Failure Equals Game Over

One of the most powerful moments I have had in gaming came when I thought that the game was over. It was in Deus Ex, of course, as so many things are. It was a classic scenario: one character was wounded, and begged me to go on without him. Well, I was already deeply immersed enough in the story that I decided that I wasn’t going to leave him. I was going to make a last stand right there. I made a quick-save and prepared to hold off the assault.

I lost, of course. There were too many of them. I was shot, and collapsed, and the screen faded to black. And just as I was preparing to see the ‘Game Over’ screen, my character woke up. He’d been captured. The game wasn’t over. I could have walked away, but I chose to stay and fight and the game respected that decision.

This example was especially powerful because of the subversion of expectations, but the general principle of interesting failure applies. A ‘Game Over’ screen is a judgement on the player, one that demands immediate historical revision, literally altering simulated history, as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time makes explicit. But this only softens the blow, making quicksaves into a accepted part of the gameplay. It’s much more interesting when we can accept the player’s decision, whatever the result.

A few games have made this connection explicit. In Burning Wheel Revised, for example, the DM isn’t supposed to let the players roll the dice unless the explicit failure result is stated: usually a complication that makes things worse for the players and skews them off in an interesting direction, but very seldom are the stakes “Game Over”.
Roguelikes and Ironman modes are one approach to address this, where the harshness of permadeath forces every choice to remain meaningful and keeps the player cautious. But this has a niche appeal. And the game still comes to an abrupt end.

Crusader Kings 2 takes a different approach to failure. Your character is going to die, sooner or later: the game lasts longer than even the longest lifespan. But the player keeps going, with that character’s heir. A similar approach informs the rest of the game: you’ll never conquer the whole world, and even the most massive of empires tends to collapse under its own weight. The scoring system doesn’t necessarily even reward most warfare, since you’re only allowed to hold on to those titles that you can prove a legitimate claim to. So by most games’ terms the player is continually going to be confronted by failures, as each character dies and their heirs see their legacy unravel. But the game keeps going, keeps throwing interesting challenges at the player.

Odd as it may sound in a game about European nobility, Crusader Kings ultimately eschews fulfilling the player’s power fantasies. This is a game that is as much about failure as it is about success, as much about the king who died after a month as it is about the king who reigned for sixty years.

Players respond to the feedback the game gives them. Game Over is a death of feedback, a cessation of meaningful interaction. If a game can support a player failing but then still continue, with meaningful things for the player to do, interesting goals to strive for, and new challenges to be overcome then that game can continue to engage the player.

Game Over is an execution. It’s a temper tantrum that emphasizes that the story wasn’t supposed to go that way. Game on is an affirmation that even if the player made some bad decisions, they can still be redeemed, still find closure.

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