Quest Updated: The Price Of Failure
One of the most universally obvious elements that set games apart are the fact that you can fail at them. Instead of trying to explain, I’ll let gamer and comedian Dara O’ Brian write half my column for me. (Note, you only really need the first 30 seconds, but the rest is just comedy gold!)
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One of the things that impresses me about the development of the gaming industry is that, on the whole, it has learnt very well to balance challenge and the threat of failure with the punishment for not being able to press the buttons in the right order for that pesky quick time event central to beating the main boss.
It might seem pretty obvious to say, but sometimes obvious things are most impressive because they’re really obvious in hindsight. I loathe Super Mario Bros. It is honestly my least favourite game, below even Pong. Actually, Tetris is probably just below Super Mario for the simple reason I find it mind-numbingly pointless. It’s like rearranging tupperware, except to 8-bit music and with a time limit. But Mario is a bane on my existence for the simple reason that it should be fun but because of the Nintendo-hardity of the game. What should be a quirky adventure with a magical plumber and his pet dinosaur and flying raccoon suit becomes a nuclear explosion of anger with enough swearing to terrify all my neighbours. And if you don’t happen to be an expert in the game, you have so few lives that shortly after making it to the first boss, you die and start over again doing the exact same levels .
With the advent of memory cards, and now built-in hard-drives in consoles and simply more complex PCs we have moved through the almost-equally infuriating save point style of games and into save-when-you-want games. This is good if, for example, you need to ever walk away from a game you are playing for whatever reason and leave without hoping the power stays on until you get back and make it to a save point. However, it has changed the punishment for failure quite a lot.
When thinking about what makes a Big Bad Boss good or bad, one should always include the possibility of failure. In tabletop gaming, this is especially interesting, because ultimately a bad, or good, dice roll can ensure a simple success against the massive inter-dimensional space dragon whale of the apocalypse, or a fight that goes through progressive stages of bad to worse to total party kill. In single player video games, however, the odds are perhaps a little more certain. As long as you have mastered the elements of the gameplay which every mission and objective have been guiding you towards, you should, theoretically, handle the final boss. If you fail it is on your head. But, if you do fail, you can invariably start at the beginning of the boss fight and try again.
Partly, this is a brilliant thing! No more controller-flinging frustration when a boss is set at perhaps a slightly too difficult setting. This is further aided by the inclusion of adjustable difficulty in many titles now – I think for example of Mass Effect. It does mean however, that the stakes are somewhat lower now than before – if you fail at saving the world, you just get a free do-over until you get it right.
This gives me mixed feelings. I obviously would hate a complex and initially enjoyable game that I’d sunk time and effort into that punished me as severely as Mario did. It’s for this reason that the old-school style of impossible difficulty died out so totally. However, I am somewhat curious: could there be a game that somehow showed you what truly was at stake in a big fight. An iPad game that gestured towards this was the interesting Infinity Blade, which set the difficulty of the final boss so high you were almost guaranteed to lose the first few times. Instead of restarting you from the beginning, the creators introduced an interesting dynamic. What would happen if your son, inheriting your weapons and taught your skills and abilities, went after your killer?
Could something similar work for a bigger title? Could there be, say a mid-game boss where failure, instead of being a cost in time and energy, became a part of the broader narrative? I don’t mean here that we have a game where losing 120+ hours in means you start from the beginning, just with your BAMF weaponry. Instead, what I mean is could we have a game where dying in a crucial boss fight didn’t result in death=game over=restart from the pre-fight cutscene. Would it be possible to have a boss battle where losing means you collapse and are left for dead, the screen fading to black. But instead of a loading screen, you are faced with a black screen and a dull, slow heartbeat. The monitor would flicker as your character opens bleary eyes to look on the chaos his/her failure has resulted in. Now, instead of a celebratory ending, you have to lick your wounds and face a secret second plotline, more difficult and darker than the first. Instead of a demon-space-whale of the apocalypse, your final boss is the dark God of the Apocalypse for which the Demon Space Whale was merely a harbinger. Losing has a punishment, but a more realistic and narratively (is that even a word?) interesting.
Even though I think that, realistically, an idea like this would be nigh impossible, I would love to see game designers working on new prices for failure.