The Fun of Failure and the Art of the Crash in Burnout

This most recent semester, for my Game Studies class, I had to write an essay about whatever topic I wanted. The topic I ended up landing on was failure, and why it’s so essential to games. After all, games are the only form of storytelling that the audience can fail at. You can’t fail at watching a movie or reading a book. Granted, you can stop, but that’s not a fail state. You’re not punished for doing that.

Specifically, I talk in one section about games where failure is, in itself, fun or amusing. I mention a couple of games in the paper, but there’s one that comes to mind that I didn’t mention, a game which is my current decompression game after finals: Burnout Paradise.

Dear EA, Plz make more Burnout games, Love Michael

The Burnout games have long been my favorite racing series of all time, for one simple reason: crashing. Nothing is more excruciating in a racing game than getting turned around or hitting a wall, and having to slowly reverse back into position so you can get back to the race, while the rest of the pack zooms past you. You basically have no hope of winning after that moment, and yet you still have to continue the race once you get yourself back in position to, you know, race.

Burnout solves this by letting you crash. Most collisions at a fast speed (such as, say, racing speed) will cause you to total your car, forcing you to watch your husk of a vehicle flip around and hit stuff, before you finally spawn back in to the race at a small detriment.

Purely mechanically, this is the same as the previous: I hit a thing, there’s a small delay, and then I’m back in the race. There are some key differences in the Burnout solution, however. First, it makes the process amusing. Watching your car flip around and knock stuff over is hilarious.

Secondly, and more importantly, control is taken away from the player during this sequence. In games that don’t feature a crashing mechanic, when you hit something and get knocked off course, you have to frantically try and readjust yourself to be back on course as fast as possible, before the rest of the cars pass you. It’s really high pressure, and not in a fun way. It feels like your pants just fell down, and you’re trying to pull them up as fast as you can before your crush sees you. That kind of tension.

In Burnout, though, you just get to sit back and watch yourself explode magnificently on the track, before you just get plopped back on the track. You’ll always get lined up perfectly, you’ll always get set back about the same amount, there’s no stress on your end. You just get to enjoy the fruits of your failure.

Road crews spent six hours cleaning polygons up off the side of the road before I-75 was reopened.

There’s a beautiful game mode which was introduced in Burnout 3 and perfected in Burnout Paradise (my two favorite Burnouts, coincidentally), and that mode is Road Rage. In this mode, the objective is not to finish any given course, but instead to reach a certain number of Takedowns by forcing other racers to crash. In 3, Road Rages took place over a single course, but Paradise lets this mode take place across the whole open world, where every road is full of racers to slam, like some sort of Mad Max dystopia.

One of my favorite parts of Road Rage ties back to this idea of failure as fun: the mode doesn’t conclude when you reach your quota of Takedowns. Instead, you get to just keep knocking people off the road, as the improper fraction of your score just keeps ticking up, until one of two end states. Either the timer will run out, which probably won’t happen if you’re actually performing Takedowns, or you yourself will be wrecked out.

The amazing part of this is that you’ll be driving in a pack of cars, smashing them into walls, pushing opponents into traffic, before all of a sudden the road ends out of the blue, or a car comes up from a blind corner. All of a sudden, your car is a blazing husk hurtling across the screen, and the words “YOU WIN” in big letters flash across the screen. The disparity is hilarious.

This, I think, is a key way that failure can be made enjoyable in a game: simply make failure funny. Think of Surgeon Simulator 2013. My defining memory of that game was doing the heart transplant on an ambulance, and, like a bourgeois nobleman tossing change to a hobo, I flung the transplant heart out of the ambulance’s back door, to fall onto the street. I lost, pretty miserably actually, but it was hilarious. Failure was, in a way, as good as winning.

Failing in Burnout isn’t perfect. I do get stuck on walls and having to reverse, sometimes. Sometimes I take a wrong turn and end up horribly lost mid-race. But, man, some of my failures in that game are extremely funny, and equally as satisfying as winning a race.


A Lack of Faith In Game Worlds

There is not a lot of faith in game settings these days. When I say this, I do not mean that there isn’t enough representation of real-world religion per se, or even that there aren’t a lot of religious characters in games. What I mean is that there is a lack of faith as a concept in games: that is, the idea of believing in something without evidence or proof.

When people in Dishonored‘s Dunwall pray to The Outsider, they do so knowing that the Bone Charms they are crafting are definitely magic, and that there are people running around right now who are definitely magic due to The Outsider. What they are performing isn’t an act of faith, because there’s no doubt.

The same occurs in The Elder Scrolls‘s Tamriel. When people worship at a shrine to one of the Nine Divines, an actual, tangible blessing is bestowed upon them. Even if you don’t make it out for a pilgrimage, you can still crack open a history book and learn about that one time Akatosh came down from the heavens to fight a Daedric lord. Not metaphorically, either. They just had a fistfight, like, in the streets.

