Friday, April 9, 2010

Fail Better - Games and Game Overs

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. - Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

Remember the first time you fell off a vine in Pitfall?  Or when you first ran headlong into the goomba in World 1-1?  How about your first online defeat at the hands of people with way too much time on their hands?

Failure is as intrinsic to gaming as joypads and parents’ basements.  Pong, one of the first breakthrough titles, was a two-player affair and thus necessitated a loser, hence failure.  Extremely difficult games like Battletoads or Contra served up heaping platters of failure, spawning broken controllers and deviously lengthened playtimes.  Find me a game that people find fun, and I’ll find you a way to fail at it.

Games require failure because it rests on the opposite side of the coin from success.  To gratifyingly beat something, there must be some potential for it to beat you.  There’s a reason no one watches Yankees-Royals games, or why we don’t allow five-year-olds to participate in weightlifting competitions.

On the road to winning a game, you’ll probably fail at least once.  How you fail (and how often) is up to the designer.

Quarter Munching

Though we’ve come a long way since the days of E.T.-stuffed landfills, close inspection of any modern game’s DNA shows that it shares some of its genetic code with the arcade titles of yore – Pac-Man, Centipede, Space Invaders.  Level-based game design and any sort of system that values arbitrary “Points” harkens back to this era.

What makes games from the 80s so unique is their reliance on the arcade business model: convince players to pump quarters into the machine.  Players’ appetites were whetted with a few delightful minutes of gameplay before, oops, a ghost ate you.  And due to technical limitations, many arcade games simply ended should the player progress too far.  Failure was not just a possibility; it was predetermined. 

The quarter-based design ethos codified many systems that defined generations of games.  Lives, for instance.  The idea that, after a certain number of tries, you would have to start over from the very beginning unless you pay more money is a genius business idea.  So genius, in fact, that it influenced decades of game development.  Even Super Mario Bros., one of the most recognizable and popular console games of all time, adhered to arcade principles of lives and points.  Expected failure added replay value to games too difficult to beat without some form of memorization

There is a second edge to that sword, however.  One of the reasons arcade giant Midway folded was its inability to translate its most beloved franchises to the growing home console market.  Games like Cruis’n USA, Rampage, and NBA Jam fall a little flat when you don’t need quarters to keep them going.  Failure’s monetary – and in this case, overall – value is lost.

A Game Saved

The whole lives system imploded when The Legend of Zelda for the NES introduced battery-backed RAM for saved games.  No longer did a cruel, point-based system of lives govern a player’s progress.  Player’s could now reach a certain point a game, stop, and return to it later. 

This revolution certainly owes much to the hardware advances that allowed save games to exist.  Home computers and Nintendo’s Family Computer Disk System also saved games, but Zelda was the first game to store progress on the individual piece of media itself.  And this practice continued throughout the cartridge era – still does, in fact.

On Zelda’s heels came Metroid, which featured saving in Japan and a password system in the US.  Both games were exercises in nonlinear, exploration-based gameplay.  Character death no longer meant starting from the very beginning; it meant resuming play from the last checkpoint with infinite retries.  Failure, while lurking around every corner, could now treat players with kid gloves, dishing out bruises instead of broken bones.

Failing in a Straight Line

In retrospect, failure hasn’t changed that much from the days of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid.  Many games still progress linearly, with failure being the only prompt that players should try new tactics or avoid certain behaviors.  Nearly all games feature some kind of saving mechanism; players are no longer expected to clear a major release in one sitting (Portal being a wondrous exception).  And the open-world exploration afforded by saving makes for larger, more varied experiences.

Despite the modern game’s girth and sense of boundless possibility, failure remains quite linear.  Games, forever concerned with player accomplishment, don’t generally have the ability to reconcile a player’s failure with their narratives.  Look at a game like Assassin’s Creed or its sequel.  These massive games set in rich, bustling worlds task the player with taking out high-profile targets.  Should you fail, the game simply rewinds back to the last time you hadn’t failed and asks you again.  The repercussions of your botched knifing are nowhere to be seen.  When Mario dies too many times on the Butter Bridge, the Princess doesn’t simply give up and accept Bowser’s spiky hand in marriage.  

Is the solution to simply remove all chance of failure?  Probably not.  After studying players’ experiences with failing in games, Jesper Juul concluded that games require a certain amount of failure to make the success gratifying (a point I argued above).  He also noted that players need to feel like they are responsible for failing, otherwise they resort to blaming the game (and who can blame them?).  I’ve heard many people espouse the merits of Mega Man’s difficulty while hating on something like Bayonetta or Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer simply because Mega Man feels more fair: ‘I died because I made a mistake’ not ‘I can’t tell what’s going on and—dammit now I’m dead.’

Back to the issue of linear failure.  Modern, Western RPGs have begun incorporating in-game actions – for better or worse – into the game in a way that fuels forward motion.  The Fallout series is notorious for the myriad ways in which any situation can be resolved, though many (like inadvertently blowing up your dog with a rocket or poisoning an entire town) can feel like failures.  Mass Effect 2 regularly puts the player in positions where multiple outcomes are possible and the endgame result can – even when you’ve technically beaten the game – convince you you’ve failed.  These are both shining examples of how to drop the “over” from Game Over and turn failure into more game.

As long as we play games, we will fail at the them.  Failure is at its best when it forces players to act differently or incorporates their missteps into the forward-moving experience.  It’s at its worst when it arbitrarily restricts the player’s progress, despite a million other design options being available.  Failure isn’t going anywhere.  So let’s learn to win at it.