For the past few weeks, I've found myself pouring hours and hours into Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Since I'm a huge turn-based strategy fan, I knew I'd have some fun with the game, but what's strange is I haven't been enjoying it for the reasons I expected. I like kicking alien butt as much as the next guy, but XCOM's really hooked me because of the numerous ways it allows, and even encourages me to deal with failure.
That might sound a bit strange, but I actually like getting my butt kicked in XCOM. Most games deal with failure by booting players back to their last checkpoint, but XCOM actually lets players wrestle with their mistakes and deal with the occasionally horrible consequences.
For those of you who aren't familiar, XCOM is a strategy game that leaves lots of room for things to go terribly wrong. Your best soldier might die (permanently) in a careless firefight, you might miss out on an essential upgrade because you wasted your money on weapons you didn't really need, or the council of shadowy overlords might withhold funding if you don't complete your in-game assignments.
But no matter how much you mess things up, no matter how dire things get, XCOM won't force you into a fail state until you've been completely and utterly broken. You'll only hit a "Game Over" screen if the game's "Doom" meter fills to the brim, and getting it to that point requires many, many bad mistakes.
And in an age when most games make us restart every time we divert from a designer's pre-determined path, it's refreshing to play a title that lets players mess things up, learn from their mistakes, and hopefully turn things around.
† This sucks, but XCOM wouldn't be the same without a few casualties.
Of course, it's not exactly fun when a horde of Chrysalids slaughters my entire squad, but when I'm able to turn the tables and come back from that loss on my own, it's extremely empowering, and it makes me feel accomplished in a way few games have before.†
It's made me wish that we had more games that let players deal with the consequences of their mistakes. I understand many of XCOM's systems simply wouldn't work outside of a strategy game, but I think we've seen a handful of games in other genres that already demonstrate how games can benefit by letting players deal with varying degrees of failure.
Take Arkane's action/stealth game Dishonored, for example. I've been playing it on the side when my XCOM campaign is going particularly poorly, and even that game offers some flexibility in its design by letting players mess things up.†
Like its spiritual predecessors Deus Ex and Thief, Dishonored somewhat encourages players to play as a non-lethal, stealth character (you can only get the "good" ending if you avoid combat as much as possible). Of course, when things go wrong, the game won't punish you for alerting your enemies -- you'll just have to deal with them in a different way.†
More often than not, that means you'll have to murder everyone you see, but I appreciate that the game will at least let me continue on my merry way even if I've blown my chances at that perfect stealth playthrough.
Well, uh, so much for that non-lethal playthrough.
Looking back on all the games I've played this year, both XCOM and Dishonored have really stuck out to me because of the way that they embrace player failure. When I screw up in either of these titles, I have a chance to learn from my mistakes, and ultimately make better and more informed decisions as I progress through the game.
Unfortunately, most modern games don't let players learn this way, as they tend to shy away from failure altogether. Instead, they'd rather players succeed at every twist and turn -- if a player screws up, he'll just get another chance when he reverts to a checkpoint. The only problem is, it's much harder to learn this way, and thus I find it far less satisfying in the long-term.
XCOM and Dishonored demonstrate to me that success and failure don't have to be binary opposites -- in fact, when a game lets players explore both, the whole experience becomes far more rewarding.