How To Win a Video Game

by jbauck, last updated 18 Jul 2012 03:56


A game is a competitive activity in which two or more individuals or teams work in opposition to each other, the outcome determined by skill, luck, or some combination of the two.

Chutes and Ladders is a game. Blackjack is a game. Pong is a game. Cricket and its bastard cousin, baseball1, are games.

A single-player game with a plot, like an RPG, however, barely fits this definition, as one of the opposing sides is a computer program. Skill and luck are defined as the computer program defines it, and no amount of conventional ingenuity or good fortune will allow the player to transcend the confines of the program’s parameters.

There is no Sacrifice Bunt or Hail Mary pass in a video game: no desperate 11th hour bit of brilliant madness that can eke out a win - no passing ‘Go’ and collecting 200 dollars at just the right time - except what the program allows.

The ‘game’ is, in effect, rigged.

So, How Does Someone Win A Rigged Game?

The simple answer is that someone can’t, unless the game is rigged in their favor.

The larger answer involves looking at what an RPG is, and realizing that it’s as much ‘interactive story’ as it is ‘game’. Just like a conventional narrative in another form – books and movies – an RPG has a protagonist and an antagonist who are in conflict due to incompatible goals or values. In an RPG, the player takes on the role of the protagonist, and so the question of ‘winning’ becomes a question of narrative: does the protagonist succeed in defeating the antagonist, through conventional conflict2 or swaying the antagonist to his or her point of view?

If the answer is ‘yes’, then the protagonist has been successful, and the player has ‘won’ the game. If the answer is ‘no’, then the protagonist is not successful, and the player has ‘lost’ the game. As the avatar of the player, the protagonist’s success is the player’s success: only through guiding the protagonist to the successful completion of his/her goals does the player win.

In an RPG, the story itself is as much a game as the running and jumping and shooting. The game can be considered unwinnable – rigged against the player – if there is no route to protagonist success programmed into the game.

No Way to Win … ? Why Would Anyone Do That?

Protagonist Fails is a perfectly valid narrative choice, and a cornerstone of tragedy: Hamlet, for instance, would not be interesting or thematically consistent – a masterpiece of the craft – if Hamlet managed to unmask Claudius as his father’s murderer, ascend to the throne, and unite Denmark against Fortinbras.

Hamlet ends exactly as it should. Hamlet’s indecisiveness - his inability to take action - ultimately leads to his failure. It simply wouldn’t be Hamlet if Hamlet won.

The interactive narrative of a video game, though, is a distinct artform in its own right, and not everything that works in a conventional narrative works for a video game. Protagonist Fails is a perfectly valid conventional narrative choice, but it is a terrible choice for an interactive narrative like a video game.

Could ‘Protagonist Fails’ Work For A Video Game?

An inevitable bad end does not discount a story as a viable narrative for a video game when that story is a prequel.

Consider Halo: Reach, which immediately precedes Halo 1 in the chronology of the Halo series, but was released after the conclusion of the trilogy in Halo 3. The player knows very well how this story will end: it is the beginning of Halo 1, after all, when Master Chief escapes the doomed planet, Reach. But Reach is most certainly doomed, and the protagonist will not succeed in saving the planet. The player, though, knows that buying enough time for Master Chief to escape so that Master Chief can be the hero of the main Halo trilogy is the true success.

The larger goal – save Reach – ends in defeat and has to be abandoned in favor of the more modest goal – launch the Autumn. It is the player’s foreknowledge that makes the accomplishment of this goal feel like a triumph: it is knowing that this last-ditch effort makes the next three games possible, and that the struggle ultimately ends in victory that makes the ending satisfying.

By divorcing the player’s goal from the protagonist’s goal, the fact that Reach cannot be saved is not a player loss. The story is about the brave men and women who lay down their lives to launch one last spark of hope for humanity, and works because the player knows that their sacrifice is not in vain. The win-state for Halo: Reach, then, exists in a peculiar place outside of the narrative, and is not dependent upon the protagonist’s goals, but the player’s.

If Halo: Reach were not a prequel, it is unlikely that launching the Autumn would feel like a triumph: questions would remain about whether or not achieving this last objective would end up making a difference in the end, as so many things achieved throughout the game up to that point proved futile.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Dragon Age 2, by contrast, cannot be won or lost from within the narrative. The protagonist, Hawke, has no goal. There simply is no win-state or loss-state built into the game, because the protagonist is not actively trying to achieve anything, and is simply reacting to events entirely beyond his or her control.

While Hawke achieves the occasional success, those successes are temporary and meaningless in the face of the overarching sense of powerlessness, listlessness and aimless quest completion the game engenders due to the lack of a real goal or objective for Hawke to accomplish or fail to accomplish.

The player, too, is powerless to achieve any objective. The narrative lends itself to implied player goals, like protecting the Hawke family or preventing the Qunari from ripping apart Kirkwall or preventing the Mage/Templar conflict from boiling over, which are also unachievable. Hawke is only able to react to tragic events after they have already occurred, and any notion the player has gotten into their head about preventing these horrors is impossible.

Ultimately, the real protagonist of Dragon Age 2 is Anders, an NPC, whose stunning act of terrorism at the end of the game sparks a war that will change the face of Thedas forever.

Hawke’s contributions to this major event are minor - and maddening in their lack of impact - as the computer program forces Hawke to be an idiot enabler who doesn’t ask enough questions when gathering the materials Anders needs. Though the game lets Hawke decide whether or not Anders lives or dies for his crime, this decision has no discernible impact beyond possibly upset party members. Hawke’s final choice, whether to fight for the Mages or the Templars, is just as meaningless, as the game then forces Hawke to fight and kill both the head Mage, Orsino, and the head Templar, Meredith, anyway.

Unless the player has gotten it into their head that their goal is “Kill Them All and Let the Maker Sort it Out”, Dragon Age 2 can’t be won from that peculiar place outside of the narrative, either.

This is a game where the particulars of the narrative make it a crappy game. The story, while not necessarily bad, would do better as a book or other static-narrative form, or as a prequel like Halo: Reach where being forewarned of the inevitable bad outcome and player-knowledge of what comes next allows the player to form an achievable goal within the larger framework of the overarching Dragon Age3 story.

It is only when a game developer realizes that a player’s goal and the protagonist’s goals can be distinct, separate things that the player/protagonist goal split can possibly work. Absent that realization, the protagonist must have a goal, and that goal must be achievable. Otherwise, the game developer should shift their focus to comic books and other forms of static narrative and leave games alone.

In order to craft a successful interactive narrative for a video game, the writers must be aware of the fact that a player is trying to win. The interactivity of the narrative is what makes a single-player video game with a plot its own distinct art-form, and a static story with no win-state and no loss-state can be considered a failure of that art-form.

Writers for video games have to be uniquely aware of not just their protagonist and the protagonist’s goals, but of the players themselves, and the goals they bring with them to the game. Without the possibility of a win-state, for the player or the protagonist, the story has no reason to be a game instead of a more conventional, static narrative.

The Answer To The Question

How To Win A Video Game: play video games that actually have a win-state, instead of just an ending. Otherwise, the deck is stacked, the dice are loaded, and there will be no victory.

And catching a movie would be a better use of time. There are many versions of Hamlet available.


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