My Favorite Thing In Games? Fucking Up

I love it when a plan falls apart.

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Mar 28 2018, 2:54pm

Screenshot by author.

"We've got all day man. Nine days is an eternity." Seven episodes into our playthrough of XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, Waypoint's Rob Zacny was still reminding me to be patient. We had 10 turns to sneak through an alien-occupied city, break into a detention facility, and bust out a VIP, a scientist who could aid to our resistance effort. And he wasn't wrong, exactly. We did have all the time in the world then.

But as sure as clocks tick, your plans in tactical RPGs fall apart. Seconds later, a poorly placed movement order would send one of my soldiers jumping through a glass window, alarming every nearby alien patrol. The timing on it is honestly impeccable, just watch:

And of course, it didn't get much better from there. As things got worse, we had to come up with more cunning plans: demolishing walls to create quicker escape vectors, grappling onto high ground to up our shot percentages, keeping the medic well protected in the back. Again and again, these plans failed. Those moments are where XCOM 2: War of the Chosen shined brightest. (By the way: You can watch the whole stream right here, and if you aren't caught up on the series, it's archived over on YouTube!)

Failure being fun isn't exclusive to the XCOM games. They're not even the only games that do it particularly well. So much of what makes Sea of Thieves work well in a group setting is how the desire for hijinks inevitably leads to disaster; its just way more interesting to put out fires in that game than for things to run smoothly. It's also what I came to love about Helldivers years ago, a game that led me to think through failure as a power fantasy:

There is, though, also this other kind of power fantasy. A fantasy of failure, which, like the fantasy of success, has many sub-species. Some of these are just success dressed up in another name: We want to fail forward, to find another path into new, more interesting content. Or we want our failure to mean something in the long run, as in Rogue Legacy, where individual failures still add up into long term improvement. We argue on forums about game balance because, listen, we don’t mind losing to our rivals—in fact, there’s something romantic about that—but we want to lose fairly.

But there is, more quietly (and, I think, more fundamentally) a fantasy of actual failure that attracts us to games. Wanting to safely fail is not such an absurd desire to have: It’s also part of why many of us want strong relationships with friends or family, or better health care coverage, or a stable, secure income. When we have those safety nets in place we can take risks and be creative, and we can live through loss when it eventually comes. But many of us do not have those things, or if we do, might still feel like we can’t ever let ourselves fail. And so: Games. Play.

And lord, I wrote that three years ago. The world around us feels less stable than ever. Which maybe explains why I am so sincerely loving the ways in which games let me fail safely today, especially those that explore failure in novel and powerful ways like Getting Over It, Into the Breach, and They Are Billions.

As we speak, I'm getting ready to play more Sea of Thieves with friends. I cannot wait for everything to go totally wrong.

Do you have a "favorite" moment of failure in games? Or do you just wanna talk about failure in general? Swing by today's open thread on the forums and add your voice!

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