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Forced Failure and the Undignified Hero

Andrew Bell, "but... you promised no one would get hurt", the CREATURES in my head, 28 August 2005

When a hero fails in a game, it usually means a game over or that an earlier save state can overwrite that failure from ever happening. This either means that defeat is so absolute that the game cannot continue or that the failure is so inconsequential that it can be avoided entirely. What games don’t often do is force players into a situation where there is no right answer.

Games are about agency. They also blur the line between character experience and audience experience. The audience is the main character in a game, and the events of the story impact the audience directly. All that holds immense narrative potential, of course.

In a game, then, the hero’s victory is the same as the players. In a sense, the character’s thoughts and emotions are not left up to speculation. The player doesn’t need someone to tell them how powerful a villain is; they find out themselves when they fight with that villain. The player doesn’t need an explanation as to why their victory is sweet; they already know because they are the one that earned it. But one potential shared experience that is so often neglected in video games is shame. Too often developers are reluctant to put their heroes (and their players) in undignified positions.

When a hero fails in a game, it usually means a game over or that an earlier save state can overwrite it from ever happening. This either means that defeat is so absolute that the game cannot continue or the failure is so inconsequential that it can be avoided entirely. What games don’t often do is force players into a situation in which there is no right answer, in which one might suffer a deserved punishment and then carry that burden onward. There is always at least one “right” answer.

There are plenty of major choices in the Mass Effect games, but even the heaviest ones often prove to be entirely meaningless. It doesn’t matter what you do, the story follows the same basic structure and what seemed to be an important decision at the time usually doesn’t hold the major consequences that one would expect. That has always been the problem with the series -- a problem that culminated in its controversial ending. But Mass Effect is just the most visible symptom of the problem: games don’t make players carry failure with them. Whether it is developers being too skittish to write failure into a scenario or players being unwilling to accept an unavoidable failure, it is rare that a hero in a nonlinear game is kicked to the ground and forced to stay there.

Everybody remembers standing there helplessly as Sephiroth killed Aeris, Andrew Ryan’s death holds weight because the player has no power over their avatar and then realizes that he never really did. Some of the best moments in games happen when the game takes control away from the player and makes the hero into just a person. Imagine if Buffy didn’t hesitate against Angel in season two or if Luke didn’t have his breakdown after Vader sliced his hand off. Iron Man must be an alcoholic and Indiana Jones must be afraid of snakes. Because games are all based on the player’s ability to progress, it is tempting to put nothing but surmountable challenges in their way (if anything, it’s necessarily difficult to do so). But it is hard to take a threat seriously when a wandering mercenary need only check off a grocery list of quests to fix everything.

Watching a hero get his way for twenty hours of gameplay before riding off into the sunset doesn’t mean anything. Watching somebody capable being fooled into doing something horrible is powerful. Taking the role of a magnificent, larger-than-life person and being reduced to a piddling, helpless mess makes for effective drama and more believable and more memorable stories. When a hero is humanized it makes everything feel more believable. When the Prince of Persia is duped into killing his own father and left for dead, it hits far closer to home than watching Kratos decapitate all his problems with a single stroke. Even space marines have dirty laundry. If they were forced to air it more often, then the concept might not feel so heavy handed.

It is impossible to take a threat seriously if a neckless, gun-toting thug or a demi-god can waltz through plan A without a hitch and put all the world’s problems to bed in one fell stroke. Games need to force more disasters on their players, put more insurmountable obstacles in their way, and make them take responsibility for more unavoidable failures.

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