As I was knee deep in the glorious Persona 4: Golden, something curious happened. A heavy 50 hours into the game after something resembling a climax, the game ended. It was an ending that felt hollow, strangely devoid of resolution. Something was off. After being treated to a bleak cutscene, everything was over, with little fanfare. It didn't seem right and so I took to the internet to find I had received a bad ending. One of them. Nowhere near the worst one -- I didn't mess up that badly -- but a wholly unsatisfactory one. I reloaded my save, corrected my slight error, and, as it turns out, there were another 30 hours of gameplay waiting for me. That's a lot.
I couldn't help but wonder how many people might have gotten to one of the early alternate endings and thought that was that. Surely everyone would have that drive to figure out what was really going down with so many plot threads left limp, right? That moment was a little sobering. The game was putting the impetus on me. I had to be paying attention. Close attention, it turns out, because there were a few more unwanted endings I could wind up going down if I didn't do some careful detective work.
Failure is fantastic.
One of the singularly unique features of videogames is your ability to lose them. A movie isn't going to stop 3/5 through and ask, "Hey, smart guy, who's the bad guy?" and then shut off if you’re too dense to figure it. Or maybe you were too busy fantasizing about a quixotic life in a small, but modern apartment with your waifu, eating steak fresh from the local butcher. Books don't quiz you on the moves and tactics you've learned and ask you to write a page before carrying on. Games can do this, and it can be a wonderful thing.
I was thinking back to X-COM: Enemy Unknown and how it allows you to fail spectacularly at saving the world. With all the games that task you with being the Ultimate Savior of All Things, few offer a sense of urgency or suspense. You generally know you'll save the world, even if some grind is involved. Eventually. Whenever you're good and ready. In X-COM, you can play for 20 hours, fail to prepare adequately for an alien invasion, and lose the game. Game over, man. Game over. Feel free to try harder next time, you twit.
It's easy to fall into the "ain't nobody got time for that" camp, but there's something delightfully droll about the game telling you you've reached absolute failure. And something in me that makes me want to try again. After all, I knew the stakes going in, and I should've been a bad enough dude to handle them, right? There's an untapped level of tension that keeps you engaged and on your toes when the impetus to succeed is put squarely on the player. It's the same feeling that encourages people to do self-imposed permanent death runs of games.
Developers don't even have to be as damning as Firaxis was with X-COM, though. It would be neat to miss a QTE and end up with a scar that follows your player for the rest of the game. Just some semblance of consequence that elevates things beyond circumstance, or more ambiguous states of failure and success beyond the "dead/not dead" binary. In Persona 4’s narrative, you -- that’s you, the player, by way of a mute, surrogate main character -- are trying to catch a criminal. It's easy to lull yourself into a state of passivity and complacency, busying yourself with the tertiary mechanics and wonderful trivial details while you wait for the story to play out and tell you what's what.
If you do that, though, the only things that will get you to the best, fullest endings are either a guide or plum luck. The game assumes you're properly invested. The quest for truth and, subsequently, what truth means, seems to be the highest thematic goal of the narrative and it’s reflected on the metagame level of rewarding players with a thirst for satisfaction and an attention span to match. It’s a good thing. It encourages an attuned, critical audience.
There's something to be said for a challenge, whether reflexive or mental. I'm not advocating arcane rules, difficulty spikes, or cheap mechanics aimed to preclude potential players. I don’t mean to perpetuate insularity. But death or failure in games doesn't have to be pointless, or merely a brief respawn to a previous, uncorrupted state. Imagine a pure detective game that, unlike L.A. Noire, actually requires you to do proper detective work to succeed rather than scurry you up the promotion ladder because of player nepotism. There was something arresting about playing Myst and being told, “Figure it out,” as I scrawled across notebooks record of each and every little island discovery. Why is this market so painfully underserved while companies churn out samey games. Didn’t anyone ever tell them not to go chasing waterfalls?
I'm reminded of the visual novel/puzzle game 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which ended with me being stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant. It was awesome. It was infuriating. It had me yearning for another playthrough in which I do a better job of staying on my toes, unraveling its mysteries, and avoiding an empty death.
What we need less of, in part, is what we’re inundated with: linear adventures in which we’re led by the nose by way of noisy, arrow-laden UI, toward inevitable, empowering success. Having actual threat and consequence to the player can make for unique experiences -- Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls come to mind as games in which you fully inhabit their worlds -- and serves as one way to heighten engagement as players explore the finely tuned digital space. It is also a means through which less stagnated design can be born as genre conventions would have to be either interestingly worked around or entirely cast off. In the case of the L.A. Noire example, a team would have to work out a viable way to make an actual detective game.
Even some games in which you can’t “lose” offer a fresh alternative to the whitewashing of failure and instantaneous reversion to a comfortable, safe save state. During a particularly treacherous portion of Journey, I felt more possessive and protective of my lengthy, hard-earned scarf than I would have a lives counter ticking away and subsequently resetting me a couple of minutes.
Failure is part of life. It's most of life for most of us. It also has room to be a meaningful part of a game beyond a temporary state to be overcome with the smallest amounts of added insight, skill, or chance. Giving failure meaning or consequence -- and exploring different modes of failure beyond the kill or be killed dichotomy -- is a chance to inculcate players with another experience beyond reckless abandon and lethargic play. It can add tension or engagement. If I’m just carted around on a sightseeing tour, made more voyeur than participant, my actions and attention both meaning little, it becomes easier to disengage.