I spent half my evenings this week advancing through Advanced Warfare. Call of Duty games are uniformly about forward progression, but some of their most memorable moments comes from points of scripted failure: missing your chance to grab a gun as a Russian soldier in the first Call of Duty, or the nuclear blast in Modern Warfare 1. You learn something about the realities of those scenarios in both moments.
Advanced Warfare squanders its one point of necessary failure: the first mission’s unfortunate end incites action from both the player and from Kevin Spacey, but there’s little that’s real about it. You lose an arm, you gain a robot arm. As a player, you learn nothing. Failure in videogames can be so much more, both as a way of generating interesting play experiences and in making less abstract the knowledge we hold about the world around us.
Here are some games that I think do failure better, and what those failures taught me.
Game: NEO Scavenger
Lesson learned: Living on earth is absurdly difficult
I encountered the Blue Frog Preacher for a second time, and again he fired his rifle blindly in the dark. The last shot had struck me in the arm, causing me to drop my crowbar. This one hit me hard in the lower chest. I ran off into the dark and only when I reached a nearby field did I stop to look at the wounds. They were bad, but not terrible. I applied the dirty rags I had in my backpack and moved onwards into the night.
Two days later I was dead. It wasn’t the Preacher – I snuck up on him the following night and beat him to death with a wrench. It wasn’t even the wounds – not really. It was those dirty rags. I should have boiled them to make them sterile, but I didn’t, and so I caught an infection. My temperature soared and I collapsed in a forest.
The time before that, I shit myself to death from diarrhea. I don’t know if it was the infected water, the spoiled meat, or those unknown red berries, but one of them definitely wasn’t right.
NEO Scavenger is set in some sort of post-apocalyptic world, and as you play, you slowly learn about its culture. The Preacher’s are an infected cult. The Bad Mofos are cannibals. But every time I die, it’s not part of some dramatic, frantic fight. It’s because surviving is really hard when you can’t make fire. In two hours of play, you’ll switch from laughing that “Botany” is one of the available skills during character creation, to picking it every single time because otherwise you won’t know which mushrooms to eat. With each crummy, ignominious death, NEO Scavenger is the only survival game that feels like it has anything to do with survival.
Lesson learned: You can move forward from failure
Failure doesn’t need to be about crummy death or fatal explosions. I don’t want it to seem like I’m arguing that everything should be a roguelike, permadeath or no.
Masq is a choose-your-own adventure comic book game about a man with a shaky marriage, a murdered friend and a fashion show to fund. Every choice you make branches the story in wild, dramatic ways, and almost every choice you make is wrong in some way. Certainly every decision closes doors on what you’re likely to experience before the end of a single, fifteen-minute play session.
It’s one of my favourite examples of failing forward, and I wish games did it more. Failure need not always be a go-back-and-try-again condition, as it is in these other games, in almost all games. It should more often be a deal-with-this-new-state condition. Masq does that brilliantly.
Lesson learned: I’m never piloting a real plane
X-Plane is a flight simulator. It boasts extremely accurate flight physics, planes, cockpits, and topographical data of the entire world.
VATSIM is a service which virtual pilots can sign up to. It fills your game with both real weather conditions and with live air traffic controllers, and real people – often former professionals – who guide you into virtual airports, chide you when you fail to use the proper lingo, and otherwise create a full immersion environment for learning. (There’s a paid-for subscription equivalent called PilotEdge).
A lot of people use these two things combined in order to learn how to fly actual planes. Renting time behind a real plane is expensive, and so an accurate simulation is often the next best thing if you want to rack up some training hours.
So imagine that you’re trying to land on a runway with an easterly wind and rain and the air traffic controller is guiding you in amid low visibility. You’re approaching the ground, your plane is shaking around, you’re making tiny adjustments to try to maintain stability and… you crash. The game halts on an image of your upended plane.
You made the decisions you would in real life, in an as-close-as-possible simulation of real life. And now you’re dead.
Does failure get more meaningful than that?
Please tell me of your favourite failures and what they taught you.
This article was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS supporter program.