Failure isn’t adequately addressed in games. The reality of failure, the immediacy and the high probability of failure in the real world is not well expressed in the games we play. We fail at a task and we have to return to a point earlier in time, from before our failure, and we have to then try to execute “properly”, avoiding the failure. It’s very artificial, we just hand-wave it away like a story whose details you can’t remember (literally this, in the case of a few games).

To some extent, I think this is why Dark Souls and Bloodborne have taken root in the collective “hardcore” gamer psyche. Failure is inevitable, frequent, and harsh, and for a lot of people I suspect it fills the void created by success without the threat of failure. There’s an interesting duality there: it is far more satisfying to succeed at a thing you thought impossible, and far more demoralizing to fail at something you know you’re capable of.

There’s a certain school of thought that latches onto this, and says that games should always be played at the highest difficulty setting, with the underlying though focusing on maximizing the former and minimizing the latter. I don’t ascribe to this particular point of view, because I don’t think that every game necessarily has “difficulty” as a relevant part of the experience, but I also don’t ascribe the opposing view that playing games on the highest difficulty is exclusively an expression of ego and machismo, a paean of the “hardcore”, as it were.

Failure is healthy for the psyche, much like change. We fear it, and avoid it, but it is in our failures that we learn and grow, and it is in continual assured victories that we stop progressing and stabilize. There are advantages to the latter; I had originally typed “stagnate” and “regress”, but I think that’s an overly harsh evaluation– there is value in stability and headlong, unceasing progression leaves little time for self-evaluation. Too much of anything is unhealthy, but especially with games it’s easy to fall into a state where you simply consume content without investment, accruing victory after victory without context.

Unfortunately, I don’t think games as a medium address failure well. Failure isn’t fun. This isn’t just a function of failure; failure can be incredibly fun, it just needs to be designed that way. I don’t think we’ve found a magic bullet for it, and we’ve created a paradigm in which even the slightest failure leads to an instantly reloaded save game.

I remember the old Hitman series, with limited saves (or no saves) on each level, forcing you to either play through a lengthy level from the start or to live with your mistakes. It’s that latter that I want to see more of. Games don’t let us live with our mistakes and attempt to right them; we either fail and GAME OVER or we fail and the game reminds us of it, but we cannot ever make things right.

Interestingly, I think the place where failure is best expressed is in the MMO space, where you can’t reload to a previous save but you can go back and right your mistakes. There’s a certain reality to that fantasy space that’s compelling to me, and I think why I spend so much time in MMOs compared to other games.

Source: Digital Initiative

Leave a Reply