/ Gita Jackson / 6 am Mon, Apr 20 2015
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  • I'm afraid to die in games

    I'm afraid to die in games

    We often understand failure in games through the language of death. Why?

    I have a childhood memory: in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Link ascends a staircase. The candles in this space are glowing softly, and I can see a monstrous form at the top of the stairs. I know I am supposed to fight him.

    My heart starts racing. My palms are clammy. I don't want to fight, I want to escape quietly in the dark of night. I go back down the stairs, out of the castle, back to my boat.

    I had been enjoying the game -- my brother bought it for me, for the GameCube my parents got me. They were both truly mine, for the first time. The world was bright, fresh and clear, and I hadn’t been as frustrated by its controls as I was by the more technical games my brother liked. But I hadn’t been especially good at this game, or any of them.

    I was a child. To fight that thing meant I was going to die, to fail. In life, I got up and turned off the console, went up the stairs to my bedroom and laid down on my bed. windwaker1

    A few years later, I got a C in math. I was never particularly good at math, and I’m lazy even to this day, preferring to spend more time on things I’m already good at rather than to develop new skills. The letter from the school had arrived while I was in the car with my father, and he opened it, sitting silently in the garage.

    He turned to me and said, “Well. You might as well just drop out of school. Start working at McDonald’s.” We didn’t talk to each other for a few days. I felt like a ghost in my own house.

    My freshman year of college I got an invite to a Facebook group. It was a memorial group for someone I had known my whole life, more a brother than just a friend. I posted, “Is this a fucking joke?” and someone replied, “No. Unfortunately, Matt died.” It was a heroin overdose. We still don’t know if it was intentional or not. I do know that his father had to break the door to his bathroom to retrieve his body.

    In games, we have the term “fail state” -- a point when it is clear that you have lost, have not achieved the conditions necessary for “winning.” Some people say that’s a defining characteristic of a “game” in the first place, but I’m not sure I like that idea. I don’t like when failure equals death.

    After the release of Bloodborne, my friends shared their screencaps of the game, large red text spreading across them: “YOU DIED.” I won’t be playing this one; nothing makes me more anxious. I remember walking Link up the stairs in Wind Waker, feeling as if I was sending him to his grave. bloodborrrrd

    I wonder how seeing yourself die -- because your avatar is you, in a sense -- changes how we see our failures in our own life. That C on my midterm review, and every C thereafter, were not things I could learn from. They were end of that timeline. If I can’t achieve excellence, why continue to try at all? Every time I die in Persona 3 -- a game where death is frequent and often unexpected -- I put it down for at least a week, angry at myself for not being prepared. Last night, my sim in The Sims 4 failed to put out a fire and burned to death. It makes me wonder, should I even be playing these games, if I can’t even keep myself from dying? Do not die: The minimum thing these games are asking me to do. If I can’t achieve that, why am I even playing?

    My first year of college was a mess, academically. I was just happy to be out of the suburbs, far, far away from home, to be making friends and having my own schedule, smoking weed and drinking when I wanted. When I went home for winter term, I was almost ashamed. Did I deserve to be in college, if I was getting Bs? Did I deserve to be in college and doing poorly, when Matt wasn’t even alive, wouldn’t have the chance to even try?

    I thought a lot about taking time off, talked about it with my brother. He said that he knew people that took time off because they’re felt inadequate, or sad, or needed to be out of school, and when they came back, they weren’t necessarily better. Two years later, I got an A+ in a class. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, to accept my past failures as part of a journey to become a better academic, a better person.

    When you die in a game, no one is there to tell you how your work could be better. You’ve simply failed. People tell me you learn the rules of games like Bloodborne. Articles promise me the game itself will teach me how to improve, but I don’t believe them. Every failure brings me no lessons -- just shame and humiliation. Ridicule from other fans, even when I succeed.

