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Failure is an Option

July 23, 2010

The other warthog tore around the corner at full throttle, military treads cutting four deep gouges through the hard-packed snow, and skidded right into my crosshairs.  I slammed down the trigger and unleashed a merciless hail of lead from the turret’s .50 caliber guns.  Even as they swerved wildly for the nearest cover, I knew their light armor never stood a chance; after two hellish seconds I released the trigger, letting the barrels spin to a halt.  Another would-be challenger was no more.

The game was Halo: Combat Evolved.  The map, Ice Fields.  The mission…well, it was a race, so the mission was just to go around in circles really fast.  But my teammate in the driver’s seat was handling that job; I was manning the warthog’s rear-mounted M41 Vulcan machine gun.  My mission was to kill anything that moved.  His precision maneuvering and my itchy trigger finger kept us near the head of the pack for several laps, but there was another warthog team ahead of us that had so far managed to stay maddeningly out of range for the whole game.

We rounded another corner.  A stone bridge protruding from a yawning tunnel of ice came into view, indicating the start of our next—and final—lap.  We had to pass that other team.  Our next checkpoint was directly below us, underneath the bridge in the center of the track’s giant figure eight, but the only way down (other than a lethal drop off the bridge itself) was a long detour around one of the loops.

“I don’t care how you do it,” I spoke into my  headset, perhaps a bit melodramatically, “but you’ve got to catch up to them somehow.  We don’t get another shot at this.”

“Relax, man, this race is all us.  Check this out.”

I had only a moment to ponder what he meant before he suddenly—

OH GOD OH CHRIST WHAT THE SHIT ARE YOU DOING!?

—swerved right off the bridge, sending us tumbling helplessly into the icy chasm below.  Our warthog went through a series of stomach-wrenching flips, spinning in three directions at once as it plummeted into a canyon filled with massive and unforgiving boulders, and I prayed to the great god of motion sickness that we would somehow make it through this insanity—

…Alive?  We were alive!  We landed upright!  And we were right on top of the next checkpoint, having just cut an entire loop out of our route.  And the team that used to be ahead of us was just coming into view.  I chuckled and turned my crosshairs toward them as we sped off toward the finish line.

After the race, my driver swore to me that he knew exactly what he was doing the whole time.  So it wasn’t just blind luck; there is an actual, specific set of moves one can learn to pull off that same absurdly dangerous stunt without becoming gravity’s bitch.  But if I learned it from this guy, and he discovered it from someone even more insane than himself, who invented the shortcut in the first place?  Logically there must have been some original lunatic who looked at the figure eight map, found the shortest possible line between those two checkpoints, and then decided to try driving his warthog straight off the bridge into the icy, boulder-strewn ground below, knowing he would either end up dead or in first place.

He probably ended up dead.

Then he respawned, grabbed another warthog, tried his deranged stunt a second time, and one more bloody corpse wound up decorating the lower path.  Repeat.

You know that adage about how an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters will eventually bang out the complete works of Shakespeare?  Well, any sufficiently determined lunatic with an infinite number of lives is bound to get somewhere after a while.  And he did.  After that race my driver showed me how to plow into the bridge’s guard rail at just the right angle, then topple over the edge while gunning the engine, and finally drop thirty feet to the ground to land alive and upright.

That was five years ago.  There are still only a few expert drivers who can pull this trick off reliably, and in all modesty, I’m now one of them.  I’m also really good at other racing games, like the Need for Speed and Burnout franchises.  I’ve been tearing around crowded city streets in a Lamborghini since before I was old enough to drive my mom’s minivan, so going Really Fast™ is just second nature to me.

So why is it that, when I’m in a real car, I can barely merge onto the interstate without having a near-death experience?

Seriously, I’m a pretty bad driver in real life.  And not the kamikaze maniac kind of bad you might expect from the last few paragraphs; I’m just really timid.  This used to bug the hell out of me, until a few days ago when I got to thinking about failure in games.  Consider what it means to fail when you’re driving in real life: At best, you’ll ding your bumper and have to drop a couple hundred dollars getting it fixed.  At worst, you and several other people will be killed.  Consequences like these tend to cut down on risk-taking.

Picture explaining this to your mother.

Okay, back to games.  How many times do you think I failed (as in, died) before I learned how to do that bridge stunt in Halo?  I don’t want to embarrass myself any further, so I’ll just say it was a lot.  It eventually got so bad that I had to shorten the vehicle respawn timer so that I wouldn’t get a pile of wrecked warthogs accumulating below the bridge; a perpetual monument to my extraordinary suckitude.

Now imagine if I had been given a “game over” screen after three deaths, like in the old arcade games.  I’d certainly never learn that jump, for one thing.  In fact, I probably never would have tried; I’d just putter meekly around the circuit and avoid anything that might get me killed.  It’s just a simple change, but by minimizing the consequences of failure, Halo has allowed me and plenty of other players to become much better at the game.

