Like life, the best games might be unwinnable
Watching someone play a video game can seem like a Groundhog Day of looped death and rebirth, of losing over and over and over. “Press R to reload. Press R to reload. Press R to reload.” Anyone who’s played Call of Duty or Hotline Miami knows that most of the game is spent failing to survive. But while this is an element of game mechanics, it’s also an element woven into the plot of the game — a hallucinatory murderer is compelled to kill, and the quick repetition of appearing and dying pushes that hallucination onto the viewer. While it’s often lamented that video games have yet to have their Citizen Kane, we may at least be determining what we can do with the medium that films and books can’t: We can let the protagonist lose and force them to try again. The cycle of dying and starting the level over forces players to empathize with the character who toils in spite of certain failure.
For many books and films, the limitations of linear storytelling undermine the experience of failure, leaving room for doubt over whether anyone else could have made a difference. Writers and directors can make characters see their best efforts fail, but their works are hampered by how little time and how few alternatives we can see. For instance, a film like Chinatown can give its viewers an experience of a protagonist’s inescapable defeat — its famous final line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” invokes unwritten rules that can’t be broken, no matter how determined he is to reform them. But it can’t keep us from wondering whether a better detective might have found a way. After all, Jake is disrespectful to people who can help him and stubbornly focuses on one crime when a greater tragedy is unfolding right under his bloodied nose. We wonder what could have happened if Jake was given another two hours to try again.
Video games don’t face this constraint. They have a singular ability to depict how many ways it is possible for things to go wrong. As a player, you are forced to inhabit the skin of a character who strives and fails over and over again. Seeing how hard it is for a character to get by lets us experience another person’s life at a deeper level than traditional media forms permit. The character’s experience and the players’ are not identical, but drawing them down similar paths creates new kinds of empathy.
Failure is built into the video game in ways that are only recently becoming clear. The canniest games take advantage of that respawn-play-die loop to drive the emotional and narrative arcs. In 1992, a small French game company made KGB, a small French video game about the twilight of the Soviet Union. Within the circles of people who talk about these things, KGB was renowned as one of the hardest games ever made. It is a game where you can’t possibly figure out how to win without losing in the process. The number of endgames where the player dies or gets sent to Siberia is overwhelming. You are beaten to death by a pair of thugs because you accept their invitation to a party. You are demoted and sent to Siberia for figuring out an intra-government conspiracy against the prime minister. And so on. The game is a relentless drumbeat of failure.
At first you’re mad that you’ve died for the 30th time in an hour, but then you start to change your behavior to match the risks being presented to you. You realize that the game won’t tell you when you’ve fucked up; you have to feel it out carefully, stepping slowly forward along the cliff’s edge. In most games, you are fundamentally unstoppable — you will murder hundreds of soldiers by the end. But when success is redefined as “not getting mugged,” the character you are playing as becomes more fully fleshed out. You inhabit the role in a way no movie or book can allow you to, both because of the first-person perspective and because of the way you can see the consequences of decisions.
Experiencing so many ways to lose complicates how one expects being the hero of a story should feel. The hero repeatedly fails to live up to heroic expectations. Once you realize that you can lose either by behaving like an overly hardline KGB officer or insufficiently communist, there’s drama in even the most mundane in-game conversations. You start out by simply lying (“I’m here as part of the anti-crime initiative comrade Little Old Ladyovna!”), but soon you’re doubling and tripling your deceptions, trying to figure out how you should seem to act — all to avoid the next death, while realizing that death is inevitable. Rather than omnipotent wish fulfillment, your behavior as agent is so shaped by the number of ways you can lose that you begin, without necessarily intending it, to play the role of suspicious spy in a totalitarian state.
Forcing the player to merge with the identity of the character they play as and to confront its limitations: This is what games can do that other storytelling techniques can’t. Last July, a game called Spec Ops: The Line addressed this head-on. The publisher, 2K Games, presented it as a low-rent Call of Duty–alike, from its walking-talking-jawline of a main character to its meaninglessly macho title. But as the game progresses, generic Arab bad guys are replaced with American soldiers and sometimes civilians. The load screens — most commonly seen after the player dies — explicitly question the values of the player. “DO YOU FEEL LIKE A HERO YET?” they ask, as you wait to jump back in and shoot dozens more digital soldiers.
One’s motives for playing the game are openly called into question: The decision to keep playing instead of walking away from the game is likened directly to the in-game character’s refusal to give up on his mission and stop killing. Many players (me included) quit the game in disgust at a certain point, when you drop white phosphorous mortars onto civilians being evacuated from Dubai in order to keep playing. In an interview with Polygon, Walt Williams, who designed Spec Ops: The Line, said, “This is where the characters have to look at the consequences of their actions and say: 'Should we have gone further? Should we have left? Should we leave now? Is it right to keep going?' … And if the player is thinking about seriously putting down the controller at this point, then that's exactly where we want them to be emotionally.”
Another game that has attracted attention in recent years is Dwarf Fortress, famous for its motto that “losing is fun.” In the game, you work to oversee an entire fortress of alcoholic dwarves, each with his or her own appearance, emotions, relationships, desires, skills, beard-grooming standards, and – eventually – gruesome deaths. In an e-mail interview, Dwarf Fortress’s creator, Tarn Adams, told me, “It's important that people learn to embrace loss, or the world can't be enriched by their passing.” Only by seeing how easy it is to accidentally drive a dwarf mad, leading them to throw themselves down a well, or how easily a poorly planned fort leads to war-wounded dwarf veterans dying without medical care, can you come to value their individual lives. The death of a dwarf is both tragic and common, which makes a dwarf’s survival against the odds worth celebrating. At the same time, if they live long enough to gain titles and to name their weapons, it is that much worse when the inevitable dragon attack cuts their life short.
In such games as these, the difference between “winning” and “losing” is obliterated. All you can do is find the bright and momentary successes or noble failures – repelling a goblin invasion, killing a rampaging demon with your last remaining militiamen, accidentally letting your vampire mayor murder your best engraver. It turns individual dwarves’ lives into something meaningful, an opportunity to make the most of their limited time. The repetition of loss, the repetition of ending, the repetition of death enables the player to experience the story not as one of maximizing characters’ levels but of experiencing the multitude of ways the story can go wrong.
By separating games from winning and losing, we are forced to confront the personal experiences of the characters involved – the protagonist who is drawn forwards into killing innocents despite what they say are their best intentions, the ultimately meaningless but still beautiful life of the dwarf who dies for no good reason. The drive to compete, to reach the “last level” is crushed out of you by the drumbeat of failure. Instead of using the addiction of seeing a score go up to propel you forward, you are forced to experience a life that remains in stasis, or even backslides, leaving the characters taking part no better than when you started. Gamification has received a lot of attention for its ability to motivate people to drive themselves forward, but this quest for bigger numbers is a distraction from the ability of gaming narrative to force the player to accept that failure is both a part of life, and a necessary aspect of empathizing with others.
Chinatown tells us to believe Jake’s failure was unavoidable, but better would be to show us all those other things he could have done that still would have led to a tragic end, and better still would be to let us experience trying to unravel the betrayals and corruption ourselves and letting us fail and fail again. Letting loss and failure sluice over the viewer until they know there is nothing else that could be done.