Epic Fail: What Failing In Games Can Teach Us

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.

Game: Masq
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.

Game: X-Plane
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.


  1. Sir_Deimos says:

    Dwarf Fortress has always provided some of the best deaths for me. No matter how many quests you’ve gone on, vampires you’ve killed, or sweet loot you’ve picked up, you can always die from a single wrong move. Especially when it didn’t seem like the wrong move at the time.

    Whether it’s from not checking to see that the stream you just jumped into was full of alligators, finding out that the unmarked cave you just entered was home to a dragon, or just getting stuck outside alone at night, Dwarf Fortress teaches you to stay humble.

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      It also teaches you how to be an utter remorseless monster for SCIENCE!
      (mermaid farming)

  2. Melody says:

    I hate to be this predictable, but: Dark Souls.
    And not because the game itself does failure particularly differently from other games, but because it was a) Hard but fair; b) Not just a hard game in which you often fail, but consistently and all-around about failure and desolation (themes, visuals, narrative etc)
    Those two things lead me to, well, not so much appreciate failure itself but it made me feel that I wasn’t completely hopeless. That maybe I wasn’t good at something, but I could get better eventually.

    I know it’s something in theory you could say about any hard game, but in practice Dark Souls has been the only game that made me feel like that. In that way, it was incredibly uplifting. It wasn’t just about learning a game system, it was about learning that I *could* learn in the first place. I don’t know, maybe I’m just projecting some personal issues (I still haven’t quite learned, although it got better)

    Also, to redeem myself from the predictability of DS, I think Cart Life deserves a mention. It’s incredibly hard to not fail at something. You can only do so much.
    link to 40.media.tumblr.com

    • Premium User Badge

      kfix says:

      Don’t feel bad. There’s a good reason it’s predictable.

      I’ve just flung the controller away in celebration after finally beating the four kings on the umpteenth attempt on my umpteenth play through. The bleak feeling you get trudging through the drained city, bones crunching under your feet, fighting ghosts and darkwraiths by rote but always at risk of losing concentration just once, only to hurl yourself at the Kings and have them smash you once again.

      I’m not sure why this awfulness is so compelling, but it’s not just the triumph when you eventually beat the game that makes it worthwhile. I agree, they do manage to make you feel you will get better, even if right now they are beating you into the dirt.

      My god it feels good when you get them though.

    • Cinek says:

      “Hard but fair” – buahahahahaha. I’m chocking each time I hear that argument. I don’t know, maybe start reading here: link to giantbomb.com ? But there’s plenty more to read on how “fairness” of DS is nothing more than a hype, really.

      • derbefrier says:

        thats a horrible article that makes no solid points as the comment section points out. What that article is, is a bad player trying to justify why they are bad in any way they can think of without blaming themselves for being bad at the game.

        • aliksy says:

          Yeah, the “I didn’t know where to go” should really be written as “I didn’t read anything or talk to the NPCs or explore very much.”

          To be fair, I had no idea where to go when I first played. I also didn’t read anything because most every other game I’ve played has had useless flavor text and obvious routes.

      • Merlin the tuna says:

        I love that the overwhelming response to “Hey it’s sorta bullshit that enemies can attack through walls” is just the usual “LERN 2 PLAY” refrain. Yes, you should rely on thrusting weapons in narrow corridors. So should the enemies, and you should benefit from kiting enemies into favorable terrain rather than watching their weapons phase through it. Noclip is a crappy solution made necessary by the game’s poor AI and sometimes- questionable enemy/weapon placement.

        • Vandelay says:

          Argh! The enemy placement!

          I hear this “tough, but fair” comment raised so much about Dark Souls, but it definitely felt an unfair game to me, mainly due to the way it placed the enemies. Perhaps I didn’t play it enough on either of my couple of occasions of trying to wade through it (about 4-5 hours on my second attempt, but barely making much distance on it,) but on more than 2 or 3 occasions it put enemies with large swing attacks in small areas, making it virtually impossible to dodge their attacks. The worst case of this was some big guy with a massive sword on top of a small watch tower, where a single hit from his sword would send you flying off of the top of the tower. I don’t really see how that kind of placement could be considered fair.

          I welcome the lack of hand holding, but at the same time, I always felt as if I missing something, such as never encountering any new equipment or the way to handle the tank controls. Plus, creating a character was an exercise in complete guess work; something not unusual in an RPG, but here I was never sure whether to blame the character build or myself.

