Courting Failure: The Heaven in Helldivers

Games Features

“Extraction confirmed. Shuttle inbound. ETA T Minus One Minute, 30 seconds!” I groaned audibly. Sure, we’d blasted apart the crater-like nests of the giant alien bugs, and we’d protected the oil extractor from assault as it sucked up the precious fuel needed back on Super Earth. We were good Helldivers, it’s true. But I wasn’t satisfied. My “Humblebee” UAV—a little drone that hovers a few meters above our heads—had revealed that there were at least three more alien “samples” spread across desert. Yes, they were out of the way, but if we retrieved them, we could use them to upgrade our equipment. Oh well.

This is what I get for playing multiplayer, I tell myself. I joined up with other players so that I’d have the firepower and support to push through a harder mission, but in exchange I lost the ability to freely explore one of Helldivers’ procedurally generated maps at my own pace. Instead, we’d sprinted from objective to objective, blasting giant insects along the way. Now we just had to survive a 90 second onslaught of bugs and driving synth lines, and we’d be home free. It wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle. Especially if one of us called down a turret.

Unfortunately, three of us called down turrets. They sped through the atmosphere from low-orbit, slamming into the sand. With synchronized clanks, they unfolded their danger, and within moments we were all caught in the crossfire. With fifteen seconds left until the shuttle arrived, there was only one of us alive, and she was crawling on her back, blasting giant beetles with her pistol as her life drained away. Miraculously, she managed to drag herself upright… and right under the massive engine block of the extraction shuttle. Whoops.

I could hear garbled, tinny laughter coming over the Vita’s speakers, and I joined in. I’d forgotten all about those missing samples I’d been so focused on. What a thing it is to fail spectacularly.

I was a Videogame Perfectionist

I remember the moment I outed myself as a videogame perfectionist. It was just over two-and-a-half minutes into Guitar Hero 2’s rendition of the Rage Against the Machine track “Killing in the Name Of.” I’d missed a note during one of guitarist Tom Morello’s little flourishes, and I instinctively went through the motions to restart the song from the beginning. A friend sitting in the room with me gasped and gave me a look. I understood his objection: This wasn’t an early-song mistake that I was taking a mulligan on. It was nearly the end of the track. What’s the big deal?

I stammered out an explanation: When I play Guitar Hero, I pick a song and play it until I get it perfectly, restarting on the first—maybe the second—mistake each time through. Yes, I said, I do know it would be better practice to just repeat the whole song over and over until I learn the whole thing. But I wasn’t looking to practice. I was looking to do it right, just once, and then to move on. That’s what Guitar Hero was for me: Standing for hours alone in my dorm room, playing the same track on repeat, hitting the same keys. I wasn’t learning songs, I was just beating levels.

This wasn’t unique to how I played Guitar Hero, either. I restarted games of NFL 2K5 because I was determined to get a perfect season, one way or another. I spent hour after hour on the same map of Fire Emblem for the Gameboy Advance, all so I wouldn’t lose a character I didn’t like anyway. I refused to ever bring along any of Hitman: Blood Money’s unlockable weapons on a mission, so that I wouldn’t even be tempted to lose my “Silent Assassin” rating.

And let me be clear: I was not good at these games. I stumbled and screwed up and threw private tantrums. I put games away for months because I couldn’t succeed in exactly the way I wanted. Again and again, the power fantasies peddled by these games weren’t good enough for me. It felt like I always wanted more.

Even then I wanted to know why I played like this, but it was hard to identify where this desire came from, or why it was my default mode of play for so long. Maybe it started back during the difficult transition to high school (and then to college) as success became a lot harder to come by. Or, I thought, maybe it was how I was dealing with feelings of social inadequacy. Or maybe it was just the simple pleasure of converting time into measurable improvement.

Whatever it was, there was a hidden cost to my perfectionism. I let myself fade into the background, even in a group of friends. I never wanted the spotlight: What if I fucked up? I was happy to watch others play games, to sing at karaoke, to try the interesting dish at that new restaurant. I was happy taking the support role, to clap along in the audience. I never tried anything new unless I was completely sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. It was paralyzing.

I hadn’t figured out yet that there was plenty of fun to be had in screwing up. So I went along conceptualizing games as conquerable, as fully mine to control. This is rarely true, of course. There’s always something else at work, even in the games where measured, practiced performance pays off. Long days and tired eyes. Sweaty hands. An unlucky dice roll. The occasional glitch. Air pressure. There’s always something that can go wrong.

So imagine when I finally experienced games that, on top of all of these factors, were designed to go wrong.

A Renaissance of Failure

Helldivers, with its orbital drop pods, friendly fire, and momentous, domino-like disasters, is only the latest game to harness the power of failure. When I think of my favorite gaming experiences of the last few years, every image that jumps to mind is some story about things falling apart.

Like that time we stole a fortune out from under the nose of the Russian mob in Payday 2, then opened the wrong door and stumbled gunshot-wound-first into a room filled with armed guards. Whoops.

