WARNING: VERY MINOR SPOILERS FOR OWLBOY
This article’s going to be a little different than my normal fair. Hope you still enjoy.
Recently, I purchased a new video game: Owlboy. On the surface, it’s a cute little platformer about an animated owl-boy named Otus and the friends he meets along the way. However, play for more than ten minutes and you’ll realize that this cute little platformer actually deals with some pretty heavy themes. Themes of death and loss; mourning and revenge. Most of all, though, Owlboy is a game about failure.
And the way Owlboy handles these themes got me thinking, as most things in this vein do, about D&D. How do we handle these sorts of dark topics and themes in D&D. How do we handle death or violence? How do we handle failure or loss?
A lot of us started playing D&D when we were teenagers, or a little bit before. Personally, at that time, I was obsessed with including “mature” themes into my games. My characters were violent, sex-craving war gods with dark pasts full of blood and death, and the games I ran had a weird habit of devolving into violent, gory messes. My favorite D&D joke at the time went something like this:
DM: “You see an elven woman by the side of the road. Her clothes are torn and she looks in dire need of help. What do you do?”
Player: “I touch myself.”
At 15, I wouldn’t be able to stop laughing at that. Today? Exposing and sexually gratifying oneself in front of a desperate and injured woman just doesn’t get me chuckling like it used to.
I saw this—the blood and the boobs and the darkness—as mature subject matter. In part, I was right. However, in a big way, I was wrong.
What I’ve learned since is that maturity isn’t necessarily about just embracing the taboo, but rather understanding its intent and use. I’ve also learned since then how to use tone to influence the way material is presented. Especially that material which is intended for a mature audience.
When dealing with mature themes and events, they should serve a purpose in the meta-narrative of the game. Violence or sex can be made comedic to convey a sense of light-hearted fun in a game and relieve tension. Trauma can be used as a driving force to encourage players to better themselves and chase a personal goal. Death can be used to motivate players to act. Even so-called “senseless violence” can serve a purpose: perhaps shining a light on some other aspect of the game.
In Owlboy, for example, death is treated very seriously. It’s intentionally presented through a morose lens of nihilism. I remember one particular NPC in the game. You can speak with her, and she tells you that one of your close friends is mourning in the graveyard, following it up with,
“I guess we have one of those, now.”
That line hit me hard. This was a town that had never experienced any kind of serious death in the past. And now, suddenly, they were swarmed with so many dead that they had to CREATE a graveyard to hold them. Suddenly, it all became very real to me, and I had to sit for a moment and just absorb the information and themes presented. What was the purpose of it? Why did all of this happen?
Going to meet your friend in the graveyard then contextualizes the entire situation. In a speech that legitimately made my eyes wet with oncoming tears, he takes all the darkness and death surrounding you and turns it into a driving force, propelling you forward into your next adventure and giving you a long-term goal: You must NEVER let something like this happen again.
So, through this game, we can see how a real, actual mature theme is used: carefully, and with purpose. And THAT is how we should handle these sorts of themes in our own games. If you want to add violence or sex or other mature subjects to your game, that’s fine. But try to do so with intent, purpose, and context.
As I stated above, though, mature themes weren’t the only thing that Owlboy got me thinking about.
Owlboy has a very interesting take on failure as a theme. The thing about it is that, in terms of the game itself, it’s entirely unfair.
You set out to do something good, you achieve that good goal, but come back to find that something awful has happened in your absence. Something that you could have prevented if you were there. You failed. But did you? After all, you didn’t know it was going to happen. Your intentions were noble! You were trying to help people, to solve a problem!
And yet everyone blames you. It’s just not fair!
You’ve been assigned a task. If you don’t complete this task, then something terrible will happen. You set out on your journey, reach the final conclusion and…you find that your goal is impossible to achieve. Something’s broken, or missing, or not what you expected, and you can’t complete your task. The terrible thing comes to pass. You reunite with your people, and they tell you that you failed them. But you didn’t, did you? Sure, you promised that you’d do it for them, but you didn’t know that it would be impossible! You tried to help!
And yet everyone blames you. It’s just not fair…
Some might call this bad storytelling, especially in the context of a game. The point of a game is to attempt to achieve a goal, right? Therefore, failure in a game should be something that you could have potentially stopped, not something that you could have never seen coming.
But that’s also the problem with failure in games. By and large, games are designed around your eventual success. Even when a game is difficult, you keep trying until you get it right. Therefore, when telling a story about failure, you must undermine that success. And that is where Owlboy is brilliant in its storytelling. Every time you succeed, you feel great! You finally made it through that maze, found that relic, beat that monster, etc. But just as you’re at your highest point, the game brings you crashing down.
“It doesn’t matter what you achieved,” it tells you. “It didn’t have any real effect. You still failed in the end.”
It’s incredibly nihilistic and sad. It encourages you to set personal goals only to realize that they were meaningless in the grand scheme of things. It teaches you that sometimes, it’s just not fair. And yet, it encourages you to push forward. With every failure, it provides you with new motivation to succeed. THIS time it will matter! THIS time you’ll make a difference!
The game constantly throws failure at you, but it’s failure with a purpose.
And I think that this tool—this lesson—can be a very powerful addition to our GM toolbox. Most of the time, failure should absolutely be directly connected to the players’ actions. That failed skill check, that lost battle, that poor decision, etc. Sometimes, however, the players need to be reminded that sometimes the world’s just not fair.
In D&D, we’re conditioned to succeed. The entire game is designed around you succeeding most of the time. But it’s when you succeed, and realize that your success came at great cost, that you begin to learn. You learn to take on less selfish goals. You learn to re-organize your priorities. And, on occasion, you learn that the world just isn’t fair.
Just like mature themes and subject matter, this sort of failure isn’t to be taken on lightly. It should be contextualized properly, it should be used carefully, and it should be used with a narrative purpose.
Because even though failure might not always seem fair, you can always learn from it.