          It is a game I feel I should love and it has some great ingredients within it, but there a lot of elements I couldn’t stand that I imagine are exactly what those that love it love it for.

          • gwathdring says:

            My experience precisely.

            I’m not opposed to the concept that the problem with a difficult game is that I’m bad at it. I’m quite bad at a lot of things, games included. I have never won a single game of Cosmic Encounter and that’s because as much as I love it, as much as I understand the theory and design of games, I make shitty decisions in-situ. It’s still a game I love to pieces.

            But there’s another side to that same concept. A lot of players seem utterly unwilling to accept that maybe they’re unusually good at a game. Or that maybe they got lucky. Gamers seem perfectly willing to use confirmation bias to affirm that a game was easier or more fair than it was made out to be, even as they decry the use of that confirmation bias to say a game is more difficult or more unfair than it was made out to be.

            It’s very peculiar to me. I would expect that people would be eager to boast about how awesome they were for managing despite difficulty but instead the tendency is to club it up and gang up on everyone who doesn’t like it and/or can’t cope with it and say “Ha, we all did it and we’re nothing special which means you’re special in a bad way.” It’s incredibly bizarre.

            There is of course a host of legitimate discourse from all angles but the primary mode of discussion about games like Dark Souls is to team up on people who think it is too difficult or unfair and completely ignore the possibility of confirmation bias in that. Because of course, it’s far less likely that you and your ilk are lucky that the game just happens to hit their sweet-spot than that me and my ilk are unskilled, undedicated and in bad faith when many of us who so criticize the game have played games for decades with extreme perseverance and have played very difficult games with more enjoyment. I play chess against a much superior opponent on a regular basis; I went a 8 years without winning a single game. I’m ok with methodical play, learning by mistakes, and constant failure. So clearly, there is something about the context of consistent failure and methodical attention to detail that makes one of these things enjoyable and the other not.

            Fairness is about your personal contract with the game which is deeply, well, personal and suffers from immense individual variation. Fairness is about expectations. The game doesn’t, it should be plainly obvious, broadcast itself identically to all people and therefore what is and isn’t fair is going to depend a lot on the speaker rather than just the game design. That doesn’t make the concept of fairness meaningless here, but it needs to be understood; you can’t just shoot down a conception of unfairness by talking purely about your experience of the game and how oh it was obvious to you. You have to dig a little deeper than that.

          • nemryn says:

            Imo, Dark Souls is actually a puzzle game disguised as an action game. It gives you a set of tools, teaches you how they interact with the world, and then presents you with a puzzle: How do you deal with Enemy A in Environment X? “Dodge at exactly the right time” is always available as a solution to the puzzle, in case your brain is weak and flabby, but it’s usually not the only solution. Sometimes the solution is a particular element, or a ranged attack, or a utility sorcery.

          • gwathdring says:

            Alright, master of the svelte and lean brain, what other than dodging and attacking at exactly the right time gets you past the intro boss in the Asylum? Prove your wisdom, o master of the shaded souls, and tell me how foolish I was to have bested the beast through practicing learning it’s attack patterns and dodging!

            Seriously, this is exactly the kind of crap I’m talking about. It’s the difference between assessing the game as it is and as it presents itself to a wide variety of people and assessing the game as you personally played it with no respect whatsoever for the systems of confirmation biases you experience as a human with an exceedingly fallible human memory who successfully soldiered on through the game.

            A puzzle is something one solves, typically based on clear and open information such as a sea of pieces arrayed on a table or a discrete physical object easily completely viewed. Ideally. It varies, of course. In games puzzles are often highly obfuscated and frequently rely on hidden information and arbitrary logic. Whether or not I happen to think to use something in my inventory over something else in my inventory can hardly be called a “puzzle” in any sort of positive way. Whether or not I happen to notice this one intentionally hidden secret room with a special artifact or happen to do things in a specific order and so on and so forth … these do not count as puzzles in a way that is worth celebrating but only in a way that means they frequently puzzle the player.

            Also you’re just plain full of it. There are all kinds of little tricks and discoveries that can help you have an easier time with Dark Souls and some of them might be nice and cute and clever and all that, but you still have to content, even those clevernesses taken into account, primarily with the game’s primary mechanics of dodging, parying, and attacking at the right time. That you also have to do it with the right kind of weapon and the right special equipment doesn’t make it suddenly more of a “puzzle game” or suddenly more intellectual!