Not that developers need to stop there.  Subsequent Halo games have a feature that lets you record an entire match and replay it from any angle, so you can figure out exactly how you ended up getting teabagged for the eleventh time in five minutes.  Real-time strategy titles have been doing this for years; I remember Age of Empires II let me watch a completed game from the perspective of my opponents, which went a long way toward fixing the weaknesses in my own strategies.  Valve’s Team Fortress 2 has a rather excellent death screen that gives a detailed breakdown of who killed you, from where, and with what weapon.  No death is wasted, so long as you learn something from it.

Although they may just want to rub it in, too.

Many gamers are old enough to remember what life was like before this new design philosophy became popular (hint: it was hard).  Games in the arcade era were often punishingly difficult, because forcing players to die over and over again was the only way to make them keep feeding quarters into the machine.  But now that arcade machines have long since gone out of style, developers are learning a new business model with regard to difficulty.

Yes, I said business model.  You didn’t think they were just holding your hand to be nice, did you?  You did?  That’s cute.  Now consider this: Practically every game requires the player to learn something new, be it as easy as which gun to use on what enemy, as complex as a new control scheme, or as daunting as several completely new laws of physics (I’m looking at you, Portal).  If players aren’t convinced within the first few minutes of play that they can learn to enjoy themselves in this new game world, they’re likely to give up and play something else.  Games need to make us experts before they make us frustrated, and doing that means teaching us something new at every possible opportunity.  Including—especially—when we fail.

If you’re still not convinced, just think of all the cool activities you can learn in games that you’d never try in real life—not because they’re impossible, but because you just aren’t ready to die yet.

There’s parkour…

Aviation …

Demolitions …

…And biology:

Back in high school, when I was playing Halo obsessively, I didn’t know what a gift this leniency was.  I had no idea that the concept of failure would later blossom into a full suite of learning tools, or that I was learning to drive almost as quickly as Neo learned Kung Fu.  All I knew was that I wanted to do that stunt.  So I put my favorite album on loop,* loaded up Ice Fields, and set about teaching a warthog to fly.

*Maladroit, by Weezer.  I was young, okay?

This article has also been published on CrispyGamer.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2010 3:14 am

    I’m surprised your didn’t contrast the minimalisation of failure to something like Steel Batallion. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but basically it was that mech game that came with the full control panel, and if you died, it deleted your save. But a good read, I like this concept in regard to teaching players how to play the game, something I’m especially interested in.

    • July 25, 2010 5:33 pm

      Granted, you only died if you failed to eject in time.

      It’s funny how making death a minor penalty is such a great tool for learning, but many people still seem put off by it because dying has such a negative stigma. I wonder if people who are unafraid of death in real life also appreciate games’ application of dying.

      • July 26, 2010 4:25 am

        I don’t think there’s much equivalence between game death and real death. It’s only really a penalty at the end of the day and you can try again – whether it be quick save, checkpoint and game restart. Some games to dole out a pretty severe penalty, of course, and I could name any number of games from the 80s that believed Hard Core was the only one true path to gaming enlightment.

        Stoppage of fun => generally bad. And game death is often handled badly as stoppage of fun instead of part of improving your game muscle.

        At the uber end of the scale, if it’s your kind of thing, VVVVVV with “a thousand deaths before dawn”, is a spiritual experience. I saw Brahman when I defeated Veni, Vidi, Vici.

        Real death, of course, is pretty much final. Except for Veret who I have come to learn has paid to have his body frozen at the point of death: he wants to be revived in the future and drive around real warthogs. Shortly before the Earth is invaded by the Covenant. Woo hoo! Go Spartans!

    • July 25, 2010 6:21 pm

      To answer your question, I had not heard of Steel Battalion. But you prompted me to look it up, and wikipedia provided me with this picture of the game’s controller. Dude.

      There’s something to be said for modern games that still dole out heavy punishments for failure. It’s more immersive, for one, and that was probably one of the major design goals for Steel Battalion; I’ve also seen a similar idea used in games like Fire Emblem or Critical Mass, and it worked reasonably well. But any game that makes death a serious problem in the main story mode absolutely must give players an option to train their skills somewhere without consequences for failure; otherwise they just aren’t letting people learn the damn game.

      BeamSplash, your comment got me thinking about ways to fail other than dying, and the negative stigma that comes with those as well. Case in point, Starcraft II–I’m really looking forward to playing this game, but it worries me greatly that battle.net will keep a permanent record of all my embarrassing defeats. Yeesh. As for your other point, it’s possible that the balls-of-steel crowd don’t bother to play many videogames, as they can get even better thrills by driving off a bridge in real life. Maybe.

      • July 26, 2010 12:11 am

        Ha, I was thinking more along the lines of “not afraid” meaning “comfortable with the end of life happening at possibly any time” as opposed to “ready to go out in a blaze of glory as soon as possible.”

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