Escape (from a failed situation)

So you’re in the middle of a game that you designed and it’s totally flopping. You accidentally made an overly complex way to deconstruct letters and people aren’t getting it, or the chant that you’re trying to start is only making people stare at you. Completely theoretical situations, of course. What do you do to turn the situation around?

I’m interested in how the texts that we’ve read can direct us in these situations. We’ve been given examples where the players have done things that are unexpected– hack into the game narrative, start a protest, solve all the puzzles in a day, but what if instead of them engaging with your game in an unexpected way, the game is just failing to engage them on a very fundamental level? With play testing, with any luck, this should be figured out before the actual game, but what if it’s not, the baseline of your game has already been set and it is NOT going well?

In the middle of the game, the potential for game direction has seriously changed from what it was in the beginning. Using the ideology talked about in the “yes and” text, maybe at the beginning, the game could have created a flow that would’ve naturally directed the players into engagement. However, halfway through, if they’re definitely against everything that’s happening the game designers can’t say, “you’re not feeling that, do this” and force them back into the narrative. Instead, they have to take the resistance that the players are feeling and somehow use that to their advantage. However, it’s difficult because I think the game designers shouldn’t lose face here, they can’t say to the players, “alright, we give up, let’s do this instead”. Part of the excitement in ARGs comes from the power struggle and tension between game designer and player. The moment that the player realizes that they have all the power, it’s no longer fun for them.

The game designers could theoretically, were they thinking on their feet, build some sort of meta narrative, to make it seem like the resistance to the game was what was wanted the whole time, thereby taking what the players were feeling and making that the narrative. That would, of course, be difficult to pull off seamlessly though. What are some other ways to redirect the game and salvage it from disengagement?





  1. The sense of trying to beat the narrative is one that many people try to exploit in both ARGs and video games. This problem reminds me of the game The Stanley Parable that is full of branching paths of the main character having the option to either follow the scripted narrative or divert the game into a new path that deals with your actions and has to accommodate for it. While you think you’ve outsmarted the narrator of the game, it just leads you into a new path that you keep trying to outsmart again and again. While there is a limit to how many “endings” there are, they are naturally implemented through simple decisions like going right instead of left. Even if the game doesn’t give you a whole new branching path, the dialogue trying to make up for your actions is equally amusing,
    ARGs can definitely have the sense to build branching paths for an action that players take that can be unaccounted for initially. The Beast had the new narrative built around a character that was initially only supposed to fill in some bits of a message but eventually fleshed out a whole new character partway through the game. While some of these decisions had time behind them, a spontaneous action during a game provides some issues that need to be thought up quickly. One is to go along with what’s been said and done and use it to reshape the narrative. However, this can be too drastic and may make the game fall apart. One way to try and fix this is full on denial of the action, but again, you lose the sense of the “this is not a game” feel to what’s at hand. A possible solution may be to separate the actions of that particular player from the ongoing narrative. An in-game consequence that can lead toward a branching path for that particular action could be suitable for that person or group while allowing the others to go on and with what was thought of initially. But this doesn’t work in all situations as shown in the letter or chanting cases. Then, maybe there is a way to drop a hint or add an option to change up what’s being done. The chanting could have been changed as part of a cycle to say something else like “shrimp fried rice” or something. It keeps the same idea of chanting, but can drastically change the tone of what is going on. I can’t think of a cure all formula, but somethings can be altered to continue a game.

  2. I think it really depends what kind of engagement is being lost here. The two examples you cited are very different sources of difficulty for players, and thus both would need to be addressed in different ways. To some extent, I don’t think that players not wanting to do something is a bad thing. In fact, it can be incredibly productive – I think this is what you were getting at when you said “The game designers could theoretically…build some sort of meta narrative, to make it seem like the resistance to the game was what was wanted the whole time”. If the discomfort is an ideological one, or a social one, those have certain affordances that can be considered within a framework of other types of engagement.
    I feel like, at any moment, it’s very difficult for a game to fail entirely to do /anything/. Unusable mechanics are probably the most dire hangup to engagement – how can you engage with something you can’t even work? – and the ones that are most important to iron out in playtesting. But at any given time you have multiple things going on. The player is engaging because there is a story being told, because there is something they have to do, and/or because they want to finish the challenge. I feel like it would be pretty hard for all of these to fail at once. So my thinking on it? Re-emphasize what’s still working and cut the losses on what isn’t. Adding back emphasis to a narrative, for example, can spur confused players to continue looking for mechanical solutions, or to change their focus (or, on the opposite end, great level design and mechanics can make me overlook a pretty subpar narrative or bad dialogue like in Dishonored). I think this especially happens with ARGs because of the multiple threads of activity and engagement running through them, but all kinds of play draw people in for more than one reason, and an understanding of those reasons can help get you through tough spots I feel like.

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