Failure in Payoff in “Interactive” Media

This week, I was very intrigued by our discussion of the “doomed quest.” This idea is particularly pertinent to our reading of “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” where the narrator sets out on his journey with full knowledge that even if he ‘succeeds’ (reaches the end), he will die. The fated tragedy is not unique to this story, however; in literature, the hero “loses” all the time. Sometimes they die in battle, other times they just don’t get the girl. But in literature the ending isn’t always a happy one, and readers generally accept this.

In gaming, however, the “doomed quest” takes a different form. Game players enter the game knowing that they’ll inevitably fail some levels, but can usually count on the possibility of beating the game, of being ultimately successful. But we’re less keen on starting a game if the end of the journey leads to failure. And this makes sense: why would anyone engage in gaming if there wasn’t a final payoff?

The concept of a “payoff” is also very intriguing, and I’m curious what you all more experienced gamers make of this notion. Payoff seems to take different forms in different mediums: in literature and film, the user (reader or viewer) wants to finish and understand the story. No one starts a book or watches a movie to be rewarded for their work. But in video games, there has to be something more, something that makes the user feel like the gameplay was worth his or her time.

What causes this distinction? Why do users feel like they deserve something ‘more’ out of playing a game than ingesting other media? One easy answer is that video games are more “interactive,” and thus the user feels more personally connected to the outcome of the game. But are literature or film (or any other medium) not also interactive? And looking forward, could literature and film (or painting, radio, etc.) not evoke these same feelings of attachment and need for “payoff”?

One distinction that should be made is that there are two (and possibly more) potential “failures” in any media: the user (reader/player/etc.) failing because of their interaction with the media, and the narrative ‘failing’ itself. I had initially thought that the second didn’t apply to video games, because in my amateur experience the character always wins (or, the character is fused with the user, so if the user “wins,” the character is automatically victorious). However, I found think listing, “13 Games Where the Main Character Dies.” (*Spoiler alert, obviously*) http://www.gamesradar.com/13-games-where-the-main-character-dies/ I’m interested in y’all’s thoughts on if a “payoff” still exists in games where the narrative “fails,” even if the user “wins.”

-Emma Baker

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One thought on “Failure in Payoff in “Interactive” Media”

  1. In terms of narrative and story development, I love a story with a good punch at the end. While is nice to have an all sunshine and rainbows story, the ones that really leaving questioning the fairness of life and existence really get my goose. When something unexpected and terrible happens (like the main character you’ve grown so fond of being horribly murdered in the final scene) and all you can do is sit there and cry, that’s truly a time when video games have a real effect on your life.

    ***SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT (XBOX AND PS)***

    In the end of Red Dead Redemption, John Marshton is gunned down by a horde of men waiting outside his door as he leaves to start the day. The game even gives you a chance to kill them all (which I’ve done), but it still ends in John’s tragic death. It seriously depressed me for a couple days and I still feel pretty upset about it. As sad as I am, though, that was one of the most memorable moments in my gaming career (which is extensive). I love it when a game goes against the grain and takes a chance by killing off the main character, its a tough pill to swallow, but its honestly more realistic and emotionally impactful.

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