Failure in Video Games

By Michael Mendis

All gamers have had that moment, where you try your best and it just isn’t good enough.  You can’t figure out how to dodge that boss’s devastating attack; the swarms of zombies overwhelm you as you’re running out of ammo; a guard turns at just the wrong moment and spots you trying to sneak into the enemy compound.  You’ve failed.  You died.  Game over.


While we often think of all the triumphs that gamers enjoy when they save the princess and beat the game, we usually overlook the mountains of failure that came before.  Failure is a common part of the gaming experience, forcing you to learn and adapt until you can overcome the obstacles that the game puts in your path.  And beyond that, game developers have found ways to express their creativity through player failure, making experiences that can only be found in an interactive medium like gaming.

In some games, failure is inevitable.  Many classic arcade games are designed around the concept of achieving high scores rather than completing a story; the game doesn’t end until you die, until Pacman is finally devoured by ghosts or your last spaceship is blasted to pieces.  Even if you succeed in beating the highest scores of those who had played on that arcade machine before you, you won’t escape your character’s demise in the game.  This was how the arcades made money: no player could ever truly “beat the game”, but they could keep playing over and over again, inserting more coins into the slot and seeing how far they could go before they crashed and burned.


This thought process in game development spilled over into early console games, even though consoles don’t take coins.  Many games for the original Nintendo were notorious for their brutal difficulty, from challenging platforming sequences to insane “bullet hell” boss fights in shooting games.  People even came up for a term for difficult games from this era: they weren’t simply hard, they were “Nintendo hard.”  While many games today tend to be a bit easier on their players in order to attract a broad audience, there are still some games (such as Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden) which find their niche through brutally challenging gameplay that leaves gamers hurling their controllers time and time again.

But the ways that failure has influenced gaming goes beyond just basic difficulty.  Some games use a trope called the “Hopeless Boss Fight” to advance a story.  In these scenarios, the player is presented with a fight that may seem winnable at first, but actually isn’t: the boss has infinite or near infinite health, and can wipe out your character(s) with little effort.  These moments serve to establish the opposing character as an intimidating and overwhelming foe, one that the player is usually given a fair chance to defeat later in the game.  Beating that boss later, when your character is stronger and you have a more complete knowledge of the game, feels  sweeter due to that earlier defeat.


Still other games will up the ante of failure by using a mechanic called “permadeath”: if a player’s character dies, that character stays dead.  Roguelikes (a type of game that often uses procedurally generated levels) typically incorporate permadeath into their gameplay, meaning that every time you attempt a run through the game’s unique levels, you are playing as a brand new character, one who gains little or no advantage from any of the successes of the characters that came before.  They sometimes find clever ways to memorialize the player’s defeat, such as in Rogue Legacy, where the fallen character is given a painting and some parting words.


These are just a few examples of the ways that developers incorporate player failure into the gaming experience.  It’s something that can’t be replicated by movies or TV shows, where the audience is a passive observer with no control over what happens onscreen.  Such an observer merely sees the defeat of a character; for the player, failure is personal.  TV and movies can tell you a great story, but games let you be a part of it.