You're doing it right. …right?

In the game Cart Life, you are led to consider this, even though you are doing fine. This effect is created by making you do mundane jobs, earn little money, and have and things happen that feel like your fault.

Is there a better way than life-like mundane and unfortunate encounters to make you feel like you're failing at the game? I want to use this to mess with how my players play the game. Overwhelm them. Make a little success feel huge. Make them feel depth. Any ideas?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ When you give a player who are playing right the message that they are doing it wrong, what message would you give to those players who actually play wrong? \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Dec 9 '15 at 22:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ The ones that play right feel wrong and do right. The ones that play wrong die. \$\endgroup\$ – Caleb Woodman Dec 10 '15 at 2:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ When you don't get the answer you expect to receive then the reason could be that your question is too vague and unspecific. When you want concrete suggestions what you could do, you should at least mention the genre of the game you are developing. Also, what do you mean with "feel depth"? What kind of "depth"? Story and backstory depth? Character depth? Gameplay depth? \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Dec 12 '15 at 11:40

The usual expectation of a player is that while they progress in the game that everything turns better. Their character becomes more powerful, they gain new tools and abilities, the game world around them grows and flourishes thank to their actions and they gain the trust and friendship of NPCs they interact with.

Turn that around:

  • Take away tools and abilities from the player-character to make it permanently less powerful.
  • Have the game world change for the worse, caused directly or indirectly due to the player-characters actions.
  • NPCs who reacted positive to them start to loathe the player-character for their actions.

The tricky part is to make all of them feel as if it was the direct consequence of the choices or mistakes the player made while it actually was all prescripted and there wasn't a way to avoid it. Some techniques you can use:

  • The hopeless boss fight: Have a fight which looks possible at first but actually can not be won. When the player loses, punish them but progress with the story.
  • Unwinable dexterity test. Example: Have the player jump over a chasm, and when they land on the other side it breaks off, they fall down and end up at the bottom of the chasm with barely any health left. Foolish player, should have seen the other side was crumbly. But it actually was impossible to jump far enough. You expect the player to continue from the bottom of the cliff. Other situation where you can cheat that way are QTEs which don't actually react to the players input or any game mechanics which are usually based on random numbers but in the story-critical situation a critical failure is pre-programmed.
  • A choice where all options are wrong: Have the player decide between two options, but then have friendly NPCs tell them the choice was bad and they should have taken the other choice no matter which was chosen. This was, for example, used in Mass Effect 2. At one point the player is asked if they want to exterminate the last survivors of a dangerous alien species or let them live. If the player choses to let them live, their superiors tell them "How could you!?! They are dangerous and will kill us all!". If the player kills them they say "How could you!?! That's genocide!". During the first playthrough the player won't know that both choices would lead to a negative reaction, so they felt like they made a bad mistake no matter which one they picked.

Like most things, the easiest way to create other ways to achieve an effect is to examine and find what aspect of the original example causes that effect. In this case, the player feels as if they are failing because they are primed to have the expectation that bad things in video games are their fault. This is because most games reward good performance with good results. Unfortunately, and as you guessed, this is a rather short-term (or cheap) method of evoking the feeling of failure because it relies on our cultural expectations of games, which could change at any moment.

Instead, you can use the most basic function of the brain to help you: Association. Whenever two event occur simultaneously or even just temporally close together, a brain immediately attempts to find which caused the other, unless prior knowledge says something else did. Here is an example...

In Generic game 2015, the main protagonist Bob shoots his generic spaceship at generic aliens. If the player gets over 20,000 points in a level (a somewhat difficult feat), then the attack is successfully repelled. On the other hand, if Bob acquires less than 15,000 points, the aliens will destroy a building located in the background. If the player does poorly, they know by the loss of a building. This is a successful priming.

What this means is that in player's mind, any time a building falls, the player is not doing well enough. You now have a tool to toy with their mind because, any time the event of a building falling is triggered, the player and their association will trigger the feeling of failure whether or not it is justified. (stifled evil laugh) Its probably useless at this point to say you can make building start destroying themselves and still achieve the same illusion of failure.

But there are two last things to take note of.


The first is about player knowledge. If you want the player to feel like they failed without them actually failing, the mechanics have to include that. When the mechanics include the fake fail, it gets put on a wiki. Finally, the player reads the wiki, and no longer feel any failure at all. But their is a partial solution to this.

While security through obscurity is completely hopeless, you can utilize randomness so that even if the player knows all your algorithms to a T, the game can generate a situation that the player is still unsure whether or not the failure queue is their fault or not. Maybe the game has chosen to drop buildings even when you gain enough points, or maybe it actually is that your failing.


The exact example I have given is a somewhat weak one. Ideally, the failure trigger should be woven into the narrative for greater effect (because that is where the characters and other objects are that carry emotional attachments). Eg: If each building being destroyed contains an important member of the story-line.


Teach the player what success is first

In a traditional game, like a platformer, you would first need to teach the player the difference between doing it right, and doing it wrong. You teach the player that jumping over gaps is good and touching spikes is bad -force them to jump over a spike-pit.

Now that the player knows what they should be doing, you can start to bully them. Give them a gap that is slightly too large to jump across, but still looks doable. Failing the jump causes you land on a button which closes-off a door with a big prize behind it.

Congratulations! You've just made the player fail, and it's all their fault.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What about if I want them to believe that they're failing when they really aren't at all? \$\endgroup\$ – Caleb Woodman Dec 3 '15 at 15:10

This is similar to real life: use peer pressure on your character.

In order to tell them they are failing, I would make the action (that it NOT a failure) sound bad:
1. NPCs calling this action dirty, etc.
2. having the character be PUNISHED for doing this. For example, if you buy a X, you get banned from doing Y for Z days. [I would recommend a reward if they are stubborn enough to continue this by the 5th-10th time]. You could also lose friends, achievement points, etc.

You could also teach the user to do one way half of his life then make a change (for example new teacher) that does this another way. Suddenly, the player has to decide whether or not to listen to the first or second way.
If you feel like it, you could implement a way to fool users that they are doing wrong by making them experience a messagebox or warning of some sort. For example, if you were playing COD and the people on your team [bots] tell you to stop shooting player X as he is on your team (when in reality not true). If this was GTA, then you could implement a feature where every time you went over 30 mph a tank spawns behind you (not sure if that would be that persuasive, however). In other words, just put pressure on the player in order to tilt him to the direction you are aiming at.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ An extremely helpful answer, for which I have given a +1, and well thought out, however not exactly the kind I was looking for. What I want specifically is for a player to be brought into the depths of despair while they're playing everything perfectly. But if I could give +5s I would. \$\endgroup\$ – Caleb Woodman Dec 8 '15 at 2:23

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