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Chris Waldron, Blogger

May 18, 2012

8 Min Read

Very rarely does one consider the power of failure. 

Yet, our shared desire to avoid failure is often integral in the direction we take our lives. It greases the wheels of our existence, keeps us drudging through the monotony of work, and pushes us forward; as a society we chase success. Success, after all, comes with some very obvious benefits. Yet, without the risk of failure what would be the point of it all? A victory that comes easily is ultimately a meaningless one; a victory earned through struggle is remembered for a lifetime.

The prospect of failure is used to great effect in video games. Cast your mind to the constant threat of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission, or the encroaching moon in Majora’s Mask as it creeps closer and closer to Termina. Both examples offer the player a feeling of urgency; they heighten the tension. Take away that constant threat of failure and the deep sense of atmosphere offered by Mass Effect 2 and Majora’s Mask would have suffered for the loss. Without the possibility of losing a teammate we knew intimately, it would have been harder to identify with Mass Effect 2’s conclusion. Without the ticking meter heralding an imminent apocalypse, the crawl through Stone Tower would have been nowhere near as exciting.

Robert Yang identified this feeling as a ‘near-failure state’, a sense of adrenaline-boosted panic achieved by teetering on the cusp of failure. As the potential for survival drops, the glory of a possible victory rises, if we earn that challenging victory it becomes infinitely more fulfilling than if it was merely handed to us. An impending apocalypse may be an effective means of inducing that feeling, but such extreme measures aren’t always necessary. Take, for example, any FPS or Action Adventure title. With bullets flying overhead, low health, low ammo and no hope of back-up, the tension and excitement spike, all because we’re descending closer to the possibility of failure; for a phoenix to rise from the ashes it first must fall.

The Moon descends closer to Termina

The difficulty debate has raged for years now, with an oft-cited argument being that modern video games have become far too easy; that the prospect of failure is no longer part of the equation. Once upon a time, our games were out to get us, but not anymore. Games have moved on from their unforgiving past and evolved to be accepted by a wider consumer-base. In short, games no longer exist to beat us; they exist to be beaten. It’s hardly surprising then, that as the difficulty curve is adjusted to become more commercially viable, many people are willing to take difficulty into their own hands in order to strive for that sense of accomplishment, to induce their own ‘near-failure state’.

The examples of such behaviour are numerous: FPS pacifism, refusing to loot the snow-dappled corpses of Skyrim, three-heart runs of Ocarina of Time, all of which are player enforced; all of which are circumventing mechanics the game expects you to use. As a result, the challenge presented increases, the possibility of failure is more obvious, and not only is the game more tense, the way in which we play is drastically altered. All of a sudden, we’ve unlocked a range of new content, all without the need to type in a DLC code.

In certain cases its possible to bend a game’s mechanisms to your will, crafting an entirely different interpretation on what the game is offering. Take, for example, the ‘Nuzlocke Challenge’ of the Pokemon RPGs. In the standard game, Pokemon faint once their hit points are depleted; in a Nuzlocke run, they die, and therefore must be instantly released, never to be seen again; if your whole team falls then I’m afraid it’s game over. The diversity of Pokemon available to you is also severely limited, as you can only catch the first Pokemon you encounter on each route, forcing you to use certain Pokemon you would have otherwise ignored. Secondary rules exist but these two are the crux of the Nuzlocke; two simple shifts in gameplay focus that will have even the most emotionless stoic weeping salty tears upon their DS screen.

Once you’ve added the macabre matter of death to the otherwise saccharine world of Pokemon (Lavender Town notwithstanding), the Poke-universe takes on a whole new air of morbidity. It stands to reason that if your Pokemon die upon fainting then, surely, so do your opponent’s. Therefore, hundreds of Pokemon must die in order for yours to prosper, adding a layer of moral ambiguity to an otherwise light-hearted game. A myriad of Pokemon will rise and fall depending on how well adapted they are to the task at hand; in the blink of an eye, Pokemon evolution moves one step closer to Darwin’s original model. As a result, the way in which we approach certain situations alters dramatically. With the constant possibility of an impromptu game over, the friendliest of battles can feel like an intense bout with the Elite Four, even the smallest victory feels like the greatest of accomplishments.

The Pokemon games lend themselves to such an experience, as it’s difficult not to feel emotionally attached to stalwart companions that you’ve raised from their infancy. The effort put into capturing, training and battle-testing your Pokemon manifests itself as an acute sense of loss when one inevitably falls by the wayside. If we compare this to the example of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission I gave earlier, a range of similarities start to appear. Throughout both games we’ve forged deep emotional bonds that force us to do all we can to keep our friends alive, and if we do so, we’re rewarded with a satisfying sense of accomplishment. The prospect of losing teammates we’ve grown attached to generates heart-pounding moments in both games, the only difference being that one is a user-generated near-failure state whilst the other isn’t. Yet both examples still manage to achieve the same results.

When instigating your preferred hardcore rules the level of choice a game presents is vital. The ability to choose a means of problem-solving is what makes the whole exercise possible. This is why self-enforced hardcore modes feel most at home in open-world RPG’s like Fallout and Skyrim. In some cases, players will attempt to make the experience more authentic by adding mundane and routine aspects of our daily lives: eating, drinking, and sleeping – they all help to make your Orc or Elf that little bit more human. The aim here is to roleplay, a difficult task in a world where starvation, dehydration and permanent injury don’t seem to exist.

This goes some way to explaining the inclusion of a developer-produced hardcore mode in Fallout: New Vegas. In many ways, Fallout: New Vegas’ hardcore mode is very similar to the self-enforced variety: It’s optional, it’s challenging and it allows us to roleplay more effectively than in the standard game. The way in which we value in-game items drastically changes: water is worth its weight in gold, food is a hot commodity, and the sight of a burnt-out supermarket is enough to send any Wasteland wanderer into fits of post-apocalyptic glee. The constant ticking away of the dehydration, starvation and sleep-deprivation bars are a constant reminder of our characters frailty. Crawling out of an encampment with two broken legs whilst under heavy fire is a tale to regale to your friends; breezing through your sixth Legion squad of the day, not so much.

If there’s one area where games excel it’s at creating ‘water cooler’ moments; forging personal stories for us to share with our like-minded cohorts. When playing by a set of self-enforced rules designed to make a game more punishing, the whole experience becomes a story in itself. Your perspective is out of the ordinary, as you’ve undertaken to play the game in an entirely different way. As a result, you possess a range of unique insights that other members of your social circle may have little knowledge of. We enjoy expressing our personal victories to our friends; it becomes all the more enjoyable when those victories were hard-earned.

Failure is a natural part of human existence. We may try to avoid it as much as possible, but success and failure are inseparably bonded. When we achieve our goals they feel all the more meaningful when we’ve earned them; the same is true for video games. With this in mind it’s no surprise that many are falling to the allure of the self-enforced hardcore mode. After all, the potential for total failure brings with it a sense of unrivaled tension that allows us to become far more emotionally involved with what we play. I’m unable to recall the names of my Pokemon from my first play through of Pokemon Black but for my Nuzlocke run I could recite them in verbatim. I got to know them, I got to battle with them and I got to lose them too. It may have been a hard journey, but it was worth every step.




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