These words stand for a sentiment has become ubiquitous in video games since their inception. On the whole, games have been built to disallow failing. In the earliest years a shiny new quarter gave us new lease on life. This shifted to using “lives” or “continues” that we could collect en mass. In the modern game we are merely asked to reload our last save.
Videogames have always been about mastery or accomplishment as much as they have been about pleasure. You face a challenge and you either succeed or fail. If you fail, you try again. This is a preposterous concept anywhere but in a virtual world.
If I drop a plate in my kitchen and it shatters, I do not get a do-over. That plate is gone. If I swerve my vehicle to miss a deer and end up in a ditch, I have no rewind button. If I say callous words to someone I care about, I am not afforded an opportunity to replace that conversation with a better one. I go on with my life, frustrating and difficult moments mixed in with all the rest.
If art imitates life, perhaps developers would do well to up the ante and give us playable experiences that speak to parts of the human condition outside the box of pleasure and mastery. This is a tough sell, because a lot of people might not be interested in feeling things such as sorrow, loss, uneasiness, and sadness. Although the comparison is not entirely fair, it is worth mentioning that some of the best film and literature evoke such emotions. Videogames are likely to remain mere games if they do not expand as a storytelling medium.
One could argue that it could be left up to the player to decide to live with mistakes. Games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain allow your story to continue even if you have not completed a segment optimally. You still have the option to restart from an earlier save, but you can continue on as-is if you choose to do so. However, I think it is a more deeply felt consequence if we are not afforded the tools to escape it.
***MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILER***
In my Mass Effect universe, Tali Z’orah is dead. In my hubris I decided I could bring sentience to the Geth and convince the Quarians that everything would be fine. The Quarians chose to attack. Tali obviously lost faith in me and her people in that moment. As she descended from the cliff, I tried to save her. I failed. I could have reloaded my save. I could have slogged through a couple of hours of missions to more effectively manage this situation. I did not. I can assure you that the moment is more affecting and powerful that way.
Hideo Kojima once mentioned a seemingly preposterous game idea. In this hypothetical game, if you die, your copy of the game becomes unplayable and you must buy a new copy. While this would never be feasible as a business venture, the idea has some merit. The problem he is trying to solve is one of consequence. How can a player truly feel the weight of decisions made if such consequences can be averted by selecting an earlier save?
When similar strategies are implemented, it is typically just a way of adding challenge to the game. For example, the hardcore mode in Dead Space 2 only allows you to make three saves. If you die, you either start over or revert to one of these saves. This isn’t the kind of consequence I am talking about. The narrative does not continue if you fail, you are merely asked to replay a larger segment of the game.
What if some games saved after every major decision and did not allow you to store multiple saves? You would be locked into one experience shaped by the decisions you have made. This would surely cause a backlash due to the fragility of having a single save. However, I think the narrative benefit might outweigh that potential complication.
Pain and loss can be high quality emotions. They are necessary pieces of the human experience. They are meant to be experienced fully. They enrich our lives and make the victories all the sweeter. We would do well to embrace and tolerate discomfort rather than try to deny or resist it. Videogames have the potential to be more than a power fantasy where we hold all of the cards. Those games can and will continue to exist. However, it might be nice if more games allowed us to accept our mistakes and live with them.