I’m an admirer of the comparatively recent efforts of Ben Abraham to play Far Cry 2 in a “permadeath” mode – meaning that he would consider any “death” in the game as the final one, unlike the usual situation in which you restore a saved game and continue playing (here is an interview with the man himself). Permadeath, as you might image, raises important points about the nature of playing digital games, the way they perhaps take it easy on us, and the ways in which we take our virtual lives almost entirely for granted.

On the other hand, permadeath sure is harsh, and I doubt many of us are all that interested in it, certainly not on a first playthrough the game. I mean, what if you trip over a rock and smash your nose back into your brain before you’ve even lived?! Not that that can happen, but obviously playing with permadeath is to flirt with not seeing the entire game. As such, it would presumably be reserved for repeat playings, to add intensity to a sapped world.

Yesterday in Mass Effect 2, however, I experienced a reasonably respectable “permafail”, largely because the game caught me entirely off guard in its definition of success and failure. I was doing the “personal mission” for Thane, an assassin and this turned out to involve trying to prevent his son from assassinating someone. My assumption? Kill a whole lot of people such that, for some reason, the son doesn’t do the thing. But no, I was asked merely to follow some people. This was so out of keeping with every other mission I’d done to that point that I completely screwed it up, largely by not quite believing that was all I was meant to do. And so: mission failed.

But it was an interesting failure. For one thing, it had serious consequences for Thane’s son, which I presumably could have prevented by being a little more competent. For another, it meant that Thane himself is not “loyal” to me (the expected outcome when you complete one of these personal missions). And for another, it was something I’d put work into (there was a lead-up to the following bit) and which I had failed, but which didn’t stop the game and reset it to a pre-failure point (which is what happens if you die in combat, say). It just let me know that I hadn’t been all I could be, and the game rolled on, leaving me to suffer the consequences.

I could have restored the game to a pre-screwup moment, but there was something about the delicate balance of the failure. It was serious and yet not so serious. It engendered damaging consequences for someone else, emotional damage for a teammate, and a corresponding lack of loyalty. A fair bit of spilt milk, say. On the other hand, the game didn’t end, I didn’t die, and there was no implication that this was a catastrophic event. No, it was a real event. It would have seemed deeply petty to restore the game in search of lost brownie points (to go with the spilt milk – ha!). In a way, the game challenged my honour as a player, my grit – it asked “can you handle the truth that you screwed it up and there are consequences?”

And I found that I could handle that truth, and more than that… I was pleased by it. There’s a purity in being able to have a negative outcome in a game, a non-optimal one. We often become so fixated on our personal hill-climbing algorithm, our maximising, our very ability to always win and win big, that we can forget how poignant a “non-fatal error” can be in a virtual life.

So I say, live a little. Fail. And then keep the fail. Hold it close to your cheek. Feel it turn into a funny-shaped win.

4 November 2010
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