The Power of Failure

It's been a while -- but have no fear. I have a topic for this week. And some for the weeks to come as well.

The topic today is one we are all most certainly accustomed to: Failure. Failure, quite simply, is the state at which one does not succeed in their goals. In games, that can mean many things. The goal can be defined by the game or by the player, and can be an overall goal (beat the level, beat the game) or a momentary goal (get to that platform without falling). In games, a failure state almost always yields some sort of punishment imposed by the development. The player must start the level over, start from the last checkpoint, complete an objective they have already completed, lose some rewards, or the like. The most familiar and iconic failure state in video games is of course the Game Over screen. Today, the most common failure state is the process of reloading back to the last checkpoint and losing any in-between progress (a Game Over screen may or may not be part of this).

Some games experiment with failure. Many have opted to remove the concept of the failure state altogether, replacing it with temporary or irreversible penalties. The Walking Dead game, for example, rarely gives the player a Game Over. Instead, it "fails" the player by causing unwanted consequences and forcing the player to live with them. The player does not enter a "failure state" (Game Over screen, checkpoint reload) and does not lose progress, but instead fails more organically: it happens, and the game moves on. It's still a failure, of course, and one could say still punishment. If the player's goal was to limit death and bad consequences, failure still happens in The Walking Dead. In fact, it happens all the time. But it rarely leads to the classic game failure state. Still other games eliminate failure altogether. Many puzzle games, for example, remove failure altogether. Journey has no failure state -- and why should it? The game is not a test of skill or wits, and was not designed in such a way.

Failure may seem unwanted or confusing to the player, looking inward. Why must I be punished? Why must I fail? Aren't games supposed to be fun? But the concept of failure has it's uses. In fact, it has a lot of uses. Failure, for all the frustrated hate from players, makes certain games a lot more fun. Many challenging games without failure states are by definition, no longer challenging, as the risk to fail does not exist, the challenge does not exist either. One might contend that puzzle games have no failure state -- but I'd argue they do. Being stuck on a puzzle with no solution is a form of failure. Failure does not have a time limit or strict rule for what it must be.

Failure can be many game's greatest strength. Take the example of Dark Souls, a game celebrated for it's difficulty and the player's constant failure. Many players find it fun simply because failure is so common, it's all part of the game. Failure is something that happens to each player who plays the game on a very frequent basis. Learning from that failure and applying the knowledge gained is what make Dark Souls an excellent game. Whereby player's do not celebrate their failure, but their triumph over it.

But, failure is just one part of the equation. Any game can fail the player, but how a game deals with failure is something else altogether. That's where punishment comes in. What is the cost of failure? If the cost is low, failure matters less. In Dark Souls, the cost of failure is high -- possibly loosing one's experience completely, and forcing the player to fight their way back to where death took place. No small task. But in the failure and the strict punishment comes a concept that very few other mediums can provide to such a degree: stakes.

Stakes are to games what tension is to film. Stakes are what make player's stress and worry, but also what makes them cheer and celebrate when challenges are overcome. Without stakes, victory is not as meaningful: victory becomes an exercise of progressing the game, not conquering a challenge. Victory without stakes becomes the equivalent of watching an action hero defeat the bad guy in a movie. Sure, you can cheer for the hero, but you are not the hero.

But when is failure too much? When is punishing failure too much? Some would argue failure is an outdated concept from games of the past. That it is an old, ancient, tradition of game design that is not necessary to games today. While that may be true for many titles, it is not true for all. Games that challenge must have some form of failure to work. And while failure is not fun in the moment of failure, it yields fun in the moment failure is defeated. That form of fun could not exist without failure -- without stakes.

Punishing failure is a balancing act that requires one to examine the constitution of the game's target audience with the difficulty and frustration that players will experience in overcoming failure and reaching their goal. Certainly, punishing a player too much is not fun. And fun, in most cases, should be a designer's top priority. But it's important to remember failure can be fun, too.