t come close to killing them. I’ve much more often seen panicking units shoot at their aggressors, and kill them.

      Really the most Panic has cost me was one time when a Cyberdisc grenaded two rookies in cover behind a car. They freaked out, one hunkered down, the other shot at the cyberdisc and finished it off…and then next turn while they were still flipping out the car exploded and killed them both. Which sucked to be sure, but sometimes that’s how it is. Sometimes an op goes sour. Xcom is a game about managing that risk, not eliminating it.

      • Aankhen says:

        Yesterday I reloaded an UFO mission 50+ times because a Sectoid Commander would repeatedly take over one guy’s mind, my Sniper would panic and take him out, and then my Heavy would panic and shoot him. After the first 30 times I loaded an earlier save and entered the mission with a different team, but I still went through that another 20+ times because of the bottlenecks at the entrances to the UFO. (That plus I am obviously not very good at games.)

  8. mike2R says:

    Completely agree. I’m hoping we are seeing something of a trend at the moment, where the core concepts or Roguelikes (which are permadeath, and a game designed to be wide more than deep, so played from the beginning again and again IMO) are becoming a bit more mainstream, and we will get to see more of them.

    Strategy games, my other real gaming love, are like this to quite a large extent. Endlessly repayable, varied, and you actually experience the consequences of your mistakes, rather than just quickload and carry on the beaten path.

    Looking forward to getting home and starting my twelfth attempt at XCOM Classic Ironman…

    • The Tupper says:

      I’ve not played any kind of of XCom before and know virtually nothing about it. Is the new one like FTL in that it’s a series of eminently replayable scenarios or is it more of a fixed campaign thingy?

      • mike2R says:

        Nah, its pretty fixed campaign-wise. But you can go different routes through the tech tree, and the mission maps (where you spend most of your time) are nicely varied, that it almost feels like a roguelike. This is probably mainly that I’m really not very good at it and keep wiping out very early :)

        Not helped by my repeated attempts to play my latest promising game after having a few beers :(

      • Filden says:

        There are a series of fixed campaign missions you can unlock and undertake when you choose to. The rest of the game is a wide variety of mission maps with various goals, base management, random decisions and opportunities that can change the way the game plays out.

        • Droopy The Dog says:

          “various goals” is a bit nebulous, there’s kill everything, kill everything before they kill the civies, or escort a civie somewhere and then kill everything.

          • Filden says:

            Well it is, after all, a tactical combat game, not a farming simulator.

          • Droopy The Dog says:

            I know, just saying when everything is solved by “kill everything” wide variety isn’t the best choice of words. :P

          • Filden says:

            I said there was a “wide variety” of mission maps with various goals, not a wide variety of goals. There are quite a few mission maps.

          • Droopy The Dog says:

            Oops, mixed up “various” and “wide variety”, sorry.

            Point stands though.

  9. Cooper says:

    It’s worth noting the vast difference between DayZ’s “things going wrong” and that in FTL and XCOM. All games rely upon a fundementally antagonistic relationship between player and game-world. Something few deisgners dare.

    Much like Kieron’s ZangbandTK, FTL and XCOM rely upon the equivalent of dice rolls. XCOM makes an art out of playing the odds in that way. An unlucky jump to an over-powerd auto-scout can ruin your day in FTL.

    DayZ has little in the way of randomness in encounters beyond what gear is present (if it is present) in any given location. DayZ’s antagonism towards the player comes partly from other players and primarily because the game is, quite findamentally, unfair in design. Strip other players away and you are still left with a world that is incredibly stacked against the player trying to survive.

    What makes the things going tits-up so central to these games is that “the end” screens are final. There’s just no point playing XCOM if you are going to save scum. You can’t save in the other two. This is what makes them different from, say, STALKER.

    STALKER’s opening couple of hours are deadly, incredibly difficult, and unforgiving. A raincoat and a handgun are all you have for quite some time. Thing is, you can quicksave in STALKER.
    You have to be able to save in STALKER. It has a linear progression within it that would be a oain in the arse to try and get through without dying.

    But FTL, ZangbandTK, XCOM (Ironman), and DayZ. All require you to suck up failure. Moreover, that failure is largely inevitable.

    What this means is that successes feel oh so fucking brilliant because the alternative is complete failure…

    • NathanH says:

      I think here you may be touching upon something that’s quite important for games that are really going to make you feel in peril and still be good games. You need games where you definitely don’t want to go back a long way if you lose, but don’t mind going back a long way if you lose. If you see what I mean. As I’ve been playing XCOM I’ve always wanted to progress, known that if I screwed up too much I was going to have to go back and start again. But at the same time, when I screwed up the strategy layer and realized I didn’t have a chance of winning, I just started again immediately.

      You don’t even have to make your game deliberately for this. I play semi-hardcore Oblivion and Skyrim. I had one Oblivion character that lasted 80 hours. I was always trying to keep her alive and was enjoying being high level. But then she died and I just made a new character and carried on. But there are a lot of games where if you said to me I had to go back too far I’d just say no. Many of those are excellent games and can still create “local” panic when things are going wrong, but they don’t have the constant sense of disaster.

      Having said all that I’d generally counsel against directly disabling too much saving, just do things that encourage players not to savescum. I would hate to be playing XCOM on ironmode, for instance. Sometimes I need to reload.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Why is there no point in playing XCOM if you’re going to save/reload? I thought I’d been having fun, or was I just imagining that?

      • Pindie says:

        I think you are loosing a lot of fun by saving/reloading.

        Your guys dying and failing missions often creates a good narrative where you are trying to rebuild your organization after a team wipe but have to go on missions unprepared.
        Also: sometimes soldiers die in bs ways but sometimes you are forced to sacrifice one soldier to save another or get blown up by friendly grenade with two enemies. That is kind of cool if you are forced to make decisions and live with results. It’s like watching a good movie where people you like might die versus watching a movie where you know everybody will live.

        • Droopy The Dog says:

          Saving doesn’t prevent you any of those situations you know?

          • The Random One says:

            No, just reloading.

          • Snakejuice says:

            Ofcource it does, that is what saving is for, to reload when you screw up. What else would it be for? To reload when you do well?

          • Droopy The Dog says:

            What else?

            To reload when it crashes, to reload when something bugs out and gets stuck in a corner, to go back and reload your favorite mission when you finish. You know, useful stuff.

      • jalf says:

        yes, you’re obviously living a lie. You can’t be having fun, it is fundamentally impossible.

        No, really, people just like to believe that *their* playstyle is the only true one.

        When I played the old X-COM games, I saved/loaded constantly, and I had a ton of fun. I don’t think it took anything away from the game, but it changed the experience a bit. It almost became a puzzle game: figure out the correct sequence of moves to get through this mission without anyone dying.

        Things still went wrong, and when the did, it still hurt you: you had to reload and do the damn thing again. That’s what made Super Mario hard too (ok, you couldn’t save/load, but the punishment for dying was effectively “you have to do this bit again”). It’s what makes Dark so ridiculously challenging. It doesn’t need a “game over” screen to be punishing.

        With XCOM, though, I’m playing on Ironman, and yes, I’m *also* having a ton of fun with that. I don’t think either style is intrinsically better than the other

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          Thank you. I agree. Perhaps the level of peril is proportional to the frequency of saving (i.e the amount of work lost when you reload), but but the amount of fun isn’t necessarily proportional to the level of peril. Um…. yes, that’s right.

  10. Iskarott says:

    I didn’t find X-com or FTL to be very compelling games, precisely because a great deal of what happens is completely random and uncontrollable–there is a limit to what skill can do, and what you have to basically count on the game doing for you. I understand skill takes a big place in both, but in general, you can end up in dead ends at no fault of your own. So I don’t feel they really cover vulnerability fantasies that well either, just random fateful chance. I do agree with Roguelikes being a perfect example, having been fascinated with them for years–each time you die in a roguelike, you usually can see a direct lack of some form of preparation that led to your demise. Forgetting to stock up on food, not having enough healing resources, doing something without the proper immunity. And you know you could have done something about them. Done another dungeon, scummed for awhile, or kept a proper treasure trove for equipment swapping. I feel the biggest difference though, is with most roguelikes, they’re less about randomness like x-com and FTL, and more a randomness that has been carefully dictated to test skill.

    • Pindie says:

      I am risking offending you but I have to point out: while risk is random risk management is a skill.
      FTL is about deciding what means you will take to prevent those pesky RNG from ending your journey.
      There are smart and cheap counters: for example you will invest in doors if you intend to go trough Mantis space.
      While weapons you receive are random I have learned you need to build your ship around them to succeed, not the other way around. This way the one thing that is most random (weapon drops) you can adapt your play style to.

