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.
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.
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.