Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

18 May, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Tragedies
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:37 PM

This time around, let’s talk about a topic that doesn’t get covered much: tragedies. And, I’m not just talking about how the developers are treated, either. ;)

Can you incorporate themes of tragedy in games without turning off the audience? If so, how?

Tragedy usually refers to situations where misfortune befalls the protagonist(s) of a work. Most works considered tragedies grapple with the issue of an individual’s place in the universe, so it’s more than just being about how to kill off the protagonist in a lingering, gruesome way.

The game that I’ve even heard of that comes close to being a tragedy is Pathologic. The game gives you a limited amount of time to accomplish the goals, and the game doesn’t exactly hold your hand to help you accomplish it. Unfortunately, it sounds like the game has other problems (including poor translations from Russian), but the whole purpose of the game is to delve into the topic of one’s role in the universe, or even in a small, dying Russian town.

Unfortunately, the common cry when trying to discuss a topic like this is, “but, we want games that are entertaining!” It’s that dreaded “art” issue again, where people who talk about literature want to make games that aren’t fun for some stupid academic reason like “evaluating man’s inhumanity to man.” But, some people may want more.

What do you think? Is tragedy an appropriate topic for a game? If so, how would you implement it in to a game? What about into an MMO?


  1. Tragedy in Gaming

    [...] week he asks about tragedy is games: Unfortunately, the common cry when trying to discuss a topic like this is, “but, we want [...]

    Pingback by — 19 May, 2008 @ 7:57 AM

  2. To me, the biggest challenge facing a “tragedy” in the game narrative is that it needs to be seen as a tragedy to the protagonist (the character) but an opportunity to the player.

    Players in MMO’s have become quite used to expecting a “constant accumulation of wealth” for their players. The pile of gold pieces in our bank might as well be a score. The home is a trophy room. Create a tragedy where a typhoon destroyed that home and washed away that home and you’ll have a great many irate players cancelling accounts. You’ve erased their accomplishments.

    You’re bound a bit by expectations set by games that came before you… but if you’re able to measure achievement differently, the tragedies become someting sought out by players, not avoided.

    Reduce the reward of “trophy loot” so that people aren’t as tied to their stuff. Build on the Quest Journal / Badge system for accomplishments (and even character advancement). The journal should be the “trophy” showing the hurdles the character has overcome (note: this gives room for something other than pass-fail missions: HOW did you survive the barbarian horde, and how well…) and even possibly lead to unlocking content.

    Some caution is needed- if you make the tragedy too rewarding… make it feel TOO MUCH like a trivial gateway to adventure, and you lose the tragic element. That’s part of storytelling, though, and there are some great “tragic” movies that carry this out well that can serve as guidance.

    Comment by chas — 19 May, 2008 @ 12:46 PM

  3. These guys took the concept of tragedy as a gateway to adventure and ran with it (watch the into movie).

    Comment by Adam Tiler — 19 May, 2008 @ 3:43 PM

  4. I’d argue that Shadow of the Colossus was a tragedy. Though the character fully knew what was going on, the player did not. The closer to the end, and the more evident the truth became, the more I had to ask myself “Do I really want to press on?” Of course, I nearly hit that mark of “Okay, no, I want to put this down,” but I never quite got there. So far as how I would implement it?

    Why, I’d ape SotC, to a degree. A game where the hero started out as essentially the ultimate badass doing straight out of some generic fantasy campaign or ancient martial arts story ruling over the land as they saw fit. Start the player with tons of special abilities: super strength, super speed, super high jumping, maybe a special move, a special vision, a radar (‘awareness’), etc. thanks to trophies (like enchanted rings or magic sandals) you’ve accrued over the years (prior to the game.) As the game progresses, different challengers fight you to cement their place as ‘superior fighter’ (like they do in these things…) Eventually some of your opponents have abilities too, and as a means to kill superior opponents, you have to sacrifice a part of yourself, destroying one of your magical items and giving up a power. Let the player decide what’s not important to them.

    By the end of the game the player is fighting the similar enemies from the beginning, but they are much more difficult as the player is weaker. The player ‘wins’ by ‘losing’. (Also, this is the opposite route of how most games couple progression and difficulty; powering-up the bad guys.)

    The reveal is when the character realizes that the rest of the world does indeed see the player as a power-hungry madman lording over them all. At the end the player is given two choices; put down his sword, or sell his soul to regain his full power. If the first option, the player exists in the world to do sidequests and whatnot as his normal human self. If the second option, the player faces one enemy for every NPC left in the game while credits roll over the screen. If the player wins, then he’s left in an empty world. He, of course, just slaughtered everyone. If he dies in combat, well, good. … I guess that could be lingering and gruesome, huh? Hrm.

    Personally, I know how I’d show tragedy in an MMO; having a superior player kill you and loot your prized items… But that’s just the old-school in me, I suppose. :D Though, I’m also in favor of revenge kills being extra rewarding, to add to the drama. Like Chas said, there needs to be impetus to overcome the tragedy, otherwise you’re just a hapless victim, and there’s no fun in that.

