More subtle variations in error messages

There was recently a game discussed on here that had a hundred different error messages, displayed at random. The overall feeling on that seemed to be that it was a poor design choice–how would a player know they were hitting their head against a wall when they got a different message every time they tried something new?

I’m currently writing a game with the conceit that you (the player/parser) are one person, giving instructions to another person who then describes what they see and what happens. I’ve included lots of little variations in text that will appear multiple times, and I’m wondering if some more subtle character-voice variations in error response messages would still be a bad idea. I’m talking on the level of:

I’m not gonna do that.
Uh, I’m not gonna do that.
I’m not going to do that.

as three potential alternatives. In your opinion, is that still too much variation? If so, is any level of variation acceptable? Thanks in advance!


Absolutely not. Actually, it feels quite alright: some variation but a clear “error” at the same time.


I’m generally a fan of dynamic text, but for this kind of thing in particular you really need to be careful.

I think the “optimal” approach to something like this is to have “escalating” failure messages, and then put your random/cycling messages at the end of the escalation ramp. So something like:

> jump in lake
That doesn't seem like a good idea.

> jump in lake
That *really* doesn't seem like a good idea.

> jump in lake
Let me be clear:  I'm not gonna do that.

> jump in lake
I said I'm not going to do that.

> jump in lake
Like I said, no way.

> jump in lake
Give it up.  Not gonna happen.

> jump in lake
I said I'm not going to do that.

…and so on.

If you’re not going to telegraph things in this way (so that only very inattentive players will interpret varying responses as varying results), then the action they’re failing should probably be one that’s “inherently” ambiguous. So things where ambiguity about whether or not something is having an effect is baked into the situation, or is part of a more general air of ambiguity (you’ve found a crashed UFO in the woods and now you’re pushing buttons and it’s not a logic puzzle).

But beyond this sort of general design question, your specific examples seem clear enough. Specifically, all of them are clearly generic and scan as synonymous. I think the level of specificity where you start getting into trouble is if you’re adding verbs or objects to the failure report: “I’m not going to push that.” or “I’m not going to do that to the light socket.” are more likely to cause confusion…both in general and if there’s variability in the wording of the failure reports.


I am in support of the variation, and I use it in my game…


I just realized that I like to do variation in messages except error or failure messages. I want to reward players with new things while progressing.

I suppose I took inspiration from Subnautica for this decision: If I add variety in the error messages, then it might reward the player for attempting them. If I make errors bland and consistent, then they’re clear, and make progression-related messages stand out even more.

West of Loathing sorta takes the complete opposite approach. However, it also feels the need to turn nearly every error type into its own mini-quest, just to reward the player for exploring the different error messages.

Like, yes, it’s an error message, but having multiple variations can still become a form of exploration (as demonstrated in West of Loathing), and I would rather the player get some tiny reward for any exploration, even for something as minor as an error message. However, I do not have the stamina required to be so thorough in such rewards, so I keep my errors bland and uniform.

There might be an opinion in IF that exploration is its own reward, but 99% of my game design knowledge comes from the visual games scene, and so much of that is ingrained habit now.


The biggest issue with that other game’s error messages, imo, is that they don’t indicate what’s gone wrong—or even that something has gone wrong! Many of them are more like environmental messages, describing lightning striking outside and such.

I’m fine with randomized error messages as long as they make it clear what the issue is: every “unrecognized verb” error should tell me that I’m using an unrecognized verb.


I can’t pick that up.
No, really. I can’t pick that up.
Are you dense? I can’t pick that up!
Read my lips: I. Can’t. Pick. That. Up.
I give up… *whine*

— Sam when you break his spirit with your stupid attempts to pick up that silly object in Sam & Max Hit the Road.

(Note that the “that silly object” phrasing is the spoken line. Max actually calls the object by internal number in the text.)

So yeah, all for it.