      You have 14 soldiers in Xcom. This means skill is more important than good RNG rolls because you cannot really say all 14 soldiers just “got unlucky”.

      • Iskarott says:

        You’re not going to offend my by questioning my views, I wouldn’t post them if I wasn’t willing to respond to challenges. FTL has a component of skill, I would definately say that it is not entirely a luck based game. However, there are quite of a few random events that you can do nothing about that can end your game. The most basic one is simply bad luck leading to few upgrades and crappy weapons or getting stuck behind enemy lines. Or simply not getting fuel as a reward and running out. But things like entering into a nebula or solar flare area early (The nebula can be avoided, the sun can not without sensors), or not finding many crew members and being boarded by like 3 mantis and 1 rock when you’ve got 3 humans and a rock can wipe you out early game without trying.

        X-com on the other hand is another story. On higher difficulties, the enemies have boosted statistics and a lucky alien can wipe out your “Good” team fairly quickly, leaving you with lesser trained units. At the start of the game, this isn’t a big deal–but later in the game, a lucky alien can equal gameover on ironman.

        • Pindie says:

          Having played Ironman Superhuman TFTD for fun I’d say you are still overestimating the luck factor a bit.
          I found myself using disposable scouts coupled with veteran snipers and 3-4 grenadiers who could throw sonic pulsers 2 blocks away. I adapted to unfair enemy stats quite well IMO. Then I got armors and it got a bit easier.
          Yes, min-maxing my way trough the game, shame on me. j/k

          I died anyway due to MC trickery once aliens began taking me seriously, but it was a strategical failure (lack of investment into MC) not random one.

          In FTL you have 8 sectors to find burst laser 2 or heavy laser 2 and drone bay for example, which should guarantee a win on Kestrel A. It’s not a game where you need a streak of good luck to win, more like you need a streak of bad luck to loose…
          I’d say if you know the game well and you have your metagame (sic!) figured out you might need a couple of games before you win but if you have whole afternoon and evening you will beat the game.

          hint: easy mode is not good for learning game mechanics, people have trouble transitioning to Normal afterwards.

          To me both games are much like professional poker. It’s true you can loose a game if you keep getting bad draws but it is extremely unlikely for a champion to enter a tournament and not emerge near the top.

          • Iskarott says:

            You make me feel like I’m very bad at FTL and therefore dislike the game for that reason, but I sunk about 25 hours into it and unlocked 3-4 bonus ships. But I would always inevitiabely run out fuel even though I bought out every port, and get boarded by like 5 people and having no anti-personal drones. I never even got to the first boss in that amount of time. But everytime I died, I never felt like I could have done more with the situation than I did. Just that I didn’t have the adequate measures to deal with them because they were not given to me by the slot machine.

            On X-com, I will concede. I may not have given it enough time and energy because I found being critical sniped by sectoids from across the map to be infuriating, and didn’t feel the game was very clear on certain aspects such as money making.

          • Pindie says:

            @Iskarott
            Might also be the RNG works different on my machine. I usually got my fuel from random encounters (I figured out I need to always accept surrender if the fuel/missiles they offer seem like more in value than the extra scrap I would get for killing them, even if my fuel is high at the moment). I also figured out nebulae are your friend if you need scrap for upgrades.

            I played the game for 3 days straight to beat it and I was trying different approaches on consecutive runs trying to min-max my build (I figured out 4 shield points are a bad investment for example but you need 2 points of shield ASAP to save scrap on hull repairs in early sectors). I did not get optimal build (Kestrel A + Heavy laser 2 is not the best setup) but it was enough to beat the final boss with some good timing and defense drone I (aim all weapons on shields, disregard fancy tactics, just brute force it)…

            I was loosing game after game before I’ve learned my lesson. It’s a game where learning is an iterative process.

            As for X-com you should absolutely not feel bad. The game explained absolutely NOTHING. You had to spend long hours experimenting and consulting your friends back in the 90s to learn how that damn game works. It has no explanation how field of view calculates, how range does (NOT) affect aim, how smoke tiles affect vision range etc. etc.
            It took me days to figure out aliens had a sight range advantage at night for example and it started out as hypothesis based on observations between me and friends.
            This game made it extremely hard to learn the mechanics of itself. It was obscure and all the important stuff was left out of manual.

          • geerad says:

            If you’re running out of fuel in FTL, you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. I’ve beaten it multiple times on Normal, and I’ve run out of fuel maybe 2 or 3 times. And one of those times was me pushing my luck by spending all my money buying a gun instead of fuel. To be fair, I’ve also died a few times taking risks to avoid running out of fuel, but it’s rarely a problem for me.

            If boarders are a problem: (1) Buy the door upgrade! It’s only 20 scrap, and it slows them down quite a bit. (2) Vent the room they’re in to space. (3) Try to fight them in the medbay. You may have to vent some rooms to push them there. That’s usually okay. (4) If fighting outside of medbay, rotate in healthy crew and send the injured crew to medbay or to work on the system you pulled a healthy crew off of (but there’s a risk they still die if that system gets shot). (5) If you have few crew members, consider just letting them damage non-vital systems and deal with them later (and oxygen is not necessarily vital during combat). Most of the time they beam back to their ship if it’s in trouble anyway; if not, you now have all of your crew and attention to focus on fighting boarders. (6) Use pausing liberally.

      • Bloodloss says:

        I don’t know about the original X-com games, but I completely agree with him about Xcom (no idea if he’s played the modern one though). In Xcom, you don’t have 14 soldiers now, you have only 6 (4 to begin with). And yes, I have stopped playing it due to the fact that it is essentially ‘RNG: THE GAME.’ The difference between success and critical failure is ALMOST ENTIRELY down to luck-based things and not my own mistakes. I don’t feel smart or tactical when I do well, because I got lucky with the AI being dumb or a lucky shot, and I certainly don’t fee like I played badly and the AI outsmarted me when they get a lucky shot from across the map while I’m in a smoke screen and behind full cover (a very common occurrence due to how cheap the game can be).

        • Joshua Northey says:

          Its not “RNG the game” if you actually take the time to learn to play it. Don’t play Classic/Ironman if you want to just traipse around with no regard for good tactics.

          Just like real life you reduce the effects of the RNG by putting yourself in situations where you get a lot of samples. Don’t plan on shooting 6 aliens with 6 soldiers at only 70% chance to hit. If that is your scenario fall back and regroup and hope for a better situation next turn.

          You see all these people whining about Xcom who are just playing on a difficultly above their skill level and plow through the missions like they are the candyland of no consequences every other game presents.

          If you feel like it isn’t fair when you miss on 70% and your dude dies, Xcom classic isn’t the game for you.

          • Droopy The Dog says:

            How is 70% chance to hit for a random amount of damage up to a certain number not defined by it’s randomized outcome? We’re talking about sample sizes of 4-6 here, not statistically significant ones so things will deviate quite wildly quite often.

            The game could be far more tactical if instead of accuracy modifiers they just had a shot that currently has a 70% to-hit chance just do 70% damage instead.

            I can’t help but feel those few who keep declaring that other people don’t understand how to play statistics are themselves failing to understand that artificially including wild variations is completely unecessary in the first place and only serves to reduce tactical depth. The only positive it brings is to push the buttons on people’s instinctive gambling tension/pay-off mechanism to create effective (albeit shallow) drama.

            Chess is lovely and strategic, chess with dice might make individual moves more exciting but the game as a whole loses depth and clarity of purpose.

          • Filden says:

            It models the uncertainty of combat. There are no absolutes in combat. There are only decisions that give you the best chance to win, and a superior tactician will still prevail over time. Risk vs Reward is an important decision making factor in any good strategy game. If you’re going to dismiss all tactical or strategic games based on stats and probabilities, you’re going to eliminate a ton of really great games.

            Experienced XCOM players simply learn how to maximize those probabilities, or to minimize exposure to them. Taking fire is dangerous, because it’s always a gamble. Cover makes you moderately less likely to be hit, but is still very dangerous because it exposes you to fire. On the other hand it gives me a forward position to project firepower and possibly eliminate an enemy. How do I solve this encounter in a manner where I take minimal fire, or none at all?

            I find an elegance and a rhythm to solving that particular problem in every single encounter, and the solution is always slightly different each time. And yes, gambling is thrilling, while still capable of being perfectly strategic.