    Is this really learning? Or is this being hammered down, until you give up a part of yourself? windwaker2

    Later in my life, my father apologized to me. He admitted he was too hard on me as a child, that he felt he made me afraid to try new things. He thought he had instilled in me a fear of failure so vicious that I would never allow myself not to be good at anything.

    He was right. It’s taken me my entire life to accept that failure is allowed, that it is natural.

    I think it’s dangerous that games pair the evocative imagery of death with the concept of failure. It makes failure absolute, unfixable, without offering a course from which to grow. The only solution you’re given is “just be better”, without any idea of what “being better” will offer you as a player, as a human.

    The first time I came to my advisor for my senior project in college he told me he was almost angry at the amount of sources I was using. In the next sentence, he told me that I already had all my materials, that I was already there. I know now that in the first level of Wind Waker that I already had what I needed to get the job done. But if I had died, what would I have known, other than my failure?

    Before Matt died, he wrote poetry and sent me emails and talked with me as we skipped our study hall to go on long walks through parks. He was smart, certainly smarter than me, and genuinely kind. Matt’s life was worth something. I don’t think the message YOU DIED tells you what life is worth.

    In my sophomore year of college, ny father drove me out to school alone, and after the last box was unpacked, after we had gone out to dinner he stood with me behind my dorm, under the trees, and he looked at me with tears welling in his eyes. He said, “I’m proud of you.”

    He said, “I couldn’t have asked for a better daughter.”

    I know he still remembers all the Cs, all the times I let him down, all the times I could have done better but didn’t. The times I failed. I cried when I walked up the stairs to my dorm room. I laid down on the scarf Matt’s mom knitted for me, and I cried for the rest of the evening.

    / / 44 COMMENTS

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    Notable Replies

    1. How you handle failure is an important part of your makeup and chance for future success.Using the school test analogy I knew kids who were crushed by a bad test, and would begin to question their ability. I on the other hand would quickly blow it off and use that test to see where I need to improve. I like to think this is a strong suit of my personality that I developed, but like most things I believe it comes more from your parents and your culture. I was allowed to fail. My mother did not harp on grades, but did harp on effort. When I failed I felt I only let myself down, and that was easy to fix. I could work harder. Other kids had a crushing feeling they were letting others down. I went to a high school that had a large Asian enrollment,and a lot of these kids were driven not to excel, but rather not to fail. That was a lot of pressure.
      My point being that if you are a parent, please think about how you react to failure in your children. It matters greatly how you react. Notice that when the letter came home, the author mentioned his father's reaction, not his own. I always let my son see my failures and how I handled them. Kids need to know adults fail too, and it is not the end of the world.

    2. Died so many times in a game that it doesn't bother me.

      One stand-out thing which did bother me, and still creeps me out a bit:

      In the old Infocom game Trinity, you have to perform a magic ritual to prevent an atomic bomb from going off. (An orbiting atomic bomb, and you're in a giant frozen soap bubble . . .it's complex.) The ritual includes killing a little lizard. Squeezing it's little neck.

      My characters have done in thousands of orcs and ogres and such, but having to kill that little harmless gecko just haunts me.

    3. If you're afraid to die in games, you probably should not play games. A simulated death is the most obvious failure state so naturally, nearly all games are going to use it, because most games' mechanics (though becoming increasingly complex) are not really very creative at all. And that's how players like it, because they can jump right into the next new game without having to learn everything all over.

      I don't play games much these days either, but I stopped because they started seeming like work. I would invest all this time and energy into doing things that only mattered in the context of the game, and that time and energy was therefore lost. And then games started demanding more and more time. I have no desire to spend forty-plus hours playing a single game, which is what a lot of the flagship titles demand these days. I could read five complete books in that time!

      Today's blockbuster game designers strive mightily to make their games "sticky," with a key metric being how much time players spend playing them, and they have discovered or invented many techniques that can make gameplay addictive. But being unable to stop playing a game is not the same as enjoying yourself. I don't think the rats that were compulsively pressing a lever to zap their pleasure centers were enjoying themselves very much.

