I’ve recently spent an unreasonable amount of time playing “puzzle” games (for lack of a better genre signifier), punctuated only by bouts of Dark Souls 2. I think I finally “get” Dark Souls. It’s a genuinely singular experience, and I feel like a much more complete person now that I’ve uninstalled it. Some part of me wonders what would happen to my general happiness if I uninstalled every game I own revolving around killing or dying – except Titanfall and Unreal Tournament, of course, because I’m not insane.
A friend was watching me play Thomas Was Alone and the first thing he asked was, “How do you die?” Not, “Who are these cute little anthropomorphic rectangles?” or, “What is the objective here?” or, “Who composed this score because, my god, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard!” It was, “How do you die?” The friend in question is not a gamer, but, like most people, plays games, and I found his question to be more insightful than he had perhaps intended it. From the viewpoint of that moment in time, games were not something that brought joy to our lives, they were not something that caused people to grow closer together, they were not art pieces that showed us something unique about life, they were experiences in which you fail and die. They were Dark Souls.
As a medium, games have an incredible power to induce reflective, emotional, and thoughtful experiences, a power that is often underutilized. I’m sure that Dark Souls has imparted its share of emotional moments to gamers, although when I read about them they are invariably about the hard-fought victory that is surmounting the game’s fail states. Dark Souls is intentionally inscrutable, and even as a lifelong gamer I find its depths bewildering and uninviting. On the other hand I have regularly expressed my displeasure with dreamy non-games (again, for lack of a better genre signifier), which in addition to lacking fail states, lack any sort of true interactive state as well. To a degree, this vast gulf in game design can be attributed to the simple cause of the designer knowing their target audience, but I think it is actually indicative of something much more serious and in need of remediation – the identification of gameplay with the fail state.
In what I will loosely, and certainly regrettably, dub a “pure” game (Soccer, Chess, Civilization 5), matched opponents compete over fixed resources (points, pieces, hexes), meaning that there is a win state and a fail state – the one necessitates the other. But in the vast majority of narrative games, there is not such a clear oppositional structure. The player does not “compete” against an AI, the player is striving against a fixed series of gameplay gates in an effort to reach “the end”, however questionably defined or executed. Generally, this has no clear reward, aside from bragging rights. Crucially, these gates can take any form – they do not have to be failure points.
In Thomas Was Alone, it turns out there are sections in which a character can “die”, but the character is immediately and without comment respawned, typically not far from where they “died”. Thomas Was Alone is not a particularly hard game, and its not a particularly long game – but yet it manages to present a beautiful, thoughtful narrative paired with gameplay that remarkably fits that narrative. When the experience of play and the experience of story are aligned, there doesn’t need to be failure to motivate the player. When the narrative is dull, the play uninteresting, and the two out of sync, then gated failure is all you have.
I love competitive games, and I love winning, but in a narrative game I am not interested in reaching an arbitrary win state by surmounting pre-ordained combat points, opposed only by battles that exist as a fixed constant. “Success or death” is a paradigm born out of a lack of options; it is not a paradigm we should promote for its own sake. It is all inextricably tied to the concept of games as killing simulators – we have transferred the anxiety of death in real life as ultimate fail state to the world of games, and assume that in order to produce meaning we have to approach death as failure in games, over and over. If this is truly the case, then Dark Souls is among the most meaningful games – among the most meaningful experiences – ever created. However, I do not think a fixation on death produces meaning, and a fixation on failure does not produce hope.
If my writing has been focusing on the darker side of gaming recently, it is only because I see so much of it in game design. So much of gaming is inherently shallow – empty experiences that may be enjoyable but do not aspire to show us anything special or unique about ourselves and the world. And that’s ok – games can be fun for its own sake. But when we’re looking at heavily developed narrative games – games that demand our time, attention, and intellect – I think we should expect more than a fun combat loop punctuated by failure gates, frustration, and eventual victory. I’ve grown weary of investing a dozen hours into a game like Last of Us, gritting my teeth with frustration at the seemingly never-ending series of battles devoid of narrative weight or emotional investment, all for the the thirty second payoff at the end. Both single-player and competitive games need to stop asking how to sell five million copies of another dark sci-fi/post-apocalyptic man shooter, and start asking how to make more games that teach us about friendship and sacrifice. Fail states do not teach us anything except how to surmount them.