          • Droopy The Dog says:

            The interesting uncertainty of combat for a tactical game lies in what the enemy choses to do in response to you. Which remains, indeed is even enhanced, if you remove random to-hit values. If you’re already reducing the physical uncertainties to an arbitrary percentage chance there’s no advantage in not cutting out the middle man and just reducing it to a flat value scaled by that chance instead.

            By leaving things to an all or nothing random result you end up having your responses dictated by the game as well as your opponent, when the game should ideally be a consistant construct you and your opponent work within. Now with a single player game where your opponent is essentially “the game” itself it’s an effective way to artificially create the illusion of a challanging opponent, but to me it feels far too transparent to actually enjoy and simply a frustration that a potentially interesting problem has been diluted by adding in some coin-flipping to mix things up.

            Also, despite my criticism of random chance systems in what are supposedly problem solving games I only take particular issue with xcom because it works with such small sample sizes and has such a tendancy towards midrange values and stacking chance on chance that it has far more deviance than most games. For example the total war games have a small element of random chance in their mechanics, but it’s never yet bothered me because when you’re dealing with hundred men strong units the actuallity over the course of a battle has yet to stray far enough from the ideal average as to break my immersion, in all the battles I’ve fought.

    • Filden says:

      I can’t speak for FTL, but having beaten XCOM on Classic/Ironman a few times now, I have to disagree. It’s very much a matter of skill on the tac map, and knowledge about how the strategic end of the game works (particularly the tech tree).

      When I was inexperienced, I would have agreed with you…much of it seemed completely arbitrary. Having put the effort in to learn how to succeed, I now find it fairly predictable, though still with some random elements that can provide challenge even to experienced players by forcing them to recover from a setback. When I do suffer a setback, 4 out of 5 times it’s still down to a mistake I’ve made, usually by being overly aggressive or reckless.

      • Iskarott says:

        I don’t think that X-com doesn’t have a skill component either. I’ve played the game until the point that I got bored, and if you play a tight defensive game, and understand the AI has certain patterns. (It’ tends to like certain cover spots best and just cycle between them) it isn’t that hard. That being said, if your good team gets wiped out, and then your backup team gets wiped out, your double backup team might not have the right stuff to catch up. All because of a lucky grenade toss or two.

        • Filden says:

          Well first off, there’s no such thing as a “lucky” grenade toss, because grenades always hit, and for predictable damage. There’s only allowing yourself to be in grenade range to opponents that you know use grenades, in which case you assume you’re going to catch one, and curse yourself for letting that happen ( usually by aggroing a group you weren’t prepared for with reckless map movement, or failing to fall back).

          Secondly, Your primary squad and your backup squad cannot be wiped out by the same “lucky grenade toss or two”, only by a series of errors, which come down to player skill. If you suffer a squad wipe, that can sometimes (but rarely) be an act of god. If you wipe a second experienced squad, without enough capable backups, at some point that comes down to player skill and management.

          I agree that you can lose a game to a party wipe at the worst possible time (usually early on), but experienced players can recover from those setbacks if they’ve built a strong infrastructure, teched up effectively, have knowledge of high % party makeups, and have developed back-up troops. But you don’t start the game knowing the best way to do all that, and like anything worth doing, you have to put in the effort to learn.

          • Bloodloss says:

            What you’re saying is you need a huge amount of metagaming knowledge in order to even begin to do well at the game. This doesn’t appeal to me even slightly. I want to win because I outsmarted the AI and performed well tactically, which is what these games claim to be about. But instead, it’s all about luck. In order to do well, what you have to do essentially boils down to having enough back-up soldiers/etc to counter-act the bad luck so that you can immediately go back into the game, which is incredibly boring and something that merely requires reading into; I’d rather just turn off ironman and reload and get the same experience. Better yet, not play at all.

          • Filden says:

            No, I’m saying you need a decent amount of acquired knowledge and skill before you start to succeed at Classic/Ironman mode, and it starts to feel less arbitrary. Again, Classic/Ironman is not the game’s default difficulty. It is supposed to be challenging, and you’re supposed to experience losses in it.

          • BloatedGuppy says:

            Filden is 100% correct. It only takes one play-through before the tactical game becomes clear, and you can start making intelligent decisions to minimize the impact of any RNG follies. My last Classic Ironman game I took 7 casualties total, all rookies with the exception of one captain, and all but one in the first two months of the game. It’s not the RNG. If you’re struggling with X-Com on any level and you’re not playing on Impossible, you are simply making gross tactical errors that are leaving you exposed. At which point, yeah, it comes down to RNG. But it’s not the RNG that’s screwing you over. It’s your own blunders.

          • Joshua Northey says:

            Its just idiots running through maps in 5 turns, never using overwatch, and generally playing like it is normal, then crying “this is too hard” when they die.

          • Filden says:

            No, it’s not “idiots” doing anything. That’s not particularly helpful to people who are frustrated. Especially when my point is I learned by failing repeatedly, until I learned how to succeed. It’s a legitimately challenging game mode by design. So everyone is an idiot at some point.

            There are simply people who have learned how to play the game, at which point it seems less random and their deliberate strategies result in an overall win (with occasional setbacks), and people who haven’t learned how to play it *yet.*

          • Joshua Northey says:

            Sorry I am just getting more frustrated the more I see this same criticism. Which is exactly the criticism that has developers making all their games so damn easy.

            If the player loses there is something wrong with the game is such a harmful ideology.

          • jrodman says:

            It’s not harmful because it accurately describes what a very large percentage of players want out of the experience — to not lose.

            This is why we have stuff like difficulty settings, because both play experience desires are valid, and both are fun for some players.

        • Filden says:

          Wait, let me ask a stupid question. Are we talking about XCOM, or X-com? In the original article, he spelled it X-com, but since it was in the context of other newish games, I just assumed he meant the new XCOM game. But some of the comments here seem to be referencing the old game.

          In any event, that’s the one I’ve been talking about (XCOM). If people are talking about the original, just disregard stuff I’ve said (if you haven’t already).

      • Pindie says:

        The randomness element is less of an issue once you get armors, which are relatively more effective than they used to be in older games.
        The way armors work in new Xcom is very much like a life bar upgrade, which makes it near impossible to get one-shotted by an alien and you seem to get armors that get you opver the edge of one-shot-kill quite early.

        In old Xcom the first armor you got did not protect against direct hits by any alien weapon, the heavy armors came later.

        I was talking mainly (or almost exclusively) about the early stage. I still hold you can loose a team to random events if your team is 4 man with no armor. It’s not a game over but I feel it’s very… contrived difficulty?

        • Filden says:

          Oh sure, early teams can get wiped out easily by a few bad rolls, but that’s also the stage of the game where you’re most easily able to recover, because the missions are still beatable with 4 man rookie teams.

          A few failed missions in a row on the early stage can cause a failure spiral that is very difficult to recover from. But if you fail a few missions *in a row*, that’s still at the player’s feet. If you’ve moved to the part of the game where you truly can’t beat the missions with a low level squad, you’ve failed to adequately tech and build, which again is player strategy error.

          I don’t want to seem like I’m puffing my chest at all. I suffered the same excruciating failures everyone does (probably more), until I learned how *not* to. I find it’s very much about knowing what, and what not to do. And yet, I like the fact the game can still knock me for a loop, and force me to really grit my teeth to pull out a comeback.

          At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Classic /Ironman is not the default game mode. It’s supposed to be challenging, and you’re supposed to experience failure in it.

          • Iskarott says:

            But it’s player strategy that they can’t possibly have, unless they’ve cheated and looked up spoilers and wikipedia. If you go into it blind without reading strategy guides or forums, I think it becomes very much about the RNG. If the game is that harsh to new teams, how do you survive long enough that the game shows the effective LONG TERM strategies? Or does the game kill you off before then, and your fault short term ones fail because you don’t realize X is only used to research 2 things and then it can be sold because you haven’t looked it up.

            Not everyone has 16 hours a day to devote to X-com. If you only have a limited amount of times for games, than X-com can infuriating because you either have to cheat and read spoilers, or play non-ironman which everyone insists is less fun.

          • Bloodloss says:

            I play on classic (not ironman, because I’m not a masochist like many of you are). My soldiers in titan armour with plasma weapons routinely get taken out by enemies who hit like freight trains, from the other side of the map, when my guy is behind full cover and covered by smoke. It’s not remotely a rare occurrence. When I win, it’s because of luck, and when I lose, it’s because of luck. The battles are all that interests me in this game, the tech trees and whatnot are merely fluff in order to help keep it fresh; when that becomes the primary means of doing well, I completely and utterly lose interest in a game.

