Games Aren’t Best When Things Go Wrong

By John Walker on October 24th, 2012 at 11:00 am.

Botinacula, since you asked.

Yesterday Jim wrote a superb piece arguing that games are best when everything is going wrong. That the measure of a game’s potential for generating anecdotes, and its depth of connection to the player, is based in the amount of peril it’s able to generate. Citing games like Day Z, FTL and XCOM, Jim’s argument made one small mistake: it was all wrong. Games aren’t best when they’re stressing you out, piling on the pressure, raising your anxiety levels to breaking point! Games are best when they embrace you into their wonderful worlds, telling you great stories, and letting you get away from the incessant worries of real life.

I can think of little I want less from a game than a moment of pure, panicked stress. As someone for whom anxiety has been an ongoing issue, games offer me wonderful escapism from a reality that insists on making me fill in tax returns and sends me letters from bailiffs just because I didn’t get around to paying some silly £30 customs fee. Real life insists that I somehow not only remember everything I need, but also make it to the train station before the train arrives, and not have left my wallet on the table. Before then cancelling said train, ensuring that the connection I cannot miss if I’m going to make my flight is in real danger of being evaded, as I realise my passport is still in the drawer. Why on Earth would I want gaming to simulate these moments, with the added potential of death?

Gaming has so much potential for offering escape from peril. From pre-conceived narratives to be delivered to you via your interaction with the story, to abstract puzzling concepts. From procedurally generated worlds to explore, to challenging platformers to master. And then there are indeed the power fantasies like Dishonored, where no matter how wrong it seems to be going, you’re always more powerful than the challenge, always able to overcome.

For me the very worst moments of Minecraft are when there are three Creepers in your home, and you know something’s going to be destroyed no matter what you do. This previously serene world, beautifully explorable and your template on which to construct, is invaded by the terror of peril. Indeed, the appearance of these green demons is in fact an act of terrorism. Even if you somehow survive the encounter, your hard work likely will not, damage will be done to that you spent so long caring for, and it’s now only about panic and damage control. Oh joy – or I could get involved in a car accident and simulate a similar set of emotions.

I’m not arguing against challenge here. Overcoming obstacles is one of the finest aspects of gaming, one of those crucial elements that’s often forgotten when people are idiotically trying to distance gaming from film, as if the two are in any need of being distinguished. Mastering something, improving your skills, becoming more talented at an aspect of a game – that’s all obviously wonderful. But I don’t need to feel the stress of knowing everything’s on the verge of going horribly wrong in order to experience this.

And I’m not going to avoid celebrating the pure joy of being told a straight, pre-written story, during which there isn’t even the potential of panic. It’s terribly unfashionable now, for a game to already know its ending, and not deviate from it no matter what you do throughout, but it remains something glorious when that story is good enough. Yes, no matter what level of involvement you have, no matter how simple or complex progression may be, you’re still just turning pages in an already-written book. But that, as too many seem to have forgotten, is a good thing, when that story is good enough. Yes, games are capable of doing other stuff, but that’s no reason not to embrace the experience of a narrative on this medium. And here peril can exist in the story being told, without causing your hands to blindly flap about between keyboard and mouse, knowing that one mistake means the last seven hours of play will be lost.

Yes, of course I understand the jubilant pleasure of surviving gaming peril. Overcoming is always satisfying, and the rush of adrenaline followed by endorphins is clearly a pleasing chemical cocktail. But they’re also like the flood of hormones a mother receives after giving birth, helping her forget the sheer awfulness she just went through, and enabling her to do it once again. They have you forget just what a miserable time it was beforehand. And of course we selectively remember these moments instead of the many more times we failed, where the stress won and the game was lost, and we were forced to try yet again. In other words, we lie to ourselves in order to make it all seem worthwhile.

Whereas when I play Dishonored, I will win. Because I am best. I have the best abilities, the best powers, and can outwit and outlast these lesser men. When I play Saints Row: The Third, despite being outnumbered by dozens of times, I’m so ludicrously brilliant that I will nearly always overcome, especially if it involves missiles. When I play Minecraft, until the sodding Creepers spoil it, I can live and construct and explore in peace. When I sit down with a new adventure game, I can be told a story which I will directly experience and uncover.

Okay – let me be slightly more honest here – I do like a moment of stress. I do like that heart-skipping thrill of nearly getting caught and just escaping, those moments where you completely forget how to jump as the enemies approach from behind and your hands turn into starfish. But I enjoy these moments when I know that the consequences are not so severe that I’ll lose hours and hours of gaming that I’ve cared about. Sure, when it’s Dungeons Of Dredmor, and as much fun as I’m having I’ve not really invested myself or my emotions into the last couple of hours, sure it’s different then. But no, peril, panic, the threat of losing everything – that’s not what I want from gaming at all. Life spends far too much time threatening to kill those we care about, abruptly ending stories, or invading happy times with peril and sadness. Why on Earth would I turn to gaming for more of that?

Games aren’t best when things go wrong. They’re best when things go right.

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251 Comments »

  1. crinkles esq. says:

    I respect and agree with some of your points, John. And I think taking an extreme viewpoint on either side is taking a narrow view. Although Jim’s thoughts resonated more strongly with me, I do like a good linear story-driven game now and then. And sometimes I like games that are the equivalent of elevator music because being an adult is stressful, yo. The problem is that most all games from major publishers take this path. And so I think Jim’s banner-raising is much-needed.

  2. Sorth_31 says:

    All I can really say is I’ve never got a feeling of achievement from a game. Ever. Relief maybe “Thank GOD that’s done and I don’t have to do it again.”

    EDIT: That sounds too negative. I LOVE games and enjoy a story or good gameplay. I just never found a game that makes me feel…well…good about beating a puzzle or such.

    As for “Yes, of course I understand the jubilant pleasure of surviving gaming peril. Overcoming is always satisfying, and the rush of adrenaline followed by endorphins is clearly a pleasing chemical cocktail.” I really don’t get this, but that may be just me. All this reminds me of is panic attacks. Never had any adrenaline rush inspire anything but pure terror. But again that may just be me.

    So basically my point is, yes, I love games that let me get things right without excessive pointless stress or forced fear states. Let me choose what I want, like XCOM. I COULD play a game that lets me constantly save/reload but I’m playing ironman because…well…it seemed the thing to do. Despite the stress I enjoy it and it was a CHOICE. I’m taking the extra stress option, the “hardcore” option because I want to. Just don’t force the stress on us because it’s your ONLY selling point.

    That said, making things TOO easy is just as much a problem. Blandness rarely makes for an endearing experience.

    Short version: I like difficulty levels and options I guess.

  3. ichigo2862 says:

    I’m with you here. While I enjoy my share of roguelikes and hardcore modes in my games, I find I feel just as much if not more satisfaction in a mission/quest/run that went perfectly. The experience is especially welcome on particularly shitty days when all I want to do is just end the world and shut it down. I escape to my little controlled utopia and at least there, everything works out in the end.