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Sometimes it feels good to fail
by Tom Curtis on 10/29/12 02:18:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

XCOM  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.

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Carlo Delallana
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Making failure fun was always something that the Burnout series did very well. Failure was cathartic, if i'm going to fail then I will do it in a blaze of glorious destruction. Failure should not be the end, there can be mechanics designed around failure so that it becomes part of the gameplay experience.

Eric Schwarz
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XCOM's difficulty would be a lot more satisfying without AI cheats on classic (bonus critical and hit chance) as well as if it wasn't gimped on normal difficulty (uses less tactics, fewer numbers). I don't like having to choose between "better AI but cheats as well" and "easy AI and no cheats." Stuff like how the game has a (soft) limit of 5 active enemies on-screen at once, and scripted trigger points where they magically spawn in, also really limits the challenge level in a pretty artificial way.

Ardney Carter
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The magic spawn ins do piss me off since that wasn't a factor in the original and it was made years ago =\

As regards the soft cap though, may I ask what platform you're playing it on? I have the 360 version[edit: and I should add that I haven't checked for or applied any patches for it] and I know I've run into scenarios where more than 5 were around at once (including one amusing case where I somehow triggered 3 separate spawn ins at once).

All in all I'm prety satisfied with it, but some of the changes do grate. I seem to remember reading somewhere that at one point in development when they were still figuring out which way they wanted to go they had a build that was essentially a carbon copy of the 1st game running in the new engine. I wonder if they've given any thought to releasing that at some point. I know I'd buy it :)

Joshua McDonald
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What wasn't entirely clear was whether this was basically a Fire Emblem/Chaos Gate system (i.e. if a character dies, he and any benefits that could be gained from him are gone forever but the game otherwise moves on) or if there was some other more interesting mechanic (i.e. a way to spin your failure into something favorable).

I'll admit, in the former system, losing a character usually meant that I would just restart (though perhaps it may have been more fun if I hadn't). I would be interested in hearing about an improvement on that style, though.

Ardney Carter
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It is perma death like in Fire Emblem. Unlike in Fire Emblem however, your soldiers aren't unique personalities so there isn't as pressing a need to restart if one dies. This isn't to say that they are as generic as the units in Advance Wars where one is identical to another though.

There are several classes (you don't have control over which class a soldier becomes) and as they rank up you choose abilities for them to gain (usually a choice between 2 possible skills though certain levels only have 1 skill) so each soldier can be unique. Additionally, equipment inventory is limited so, for instance, losing an Assault class unit during a mission may be an acceptable loss if he was carrying grenades but if he was the only one carrying the tool for stunning enemies and you wanted to try to capture one on that mission it's a different story.

Hopefully, that gives you an idea about how it plays out.