            As far as I’m concerned, any strategy game that relies so heavily on RNG isn’t a strategy game at all.

          • Filden says:

            Iskarott: Not everyone has 16 hours a day to devote to X-com. If you only have a limited amount of times for games, than X-com can infuriating because you either have to cheat and read spoilers, or play non-ironman which everyone insists is less fun.

            @Iskarott

            I understand you’re frustrated with your experience, but it would great if you could express it without demeaning me for simply accepting the challenge, and learning how to overcome it. I didn’t play for 16 hours a day, and I didn’t read spoilers. I acquired the skill by failing, and then learning how to succeed.

            People aren’t supposed to succeed at Classic /Ironman the first time they play it. But once again, it is not the game’s default mode. By default, you are able to restart missions if you fail them, and the difficulty is much more forgiving of sub-optimal decisions. Classic is not.

            If you feel like you’re pressured to play on a level of difficulty you’re not comfortable with, that would seem to be a separate issue.

          • BloatedGuppy says:

            You’ll pardon me, Bloodloss, if I don’t take your anecdotal accounts of the game completely seriously, or if I imply that you are engaging in some pretty ridiculous hyperbole. Based on what you are telling me, either A) you are the unluckiest X-Com player alive, or B) you’re terrible at the game and playing at a difficulty level that is over your head, and blaming the RNG for your own poor decisions. One of those is manifestly more likely than the other. I’ll let you figure out for yourself which one.

            There is an easy/normal setting in the game for a reason. They are they for people in your very predicament. I suggest you make use of them.

          • Sheng-ji says:

            @Fildon – The game is just as good on normal if classic is too difficult. The people saying it isn’t are mostly very good at the game and talking about classic only being worthwhile for them because normal is too easy but that doesn’t apply to everyone!

            If classic is too hard, normal is great and you will get the same game experience. If, like me, you find normal too easy and classic too hard, normal ironman falls somewhere in between, and I find it just right.

          • Filden says:

            @Sheng-ji
            I think you’re addressing that to Iskarott or Bloodloss, not to me.

          • Cleave says:

            Iskarott:

            You’re not supposed to know the strategies to beat the game when you first play. You play, you fail, you think about why you failed and you improve. Personally I got through Normal on my first play through but am finding Classic very challenging. Sure it can be frustrating when you get a series of critical misses but each time I play I’m getting a little further and learning more. If you could get through classic first time then you’d just be complaining that impossible is too hard..

          • Sheng-ji says:

            Ooops, yes, it was supposed to be for Iskarott!

          • Droopy The Dog says:

            @sheng-ji

            If you’re looking for a middle road between normal and classic there’s a mod that was mentioned in the diaries that might interest you http://forums.2kgames.com/showthread.php?158376-Anti-cheating-mod-and-real-ufos-released!-Classic-difficult-only . Basically it removes the the accuracy and crit bonuses for aliens whilst keeping the increased number, supposedly un-hobbled AI and other increased stats of classic.

            [Edit] Just so you know, the mod alters some core files so isn’t simple to remove, so if you’re not sure you’ll like it maybe back up your game folder to avoid having to potentially redownload everything again.

    • mike2R says:

      This is obviously a matter of personal taste, but I think a level of randomness is highly desirable in a roguelike type game.

      You (or rather I) need the feeling that your fate is subject to the whim of the gods. Knowing that a good drop or good roll can be a huge benefit, but on on the flip knowing that if the stars align against you, you are finished.

      Some (many) don’t like that – it isn’t why they play games – but I love the immersion and tension it brings. Praying for a good roll, and knowing that if I don’t get it then I’m finished. Ideally I suppose this would only ever happen when I’d already made a mistake – or taken a gamble that left me temporarily weak on the hope of a future pay-off – but you can’t really balance that and any game that has a lot of this sort of good randomness is going to dump on you from a great height from time to time.

      This only works in a roguelike. A normal game throwing out bad luck will either require you to get passed it by tedious repeated reloading, or even worse bork and entire multi-hour playthrough. A roguelike with a short completion time can afford to be completely unfair occasionally, and by doing so you know on future playthroughs that it is possible, which for me at least greatly heightens the enjoyment.

      I doubt anyone who doesn’t mind being completely unfairly treated enjoyed FTL anywhere near as much as I am. They either got quickly frustrated, or played it on Easy (which makes it just a normal game, that is too short, and kills you just before the end without giving you a chance to save). I’ve still not won it, and have about 25 hours play.

      • Iskarott says:

        I don’t know if it is about being untreated unfairly from my perception. FTL or X-com Classic/Impossible Ironman mode are a little too akin to slot machines to me. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, lots of people love slots. But I don’t play a game to click a button and see if I’m lucky or not, I do it to test my skills through learning the new game skills and then applying them to maximal effect. Sometimes that is risk or chance management, but when there is nothing I could have done beforehand to prevent this slot from going bad on me, and that going bad destroys hours and hours of work… I simply don’t have the time to keep pulling the lever until I get 777′s.

        • mike2R says:

          I wouldn’t want to go quite as far as playing a slot machine, for example, to get past a certain point. But I do like a roguelike to throw a large amount of random stuff at me, and I’m quite happy for this sometimes to go too far and completely gimp me through no fault of my own. As long as a) it doesn’t happen too often (subjectively), and b) there is a compensating chance of getting something massively good that will really really help me in a way that no standard-style game could allow (say getting weapons + crew of awesomeness in FTL in sector 1). First victory in a good roguelike IMO should come from some amazing piece of luck.

          Its why I’m happy to see a genuine roguelike game like FTL. I’ve tried playing games in Hardcore/Ironman mode. But it just isn’t the same. You need more than permadeath for a roguelike, the whole game has to be designed around the mechanic or its just pointless.

        • arccos says:

          I see them more like playing poker. The key is to use your skill to the fullest, and eliminate as much randomness as possible. You don’t want to get into a situation where you need to make that next hit to survive.

          You’ll certainly run into situations where you get some seriously bad rolls, but as you get better, the average amount success gets higher and you have fewer outliers.

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            I agree with the poker analogy with regards to XCOM – it’s weird how a tough mission feels so much like a tense game of poker to me.

            One thing I’d say is: as with poker, sometimes it’s at its most exhilarating when you bet everything on a crappy hand and win anyway. But yeah, if you lose, it’s hell.

            Some people don’t like poker, but those who do experience a certain kind of fun you don’t get anywhere else.

        • Joshua Northey says:

          You cannot beat a slot machine with skill. You are playing on a difficulty over your head then blaming the RNG when you don’t get dealt a full house each hand.

    • Christo4 says:

      Honestly i think you are wrong. The randomness is what is good about these kind of games and bad about others. For example in Dishonored or Deus Ex, all the guards follow the same routes, you won’t see one abruptly turning if you’ve studied it’s path. But in X-Com and FTL the enemies are unpredictable and the chances that something hits (or misses) is what makes it fun, because depending on wether you were lucky or not the situation changes and you have to adapt to it and figure out the best course of action. Do you try to revive a teammate that is 2 turns away from your medic, or do you keep shooting enemies so that no one else will die? do you attack the crysalid or the berserker? do you try and find a better cover or risk shooting someone with 60% chance? These are some examples from X-Com. In FTL situations are a bit more complicated (in my opinion).

      I have played FTL for about 30 hours. I have played X-Com at a friend for about 15. I have played Dishonored for 10 or so hours because i wanted to finish it. And i was bored out of my mind of how easy it was ( i was playing on hard). Basically no one could see you if you had posesion+sleep darts. Only reason why it took me more than 10 hours is that i usually backtracked to be sure i got everything.

      • KenTWOu says:

        The randomness is what is good about these kind of games and bad about others. For example in Dishonored or Deus Ex, all the guards follow the same routes…

        I agree Dishonored is a very easy game and stealth AI is deaf, dumb and so forgiving. But Dishonored AI has random factors! Guards do random things: they stomp rats, talk to each other, stare at paintings, warm their hands near fireplaces randomly! Even when you reload the same savegame you get different outcome. And they switch vacant patrol routes randomly when you knock out just one of them.

  11. Groove says:

    An excellent piece mentioning another excellent piece. Kieron’s Zangband article was one of the…more play’s? Whatever they were called, that really stuck with me, because it made me actually download and play the game myself. And it was awesome, and brutal, and overpowered, and underpowered.