            Indeed that only makes it more of a problem that the game sets you back so significantly when you fail at a task. You have so much weaker conditioning during a game of Dark Souls than a game of VVVVVV that between trying to get better at the physical coordination at the game and trying to juggle the items and weapons and armors to fit the given situation it’s quite simply a harder to learn game in an utterly neutral way. A lot of the difficulty isn’t a result of really difficult timing requirements or any particular cleverness required of palyers but the simple act of extinguishing conditioning sharply in response to failure. Failure in Dark Souls doesn’t make you as likely to do better next time as failure in many games. The game is designed in such a way that it is quite simply harder to learn at a very low level for some people. I have the same problem with Street Fighter combos–there are so many variables and there’s so little feedback as to what you did wrong when trying to input a combo (too fast? too slow?) that it’s just brutal trying to figure out how it works at all let alone throwing advanced tactics and strategy on top of that. Even people with brains very well adapted to tactics and strategy and puzzle solving can struggle with those tasks when frustrated with a seemingly (though probably not actually though who knows with the shoddy PC port) inconsistent parry timing system. For example.

            I hear a lot of people talk about how it’s really not that difficult compared to a lot of action games and how the real difficulty is in thinking cleverly and whatnot. But I can’t help but wonder if a lot of these people are simply more resistant to extinction of conditioned behaviors than people who, despite otherwise being hardcore gamers, bounced off Dark Souls entirely.

          • nemryn says:

            Whoops, the bit about ‘flabby brains’ was an attempt at levity; but I can see it backfired, so I retract it. Sorry about that.

            And I’ll admit, “Dark Souls is a puzzle game” is a half-baked idea that I haven’t really thought about too deeply and yeah, there are probably a bunch of places where it doesn’t really fit.

      • Koozer says:

        I disagree with every single point.

      • Zallgrin says:

        The “fairness” of Dark Souls is made of consistent rules, great level design and most important of all: slow and heavily telegraphed attacks. Compared to something like DmC, dodging does not require superhuman reflexes, but it also means that you absolutely GOT to dodge.

        The reason why people quote fairness, is because you understand in 90% of cases why you died and how to make it better. In something like DMC, Batman and many many other games, I knew on death that something went wrong but didn’t know what exactly, nor how to do better except for another blind run.

        • gwathdring says:

          You’re making an unfounded assumption that most people understand why they died most of the time in Dark Souls and further that that is sufficient condition for “fairness.”

          Sure, I might know what killed me. That doesn’t mean I understand why what I was trying to do didn’t work. Sure if I don’t dodge the attack I probably have a pretty good idea. But if I keep trying to dodge it a bunch of times in a row and I honestly can’t tell if I’m supposed to approach the situation differently or if I’m just not dodging well enough? That’s a different thing.

          As an example form my personal experience with the game: If despite having playing highly precision oriented games for years I can’t for the life of me figure out the timing of the the parry system (whether this is a bug or an issue with my hardware rendering of the animations or “skill”) … I’m left in a position where I can’t be sure if my failure to parry an attack is my fault or if the attack isn’t something I’m supposed to be able to parry. From there on out, whenever I run into a situation where parrying seems like the appropriate response I’m unable to effectively determine if it is the “correct” response. I might not mind dying over and over because I’m “bad” at the game, but when the game relies on my ability to read it’s mind as to how to get best different obstacles, failure to master one of the elements of the game can leave one unsure whether they’re taking the wrong approach or they just need practice which can lead to frustration.

          Frankly, I also found the controls to feel very sloppy. I had a very difficult time dodging attacks against the initial Asylum boss because I felt like I was piloting a Jaeger rather than controlling an agile warrior. I had trouble learning the precise timings, too, because the boss did so much damage I was having to remember very minute differences in timing across very macroscopic expanses of time as I trudged from the campfire back to the fight. This might not be hard for some people, but that’s less a matter of “skill” than it is of neurophysiology. The longer the time between stimulus and response the weaker the conditioning. If you happen to handle down-time better in your conditioning process, you’re going to learn more from your mistakes in Dark Souls than other people. But that’s not the game’s “fair” design allowing you to learn from your mistakes if you’re careful enough. That’s you not perceiving the same frustration as other players because your brain handles conditioning more flexibly.

