[This article has been featured on gamasutra.]
There are a lot of games that can’t be won. All we can earn ourselves in those games is a honorable spot in the high scores list. Examples are plenty, but if we must name a few, there are Tetris, Centipede and Space İnvaders.
In discussions on whether games are stories or not, such games have often been given as examples in order to argue that games can’t be stories. However, the argument is flawed, and this article tries to explain why.
The Protagonist Takes It All?
One assumption that leads to this flawed argument is that stories are always solved in favor of the protagonist. In other words, stories are pictured by game researchers as if they’d always be “won”. Inescapably leading into defeat, non-winnable games draw a completely different picture. This makes it easier to claim that games must be very different from stories.
However, there are a lot of stories that haven’t been “won” by their protagonists. Examples that come in mind are movies like Braveheart and Seven. So, the assumption that stories are always “won” by the protagonist proves to be wrong.
What Does Losing Really Mean?
But how come that a game or a story still makes sense despite a defeat of the protagonist? Or despite our prior knowlegde that we can never solve the problem in our own favor? After all, the Titanic will eventually sink…
Interestingly, neither games nor movies of that type seem to feel incomplete. In fact, they often make a great experience.
The answer to this lies in the relation between plot and climbing tension: A plot is build on conflict, that is, clash of interest between two opposing forces. The tension will keep climbing until one of the opposing forces is eliminated. The elimination of one of the forces brings a resolution to the conflict. The climbing tension comes to a halt, and the ‘drama’ is over. Even if the protagonist has been defeated, the story itself is being ‘complete’.
Resolution Trumps Protagonist
What confuses people is that they perceive non-winnability as the game having no end or resolution because it can’t be won. They tend to interpret this as some sort of open-endedness, which is wrong. There is a fine line to this, and we can’t afford to overlook it: defeat *is* a valid solution to a conflict, hence there is nothing wrong with a non-winnable game. It is still a completely valid story-structure: After all, a resolution may or may not be in favor of the protagonist. From a plot perspective it doesn’t matter, because what counts is that the conflict has been solved: Resolution trumps the protagonist.
In other words: The defeat that we as protagonists eventually face in a non-winnable game still brings an end to conflict and resolves the plot, hence it is completely valid as a resolution.
Non-winnability is not necessarily an indicator for absence of story. Games that can’t be won are still stories, but stories that never solve their conflict in favor of the protagonist.
The reason why we still consider these games as a complete experience is the fact that our defeat meant that the conflict has been solved, and that the story has been rounded up.
So, please enter your initials and remember this quote from Samuel Beckett:” Lose again. Lose Better.”