  12. Dan Puzey says:

    Totally agree with this article. Things going wrong is so much more engrossing than things going right! And the games with real replayability tend not to be those that have a success point that, once attained, is rarely worth re-attaining (I wonder how many will play Dishonored more than twice through?).

    One thing you don’t mention, though, is the role that save games play in reducing peril. FTL, X-COM (at least on Ironman) and DayZ all have that added level of gravity in that you can’t just hit QuickLoad and undo a mistake. If I have the ability to save after every bullet fired, and reload after every shot missed, that sense of peril is massively reduced.

    (Which is why personally, I tend to hit QuickSave immediately *after* I’ve been spotted, shot at, and reduced to miniscule amounts of health, instead of before.)

  13. pokey says:

    The fantastic thing about Dwarf Fortress is it’s incredibly unsatisfying to build a safe fort – all the fun comes from the many insane ways to lose. Even the game’s (many) bugs add to the entertainment. Every fort creates its own tragic story of dwarven destruction.

    The first games I ever played like this were the 8-bit predecessors of X-Com like Rebel Star and Lords Of Chaos, when it felt like literally anything could happen and the best battles were the ones you lost spectacularly in unexpected ways.

    If FTL is anything like that experience, I’m buying it right now.

    • zeroskill says:

      If you like roguelikes you are probably gonna like FTL. But don’t expect anything as timeless or deep as Dwarf Fortress.

  14. Gwyddelig says:

    The real Bastard 22, as I like to call it, in FTL is when you’ve vented to get those pesky boarders gasping only for their brethren back on the ranch to send Hermes missiles into both your medbay AND your doors…

    Screwx0rd

    As a follow-up, I disagree slightly on WHY these games are so compelling and I think it’s more a realisation and indeed acceptance that failure is a part of the game and sometimes the game just flat out doesn’t like you.

    There is no hand-holding, there is no mercy, only capriciousness. Like some brooding Greek God.

  15. Username says:

    Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.
    Sir Lancelot: No, it’s too perilous.

    Great observation. I feel as if I was the only one who only lost enthusiasm for Dishonored, to the point of downright -Meh…- when they released the uberspy, death incarnate, time stopping, slaughter-reeper trailer. Gimmie good old fashoned Thief/DarkMod, SS2… hell even Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah had more challenge.

    I recall Clive Barker made the gutsy call for Undying whereas the designers wanted to make the protagonist a Uber-slayer, and he said no, make him a mortal man with weaknesses and flaws – that game remains one of my all time favorites. It seems to reflect a lot on our society that the blockbuster games are ultra power thrill porn while the best ones in my book are making something happen with damn near nothing to work with. Sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand.

    • mckertis says:

      “I recall Clive Barker made the gutsy call for Undying whereas the designers wanted to make the protagonist a Uber-slayer, and he said no”

      I dont think that ever happened, the game was pretty much ready when he was contacted about lending his name for the title.

      • YogSo says:

        I committed the horrible sin of using two hyperlinks in my comment, so in case it never comes back from moderation hell, here is the short answer: Username is right. Read here about “Count Magnus Wolfram”.

        • Username says:

          That’s where I read that. Thanks man, I couldn’t for the life of me remember that site, though I remember reading it clearly. Along with a story about about how a guy got the entire Barker catalog off a coworker after he was told CB was gay. The doofus was such a homophobe he went from being fan #1 to never wanting to hear another word. I thought I read it here…

  16. DarrenGrey says:

    Great article. Though I’d point out an important part of the fun of peril is not being able to just quickload when things go bad. So many games which could be fun and challenging are ruined by the ability to quickly hop back in time if you make the slightest of errors. The games you mention force you to deal with the situation at hand, making every decision all the more pressing and every victory all the sweeter.

    • Gwyddelig says:

      Most people’s sneaky reloads are a response to something not being (in their subjective eyes) “fair” – screwed by the RNG and etc.

      That impulse actually isn’t there (or at least not to anything like the same degree) in games like FTL and XCOM precisely because “fair” ain’t in it.

    • Pindie says:

      Agreed.
      I’ll point out this is often a result of lazy game developer.
      In good games mistakes can be corrected for. In bad games if you are on an escort mission and the NPC runs straight into enemy fire you need to try again.
      Some games just straight up depend on the quickload feature (or Vitachamber).

    • NathanH says:

      I disagree and think that the point is that gamers need to take more responsibility for their experience.

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        I hate that idea. It’s telling the player to design their own game, rather than simply play the one that the actual designers created. We should have higher standards for game design.

        Occasionally that’s desirable, but usually if you have to turn off X or avoid doing Y in order to enjoy the game, then the design is broken and needs fixing.

        • Droopy The Dog says:

          Or it’s game developers understanding that their audiance might not all have exactly the same tastes. And building a game where players came tweak their experience towards their ideal with minimal effort and maybe a little willpower is better than building a game exclusively to one particular person’s tastes. This in a medium that already requires player interation and input on other levels is a very sensible thing.

          It actually is a better standard of game design, you only realise it if you try to think from a perspective other than your own though.

  17. James G says:

    Yes, so very much yes. In fact I was saying something similar on the forums a month or so ago. I love the moment when you see the metaphorical tower start to teeter, you attempt to shore it up, and in doing so notice the severe lack of underpinning you did. You were blind to it for so long, but suddenly decline seems inevitable, and avoiding it a mad grab as the blocks slide out beneath you.

  18. pupsikaso says:

    This is what we call Tension in literature. And thank you so much for writing this article, Jim, for I agree with you 100%. What separates a good story from an amateur’s power-fanty fan fic is the tension.

    The amateur writes a story about a badass hero that can overcome all odds against him without beating an eye lash.

    The professional writes a story about a badass hero who’s odds are constantly stacked against him, always teetering on the edge of defeat, and just barely making it through.

    What you describe here, modern games being a power-fantasy trip, is precisely why I have long ago stopped buying games like that.

    Tension in games can come from more than just the story. In fact that wouldn’t work in games. The mechanics of the game letting you fail in many spectacular ways is what causes the tension.
    Heck, look at DayZ! The game didn’t have any content as we’re used to seeing in games, and yet it had more tension than all the “blockbuster” AAA shooters in the recent years combined.

  19. Totally heterosexual says:

    It really depends on the game. The ones used as an example here are totally right.

  20. Nallen says:

    Loved this article. So very true. XCOM is all I’m playing on PC right now, although I’ll undoubtedly get back to Dishonored eventually.

    I’ve never played Day Z so I’m not sure about how frenetic the action is, but something which contributes to my enjoyment of XCOM is the pacing. It’s the pausing, the realisation of the depth of trouble that you’re in, trying to find a solution to a familiar but unique puzzle and then seeing that work or fail. The moment you know that all you have is a gamble. The moment of ‘the best laid schemes’ coming to their inevitable end.

    • mike2R says:

      Something like that is why a first started getting into dungeoncrawler roguelikes I think.

      In most dungeoncrawlers you get all these skills and weapons and stuff, and also a load of one-use powerful items (potions, scrolls, wands etc.). In a standard game, I always gravitate to the things that don’t run out. I’ll figure out my favourite weapons and spells, and then use them to attempt every fight. If I fail I reload and do it again, and again. Its only if I really start to bash my head against repeated failures that I remember I have an invisibility potion and a wand of death in my bag.

      A roguelike isn’t like that. Suddenly I realise I’m in trouble, and rather than just forging blindly ahead, I start going though my inventory in a desperate attempt to find something, anything, that will save my scrawny arse and not end my playthrough.

  21. Advanced Assault Hippo says:

    It’s true, I find Dishonoured a rather casual, distant ‘ho-hum’ experience at times. The world is fascinating, but I actually think it’s ultimately nothing but a reasonably passable game at its heart.

    On the other hand, XCOM grabs me by the bullocks and makes me panic.

  22. Joe Duck says:

    Goddamnit, why? Why do YOU get it and game designers don’t?
    Games should try to make a hero out of the player and not out of the character.
    Your article is spot on.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Game designers get it just fine, but as you can see in this very comment section there are a lot of players who respond angrily and accusatory to any challenge they need to learn and practice to overcome. Too many gamers want games merely for diversion and not for their strategic/learning/decision making elements.

      Even among strategy gamers there is a very large subset of people who don’t actually think strategically about the game at all. They just build what strikes their fancy or what is cool, and then complain bitterly if the game punishes that.

