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The Failure Of Failing

March 29th, 2011 by

Banks and games have one thing in common, and I’m not having a dig at day one DLC or anything of the like. No, I am instead talking about the complete inability to fail.

Let me illustrate the point, as a child I played games like Alex the Kidd, simple adventure game, similar to Mario but you only had three lives.  You had to complete the game from scratch, no saves, no passwords and no continues. Hardcore.  If you compare this with modern games of a similar ilk there’s been a trend to prevent failure, my example: Kirby’s Epic Yarn, here is a game where you cannot die and thus cannot fail.

I know that the two examples I’ve taken are extremes, and I’ve not played Epic Yarn but it’s a trend that’s becoming increasingly common.  FPS titles are pretty simple, you get shot enough and you die. Simple as, or is it?  Let’s go back to one of the early shooters: Doom.  You had health out of 100 and armour out of 100, once your health depleted you were back to the beginning of the level.  You could reach the point where you had no more health packs on a level, no bullets and still some enemies to kill plus no checkpoints.  Let’s compare that with the newest Call of Duty: Black Ops.  Here there are several checkpoints throughout the levels that allow you to find the safe places by trial and error, you have a reduced HUD and no ‘health’.  Instead your screen gets redder around the edges and you just hide behind some cover and mimic Wolverine’s mutant rapid regeneration and heal yourself up in a few heartbeats and believe me you’ll need to do that a fair bit if you play through on veteran.  What’s my point?  That games are afraid of letting you fail, they don’t want to “punish you” for dying, they want you to keep playing their game.

Another comparison is Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in comparison to OblivionMorrowind allowed you to kill anyone you wanted from the get-go.  Killed the wrong person? Oh well you can’t complete the main quest, you get told this but the game lets you do it and lets you continue to play.  You can in theory kill every last person on the continent and be left in the new and sparsely populated country of Bob-olia.  Granted you probably wouldn’t want to and it’d be a pretty dull grind but the fact is there are consequences to your actions. Obilvion on the other hand wouldn’t let you kill key characters, instead you simply knocked them out.  Now if I as the head of all the guilds in the game decide that I want to kill some royal heir I want to be able to do this, not to have him wake up after I pelt the living daylights out of him with sword, bow and magic to be slightly miffed at my onslaught and not bat an eyelid at his apparent invulnerability.

Why is this?  Why can’t I choose the option in dialogue that let’s me strike down a key character in an RPG instead of doing their quest line if that’s what my character would do, even if it’d stop me completing the game?  Why can’t I be so bad at DJ Hero that I’m told I need to start the song over again?

Well there’s probably a multitude of reasons, in restricting the options in RPGs that is probably due to limitations in development.  I know that the few times I’ve ran a tabletop RPG my friends took the game in a totally different direction to what I’d planned and I was forced to adopt the story on the fly and expecting all possible options to be in a video game is unrealistic. It would also probably create an unusable interface.  As for not being able to fail at games like DJ Hero and Epic Yarn they’re not putting themselves as score attack games, and in the case of DJ Hero it’s seeking to be a party game and no-one wants their song to stop halfway through because I’m rubbish at it.

So why are games moving away from failure?  I’d put this down to a few key reasons:

    1. That games are wanting you to experience their story in a controlled way and that is more important than allowing you freedom.  Examples: Any game that makes you go through a series of simple and ultimately pointless tasks that serve no point other than to stroke the writers ego.
    2. Game Developers are trying to reach the “casual” audience, they see this mythical group of people as the ultimate cash cow and  don’t want to scare off these cautious gamers with the possibility of failure.


T'is but a scratch.

I have no problem with trying to reach a casual audience and I don’t really have a problem with the new ‘bleeding edge of TV’ style of indicating player health in comparison to the percentage style health because it does tend to be more immersive and a slicker design style.  But I do have a problem with being forced to have my hand held in games when either I or the character I’m playing wouldn’t.  Examples; the newest Metroid, you have all the weapons from the start but because you’re not authorised to use them you can’t.  Who cares if you’re a bass-as-nails mercenary, the big voice hasn’t authorised their use.  Similarly, in Homefront, you are not able to start shooting until you are given the okay by your NPC custodians, despite the fact that all the targets are ready and waiting for you.

Maybe this is me not appreciating the storytelling in games but I’d much rather be given the option of accidentally killing the main quest giver in an RPG, shooting too early and getting blown up by Koreans in shooters and being told I failed at a platformer than simply being told that I didn’t mean to do that.

(I did learn that Alex the Kidd had an unlockable continue but at that time I was unaware of this.)

(I’d also say that Prince of Persia did an acceptable job of allowing me to fail without being tiresome in a platformer.)

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2 Responses to “The Failure Of Failing”
  1. avatar Shatnerzbassoon says:

    Whole heartedly agree… great little comentry!

    I recently finished Fallout New Vegas on Normal difficulty and I have done all four endings, thouroughly enjoyed the game and after putting 100+ hours in I thought I had seen pretty much eveything the game had to offer.

    Just started again in Hardcore mode chasing the achievement and its a completely different game. I now have to think about ammo, weight, food, water, sleep… and taking your eye off any of them could leave you stuck without enough resourse to carry on.

    It means I have to really take my time at every location I stumble accross, search and examine every box and item, pickpocket eveything that moves… I have already seen so many buildings, caves and town locations and NCP’s that I previously completely missed with all the fast traveling and wish I had just played it this way from the start.

  2. avatar bob destroyer of worlds says:

    Well for the older games the reason they had lives and were really hard is because it was a hang over from arcades and after three goes it would want you to pump more money in. So i can see the point of removing this because you have already paid for the content. The best way i can think of fixing this is in the difficulty settings if you want it to be punnishing then in super hard mode let people run out of ammo etc

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