You’re surrounded by enemies that just stormed into the room at the order of the big-bad guy. They all ready their weapons and prepare to attack, but you’re unfazed; your skill and understanding of your abilities gives you a far greater edge than any number of enemies could equal. You easily dispatch every single one without much effort and run after the big-bad guy until he’s cornered on the rooftop. It’s just you, him, and — QUICK, PRESS THE X BUTTON NOT TO DIE! Oops…the big-bad guy’s hidden trap killed you. But don’t worry, just kill all of the enemies in the room and confront the big-bad guy again. After all, if you die, the worst that can happen is you watch a loading screen and do a few of the same things again, right?
…Sound familiar? Nearly every game today contains a similar scenario where failure is cheap, sudden, and rarely meaningful. Since the beginning of single-player experiences in video games, the concept of failure — the “game-over” — has been a staple of gaming experiences. In most games, the measure of success is completing the game or achieving a high-score, while the measure of failure is typically a game-over screen or a death sequence. Failure is further heralded by a punishment, such as having to restart a level or section of the game, losing a built-up score, or losing items accrued. While there have been many different methods of incorporating failure into a game’s design, the punishment (or minor inconvenience) of restarting a level or section of a game is usually the most-used.
The issue that modern games, especially AAA games, have been running into in the last few years is that failure has become more of an obligatory aspect of a game rather than a well-thought-out part of the gameplay.”Game-over” usually results in little more than an annoyance — a slap on the wrist. In a typical Call of Duty campaign, failing an objective or dying during normal play usually results in having to replay the last few seconds or minutes of gameplay prior to your failure. In an action game like Resident Evil 6, failing to complete a quick-time sequence results in a usually violent death or failure, but the punishment is watching the loading screen until you have an opportunity to try again. In some cases, failure is done away with entirely, such as was the case in Bioshock.
The problem of carelessly crafted “game-overs” also extends to other games such as platformers like the Mario series or the Donkey Kong series. Both games use the classic model for failure in which, after losing a number of times, a “game-over” screen appears and forces players to restart a level or section of the game. In the past, this failure model worked well due to the fact that most games tracked a player’s progress through a passcode system, did not save or track any progress or were arcade machines that required a fee for continued play after failure. Because of these designs, failure was a concept that carried weight under this paradigm.
However, with the fact that modern Mario and Donkey Kong games save progress after every completed level, even if a player loses all of his lives and gets a “game-over,” the only nuisance he suffers is the fact that he had to watch a “game-over” screen before he could retry the level. There is no tangible consequence to losing too much other than starting the level again, which makes the “game-over” screen more like a vestige than a necessary aspect of the games.
In story-driven games, the goal for most studios that create them is to craft an immersive world with a gripping story that draws the player into the game from start to finish. Studios go to great lengths to achieve this, from hiring world-class voice actors, to meticulously crafting every visual detail to perfection. In many of these games, everything is polished to nearly a mirror-sheen — everything but the way the game handles player failure.
It’s not an overstatement to say that the way a game handles player failure determines just how believable a game’s world is and how much a player cares about a game’s story at a given moment. If failing means little more than waiting for the game to reload so that a player can try again, then he is apt not to care too much about carefully playing for the sake of getting the game’s character through a situation in the story. If failing an objective means that the game forces a player to retry until he gets it done, then that objective starts to become more of a gameplay-oriented obstacle of progress and less like a piece of the story of which the player cares about positively affecting. Simply put: failing during gameplay matters as much as succeeding during gameplay.
To illustrate how much an experience is affected by how the game deals with failure, let’s look at a few games. One mainstream example that offers a good comparison is the Call of Duty series, more specifically Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The reason why Black Ops 2 sticks out among the crowd of Call of Duty games is for the way it allows failure in certain instances to become an alternative to success, rather than failure being an end-state. In Black Ops 2, there are many instances in which an objective occurs that can either be failed or completed. If the objective is failed, the game will continue, but the story will be impacted as a result.
Treyarch (the studio behind the game) took this a slight step further by having a number of optional missions in which players could try to complete and either fail or succeed, or they could not play the missions at all (which results in a failure), with the results of those missions affecting the story. Compare this to the rest of the Call of Duty series, where nearly every objective must be completed, otherwise the game stops and restarts until the player has completed the objectives required to move on. The dynamics of success and failure between Black Ops 2 and the rest of the series were dramatically different, with players more likely to find themselves engaged in the story of Black Ops 2, since their actions carried consequences throughout the game.