“Well, I dunno, I really don’t think modern science really corroborates the ‘God one time had a giant monster battle with the Devil’ theory”

When characters in video games, especially fantasy, are of a faith or religion, they frequently are worshiping a verifiable divine entity which has unquestionably made its presence known in the world. It’s really hard to debate the faith of the Lumen Sages in Bayonetta, because Jubileus is perched on top of their base like the angel on top of a Christmas tree.

When characters in games do worship an intangible god or pantheon, they frequently either subscribe to a real-world faith system (like Ashley in Mass Effect) or are blatantly insane (like the Church of the Atom in Fallout). It seems like whenever game designers put forth the effort to create a religion for their game, it’s simply default that this religion reflect actual divine powers.

Don’t get me wrong, I like interacting with fictional gods, goddesses, and formless entities in games. As a big fan of Asura’s Wrath, Bayonetta, and Pokemon, I have had plenty of fun punching my fair share of deities. I can’t help but think, however, that games are missing out on an interesting type of story: loss of faith.

“Remember Timmy, God’s always watching you. Literally. She’s up in space right now, fighting a panther lady on a motorcycle.”

It’s a fairly common character arc in other storytelling mediums to have a character lose their faith. Scully from The X-Files constantly has to struggle with her uncertainty in her faith, especially in the presence of some very certain weird stuff. Javert’s faith in dogmatic law is brought into question at the end of Les Miserables. It’s extremely interesting to watch a dogmatic character have their faith brought into question. It can be extremely telling to watch a person try and reconcile their beliefs, or adopt new beliefs, or simply break down at the contradiction.

And yet, games usually don’t have such character arcs. The gods of Magic: The Gathering‘s Zendikar launch a crisis of faith not because they aren’t real, but because they are, let’s call it misadvertised. Saren’s ramblings about the mythical Reapers are quickly resolved in Mass Effect when an honest-to-god Reaper flies in and starts blowing things up. In most every Shin Megami Tensei game, you get to punch just about every major figure in every world religion.

In real-world religion, faith is arguably the single most important component. Religions define themselves from one another in the ways they reaffirm faith, the way they respond to their faith being questioned. Without that faith, game religions lack the same character. The Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed never really lose faith, especially when they have the ability to commune with actual divinity (even if the “divine” turn out to be an ancient precursor race).

I’d like to see that, though. I want characters to have faith in games, to be forced to have crises of faith. A crisis of faith isn’t a crisis of faith when you know that there is a divine being you’re reaching out to exists, and is just ignoring you, like the Maker in Dragon Age. That’s something totally different. I’m talking, a character who has extended themselves towards this idea that may or may not be real, and whose reality isn’t determined through the course of the game, which they have faith in to give them strength in trying times.

This reaching out towards the unknown for help, I think, is totally different than reaching out towards an actual divine being, because it describes the character. Anyone can believe in something that’s unquestionably real, but for a character to have faith in something that is intangible, then there’s a chance they either exhibit strong conviction, a need for logic defining an illogical world, a potential fear of the unknown, or a desperation for help in troubling times, all of which present interesting character traits to be explored in a game’s story.

Haruki Murakami and the Art of Not Explaning

The man, the myth, the guy who really likes writing about how cool Western music is: Haruki Murakami
My first exposure to Haruki Murakami was last year, when I was absentmindedly scrolling through the AV Club when I stumbled across a positive review for a book by an author I’d never heard of. The book was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and the author was Haruki Murakami. My copy arrived on my front door two days laters, and I’d finished it one day after that.

For the unfamiliar, Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author with 13 internationally acclaimed novels under his belt. Murakami books tend to be stories of fairly mundane protagonists who play the straight man to their own weird story. Mysteries are often presented and never explained, and characters tend to operate more in emotion and tone than action. I highly recommend Tsukuru Tazaki as a jumping in point for his works.

I bring up Mr. Murakami for one of the main features of his work, one that sort of permeates Japanese culture as a whole, and that’s his lack of explanation. Some people dislike Murakami’s more recent works for an egregious amount of this, but I always like it. Murakami will present his characters with situations, characters, and moments which are simply never explained.

Here’s an example. During Tsukuru Tazaki, the eponymous protagonist is being told a story by his classmate and friend, Haida. In this story, Haida’s father is taking a break from his studies and visiting a rural hot springs, where he discovers the mysterious pianist Midorikawa. The two become friends, and Midorikawa eventually reveals that he has accepted a mystical contract to die in two months, in exchange for having a wonderful time during those last two months, and being able to perceive people’s colored “auras”. Also, he might have had an eleventh and twelfth finger.

What does this have to do with the main plot? On a direct level, nothing. Tsukuru Tazaki is the story of a man trying to discover why his high-school friends cut off contact with him. Hell, Haida, the person telling the story, disappears a few chapters later, never to re-emerge.