          Now, I can’t prove that’s the case. But it’s certainly something to consider before we bang on about how people complaining about Dark Souls being unfair boils down to being unobservant or undedicated or what-have-you. Or even about how 90% the time, you should know why you died.

          Sure, I know I died because the thing attacked and I was in the way of it’s attack. But it just so happens that in most games, solving that problem is more about knowledge of the solution than knowledge of the problem. When do I dodge? At what point during the animation frame is the enemy done “aiming” (i.e. it won’t still hit me if I move)? How far do I need to move to receive no damage? How does dodging relate to my character build? How much time do I have to run up and attack? Where is the best place to attack it based on the geometry of the hit-detection model? And so on and so forth. But that all boils down to this: the crucial question is not “why/how did I die” but “what/how can I do better?” The game is designed in such a way as to make answering that crucial question rather difficult and not in the slightest transparent–even making basic trial-and-error (normally the primary method of understanding in these circumstances) exceedingly weak as a conditioning tool. The primary difficulty of Dark Souls, then, is the difficulty of assessing the proper solution to problems and then implementing those solutions with an unusually hampered ability to condition one’s physical reflexes..

          That’s fine. But when people complain about inconsistencies in the way problems are solved or difficulties with the game’s conditioning processes, the responses tend to, in my opinion, be out of touch with this core structure of the game’s design.

          • kemryl says:

            Hey, thought I’d attempt a response. I’d like to say first that I rarely post here but I’ve read RPS frequently for a few years, and you are among a few users here who have added seriously to my enjoyment of this site and also to my understanding of many topics outside of the game industry. I appreciate the thought and time you must put into your comments very much. Also, perhaps aside from this topic, I seem to notice you consistently advocating for positions I happen to hold, but articulating them in a beautiful way I could never dream of replicating. I feel obliged to say, I’m a fan!

            Anywho, personally, I don’t really see it as the example of a game being designed with fairness in mind; fairness is not really what makes a game enjoyable for me anyway. I used to play Bad Company 2 a bit, and one of my favourite memories of the game were a result of playing Conquest mode as a poorly equipped medic on a team that was doomed to lose from the beginning, hiding behind eroding slabs of concrete and trying to revive and heal my struggling comrades to help them hold locations as long as possible before we inevitably got annihilated by a more coordinated force, who seemed to have a hacker on their side. It was quite unfair, but the desperation and hopelessness of it was what made it so enjoyable and memorable for me, despite the unavoidable loss and the amount of deaths and downtime I endured.

            I would sooner interpret the Souls series as a game that tries its best to be as unfair as it can be without simply frustrating everyone who plays it, but often leaves an invincibility potion or a BFG lying hidden somewhere and asks the player to use their ingenuity in order to find them, and to think like a scoundrel in order to win. It presents highly unfavorable situations to the player and punishes their inattentiveness and carelessness, making every situation require extreme vigilance. It tasks the player with utilizing every item they can scrounge up and exploiting every little quirk and nuance of the engine and environment to tilt the scales back in their favor a little. For the players who can manage to do so, large sections of the game can in fact become a bit of a walk in the park.

            For example: there is a spot you can stand in the Darkwood Forest in Dark Souls where enemies will just jump off a cliff and net you huge amounts in XP, and rather than being patched, it was left in despite being a very well known glitch.
            -Shooting an arrow at an enemy in a location or group of enemies where fighting them would be too difficult draws that enemy away from their post over to your position, where you can then use a Lightning Zweihander to smash them to the ground before they are able to attack, and continue doing so to kill them without giving them a chance to retaliate.
            -Swathes of enemies can be picked off using bows, spells or throwable items from locations where they can’t even touch you.
            -You can lob a piece of dung over a wall at a boss before you enter the combat zone to poison and kill him without risking any harm to yourself.
            -It’s possible to stack passive magic buffs and spam the spider boss in Blighttown with a series of spells that kill her well before she can get close enough to begin her attack pattern, and it can be done while being severely underleveled for the location she’s in by just running past enemies and using various shortcuts. (Things like this in the Souls series gave rise to a thriving speedrunning community, aside from empowering players who find the usual style of play too difficult.)
            -Even the first encounter with the asylum demon, usually impossible unless you simply flee due to a lack of weapons, can be pretty easily won by choosing bombs as your starting item and lobbing a few of them at the demon until it’s dead, rewarding you with one of the hardest-hitting weapons in the game.