    4. I was never particularly good at math, and I’m lazy even to this day, preferring to spend more time on things I’m already good at rather than to develop new skills.

      IMHO that's not a good place to be in. I've been spending the past few years being an amateur at burlesque dance, aikido, pole dance, and now circus arts. It's been fun to use the techniques of learning I picked up over the ten or so years I spent becoming a pro-level artist. I leave my ego at the door because I know damn well I am a beginner at these things; I have learnt to excel at one thing, and I know that if I'm willing to put in the effort for several years, I can be decent or even amazing at other things, too. But I will have to endure a thousand tiny failures along the way.

      When you die in a game, no one is there to tell you how your work could be better. You’ve simply failed. People tell me you learn the rules of games like Bloodborne. Articles promise me the game itself will teach me how to improve, but I don’t believe them. Every failure brings me no lessons -- just shame and humiliation. Ridicule from other fans, even when I succeed.

      You do! The game itself even lets other people leave notes for you. And you can do the same. Your character will die, again and again - and wake up none the worse for wear, aside from losing a handful of blood dollars. If you're the least bit attentive to the level design you will know damn well that you're about to walk into a boss arena, and if you have enough blood dollars to worry about, you'll turn around and go spend them before running back to that arena and getting your ass handed to you a dozen times in a row. Or you'll just shrug and walk into the boss arena, just to see what it is and start to figure out how its attacks work. Die, respawn, run like a maniac past the minor enemies along the shortcut you've opened up to the boss arena, and die again. With zero blood dollars in your pocket, so there's nothing to lose, except the time it took. Maybe look up some strategies on the wikis. Maybe just throw yourself against the boss again and again until you learn all its attack cues well enough to dodge out of its way and repeatedly stick your weapon in it. Probably from behind.

      Personally, I think Bloodborne is a great way to learn to quit caring about failure. And maybe to learn something about the transience of all things. And something about not investing your ego in your successes or failure, either.

      Also I am pretty sure that nobody is going to ridicule you for dying in Bloodborne. From's games are infamous for being about repeated failure. I've talked about my playthrough on Twitter, including my many deaths, and I get nothing but sympathy from my friends. And strategy advice.

      Is this really learning? Or is this being hammered down, until you give up a part of yourself?

      Yes. To both.

      Is this a part of yourself you need? This fear of failure so strong you never try things you might fail, even if they're utterly lacking in any consequence? What have you not done because this fear kept you from making the many mistakes required to master something?

      When I got into the animation industry, I was subjected to incredibly harsh criticism of my drawings. It was pretty discouraging sometimes. But over time I learnt to detach my ego from the drawings. And when I did that, I started getting better much faster.

      Go forth and make mistakes. Make many of them. Make them in matters of little consequence; make them in serious things. There is always a way to carry on. Analyze your failures, instead of hiding from them: what went wrong? How can I reduce the chances of this mistake happening again? Keep it in the back of your mind as you try again. Perhaps you will make the exact same mistake again and again. Perhaps you will never make it again. Either way, there are other new and exciting mistakes to make. Eventually, though, your mistakes become so subtle and esoteric that very few people but yourself could detect them, and you have ways to recover from them quickly and easily. Until you find a way to make yet another one, because you're still pushing into new territory.

    5. I did not say it was not possible to make alternative endings, or that they should not be used - as death, they are just tools, use the best one for the design.

      What I was saying is that death (apart from thematic relevance - is not like the enemies you are shooting in a FPS are not dying but deciding to retire from conflict, for example), has a simple, in your face, logical way to present the end game. You are dead, so no more actions from you.

      Of course, use the simple tool always may be laziness, and I agree there are several other interesting ways to make the "failed" game state known. But again, there is something to be said for the simple solution, and why it is used so much.

      I really dont know what the original article was trying to say, as at some points it goes into nothing related to death (you failed an exam). If the author think games should all be without failure states, I vehemently disagree. If the author thinks there should be more games without failure states, I agree.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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