Don’t Restart: Failure is Part of It


I was once very thrilled to show a friend the greatness that is the game Company of Heroes. He had great taste in strategy games and I figured it was a perfect match. But, when I settled him into the first mission – a loud, brief, chaotic recreation of D-Day where your troops can be cut down before you even have time to click on them – it wasn’t long before he reached for the menu button and all-too-quickly said it wasn’t his thing. “All my troops are dying,” he explained. “I hate that feeling.”

He said he’d give it another try later, but it was clear that I had lost him on the issue. I knew what feeling he meant. Failure. Even though the game was programmed to rip apart your troops with machine gun fire and mortar rounds, it still feels like it’s your loss. Actually, that’s kind of the whole point, but that doesn’t soften the blow by much. Persistence is the only real strategy for the mission. Fervent clicking will eventually get a requisite number of troops to the wall to take the bunkers, but there’s no conceivable way to save them all. Not even close. You have to accept the staggering losses, take the victory, and move on.

I completely understand why this feeling is unpleasant. Who wouldn’t? No one enjoys the sensation that they’ve been inadequate and failed, even in our games. In reality, we toil over our mistakes in bed at night, nauseously replaying these unfixable moments in our heads. But in the world of videogames, we’re demi-gods. If we don’t like the way a particular moment went we can restore a checkpoint. If we’re frozen with indecision on a certain dialog choice, we can look up the “right” choice online. If watching troops die outside of our control unsettles us, we can just quit to the menu.

I’m guilty of this abuse of power myself. When things go poorly and only get worse in an online game of Battlefield 3, you might find me committing the occasional “rage-quit.” Regardless of my place on the scoreboard, I will shout blame at my team and my fiancée will give me a patronizing nod, as if to say, “Of course, honey. You would have won if not for them.” I know the truth, though. Nevermind that I’m losing the chance for a dramatic comeback. They were just better and I performed poorly. But, acknowledging my inability isn’t fun and games are supposed to be fun, right?

Well, no, not necessarily. Games can be fun. Generally, games are designed to be fun, whether it’s the frantic strategy of Starcraft or the senseless thrills of Just Cause 2. But, like other forms of entertainment, games are capable of a pretty wide-range of emotions. Like films and books, we see experiences that can be funny, scary, dramatic, informative, etc. Games showcase this with genres like survival horror, educational titles, and whatever you’d call the emotional rollercoaster that is Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The industry accepts these genres to a degree; they have their audiences and, when we’re in the mood to have our emotions prodded, most players happily sign up for the experience.

But when we’ve decided to have some fun – whether it’s that fantasy charm of wandering Skyrim or dildo-batting in Saints Row – gamers have this tendency to shy away from these difficult-to-swallow moments of failure. I’ve watched countless friends load saves after losing a trusted companion or abandon an online match prematurely because the other team was trouncing their team. Take a look at forums for any game and you’ll see players searching to see if they can save a character, avoid a tragic event, or sidestep catastrophe.

This is you cheating yourself, whether you know it or not. I know that gamers have been trained since kids to complete something; to make sure they find all the nooks and crannies and do it all with the best score at the same time. That completionist attitude translates to modern gaming as skirting all mistakes and doing everything “perfectly,” like playing Tetris and meticulously arranging every piece to clear a line. But, games don’t work that way anymore.

Everything has become mercifully more complex and we know have the ability to alter, even mangle, the story with our own playthrough. In the process, videogames created an experience that’s completely unique to the world of entertainment. In other genres, all of the emotional, tense, or scary moments are pre-ordained; they’ve been scripted to happen. Games have preordained tragedy too, of course, with moments like Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII and the “leave a squadmate behind” decision in Mass Effect.

But in games and only in games, loss can happen outside the constraints of a scripted story. Lydia can die in Skyrim, for instance, and that can be hard to cope with – whether it’s because we felt some form of friendship forming or because we simply are going to miss having someone around to carry our things. Our natural instinct is to try and recover this, revert to before the mistake occurred and return to a pristine, pleasing experience. Why? Because we’re in a position of power to do so.

I think that’s a huge waste.

Standing remorsefully over Lydia’s lifeless body is an experience that can’t happen in any other medium. The game designers know that she can perish, but they haven’t programmed in the where, when, or if. That’s on us and so it’s no wonder that we don’t like the feeling of having it happen, because we shoulder the guilt and remorse of our own actions. We’re attacked by our own incompetency and we don’t like it – but we shouldn’t shy away from that, because this is the only form of entertainment that’s capable of creating such a reaction. It also makes for great stories.

All the best tales have low-points. Every hero or heroine falls at some point, maybe loses something precious and finds themselves at a position where success is at its most unlikely. Other methods of storytelling show us that, but in games, we can truly be in that position. We can falter in battle and lose our friends or fail to obtain the treasures we were after. We authentically feel that anger and regret. Drama is equal parts success and failure and we have the power to enhance stories with our own success and mistakes. You shouldn’t cheat yourself out of that.

  • Jason Rice

    Truth! Side-stepping death would be like skipping Empire Strikes Back and going straight to Return of the Jedi. Seeing Luke lose his hand, Han get frozen, and Lando rat them all out gives a mighty weight to the redemption and revenge that make ROTJ my personal favorite (THAT’S RIGHT WANNA FIGHT ABOUT IT!?). Without all that we’ve just got victory bookended by victory, a tasteless malaise of celebration. It’s the bitterness of defeat that adds depth and body to the sweet flavor of winning.

    I wonder if part of what made The Walking Dead resonate so strongly with people was the repeated act of worst-case-scenario decision making that people save dance to avoid. You have to make a choice and live with it, there’s no going back, no reloading a save to get the perfect result where everybody lives. Death is inevitable and adapting to its presence is part of the game.

  • Kylotan

    I agree with the main argument here, but I had the exact same reaction to Company of Heroes as your friend did. There’s a difference between the fun of learning to recover from your mistakes and overcome adversity, and the frustration of feeling punished over something you had no control or influence over. CoH handled it poorly, beating the player over the head with the whole “futility of war” motif at the expense of making the player feel like the played. Let the failures be my own and then I can accept them much more.