            Consider the question of fairness as not about the game as a whole, but about the interactions between the player character and the enemies throughout: the hollows in the beginning of the game are a pretty fair match for a new player, and no problem for an experienced one. The asylum demon is probably pretty surprised when someone plunges a sword into his head from the ledge above all of a sudden.

            Or there’s the Taurus Demon, one of the big walls a lot of players hit: “Aha! Silly adventurerI You stand no chance against my Demon’s Greataxe and massive thunderthighs! Chun-Li ain’t got nuthin! I am sure to be victorious. Wait… Huh?! What the hell are you doing on that tower? What happened to my archers? OW! The damage on that lightning-infused plunging attack is TOTAL BULLSHIT! And when I hit you you can just run away and chug an estus to return to FULL HEALTH?!! Why can’t I do that? And get away from my legs, pervert! I can’t hit you when you’re betwe-AAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaa…” (got cheesed off the bridge)

            Poor guy never stood a chance.

            I think it’s a series based on unfairness, requiring the player to counter the immense difficulty by exploiting the AI, finding shortcuts and loopholes, leveraging the community, finding the powerful items and generally being even more unfair than the game itself. In a bit of a paradox, the fact that you can beat the game at it’s own, er, game, is what makes it rather fair in the end, at least for the motivated player within the target audience, and also what makes it so enjoyable and unique. It encourages guerilla tactics and unconventional, “metagame” strategies, and for players who become quite skilled, it lets you ignore the assistive measures available and raise the difficulty to whatever level brings the challenge back, making it extremely replayable.

            To me, it’s a masterclass in the careful balance of a game that’s supposed to be difficult. it has plentiful emergent gameplay and carefully considered mechanics/level design that lends an extremely satisfying sense of challenge and progression to a wide variety of play styles, and allows the experienced player to scale the difficulty to their preference, but I certainly don’t expect everyone to see it that way.

            I also can’t fault anyone who finds it not to their liking for any reason, including how unfair it can indeed be. It’s a game that requires the player to become invested very early on to enjoy it at all. If the somber world, cryptic story, ambiguous characters and complex systems don’t happen to inspire you to keep trying even after suffering countless crushing defeats against very unfavorable odds, then your lack of investment will probably preclude the possibility of discovering the various ways to reduce the challenge, along with the more unique and enjoyable content the game has to offer.

            Concerning the players who suggest it’s a totally fair game, just know that not everyone who enjoys the game totally agrees, and certainly not everyone thinks a failure to enjoy a Souls game amounts to a lack of skill or some kind of personal flaw. I think at the end of the day, many of the series proponents forget that it is a very specific type of game designed for a very specific subset of the hardcore video game enthusiast, itself being a very specific niche within the portion of people who play the more complex and difficult “AAA” style of video games, which happens to be a rather specific group of the world’s population. Despite its runaway success, it was never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and I struggle to think of a reason why it should be.

      • GameCat says:

        Obligatory comic response:

        link to static.giantbomb.com

  3. Grizzly says:

    Swat 4 oh so very much.

    Spoilers: freespace ends with you saving the earth. But in doing so the wormhole between earth and the rest of the universe is shattered, ending a civilization.

    Freespace 2 takes it further: it first tells you that you can win
    It tells you that you have won
    It tells you you can dominate
    It tells you you have dominated
    Then it tells you we made a mistake
    Then it tells you to defend
    Then it tells you to retreat
    Then it tells you to run.

    • gwathdring says:

      Swat 4 is my favorite Co-Op video game. You feel like a real team. You have to communicate, you have to be careful. And for god sakes do not fire your weapon without calling out targets first because you will flashbang your teammates who will then miss their target who will then kill all three of you leaving Bravo team trapped on the second floor with no one covering the stairs at their backs and not enough door wedges. WHY DID YOU DO THAT. YOU ASS.

  4. padger says:

    Fantastic piece, Sir. Can this be one you post up for all at the weekend?

  5. Vandelay says:

    Not PC, but I loved the way ZombiU did failure. Effectively, it was permadeath, as your character would be done for if a zombie got you, but you would reappear as a new character back at the safehouse. You could carry on the mission from where you left off (with a little bit of backtracking.) It allowed you to grow attached to your character and fear death, but didn’t suffer from the real frustration that real permadeath suffers from.

    Even better, your previous character would be right where they fell, now zombified and carrying a backpack full of stuff.

  6. SuddenSight says:

    These are all interesting forms of failure, but I think it is also interesting to focus on loss as a part of the narrative.

