The Price of Failure

Failure is the last great bridge for us to cross as gamers.

In the hundreds of games I’ve played, there are few instances where I can say I’ve failed. I’ve gotten thousands of game over screens, died a thousand times, fallen into countless bottomless pits, but these are not failures. They are aberrations, mishaps, or, as the titular Prince of Persia would say, not how it happened. They are blips along a successful road; they are toil.

When we fail, it often produces frustration. When I think of failure, I think of unwinnable boss fights in decade old JRPGs, where the boss would unleash an immense, immediately fatal attack and then, two hours later, be cake with a much weaker attack. When I think of failure in modern gaming, I think of beatable circumstances in Mass Effect 2, putting the wrong guy away in LA Noire, and vague consequences like the ending of Bioshock 2, where only the narrative is bothered by your choices.

I think of Aeris dying, to beat a dead horse, but then realize that’s both more and less complicated than simple failure. It’s the first climax of a Greek tragedy, where the chorus sings of the death of one you love.

No, it’s difficult to remember a time where you explicitly failed in a game. Games are about successes, about a notable string of miracles pulled off by the player character to forward shoestring plots.

Guy Hasson over at Gamasutra wrote an interesting article about the perfection of video game storytelling, and it made me think about failure. Even when we fail in video games, we achieve vindication later. It’s part of the video game master narrative, a Campbellian saga of an endless stream of young heroes who go off to achieve great things without overcoming much in the way of adversity. The player solves all the problems of the world, and no other problems are allowed to exist.

Especially not ones the player fails to solve.

They say, before you die, you relive all of the memories your mind holds strongest. In any normal individual, this means reviewing a string of less than pleasant memories, long held regrets that have influenced the direction of your life. When I think of my life’s work, I do not remember that many positives, but I remember a long string of negative memories that I hold strongly that have made me into the person I am.

Imagine a video game character, the moment before death, his memories before a black game over screen. Would they be anything but positive? The master narrative of video games is such that the worst they would remember is nameless, faceless parents dying, their house browned up by stormtroopers. Occasionally, very occasionally, there is some adversity in the belly of the beast moment, when they go inside the enemy’s base, but never downright failure. There’s never a moment in video games like that time you accidentally insulted your grade school crush to the point she wouldn’t talk to you ever again. That moment doesn’t happen; even if it does, it is woven into a narrative of redemption. Even the least suave video game character gets the girl, eventually, once he’s reminded her that he can beat the metaphorical dragon holding her hostage senseless.

There are two narratives in video gaming: redemption and success. In success storylines, little bad happens to you. You go out, and you win, and nothing stops you from winning. Your power level never decreases. In redemptive storylines, something bad might happen, but it happens early enough that it can morph into a success storyline.

Failure, as it were, is something reserved for the player fucking up, even if it produces a better storyline. For instance, one of my favorite obscure RPG series, Shadow Hearts, ends in one of two ways: with a major character living or dying. The death is infinitely more interesting from a narrative perspective, and the developer acknowledged as such by making the sequel use that ending as canon. Of course, to achieve that ending, you have to fail. There is an obvious method to achieve the good ending, and to not achieve it would be more along the lines of falling for the hundredth time in Mario instead of failing.

Failure in video games is choice, more or less. You never consciously fail. If you are good to those around you, you do not fail. If you are evil, you may fail, but usually not. Good guys don’t lose, and bad guys usually don’t lose. In general, you win. And if you don’t win, it’s either because you picked the obvious wrong choice, or because you lacked a sufficient level of skill, or because it’s important to the redemptive narrative being constructed. Even if you fail, there will be no penalties beyond another level to fight through, more enemies to kill, and more success to achieve.

And I admit, winning is fun. I like to win. Losing sucks. But as they say, comedy isn’t effective or memorable unless it punches you in the gut. Winning isn’t good unless there’s a pile of shit you had to go through to get there. Games try to provide this by providing adversity, by providing difficult gameplay tests, but it is an all or nothing proposition: either we are faced with tasks we can defeat, or we are quickly overwhelmed by impossible odds. We can make choices that lead to failure, but we almost never will, because we want to succeed. When there is blue or red text in Mass Effect, no one chooses the plain text, because the plain text will result in failure, even if they are more appropriate options.

But since when does what we want mean anything? I don’t want to fail, I don’t want all of my hard work to beat the final boss to end with tragedy, but sometimes that makes the better, more fulfilling narrative. It keeps you thinking about whether or not you could have done something different, some other way, and even if you realize you couldn’t have done anything about it you’ll always have that twinge of regret that will make the game that much more memorable to the player.

It gives us that moment, when we, as characters, are about to die as the credits roll. When the character is about to be forgotten, instead of remembering happy times when he disemboweled a stormtrooper, instead he might remember the failure, the adversity of getting his hand cut off, his best buddy frozen in some macguffin. That memory will stick harder, and it will make for a better character and a better game. Success may be what the people want, but failure is what they will remember, and what they will talk about for years and years.