On Failing, and Why it Should Be Encouraged

Winning is an essential part of games – that artificial euphoria from overcoming a pre-programmed challenge is what runs a billion dollar industry. But to accommodate that feeling, we need the threat of the opposite – of failing. Most games today tend to do as much as possible to avoid the “fail-state”, whether by subverting it completely (such as in the Prince of Persia reboot) or by simply making the game exceptionally easy. Of course, the problem here is that there’s a total lack of satisfaction; you don’t enjoy overcoming a challenge if there’s no challenge to overcome.

More than that, the player’s learning is stunted if they have their hand held for too long. When I first played Minecraft, it took me about an hour and a half to realise I could break more than just dirt, and I don’t think I’ve enjoyed punching trees as much since. Compare that to most modern games where I’ve had to sit through a several minute tutorial (even if they’re optional) just to make sure I haven’t missed any innovative new feature (spoiler warning: I haven’t).

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Inevitably, a post about subverting modern game design is going to mention Dark Souls, and this one’s no different. Dark Souls had a bare-bones tutorial, relying on throwing players into the deep end and teaching them the hard way. While I believe the games could stand to teach players a lot more than they do (such as the weapon scaling mechanics), it’s this trust in the player that makes the games shine so brightly.

By trusting in the player to learn for themselves, we encouraged them to explore. Having a mechanic explained to you is never satisfying – working it out for yourself is satisfying every time you encounter it for the rest of the game.

It’s interesting to me how this came about. NES games (and anything earlier) were perfectly happy to let the player fail, likely a holdover from the arcade era, in which players failing was the primary source of income. Then we moved on to home consoles, and “evolved” to more complex tutorials, allowing players to learn game mechanics more ‘safely’.

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Now though, I wish we’d take a step backwards. Many developers are afraid of players being turned off by difficulty, and this is something I predict occurring more frequently – it’s a very real issue developers face in the mobile market, where the first few moments of a player’s experience are so essential. As the industry is more and more influenced by this market, games will likely only get easier and easier, which I think is detrimental to them as a whole.

Games represent a unique challenge in storytelling mediums, forcing players to overcome some kind of trial or tribulation to finish a narrative, and this is what makes them so compelling. The further we move away from this, the less unique and distinct games become.

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