    For example, the most effective instance of loss I can remember in any game I’ve played is probably the Companion Cube (sorry to be cliche). It is silly, but I still remember it and I did go back and spend an hour or so trying to save the cube.

  7. Rizlar says:

    The clue is in the name: Failbetter games! Failing in Fallen London just means not achieving the stated goal but anything could happen. The way you play it would be all too easy to only go for safe-ish bets, but you can potentially get a lot more out of failing spectacularly and much of the time failure is far more entertaining than succeeding.

    If only I could remember a good example…

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Death is strange in the neath…

    • tigerfort says:

      Death, Imprisonment, Madness and Ostracism (the four primary fail-states) all have their uses in Fallen London, and there are a fair few individual actions where the results of failure are different to those of success, rather than necessarily worse. And then, of course, there are those who seek the name….

  8. LogicalDash says:

    Failure should 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.

    Pretty sure this should begin “Failure shouldn’t always…”

  9. Andy_Panthro says:

    Crusader Kings II is one that I love for it’s use of what you termed “failing fowards”.

    You can have an abysmal time in a game, lose an empire, and yet you can always continue if you’ve had an appropriate heir. This always gives you a chance to get your revenge! (or fail again).

    • SuddenSight says:

      CKII goes both ways for me. On the one hand, if you’ve got an heir you can always continue. On the other hand, sometimes you are king of the world and everyone is bowing to your will, when suddenly your monarch trips on a sandwich and you realize no one has procreated in a while. Not a bad thing, but it can be quite unexpected.

  10. Bracknellexile says:

    It’s a bit of a shame Kerbal Space Program is in the tags but not mentioned in the article. If any game has the potential to let you learn from failure it’s that one. From the simple things like forgetting to deploy the solar panels, running out of fuel and having to get out and push or discovering that the height of your engine is greater than that of your extended lander legs, to missions that consume hours of development and flight-time only to find that you’ve not got enough parachutes to slow you down in Duna’s thin atmosphere and if you do a powered landing then you won’t be able to take off again – and you deliberately didn’t add an antennae cos you were sure you’d be able to get all that lovely, lovely science back to KSC intact.

    • Cinek says:

      Kerbal Space Program is basically designed in a way that’s forces you to fail. It’s a very specific and rare type of a games, where you spend good 90% of time learning game quicks, bugs, dodgy controls, dodgy physics, dodgy illogical way of doing things instead of actually getting familiar with a subject of the game – in this case: building rockets and a space flight. There are mods that fix some of the shit this game got, eg. FAR – fixes KSP totally f*** up aerodynamics, but even heavily modded install often just begs you to go visit Mexico and slap one of a devs in a face.
      (ps. I completed career (including the latest hard-mode career), been on every difficult body you can be to, done pretty much everything you can in a game (though no, I did not do the grinds like visiting all of the Easter eggs) )

    • Wisq says:

      Definitely KSP. I’ve just recently come out of a month of unemployment where I did pretty much nothing except play KSP. Then mod it, then play it more, then mod it more, until I had 40+ mods and was doing weird tricks to reduce memory usage so I could actually continue to mod it.

      My last playthrough ended up being very different from what I intended it to be. I was playing with Kerbal Construction Time, which made time actually mean something; Kerbal Alarm Clock, which made time something you could actually manage reasonably; TAC Life Support, which made time a critical resource for manned missions; Final Frontier which made Kerbal lives actually mean something; and, a strict ironman rule — KCT would let me do “simulations” (automatic save+launch+load when done), including starting in orbit of any planet I had visited before (great for testing landers etc.), but once I finally built the ship and launched it, there was no going back, no matter what happened.

      Not unlike Dwarf Fortress, this playthrough eventually got killed by lag, when I discovered my asteroid base had grown too large and I’d deployed way too many communications satellites (for RemoteTech‘s sake, getting paid for each one thanks to Fine Print‘s “launch a satellite into this orbit” contracts) and had no idea which ones were actually important to the network.

      It was only looking back that I realised how weirdly conservative my playthrough had been. Sure, I had probes around Duna, Ike, Eve, Gilly. I had multiple robotic landers on the Mun and Minmus. I had an asteroid base that could produce its own ships, freed from the restricting grasp of Kerbin and its gravity and atmosphere. I had miner ships that could retrieve fuel and ore from the surfaces of Kerbin’s moons and fuel further missions. Yet I had never even landed a real, living Kerbal on the Mun, much less the other planets. And nobody ever actually died! Crazy, and not what I expected at all.

