Applause instead of victory?

The notion of victory is standard in all our games. The player expects to either win the game or lose it. We designers have always accepted this as a given in our craft. Unfortunately, the emphasis on victory creates a design trap that robs our games of dramatic power.

Exactly how does a player win a game? By doing everything correctly. There is a set of behaviors we impose on the player. If he masters that set of behaviors, he wins. Otherwise, he loses.

Unfortunately, this imposes a conservative playing strategy on the player. He moves through the dungeon, taking everything portable and slaughtering everything mortal. He launches attacks only at 3-to-1 odds. He saves the game before attempting anything risky.

What is especially sad about this is that we have no way of encouraging the player to attempt truly bold play. Imagine, for example, the classic movie scene in which the heroine’s car sputters to a stop just in front of the darkened castle. Blood-red eyes peer out through blackened windows as she chirps, "I’ll just ask to use their telephone." Nobody in their right mind would go near that spooky house, but our heroine does so. Here’s the problem: how do we induce our players to go into the house? What induces them to take dangerous and dramatic chances that will forward the play of the game?

ICOM Simulations came up with one solution in Uninvited. If you don’t get out of the car soon, it blows up and you die. That’s one way, but we can’t sprinkle too many burning cars through our games. A more common solution is to wait out the player, not allowing him any forward progress until he bites the bullet and takes the courageous course of action we choose to cram down his throat. The problem is, what satisfaction can a player take in enforced courage?

I propose another solution. Suppose that we were to dispense with the conventional notion of victory and replace it with a virtual audience. The player strives not for some absolute notion of victory but instead sees himself as a performer for this audience. The game is a play, a stage for him to strut his stuff. He seeks not to win or lose but to play gloriously. At the outset of play, he cannot know whether this particular performance will be a tragedy or a heart-warming affirmation of human triumph in the face of adversity. All he knows is that he will face the trials soon to come his way with verve and panache. In so doing, he will win the approbation of the audience, and that is what he seeks.

To implement this scheme we will require the creation of algorithms that imbue our artificial audience with taste and discernment. The audience must somehow be able to generate expectations and compare the player’s behavior with those expectations. When the player surprises the audience, he wins their admiration (unless, of course, his behavior is surprisingly bad!)

Such algorithms will not be easy to create. Perhaps we will need to apply some of those Aristotelian notions of dramatic theory that Brenda Laurel has been telling us about all these years. Perhaps we should model the audience as a group of individuals and have each one render judgement individually. Perhaps each audience member could reflect a given point of view or school of thought. Even then the problem is not solved. We must also create a "Situation-Generator" capable of developing a dramatic situation in response to the player’s actions. This in itself will be a major work.

So what I am proposing is not an easy solution to a difficult problem but rather a difficult strategy for solving what may be an otherwise impossible problem.