Or that beautiful ten second gameplay loop of The Last Of Us: Watching an enemy scavenger turn left instead of right, dodging my carefully laid traps, and forcing me to improvise as he marches my way, shotgun in hand. Shit, shitshitshit!

Or when, after last year’s major update to Dwarf Fortress’ Adventure Mode, my elven archer found her death not at the end of an Orcish blade or from a kobold’s arrow, but from being slammed in the brain by a bird which had crashed into a tree branch overhead. Cool. Cool.

And I watched with glee as games like Apocalypse World brought improv comedy’s “Yes and…” rule into the independent tabletop RPG scene. In the old days, you’d roll to pick a lock and if you failed, the door remained closed. But more and more RPGs encourage the GM to let players failure forward. “Yes, you do pick the lock. Andthe guard down the hall hears you doing it.” Uh oh.

Most clearly of all, I remember standing in my friend’s apartment with a microphone in my hand, surrounded by people I’d only met that day. The same friend who gave me the look, years earlier. It was after a Super Bowl XLV party and Rock Band had found its way onto the TV. “Say It Ain’t So,” by Weezer. Yeah, yeah, I knew those lyrics, sure. Yeah, I’d sing it. Why not. I let myself risk the failure. I invited a mediocre performance.

For a while, it was one. Actually, it wasn’t just mediocre, it was bad.

But then, a little more than two-and-a-half minutes into the song, I closed my eyes and belted out that bridge. Loud. Loud enough for all the times that teen Austin wouldn’t sing along in his friends’ cars. In spite of years of silence.

And there was something in that performance, I guess. An admission of all those years of fearing failure, maybe. Whatever it was, it worked. No one said anything, I don’t think. I don’t really remember. I just remember that it worked. Listen, I’m not saying it was good—in fact, I’m sure it was very, very rough—but it worked. And even if it hadn’t worked, it would’ve been okay. These people seemed alright. I felt comfortable there.

I realize now that when I spent all that time repeating songs in Guitar Hero, it wasn’t only because I wanted to play perfectly. It was also that I wanted, desperately, to fail.

The Failure Fantasy

In the cultural space of games, power fantasies of success are entrenched, and over the years we’ve trained ourselves to look for them. We accumulate new abilities and powers; we climb over obstacles and push through the dark, forging a path ahead; we defeat enough enemies and a guitar riff or a nostalgic melody signals an increase in level; we watch as more and more territory comes under our control, draped in our color, covered in our architecture.

There is, though, also this other kind of power fantasy. A fantasy of failure, which, like the fantasy of success, has many sub-species. Some of these are just success dressed up in another name: We want to fail forward, to find another path into new, more interesting content. Or we want our failure to mean something in the long run, as in Rogue Legacy, where individual failures still add up into long term improvement. We argue on forums about game balance because, listen, we don’t mind losing to our rivals—in fact, there’s something romantic about that—but we want to lose fairly.

But there is, more quietly (and, I think, more fundamentally) a fantasy of actual failure that attracts us to games. Wanting to safely fail is not such an absurd desire to have: It’s also part of why many of us want strong relationships with friends or family, or better health care coverage, or a stable, secure income. When we have those safety nets in place we can take risks and be creative, and we can live through loss when it eventually comes. But many of us do not have those things, or if we do, might still feel like we can’t ever let ourselves fail. And so: Games. Play.

Though I love “failing forward,” I am glad we also fail backwards in games. I don’t want a world where every game is Apocalypse World or Rogue Legacy. It’s important to recognize failure as part of our schema of desire, and to resist the notion that all failure should just be a road bump on the way to success. To do so would be to fall into the trap of the scrambling, consumptive cultural logic of efficiency. When I play Dark Souls it’s not only because I want to kill the strange beasts that crush me: It’s because I want to be crushed. In a world that feels increasingly precarious—and increasingly tilted towards achieving a state of perpetual productivity—games offer us a space where failure costs little. It is a space where we can safely experience loss and frustration; where those very human feelings do not come attached to seemingly irreversible changes to our lives.

And sometimes games work as building blocks used to create new places where we can comfortably fail. We organize events and create safer communities. We bond over party wipes and exchange fanfic featuring non-canon romantic pairings. Some of us make games that explicitly address our political conditions, critiquing trends in monetization, exploitation, and appropriation. Others make games that, in their plain devotion to joy and noise and nonsense, make the radical demand that we should be allowed to fail (and if it means taking a day off from work so we can play these games with our friends, then so be it.)

So, until we’ve managed to create more spaces in life where we can fail safely, I’ll keep retreating to games. When Rock Band 4 comes out, I’ll spend hours privately repeating chords on a new plastic guitar (and, yes, embarrassingly singing along to songs in public, too). The moment I’m done writing this (and sending it off), I’m going to turn on my Vita and drop down to some alien world in a “Hellpod.” I can’t wait to be snatched up in the jaws of some camouflaged Super Mantis, or blown to bits by a friend’s mishandled grenade. I can’t wait to fail.

Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.

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