      That’s not to say I didn’t have failures — plenty of unmanned ones, but even a couple of near-death manned ones that I recovered in time, thanks in part to Vanguard EVA Parachutes — but what they taught me was how to be ultra-conservative. Establish a strong communications network with few or no blackout windows. Send probes, not people. Simulate launches with every new ship and document exactly how I got them in orbit — “turn to this angle at this speed”, etc. Overprovision my life support and my delta-v. Test everything; leave nothing to chance. Heck, I even installed an adjustable test weight mod so I could create an object with the weight of an asteroid and practice pushing and/or towing it.

      Launches and landings became so routine that I fully expected my complacency to eventually get someone killed, but it never came.

      Realistic? Probably. Fun? Sure! But so ridiculously overengineered — and kinda against the Kerbal spirit. They’re supposed to be short-lived, disposable. That’s made implicit by how they talk (somewhere, I forget) about Kerbin’s inexhaustible supply of eager new recruits.

      What I learned from failure? That I should fail more, because failing is fun. :)

      • Cinek says:

        There’s a bug with Klaws that kills FPS. Devs know about it for good half a year and don’t seem to be bothered to fix it. That’s why your asteroid station got killed by lag. I did the same stupid mistake once – building an asteroid base. Never again.

  11. Flying Penguin says:

    Pretty much any of the recentish Combat Mission games, particularly Shock Force (where you play a western military in a fictional conflict in Syria*), the victory conditions are often so tight that loosing a squad or a tank means game over.

    -Suppress every possible enemy firing point -> Run out of ammo before contact and get cut down whilst defenceless
    -Don’t suppress every possible enemy firing point -> Get cut down whilst crossing a street

    -Keep a tank in complete cover -> Have your unsupported infantry cut down
    -Take a tank out of complete cover -> Have your tank nailed by long range anti-tank fire from an unseen adversary

    -Stay on the move -> Get cut down in your stride
    -Stay still -> Get pounded by mortars and blown up in situ

    -Look for a target -> Get your head blown off
    -Don’t look for a target -> Get flanked and get your head blown off

    If anything was going to give you a sense of the complete horrifying lethality of even “low intensity” modern conflicts(and therefore drive home the point that there is no such thing as a risk free conflict, even with a top spec western military vs vastly inferior forces), this was the game. Every turn becomes a nail biting weighing of possible ways to fuck up, the time spent agonising over how to divide your fires during house to house fighting in some god forsaken hell hole grew exponentially, with any Call of Duty or World of Tanks inspired tactics being immediately and mercilessly punished.

    Good times :)

    *Well it was fictional when the game was released in 2008!

    • Thurgret says:

      For Shock Force, it was a Syrian conflict. Shock Force 2, planned from a few years ago, is to be about a Ukrainian conflict. I’m not sure I want to see an idea for Shock Force 3.

      Anyway, Combat Mission’s a tricky game. Especially when playing campaigns in the WW2 setting, where losing units can prove especially problematic later on.

      • Flying Penguin says:

        If they make one based on a fictional Russian invasion of western Europe, I’m moving to New Zealand!

  12. djbriandamage says:

    I trained some faculty at my college to make educational games. My class was called “You have died; retry?”

    The idea is that simulations empower students to explore environments and discover consequences in ways they cannot in real life. Make failing a rich and educational experience to help drive home how valuable the correct procedure is.

  13. sinister agent says:

    I’ve always had a hard time with this in games. If an outcome is less than great I sometimes struggle not to go back and try it again, particularly in strategy games. I hate even losing units in RTS games and the like, it feels like a waste, and I worry it’ll mean a pyrrhic victory.

    There are some games that encourage you to roll with the punches though, and I’m getting better. Playing games that really reward repeat playthroughs even if you fail were a big help.

  14. cederic says:

    Similar to the X-Plane experience, playing car racing games while drunk. It’s completely reinforced my determination to never drive a real car in that state.

