Feeling rewarded in gameplay often stems from the small successes. The well-timed critical hit, the lucky dodge, the perfect loot drop, the gorgeous skill shot. Not experience-defining, but little wins that push the experience over-the-top. We’ve seen these moments misused as well, though- a boss fight that should have been intense and challenging falls flat because he’s missing all his attack rolls. Getting into first place in Mario Kart and getting hit with so many blue shells that you immediately find yourself in last. It’s a double-edged sword.
People forget, however, that little failures can similarly cut both ways. As often as they get in the way of your enjoyment, they can make the moment that much more incredible too. I’m not just here to hype them up, though. I’m here to look at the curveballs games can throw, good or bad, and how they can change the game.
It’s probably impossible to talk about this subject without bringing up the much-maligned Far Cry 2. The sequel to the open world tropical shooter took a lot of flak for its design decisions, and while it certainly had flaws, the scorn was disproportionate to the game’s issues. At the time, I was quietly baffled that people were as dismissive of a creative, interesting game as they were. Today, I feel I have a better grasp on what put so many off the game- Far Cry 2 is a game about failure.
When I say that, you may think of Super Meat Boy, or Dark Souls, but those games aren’t about losing any more than Halo is about getting shot. Ultimately, they’re about winning- that moment of surpassing triumph that comes from besting an obstacle that brought you low so many times before. By contrast, Far Cry 2 lives for that moment when everything goes to shit. There is a weapon durability system just so that your shotgun can jam on you right when you need it most. The map is an item you have to equip rather than a HUD element just so that you can get lost and wander into an enemy outpost- or instead not be able to see the road because the map’s in the way, and run right into a gunfight. Far Cry 2 loves to catch you napping, going about your routine, and wake you up with a sucker punch.
The game doesn’t do this out of sadism- it doesn’t want you uncomfortable or unhappy. It simply does this because it knows something important- while having a mission go exactly as planned can be satisfying now and then, it doesn’t take long for that to get boring. The real fun comes when you are forced to think on your feet, improvise, and come out on top in a way you would have never tried unless you had to. This is what these little failure systems can add- adventure, and an interruption the the monotony.
It doesn’t have to be that much work, either. Monster Hunter is all about the thrill of the hunt- it and Dark Souls have a lot in common. One consideration in Monster Hunter that it doesn’t share, however, is sharpness. When you’re slashing up the bestiary of MH, your blade loses its finely honed edge over time. In smaller battles, this is not a big deal- you take down your enemy, then polish that blade up before the next fight. In the huge hunts where you are up against a colossal wyvern, it proves to be a great deal more of an issue. When the blade’s sharpness falls too low, your attacks begin to bounce off the tough skin of your foes, and suddenly your weapon is useless. Fixing this, however, requires you to drop to one knee and go to town with a whetstone- a fairly long and uninterruptable animation that leaves you completely vulnerable.
This simple mechanic completely changes the fight- when your blade goes dull, suddenly you have a new consideration. Hitting an enemy with a dull blade still does some damage, so you could try to be patient and fight it out until there’s a clear opening to fix the problem… or you could just take a chance and try the first chance you get, hoping you’re lucky and fast enough not to take a claw to the face. It’s a fairly simple implementation that does a lot to spice up the flow of the combat.
This can be taken the wrong way, however. The Dark Cloud series has always been about the weapons- you can upgrade and evolve your weapons as you fight through massive dungeons, turning a simple short sword into a magical Excalibur of a blade over the course of hours. The weapons have durability, similar to Far Cry and Monster Hunter, but the handling of it is… poor. First of all, fixing a weapon is in no way engaging- you open a menu, select the “repair powder” and hit confirm. Instantly, the weapon is better- no tactical reason not to do it. Secondly, if you forget (and the game isn’t very good about warning you), the weapon breaks, and vanishes. Gone forever- sometimes dozens of hours of investment, evaporating into the air. Dark Cloud 2 gets rid of the destruction of the item, and instead simply renders the item useless until fixed.
The question they seemingly didn’t ask themselves is “what does this add?” If they had, the would have noticed that the only answer is “irritation.” There is no tactical consideration, there is no improvisation required- you are either completely screwed, or you are not. It is not interesting, and that is grave sin in game design: adding something that only serves to be a headache.
It’s not as simple as just considering it in that context, either. Super Smash Brothers Brawl added tripping to the series- a mechanic where there is a random chance, when moving, that a character will trip and fall, leaving them helpless for several seconds. In a single player game, this could be an amusing addition, in line with the series’s lighthearted tone. Tripping could be a sudden spanner in the works, leaving you at a disadvantage and stripping of your moment. A lead could suddenly turn into a deficit, making the game more chaotic and enjoyable.
The problem is that Smash is not primarily a single player game. It is a multiplayer game, and its mechanics must therefore be considered in a multiplayer context. In that context, losing a match because of something you had zero ability to predict, prevent, or react to is incredibly frustrating, and a poor design choice. It’s irritating enough that I have lost matches of Brawl because the dice were against me and I tripped randomly, at the most important moment of a match: imagine how frustrating it is for people who are playing the game in tournaments, with thousands of dollars of real money on the line. Your money, which you paid to be in this tournament, taken away because the virtual dice came up snake eyes.
There are plenty of other examples of these systems- Fallout’s weapon condition stats, World of Warcraft’s failure-happy Engineering profession, Samurai Showdown’s button-mashing sword clash mechanic, and more- but the point remains the same across them. These systems can make your game more interesting, or far, far more frustrating. They are a powerful tool in the developer’s arsenal. The question you need to ask yourself is simply “What does this add? How does this change the game?” In an age where gaudy triple A productions are beginning to falter, while gameplay-centric minimalist experiences are soaring, it’s a more important question than ever. Why waste time adding things that don’t improve the game? Making a winning title is hard enough. Take every advantage you can get- even if that advantage is a little failure.