  23. Rao Dao Zao says:

    On the other hand…

    If you’ve got a story-driven game, too much challenge means a lot of people won’t see it through to the finale? Imagine a critical failure after 100 hours of Morrowind, where you couldn’t save (or forgot to). Lotso pain.

    I suppose that’s where difficulty levels come in…

    • NathanH says:

      You could try to make the story adapt to the game situation. You don’t necessarily need instant game-over situations for peril, you can have slowly cascading doom. That is, the character’s death could require a load or replaying a level or whatever, but other types of failure could slide the story closer to disaster. In a story based game in particular I think gamers should be open to the idea that after 100 hours of play the story concludes with “because of your poor performance, the baddies have prevailed”.

    • JackShandy says:

      Story-driven games can have story-driven failure states. You failed to save that town, now it’s going to turn into a Goblin City.

    • tungstenHead says:

      Wing Commander let you do this, actually. You play through the entire game and if you’ve been failing mission objectives the whole way through while somehow managing to not get yourself killed, you’ll be treated to a finale in which you lose the war. You can actually be doing perfectly well but then lose a few key missions towards the end and you’ll get the losing ending. A winning campaign and a losing one were roughly the same length.

      Wing Commander is one of the very few AAA series to feature such robust failure states. The later FMV games in the series had a lot less content for the losing track, but there was still a losing track and a special ending for someone that managed to live but did not achieve objectives.

  24. Syrus says:

    A -True Respect- for you Jim, i’am game developer in our indie studio and we have been developing a game based on just the things you described, the more perils you can have, the more of a hero you can be.

    It’s all about being the one who saves the day, the feeling of heroism and adrenaline when you get out of impossible situation, that’s what i think games should be, not about grind, but about the feeling of heroism!

    Thank you for recognizing this! When the time comes, and it will be month or too, we’ll send you our survival game, if you liked those 3 games, i have no doubt you’ll like ours :)

    P.S. If anyone is interesed in checking our game, search for The Red Solstice, I apologize if anyone is offended by this P.S., it’s intention is just to commend Jim on really GREAT article.

    Thumbs up!
    Ironward

  25. Jakkar says:

    Play Dishonored at Very Hard difficulty and restrict your own right to quick save. You will find a remarkably rewarding ‘crisis management’ game, each time a mark cries out before you can reach him with your choke-hold of doom, and necessitates a wash of dark magic and a flurry of bolts and acrobatics as nearby guards respond to the alarm with speed. I think my one issue with Dis is the lack of equipment scarcity – I’ve never run out of magic or been pushed to a point where I needed to be sparing, but was sparing nonetheless because I’m paranoid…

  26. Jockie says:

    Dark Souls is great for the peril stakes, OK you’re kind of invincible in that there’s no game over screen, but you cant quick save your way out of a situation. The feeling of peril though, is almost a constant until after many hours and many deaths you feel like you’ve mastered the game. At which point it becomes a power fantasy, in that you have power over a world that at one point beat you down into the floor.

    • Torn says:

      …and then it becomes a ‘don’t get cocky’ lesson where something you can beat in your sleep manages to get a hit in, or you fall off a ledge while sprinting through an environment you normally take your time in :)

  27. Overwind says:

    Human beings are strange, we do love adversity. I guess it’s that near-death adrenaline thing. At least games last longer than a bungee-jump. Isn’t it better if it lasts longer? Like, tantric-bungee. Ok. Mind not working right. Hard-reset time. Post-lunch nap required. Reading this I was also reminded of when Kirk met Picard:

    Kirk: I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim.
    Picard: You could say that.
    Kirk: Sounds like fun!

  28. Gap Gen says:

    I think losing is OK, too, as long as it’s interesting and you don’t invest too much in a victory (for story-led games, this can be hard). Giving it your best shot and having to pull back because the enemy outsmarted you or simply was too tough is no bad thing as long as you weren’t expecting to win. I’m gonna mention Scourge of War again, but a battle where we lost, but where I briefly captured a hilltop monument despite horrific losses in the attempt, was quite fun.

  29. Tom De Roeck says:

    I think this is also what Mass Effect could have gotten “righter”. If there had been a point to combat, other than getting from point A to B (and if you fail, your entire game fails, ie. you cannot continue if you fail), there would be a much more real sense to it all, when trying to save absolutely everyone in the universe. (and being possible to fail, but continue the game.)

    I think that if they made it more obscure which path actually led to you actually saving everyone, it would have made a huge difference in gameplay, instead of code colouring blue everything that was paragonrelated.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      That would have made it much more replayable and interesting for serious gamers, and drove the casuals absolutely nuts.

    • Droopy The Dog says:

      I actually kind of want RPGs to play on the player’s fears more too, too often you have “be a hero and save everyone” and “sacrifice someone and have an easier fight” options, but there’s never any real danger of losing the hero option fight anyway and the choice gets a whole lot less interesting.

  30. haradaya says:

    While running across a field in DayZ with two others, my character got shot through the torso by a Lee Enfield. Instantly blacked out, but in the end my mates took the sniper down while I regained conciousness and started bandaging myself.
    Surviving that made it my favorite character/playthrough.

  31. Dervish says:

    [T]he more ways things can go wrong in a game, the more ways players can have to be heroes.

    Clear enough, and this sentiment is echoed in several of the comments, but this is why placing these games somehow in opposition to “power fantasies” is flat wrong. If I said, “Oh, okay, they’re not power fantasies, they’re hero fantasies,” you’d probably tell me I was missing the point.

    I keep seeing “power fantasy” used to mean a kind of “turn on all the cheat codes and never let the player fail” attitude, but there’s a fairly straightforward psychological question of “what makes humans feel powerful?” that is not addressed well by this power/vulnerability dichotomy.

    It’s one of those questions that really does help us understand how games work, and things get distorted when “power” gains a negative connotation.

  32. ghor says:

    It seems to me that, aside from everything mentioned, it’s also very important that “The Near Perfect Run” is a tangible idea. If I can see how big of a mess I’m going to have to deal with right from the start it can be demoralizing, but if a flawless victory is tantalizingly close I’ll be motivated to go for it, even if I’m aware that things probably won’t go exactly according to plan.

    In XCom it’s pretty easy to imagine everything going my way, if only I manage to get my soldiers set up right, if only that alien rounds the corner over there, if only mutons don’t show up, if.. if… if…. Same in FTL, if only this jump isn’t into an asteroid field, if only I get an ion cannon in the next shop, if only I don’t get boarded… In Dishonored, if I blink there, there, choke that guy, avoid the tallboy, blink there…

    I guess what I’m saying is everything falling gloriously into pieces is more glorious the more pieces you managed to set up.

  33. fencenswitschen says:

    Next thing I do is write an XCOM diary about playing it at Impossible difficulty with Ironman. I wonder how far I get.

  34. HatsAlEsman says:

    I see some people are also mentioning Dark Souls as a game where things get perilous and now im curious as to what other non-rougelikeish games does that feeling of peril emerge? It wouldn’t be any game with that level of crushing difficulty. Super Meat Boy is a bit too safe in terms of consequences of death (you just have to restart a level from at most 10 seconds ago). GOD HAND (the first time I played at least) seemed to be a constant uphill battle for most levels of barely scraping by with next to no health until things went barely right in terms of pick ups or until I learnt to dodge that enemy. Then again, if you get good at it, you don’t need the pickups.

    I think for a game to be truly perilous as this article implys, there always needs to be something significant that you are risking. One bad encounter in FTL and you lose half your crew, bad planning in XCOM can cause you to injure or kill all your Colonels at a critical time, DayZ is constantly one fuck up away from losing all you’ve earned, and Dwarf Fortress, well, I hope I don’t need to explain how easy it is for the game to destroy your dwarves in the most hilarious way possible.

    Speaking of Dwarf Fortress, maybe that old DF concept of FUN (in the sense of the FUN where a dwarf goes crazy and murders a person, causing a friend of that dwarf to go crazy, etc.) is what we’re seeing in all these games. Perhaps the recipe for FUN is terrifying odds mixed with large risk mixed with the slim possibility of recovery in an unscripted manner. It has to feel like the player has GLORIOUSLY CONQUERED the game’s systems and kept what they’ve built or GLORIOUSLY FAIL in a way that’s just as entertaining.

  35. Cerzi says:

    Now if only developers would reintroduce “peril” back into mainstream MMOs, we might be able to finally carry on from where the original Everquest and Ultima Online left off nearly one and a half decades ago.