    (Interesting counterpoint: Playing world of tanks while drunk: completely reinforced my determination to only ever engaged in armoured warfare following at least half a litre of vodka)

  15. elilupe says:

    My example is also one of my all-time-favorite gaming moments, a moment that will forever be seared into my mind.
    I was playing Far Cry 2 on hard mode, scouting out an area filled with well-armed and alert guards that I would soon have to assault for a mission. Long story short, things quickly went south, and every guard within a 10-mile radius had their sights on my head. I fought for a long-ass time, running and ducking into bushes and behind destroyed cars to try to keep myself alive, but I was starting to realize how futile the fight was. My health stims quickly dwindled to nothing until all I could do was pull shards of metal out of my leg and re-align my twisted and broken fingers.

    Finally, I went down in a hail of gunfire from a shotgunner I hadn’t noticed sneaking up behind me. This being my first time playing Far Cry 2, and my first time dying in it, I had no idea the mercenary buddies I had met in the African jungle could come to help me when I was put down like this so seeing my recently-friended mercenary buddy Paul Ferenc appear before my fading vision to shoot a bad guy or two and pull me up filled my brain with wonder at what this game could do. He pulled me onto his shoulder and dragged me to relative safety until I could heal up and jump back into the fray. It was dangerous as ever, but this time I had the help of Ferenc, the man I now thought of as my virtual best friend.

    The fight was going well now, until this time, it was Ferenc that got shot down. Panicked, I shot the man that put him down and ran over to my buddy’s writhing body. Now, the game has a system for helping your buddies get up, and I think it’s wonderful, mostly because of this moment here. You crouch over them as they painfully look you in the eye and groan, and you can choose to leave them to die in the sand as you run away or take out any nearby enemies, or you can inject them with the morphine syrettes that you keep in your own inventory to heal you when you get damaged. So there is a choice you have to make, inject my buddy with some of my limited health potion, which may not even be enough to heal them, or leave them and keep the health for my future self? Plus, on top of this is the fact that like I said, one may not be enough to help them, sometimes they need two, or even three.

    But other times, they are so badly hurt your measly syrettes can’t heal them and all you can do is either, again, leave them to die, or inject them with more morphine in order to soothe their passing. It’s a wonderful, heartbreaking mechanic. Soothing them doesn’t have any in-game effects. Your blue and red morality meter won’t be pushed further towards “good’. Other mercs won’t talk of that time you eased Paul Ferenc’s passing into the other life. The only effect is that you can help a man(or woman) that you regarded as a friend pass on feeling a little less pain than they might have.

    So that’s where my favorite failure in a game is. I looked into the eyes of my dying friend Paul Ferenc and, in a panic, injected him with morphine until his pained movements slowed and his sad eyes closed and he drifted off to another world, all because I was a terrible mercenary and couldn’t fight a single enemy camp on my own.

  16. Farsi Myrtle says:

    Jesper Juul has a short book called The Art of Failure: link to mitpress.mit.edu

    Games, writes Juul, are the art of failure: the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience it and experiment with it.

  17. Continuity says:

    COD does something badly?


  18. Hex says:

    The Banner Saga, for sure. They’re kind of dicks in that decisions made made months earlier in game-time and come back and bite you in the ass after you’ve forgotten about them, but it’s neat getting so wrapped up in finishing the trek each play through, that “optimizing” the journey doesn’t play into it too much.

  19. cpt_freakout says:

    Strategy / tactical games are great failure experiences, too, I think. Particularly when there are situations when the failure states are not definitive. Earlier in the year I spent a good while playing XCOM EW Long War, and it often just hits hard enough to kill your best soldiers by piling up the odds. It made me suffer in the strategic part because I sent interceptors on heroic missions and then wasn’t able to stop even the most miserable scouts since repairs take a good while… but I learned, and started managing everything better, even if the game constantly makes you feel like you’re just plain losing. When that feeling is always at the back of your head, every victory is an achievement, your soldiers are more precious, and therefore the drama and tragedy become greater than ever. This is something I never got while playing vanilla, even on classic ironman, simply because I knew when I was winning, and when I lost, it was usually just a hiccup in a drawn-out victory. When I lost in LW, it felt catastrophic, and moving on felt truly like going up against something better than I.

    I also remember a discussion in the forums of Expeditions: Conquistador when it was just released; someone was complaining that the game cheated, that nothing turned out his or her way ever, and that the devs should change that. Fortunately there were many of us who understood the problem: heroes are always the ones to die first because that is the ‘natural’ course of chance – both strategy and tactics are in some way the path to control that wildness in your favor, but that realization only comes after failing once and again until you see that there is quite the element of self-understanding to the whole thing.