Another great example is one that many don’t immediately think of, but has handled failure and success fairly well: stealth games. Stealth games revolve around trying to move through the game’s world without making the your presence known to enemies. Good stealth games offer players a variety of methods and means to evade detection and, when detected, deal with the consequences until they are able to get away. Stealth games are conceptually built on a balance between success and failure, with every passing movement and moment bringing a player closer to failure or success, but neither being totally achieved until the player either dies or completes the game. Well-built stealth games allow players to play the game how they want to, giving them the option to sneak around without confrontation, kill out of sight, run straight through the enemies, or, if sighted, hide away from sight — all without interrupting the player to tell them to restart because they failed to play a certain way.
One stealth series that generally handles success and failure poorly is Assassin’s Creed. In many games, the missions are designed in such a rigid manner that players are often forced to remain undetected or kill no one in order to succeed, otherwise an end-state failure results. While Ubisoft does an admirable job of making these failures make sense within the logic of the game, it still is not an ideal way of dealing with failure. Players feel less agency as a result and the game feels more like a game and less like an experience, which negates the effect Ubisoft would like their games to have.
Other examples of games that handle failure well include games like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and ZombiU. In The Walking Dead, the game functions more like an interactive movie, but gives players limited control in certain situations. The flow of the game is mostly dictated by situations playing out, with the player occasionally being required to give input in order to affect a situation, based on a set of choices. In the most cynical view, the game functions largely like a flowchart.
However, this design gives players a greater sense of influence within the game than most other games, with every choice they make affecting the story, the situations the characters find themselves in, and the lives of those characters. This means that there is no such thing as an end-state failure; every choice has an outcome that ranges anywhere from good to bad, with many choices occupying a gray area that makes decisions all the more difficult. The absence of a “game-over” makes the flow of the game’s story extremely believable, though the limitations of how much agency a player can have on the game are still felt as a result of the flowchart-like design.
ZombiU is another game that deals with failure (death, in this case) in a surprising manner. Rather than following a format in which players are given another chance to correct their error soon after their deaths, with the only penalty being that they must play a section of the game again, it goes for a different approach. If a player dies during the course of the game, his player character becomes a zombie and the player starts again with a new character —without any of the items and weapons he possessed before. The player is then able to hunt down his former character and kill it in order to retrieve his belongings, though any skills the character had are lost. This design causes players to take more care with each room the move into and every zombie they encounter, knowing that a slip-up could cost them.
ZombiU takes things a step further for the more hardcore by allowing players to play with one character, meaning that once they die, the game is over (not just a “game-over,” but the end of the game), doubling the amount of pressure and tension that the player feels as he moves through the game. The effect of this system makes ZombiU a more involved experience than most other zombie games that have much lighter penalties for dying.
The challenge that studios and independent developers have before them is simply this: make failure matter. The pass-or-fail format that games used before save states and in the arcades simply does not translate well today. Too many games are released where failure is a matter of watching the game reload to your last checkpoint. Few things put a cynical face on a game that wants to create a cinematic experience like going through a quick-time event and failing, only to have the game restart right before that same quick-time event.
Granted, there are times when a pass-or-fail sequence must happen in a game, but when nearly every decision point or quick-time event is either a pass-or-fail event, it simply ceases to be immersive or an impressively designed piece of the game. Resident Evil 4 has, perhaps, one of the most egregious examples of this issue, where a two-minute long cutscene occurs where every few seconds was a quick-time event that was pass-or-fail. It turned a tense cutscene for many into a tedious exercise of memorization that completely drained the scene of any immersion it tried to effect.
Failure shouldn’t be a mere finger-wag by the game, urging you to follow the script of the story; failure should change the experience of the game. This can be accomplished by having a failure raise the stakes for the player or cause an effect on the game’s story, world or characters. There are many ways in which failure can be designed to have an impact on the player’s experience, rather than just being that thing that’s supposed to be in video games.
Whether a player successfully completes a game shouldn’t be dictated by how persistent he is in overcoming the many minor instances where he might reach an end-state failure, it should be dictated by how he deals with the challenges or setbacks of failing. After all, people, more often than not, tend to remember the experiences in which they had to overcome a failure rather than the experiences that forced them to stay on-script throughout. In short, failing matters as much as succeeding.