This sort of ambiguity permeates the entire book, and all of Murakami’s books. Some things will just happen, and never tie directly back to the main story. Characters love to focus in on tiny, ephemeral details in scenes. Despite this, characters still feel grounded. Despite having their quirks, they grow and react and think like people do, but like people stripped of practical worries and allowed to think on a more spiritual level than we actually do.

Games haven’t completely forsaken ambiguity in their storytelling, but I feel like too much of it takes the form of the cliffhanger ending. What does the ending of Bioshock Infinite mean? How about the final level of Condemned: Criminal Origins? These games like to explain every aspect in their setting up to those final climactic points, then leaving on a single mystery, framed in a game full of facts. Condemned as a standalone game does leave quite a bit of mystery, but it’s defeated by it’s sequel, which feels the need to explain everything.

Even Bioshock Infinite’s ambiguous ending wasn’t ambiguous for very long.
Even games we praise for not explaining things actually do. Dark Souls has a very descriptive and detailed explanation for everything in its world, it just hides it very well. If you want games that don’t revel in explaining every oddity in their world, you’re basically stuck in the horror genre.

Murakami books aren’t horror novels, though. Sure, there are scary moments (the subterranean chase in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World comes to mind), but the books as a whole aren’t horror, their objective isn’t to scare you. They just, have mysteries in them. These mysteries aren’t the focus, they merely provide interesting situations for interesting characters to inhabit.

Games, I think, need more of this. Why must we know exactly where Alma comes from in F.E.A.R, or why people have turned into amorphous monsters in LISA: The Painful? When you present these moments as mysteries and don’t solve them, players have to think on their own to draw conclusions, forcing them to interact with the story and setting on a deeper level than before.

In Tsukuru Tazaki, Tsukuru is presented with a series of surreal moments, some dreams, some stories, some real moments, none of which receive a clear explanation. What Murakami does correctly here is ensure that all of these moments tie back to Tsukuru’s personality: they are either drawn from his memory or subconscious, or guide his decision-making in the future. These moments are moments where the singular point is to explore an element of the character.

Because Haida’s story about the twelve-fingered pianist aren’t grounded in anything, we can’t question its effects on characters, on the plot, on setting, or even anything that happened in the scene itself. The singular question that’s on your mind when Haida finishes the story is “How does this tie back to Tsukuru?”. That moment of the story is a prompt for readers to think back through everything they know about the story and characters, and try to draw their own conclusions. I think this is really interesting, and gives readers a little bit of authorship over the story, in that they can draw their own conclusions from these moments. Either way, reader investment in the story increases.

I think games should implement this. By providing scenes which have no grounding in reality, where characters are forced to deal with ludicrous situations, we as players are forced to ignore any questions of context, of plot significance, of consequence, and simply ask “What does this mean to the characters?”. If you pull it off wrong, it will come of as pretentious nonsense. But, connect your scene well enough to the characters themselves, and avoid being too random, and the audience will dig deep into their own knowledge of the setting and draw conclusions.

Logic Programming is Neat

This is gonna be a departure from my normal topic of game design to talk about a closely-related field equally as close to my heart: programming. Specifically, from a completely unscientific point of view, I wanna tapk about how neat logic languages are.

This picture basically has nothing to do with anything, but I felt like it belonged here.
With normal programming languages, you basically have a file full of code that just executes top to bottom. Occasionally, you’ll prompt for user input, or jump to another section of code, but in general, your code starts at the top, goes down until it hits the bottom, and stops.

Logic languages don’t work like that. Instead, your code forms what’s called a Knowledge Base. This Base contains facts (“Steve and Eric are brothers”, “3 is positive”, “You suck”) and implications, which is the fancy propositional logic of saying “If X then Y” (“If Steve and Eric are brothers, then Steve’s Mom is Eric’s Mom”, “If a number is positive, that number times -1 is negative that number”, “If you suck, then you also blow”).

With this Knowledge Base, you can then query your code to find stuff out. In the case of Prolog (my logic language of choice), every time you query the Base, you get one of three responses. The first two are simple “true” and “false”, for simpler questions, but, if you design your code right, you can leave your queries open ended (like saying “X is the 4th number in this list of numbers”), and Prolog will use the Knowledge base to determine every possible value that could be inserted into that statement to ensure it’s true.

This is neat to me. The idea that you’re giving the computer a series of facts, and a series of rules, and it can use that to develop its own conclusions. It’s powerful for things like developing permutations and combinations, since you only need to provide the rules for what a permutation and combination is, and the initial list, and Prolog will churn away at the rest.

Prolog reminds me kind of like an AI, where you’re teaching your computer about the rules to solving problems the same way that you teach a person, and then that computer/person becomes able to solve those problems, as long as their knowledge is properly comprehensive. It’s just, I dunno, cool.