  36. jrodman says:

    Don’t agree with the thesis here.
    Some of my favourite game experiences (eg Katamari Damacy, Beyond Good and Evil, Sly Cooper 1) featured no or next-to-no peril at all.

    I enjoy the feeling of peril on occasion, but not as a norm, and tend to avoid, modify, or cheat games that don’t give me the choice.

    • MattMk1 says:

      Agreed… I get a kick out of the occasional game which actually tests my skills, but most of the time, I’d rather go for a fun, low-stress ride.

      I’ve made the mistake of going for a PhD in biology instead of doing something well paying and sensible, and I get all the risk of failure, unexpected outcomes, and days or weeks of work sometimes lost with no going back because some @#@*&^%$ thing went wrong than I could ever want.

      I’m sure that’s not universal for people in my position, and that are people that thrive on being challenged daily at work and when it comes to their entertainment, but I’m sure as hell not one of them.

      What I want more than anything else is a nice, story-driven experience that provides an illusion of peril in a non-frustrating way, and ends with me kicking ass and triumphing over pretend diversity with a minimum of reloading and backtracking.

      I’m only really tolerant of highly challenging games when the challenge is coupled with excellent design, so that the game actually rewards an intelligent approach, rather than – like too many famously hard games – making things difficult because you need to learn through trial and error how to jump through arbitrary hoops, or figure out how to micro-manage an unnecessarily complicated and unfriendly system.

      • mike2R says:

        The things is, it isn’t really about the challenge. Or at least it isn’t about the difficulty.

        Some people like really difficult games, and enjoy the challenge of pitting themselves against them since that gives them satisfaction when they finally overcome it.

        This isn’t why I like roguelikes at all. It isn’t about winning or losing, it is about playing. The peril of permadeath gives it a certain zest, since there is more to lose than just having to sit through a loading screen to get back to where I was. And because the game is designed to be played repeatedly, you can include outrageous acts of luck and misfortune that would be utterly unbalanced in a normal game, but don’t matter in a roguelike since they will happen to everyone very occasionally rather than dominating the game for the few people who get them in their single playthrough.

        In a standard game, all the big game-changing moments are pre-scripted and chance is relegated to the point where it is often eliminated completely. In a roguelike they are emergent. The next chest you open could have a ridiculously powerful weapon that will see you breeze through the next few levels – but it won’t be boring since it will be a one off and you’ll want to squeeze every last advantage from it. Or you could go round a corner and meet an enemy you are utterly unable to fight and have to try to run, or rack your brains for a novel solution. And you will not know whether survival is even possible, since it isn’t scripted, it is just something that happened to you.

        Difficulty is needed obviously, since it isn’t much of a roguelike if you complete it on your first go. But the game will be designed to be restarted, and a death will not be the equivalent of losing your save halfway through a traditional game. It will be expected. Something that you knew was going to happen when you started, and even welcome in a way since you get to start over and try to avoid the mistakes you made last time. And since the game will have been designed to be wide rather than deep, you should be able approach the next playthrough with a completely different method if you wish.

        Edit: which isn’t to say I don’t like the illusion of peril, or even games that just make you flat out awesome. I had great fun playing Saints Row the Third on the easiest difficulty and just kicking arse and taking names. But I love roguelikes too.

        • jrodman says:

          I like roguelikes.

          In crawl I implemented my own progression system where repeated plays would give increasing slight advantages, which made the game a lot more fun for me. I think this only added to the game, and made me appreciate how the losses were my own creation all the more.

  37. Moni says:

    I think this feeds into Jim’s other theory about games being about cleaning up.

    Off the top of my head example: Splinter Cell. You might have a plan to get through a room undetected, but something doesn’t go right, the alarm is set off, and the room is flooded with guards. You’re then left with having to clean up the mess you’ve made, which itself is as satisfying as evading the guards in the first place.

    Huh, this is cool, we can start thinking of gameplay loops as five act structures.

  38. SurprisedMan says:

    I’ve actually been thinking of a way to talk about this for a while, but I was coming at it from a different angle. I’ve been thinking about what sort of games tend to generate anecdotes and ‘war stories’ and I came to the conclusion that a few types of gameplay generate this well:

    1) Multiplayer – the uncertainty of being against/relying on the co-operation of other humans generates these storylike moments.

    2) Big games with lots of reward for exploration – if the world feels like it’s yours to approach how you like, you tend to get stories out of it, like how many times I found ingenious ways out of being detected in Deus Ex.

    3) Games with lots of systems which interact with semi-randomness. This is where stuff like FTL/XCOM comes in, where the range of scenarios that the randomness can generate produces these unique moments. Where you don’t so much have a plan, as a plan A, B, C and D, and you’ve just been thrown a situation which is forcing you to think of a plan E on the fly.

    It hadn’t occured to me until reading this that what all these anecdotes that emerge from these types of play have in common, is that they tend to be about unexpected things happening, about stuff going terribly, terribly wrong. Just like the best war stories.

  39. ripwind says:

    FTL and DayZ are perfect examples. I haven’t had a chance to try XCom, because I know it will ruin my life. Another good one I thought of, immediately upon reading this article, was Mount & Blade. Ultimately, after losing your entire army/castle/city, your gal/guy WILL survive. However, you’re constantly running from deserters, bandits, etc. who will take every last drop of your money before you get enough recruits to stave off the random attacks. It never feels the same after having your huge, well-trained army busted up and your companions imprisoned.

  40. Shooop says:

    Personally I find games to be at their best when they give more more power to decide what success and failure are.

    I’m finishing up my first Dishonored playthrough without any kills or alerts. I set the goals. The game didn’t, it just gave me a few general objectives and set me loose. That’s why I love it. I get to decide if I’ve done something right or not.

  41. The Pink Ninja says:

    I agree, mostly. Giving me a good challenge in a lot of games is what makes it exciting. My best experiences of Total War are as the Western Roman Empire simply because no other side offers the challenges of having to fight huge armies the hordes present. Sure opposing factions sometimes produce a massive super army but it just one and your army is often as big and with better troops and a much better commander. Against the hordes you’re always fighting several times your numbers of great troops.

    Likewise keeping hold of provinces it always a struggle because of revolts, disloyal commanders and the fact you rarely have the money to make investments. In Regular RTW after a while you start making so much money per turn you can bribe every enemy into disbanding or deploy three maxed sized armies of your best troops on one front.

    Still, Total War presents one of the problems with high difficultly is that some things just become fuck you hard. The AI is too dopey to fight on anything less than hard or very hard. The problem is this mean you have to fight. Every. Single. Battle. Because if you auto-resolve you’ll lose an unreasonable amount of troops. This can get really grinding if, like me, you hate sieges and don’t want to fight every little three unit army without having your expensive, hard to replace elites taking stupid losses.

    Freespace 2 is like that as well, despite my love for it. Dogfights become more intresting on higher difficulties but certain aspects like anti-fighter beam weapons or bomber attacks on ships you’re supposed to be escorting get fricking annoying. Also being able to rip through the enemy like a hot knife through butter really helps the feeling of being an elite space god pilot.

    Some things are also hard to impliment well. I really want a good open world survival game, exspecially an MMO, where every drink, piece of food and bullet is precious. You’d think Fallout NV would hit my sweetspot but honestly it’s just annoying to have to stop every thirty minutes to down a couple of bottle of water and eat half my bodyweight in lizard gizzards and squirrel balls. Not to mention sleeping for an hour in every bed.

    My fave bit of FO3 and FONV is the start when you don’t know where to get the good stuff is and every little upgrade is precious. And while later the transition from weakness to minor diety makes you feel more awesomely powerful I do miss that feeling of building something when I’m picking which of my amazing guns with 1000 rounds of ammo I choose to take with me. Same in Deus Ex: I really like the prison level before you get your gear back and you have to wing it with what you can find. I like to play Hitman Blood Money levels starting with no weapons for the same reason.

    Some games though I don’t play for the difficultly. ME2 is alright fighting but I’m there for the story, not the shooting and I have no intrest in going to a higher difficultly level. It’s even more true of Dragon Age Origins. The fighting is pretty dull and often too hard for me even on easy. The difficultly curve on that game is a little wonky: It’s easy until you leave Lothering, then you can jump straight into some fucking hard fights without knowing the difficultly just ramped up. But everything is pretty much at the same level so as you get stronger, everyone stays pretty much the same. Then at the final battle everything jumps back up to fuck you hard again.

    Did I miss anything?

