One of my favorite moments playing a tabletop roleplaying game was also one of the most ridiculous actions I had ever narrated for a character. During the final battle of a Dungeon World campaign, I described my ranger tying a rope to one of her arrows and firing it into the chest of the villain. I then tied the rope around myself and proceeded to jump off the roof where the encounter was taking place, plummeting directly towards the ground at full speed. My intent? To drag the boss off the roof and then use one of my special abilities to rescue myself from the fall while the villain fell to his death.
This was patently a bad idea. While my character was certainly built to plant the arrow in the boss’s chest with relative ease, her strength stat was absolutely terrible – I would be rolling at a disadvantage. And even if I succeeded I still also had to pass the check not to get myself killed in the process. Miraculously, I passed both checks. Now this moment could have gone sideways in one final way: gamemaster fiat. The guy running our game could have at any point said “nah man, you can’t OHKO the first phase of the boss with something this dumb.” But he was open to my bold move and although there was still a second phase to contend with, I got to knock out a boss with my silly and incredibly dangerous plan.
A lot of the video games I have played don’t really reward this sort of thinking. Instead they reward optimization, building your character in the smartest way possible and then only making choices which capitalize on the best aspects of that character. These games ask you to be measured and punish you for curiosity, experimentation, or just doing the weirdest possible thing to see what in the world will happen as a result. Recently I have had the pleasure of playing back to back two different games that shake that trend: Wildermyth and Disco Elysium. Both games support bold decision making through their design sensibilities and the mechanisms that make them work.
Let’s start with some examples. In Wildermyth (a turn-based tactical RPG) your battles begin with random events chosen from a large pool based on the personality and abilities of the characters in your party. One such event is called The Splinter, and while walking through the woods a party member gets a huge, nasty splinter in their leg. Battle is imminent and an option is presented to you: take the splinter out before the fight or rush into battle and leave it in. Now in most other RPGs I’ve played, the decision to leave in the splinter would be the obviously sub-optimal choice, a path that leads only to pain (and probably a penalty to health). In Wildermyth, it leads to your character looking down at the end of the battle and seeing their leg fundamentally transformed, now made of gnarled wood that, at your option, can spread to other parts of the hero’s body and unlock new abilities. The game rewards you for making a risky decision rather than punishing you for not making the “smart” play.
In Disco Elysium you play as a police detective whose memory has been blasted to smithereens by near-lethal levels of drinking. Now it’s left to your interpretation whether that drinking made you weird or if you were in fact always a bit eccentric, but either way the most interesting paths forward available to you are rarely the ones that make the most logical sense. Relatively early in the game while attempting to perform a field autopsy on a corpse hanging from a tree, you have the option to shoot the belt keeping the body suspended. Now this is clearly a horrible idea – there are kids nearby, an apartment building to your left and a hostel to your right, and what if you shoot the body? – but as a police officer, the tool you are given to solve problems is a gun and by golly you are going to solve your problems with a gun. If you manage to shoot the body down successfully, you can pull off the autopsy and get a lot of valuable information about the crime.
Both of these scenarios and countless others like them from each respective game are possible for a couple of reasons. The first is the intention of the developers to allow this kind of play to take place and be rewarded. Just as the willing GM in my tabletop RPG story was a necessity for me to be able to accomplish my ridiculous “jump off the roof” maneuver, the developers of both Wildermyth and Disco Elysium embrace the beautiful chaos of the wild and illogical decisions that their players might want to make. They include the decisions in the game AND make them as worthwhile of a choice as the “smart” alternative. Contrast this with something like Persona (another game I played recently), which often presents the illusion of choice but with an option that is clearly inferior and leads to a sub-optimal outcome.
The second reason that bold choices work so well in these games is because the games take care to establish that you are safe to make them. In Super Paper Mario, after the intro cutscenes you can tell Merlon the magician that you do not want to save the world. This leads to a game over and forces you to restart from the beginning of the game. This potentially dissuades the player from trying other goofy dialogue options later because the game establishes that deviating from the expected path can literally kill you. In both Wildermyth and Disco Elysium, the mechanics work to show you that there is life still to be lived after making a mistake. In game design terms this is referred to as “failing forward.”
What normally happens in a video game if you fail at overcoming an obstacle? Maybe you take damage and have to try again. Or you lose a life and have to try again. In a less dangerous scenario you might break a resource (like a lockpick in an Elder Scrolls game) and have to try again. Notice the refrain there: “have to try again.” In a game where you do not fail forward the action stops when you make a mistake. Only successfully overcoming the challenge will allow you to progress through the game. In a game that utilizes the philosophy of failing forward, you don’t take an action over and over again until you eventually succeed. Instead of failure being a state where nothing happens, like success it is a state where something happens and the game keeps moving.
In Wildermyth this can look a couple of different ways. Trying to steal the crag-eagle’s egg and failing, for example, just gives you a hurtful knock on the head and life goes on. You don’t get stuck at the mountain trying to redo that check over an over again; you missed your chance, the egg is gone, and the game progresses. Trying to topple the winter king and failing, however, leads to the hero being temporarily exposed to the king’s freezing breath. A streak of icy blue in their hair will forever mark the encounter, but it will also increase their charisma when interacting with other characters. The check was a failure but the result of that failure is not a penalty but a boost. I particularly like this second approach because it helps the player to feel safe continuing to try reckless things in the future. If making a bold choice leads to an interesting buff or cool transformation, I feel incentivized to make those bold choices more.
Disco Elysium, too, has two different approaches to this. First is that there are different types of checks, red and white. Red are one-time only deals but white can be attempted again and again by unlocking them through dialogue choices or by investing in the skill connected to the check. So some checks, by default, can be attempted multiple times, and you can progress by taking a break for a bit, leveling up, and trying again. On top of this, any checks in Disco Elysium which must be passed in order to progress forward through the game have a state in which a certain number of fails will give you a workaround. An example from my playthrough is when I needed to establish my authority with a group of thugs who considered themselves “the law” in the community. Authority was one of my lowest stats and repeated efforts to increase it did nothing to persuade this crew. After I believe my third fail, my partner Kim Kitsuragi interrupted and found a different approach that kept the case moving. Whether it is in the form of getting help from allies or finding an alternative skill to try, Disco Elysium always has multiple solutions to a single problem so you never quite get stuck because of a mistake.
Being able to make wild choices that I would ordinarily ignore in these two games has been a freeing experience for me. In tabletop RPG terms I am what you often hear called a “min-maxer.” I am obsessed with optimization to my detriment, and will bend my roleplay in favor of the smartest choices rather than making choices based on my roleplay. Situations like my rooftop dive are very rare for me, and that goes for video games too. I will take the safest, most strategic, and let’s face it – often boring route to make sure I am successful. Playing games that let me cut loose, encouraged me to do so (Disco Elysium literally has a loading screen hint encouraging you to say friggin weird stuff to NPCs), has helped me to see that there is a fun I have been missing out on as a result of my “optimized” approach to games.
I want to try to be more intentional in bringing this philosophy into games I play in the future, to embrace the weird and the wild rather than taking everything too seriously. My hope, too, is to engage with games that reward me for doing so. After all, to some degree I am a product of my experiences, and inevitably I will play titles in the future that resist the sense of experimentation and once again push me to optimize. But whatever happens moving forward, for now I am grateful for both Wildermyth and Disco Elysium, two games which indulged my wackiest impulses and reminded me of how fun it can be to stop trying to win and just play the game.