    Comment by Jeffool — 19 May, 2008 @ 4:12 PM

  5. For a narrative to be tragedy (at least based on the Aristotle concept of tragedy) it involves the downfall of a basically ‘good’ person due to some fatal error or misjudgement. It cannot just be pure bad luck. The 2 basic ways of including tragedy would either be with the player as protagonist and suffering the tragedy or the player as ‘audience’ and witnessing the tragedy of a third party.

    There are already tragic elements in most MMO’s of the second type. The world ‘history’ for various races and nations containing elements of tragedy, such as the Blood Elves in WoW through their facination with magic bringing about the races downfall etc. And although none spring immediately to mind, I’m sure that there are quests out there in existing MMO’s that either are tragic or have tragic elements. The tricky thing here is that most world history and quest lines are pre-determined and no choice on the players part has an impact on the outcome, and seeing as the tragic figure in this case is the NPC the choice is not really theirs that led to the tragic downfall. It just happens from the point of view of the player. The closest I would suspect would be to have questlines that have the PC’s making quest based choices that have tragic consequences.

    The first type is tricky. Tragic events tend to be fatal or at least difficult to recover from which is a situation that is likely to leave most players uninstalling the game and moving on to something that makes them feel tough or a hero. Probably the best place to have tragic elements in an MMO and still have persistance of both character and world is right at the start when the character/player has finished rolling their toon and appears in the world. I remember Vanguard having something vaguely along these lines with one of the starting areas where you started more or less as a bad guy helping to wipe out a village, after completing a couple of quests that involved slaughter and looting of the innocent village you confronted an NPC powerful enough to strip you of your ‘abilities’ and equipment and transport you to the ‘real’ starting area where further quests about your ‘good’ or ‘evil’ occured (excuse my vagueness but its been ages since I last played).

    Comment by TickledBlue — 19 May, 2008 @ 4:44 PM

  6. Tragedy is when you spec in fashion that is kick-ass, but the new patch leaves you gimped. The very choices that gave you power became your undoing.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 19 May, 2008 @ 5:00 PM

  7. Players want to ‘win’. However, winning can be defined in a variety of ways. Simply reaching the end of the game is, somewhat, winning, even if the exact circumstances are less than ideal. IIRC, the long-ago adventure game Conquests of Camelot had you-Arthur going on all sorts of quests to save your kingdom and your knights, and you can succeed in all of this… but at the end of it all, your wife is still in love with another. So it’s bittersweet – you ‘win’, you just don’t win everything.

    It’s also possible to include both winning and tragedy within the player’s storyline through multiple endings. However, if you have only a ‘win’ ending and a ‘lose’ ending, then the lose ending is automatically considered something to be avoided, not something to experience. If your actions can play out in many different ways and you can experience different consequences, the bad endings become something to explore, especially if the game is designed such that it is clear you haven’t ‘won’ until you’ve seen ALL the endings.

    Yes, I’m leading up to saying “Visual Novels”. :) One thing I’ve insisted to the players of Fatal Hearts when asked is that there is no true ending, all the endings are valid. You can’t really understand the story and the characters without having seen all of the possibilities, and which ending seems most appropriate to you depends on how you feel about those characters. A majority of players lean towards picking the ‘happiest’ ending as the true ending, but others strongly reject that ending. I certainly think some of the outcomes count as tragedies…

    Comment by Hanako — 20 May, 2008 @ 11:52 AM

  8. Fact is most people think they know what will be fun in a game (me included) but then when they’re actually playing the game they feel they’re just ‘missing something’.

    While I played Dark age of Camelot the PvP was a right adreneline rush. But I always had a bit of a complain about losing XP, ress sickness, walking back etc.

    When WoW started to release information I was thrilled about the easy solo-experience. No XP loss, easy corpse running. Etc.

    But ever since I’ve been seeing DAoC as the holy grail and comparing it’s gameplay to WoW and it’s always come out on top.

    Every light casts it shadow. And without pain, suffering, annoyance, ‘the dark side’. We don’t have anything to measure the good stuff by ;) So i think tragedy in one way or another makes for better gameplay. As long as it doesn’t become such a big nuisance people give up and walk away from the game.

    Comment by Sandrock — 28 May, 2008 @ 3:13 AM

Leave a comment

I value your comment and think the discussions are the best part of this blog. However, there's this scourge called comment spam, so I choose to moderate comments rather than giving filthy spammers any advantage.

If this is your first comment, it will be held for moderation and therefore will not show up immediately. I will approve your comment when I can, usually within a day. Comments should eventually be approved if not spam. If your comment doesn't show up and it wasn't spam, send me an email as the spam catchers might have caught it by accident.

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Email Subscription

Get posts by email:

Recent Comments


Search the Blog


March 2020
« Aug    



Standard Disclaimer

I speak only for myself, not for any company.

My Book


Around the Internet

Game and Online Developers

Game News Sites

Game Ranters and Discussion

Help for Businesses

Other Fun Stuff

Quiet (aka Dead) Sites

Posts Copyright Brian Green, aka Psychochild. Comments belong to their authors.

Support me and my work on