    Oh yeah, while I like to build on things in games I dislike when early mistakes or mischance means you’re fucked later. Some runs of TBoI I just know a few floor in I’m just playing for time bit because of any fault of my own but simply because the game isn’t giving me the items I need. I can read enemy attack patterns so well I almost never get hit but my damage is so poor taking out certain rooms or enemies just becomes a huge chore.

    I guess what I’m saying is losing is fun but grind and time wasting isn’t?

    • The Pink Ninja says:

      Oh, I missed something:

      Crysis makes you feel like a god with it’s flexible and powerful nanosuit: That is cool

      But you’re also suprisingly weak so you have to be clever with its use and how you attack: This is also cool

      What’s not cool is how amazingly resistant Korean soliders wearing shirts are. You can pump bullet after bullet into them and they just stagger. That, is annoying. When I attack they should go down like your mum, not just look suprised.

      And again, wonky difficultly curve: The mission with the tank? The mission with the VTOL? Urgh, so annoying, I dread to imagine what they’d be like on higher difficulties. I kind of think games should have a core theme and that variety riff off it. The forced vehicle sections in Crysis (And lets face it, the aliens) are too “And now for something completely different” and suck as a result.

  42. Lambchops says:

    I’d add Crusader Kings 2 to the list of games that do this type of “peril” thing fantastically well. It’s not (for the most part) as immediate as in the other examples but it does follow the “managing an unraveling situation is fun” school of thought.

  43. MrNash says:

    Unforeseen mishaps can add a lot to the experience. Even mishaps that you know might happen, but you’re constantly thinking to yourself, “I really hope this thing doesn’t happen now. Not after all the work I did to make this other thing happen!” and then it happens and you need to deal with it. It’s actually a lot of fun.

    I’ve found this to be the case while playing Crusader Kings 2 lately with some of the things it likes to throw at the player. When done right, these sorts of instances give an “Even if you lose, you still kinda win” feel to a play session because the mishap made for a fun time.

  44. Maldomel says:

    I just love it too when things go wrong, or when I get to face unexpected situations where I can’t just be right all the time, or go unharmed.
    Also, my personal creed is to go with the flow. If the shit hits the fan, then so be it: I won’t be that stealthy, or that much safe, but I’ll go through it in a more ‘realistic’ way.

  45. biz says:

    things are best when there are consequences for your actions. this is what people actually like.

    a negative consequence for a mistake is just one example of that. in single player games with braindead AI (pretty much every game), the only way to achieve this is by having really horrible randomness

    in multiplayer games, it’s about making better decisions so that your smart opponents won’t be able to exploit a weakness. a similar kind of randomness actually ruins these games.

    FTL works because you improve at the game by making better resource management decisions. There is a whole strategy game behind the very straightforward combat phases. It’s not perfect, but it has tough, interesting choices that aren’t extremely obvious.

    XCOM:EU fails because you improve at the game by mastering the combat phases, but there’s really just 1 tactic you need to learn. it’s a horrible game for that. Even if they made the resource management part have some actual strategy in it, the game would suck because 90% of your time is spent doing that 1 tactic.
    The game is fun before you raise the difficulty to a level where there’s really only 1 way you can win. and once you start playing that way, the game becomes boring.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      I am curious what is this “one tactic” in Xcom?

      I just beat Classic Ironman with 3 total deaths all game, and none for several months. I did not use 1 tactic, my squad composition and tactics changed frequently, varying as the situation demanded.

      If by “one tactic” you mean playing with intelligence/patience/caution, then yes I used “one tactic”. Of course conversely not dashing ahead with no recourse each turn (as I am sure you do) is not a “tactic” its just bad play.

      Move slowly from cover to cover, using overwatch, scout ahead with your quicker guys, if the situation is not good fall back, you know like a paintball game, instead of Quake deathmatch.

      If you approach XCOM’s combat like an FPS you will get rocked. And it has nothing to do with the RNG, or with “there only being “one tactic”.

      • biz says:

        The maps only really make 1 tactic viable on the harder difficulties.
        You have to pretty much end each turn in overwatch and behind full cover and try to make sure as many squad members as possible can fire on the enemies.

        The maps are horrible for this type of game because there really is almost no choice in what you do.

        The game has all these potentially interesting choices with technologies and what to build, but they don’t matter at all because 90% of the game is just going to be:
        - inch forward
        - inch forward
        - inch forward
        - inch forward
        - overwatch
        - overwatch
        - overwatch
        - overwatch

        • Filden says:

          To me that’s like saying, “the only tactic in Pac-Man is to move back and forth while avoiding ghosts, and eat the dots”. You’re describing in broad terms how to play the game cautiously, but there are a still a lot of different decisions that go into how to pull that off.

          How do I balance firing, flanking, and reloading against unit safety? How do I select targets most efficiently? What is the best order for my group to act in? How to I solve this encounter in order to take a minimum of fire? How do I get someone onto a flank safely (you’re not going to hit much otherwise). What is the best use of this unit’s turn…shot, reposition, reload, or special ability? Where is it safe to move this turn without risking an ambush? High % shot, or low damage 100% hit grenade? How do I get my sniper to elevation, and is it safe to do so?

          The way I play a map with two suppression Heavies in my group, is different than the way I play with two Assaults. Or Two Snipers instead of one. Or having nimble Supports for flanking. A nice thing about Classic Ironman, is that it sometimes forces you to play with different team mixes.

          While many of the turns may be spent moving into position between battles, those turns occupy a relatively small amount of the game time, because time slows way down during combat. 3 -5 turns moving between engagements is not equal to 3-5 turns in combat, sweating over every decision, and weighing each probability.

          • biz says:

            how long does any of that stay interesting? Once you play the game a bit, I really think those just become routine and no longer count as a meaningful decisions.

            I got completely bored with it after 30 hours. The only decision was between finishing the missions quickly and finishing them without unnecessarily risking any soldiers.

            This isn’t some new argument or anything. It’s just the difference between tactics and strategy. Being able to figure out what to do by simply calculating 1 or 2 moves ahead just doesn’t stay strategic for very long.

            It’s a fundamental problem with the game’s design. You’re only ever optimizing for 1 thing – keeping your troops alive. That makes it really hard to have meaningful tradeoffs, because you’ll always choose whatever maximizes short-term survival.

  46. SelfEsteemFund says:

    Thank you for using the word Bugs & not ‘glitches’.

    Also, Dishonoured is Thief for babies.

  47. Slinkyboy says:

    You mean X-COM: UFO Defense, right.

  48. keithburgun says:

    >”It’s something people who play Roguelikes have been explicitly aware of for years”

    Pardon me, but also boardgame players have always known this. From the modern day Through the Desert to the ancient Go. Also, sports games have always had this quality.

    In fact, everyone from every era of history have always known that this quality you describe – which I would describe as dynamism or elasticity – is FUNDAMENTAL to games, except for the last 25 years of digital game design. THAT was the exception, and I’m happy to know we’re finally growing out of it.

  49. ffordesoon says:

    Sometimes I feel like the only RPSers who can appreciate a game for what it is and not what it isn’t are me and the Hivemind. Now is one of those times.

    No, Dishonored isn’t necessarily the most challenging game ever, aside from challenges you set for yourself. Yes, I like heart-stopping moments of emergent failure as much as the next guy. But the quality of a given game does not rest solely on how challenging or emergent it is. I’m playing through Torment on the easiest difficulty level at the moment, for instance, and I’m having a whale of a time (HA HA BECAUSE DISHONORED LOOOOOOL). The interesting bit isn’t the combat, which sucks, and which is the only thing the difficulty changes. It’s everything else. I’ve heard people argue that Torment is an awful game because its combat (which they call its “gameplay” despite the fact that there’s just as much gameplay out of combat as in it) is awful.

    Combat isn’t gameplay. It’s a part of gameplay. Is solving one of the game’s many logic puzzles not gameplay? What about the parts where you have to avoid saying something to somebody lest they attack you or stop talking to you? Or the parts where you choose to tell the truth or lie and it affects your alignment? Or the parts where you use Stories-Bones-Tell to remember something you’ve forgotten? Or all the skill checks? Are none of those bits gameplay because they don’t make you better at bashing heads?

    More to the point, is Dishonored a bad game because you don’t feel imperiled constantly? Or is it just not a particularly difficult game? Since when did one aspect of a game become the sole measure of its quality? If you don’t like Dishonored, that’s fine, but it seems patently absurd to critique the game based on the fact that it doesn’t have features it clearly wasn’t even trying to include.

  50. Ateius says:

    Darn it, Rossignol, stop putting my own opinion more eloquently than I can manage it myself.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>