The Best Kind Of Failure From XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s strange that the greatest learning experiences should come from failure. Speaking from a standpoint of pure numbers, you should be just as clueless when succeed as when you fail if you just go into something once and take the experience whole cloth. After all, without proper application of the scientific process, knowing what contributed to a victory is as much as a shot in the dark as it is to know what contributed to a loss. You can postulate all day, but in the end, you just won’t know.

And yet, failure is our best teacher. Perhaps it’s a psychological deficiency of the human condition; if we win, our inclination is that we can just as easily do it again, but if we lose, victory must be achievable and it’s just that we haven’t yet determined how. It’s a selfish point of view, ignoring the possibilities that you can’t ever win or that our successes are by the virtue of something outside of our control (e.g. their failures instead of yours). It’s mostly illusory superiority, but it could also be any other number or some combination of cognitive biases like the Dunning–Kruger effect or confirmation bias.

That’s not to say, however, that failure automatically brings about an education. Not only does a situation have to inspire you to want to succeed despite your recent defeat but also show you your mistakes rather than tell you.

Video games, in particular, have a tough time with this second part, though it makes sense why. I mean, what is easier to develop: text or a gameplay + feedback loop? And that’s a phrase you’ve probably heard a lot recently: “feedback loop.” It refers to that loop in which you do something and then something else happens, either an event or a reward or pretty much anything so long as it informs you that “hey, you caused this!” The tighter that loop is, the more rewarding a game is generally perceived (at least on a superficial level).

The most common example when describing this loop is Diablo III. You click and damage numbers pop out or you click and treasure chests open or you click and an enemy dies and then loot comes out. It’s such a tight loop that Diablo games often border on being a well-calculated device of addiction rather than a game.

But this loop can also apply to failure, something exemplified by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the recent Firaxis Games remake of the MicroProse classic. The way XCOM teaches you that you’ve done something wrong is by punishing you. Hard. If you do something wrong or fumble a crucial decision, surprise! A squadmate is dead. If you’re lucky (and I really mean lucky), you’ll get away with a few weeks in a coma or something, but by and large, say goodbye to that guy you went through the trouble of naming, cultivating, and ultimately loving over the course of several hours. Forget to Overwatch? You won’t forget again, I can guarantee that.

And that loop is so small, there’s pretty much no way to obfuscate that lesson. Take bad cover? Dead. Rush into uncharted territory? Dead. Opt for glory over safety? Dead. If you mess up, you will know almost immediately. Call it crude (it basically borders on the same methodology as electroshock therapy), but it works.

But XCOM also makes you care that you’ve failed. In some games, when you fail, you just become indifferent. Dying in something like Call of Duty is such a passive and uninteresting activity that being asked to care about your failures is pretty much like asking a penguin to eat spaghetti with a fork; it’s not gonna happen. But with such permanence and personal loss in a death in XCOM, a failure becomes “I swear to god I’m going to kill those alien sons of bitches” instead of “I wonder if Jimmy Fallon is on yet.”

Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that the aliens of XCOM are so uncaring. When you die, they don’t care. You might as well be a bug on the windshield as they go zipping around space from conquered planet to conquered planet. Call of Duty enemies taunt you and yell and basically make a hoopla over your death, an action that can either rile you up or make you feel kind of gross. Either way, it won’t make you care about dying and learn from that death. It just makes you either want to stop playing or play angrier. When the aliens don’t care, you tend to want to overcompensate in the Feels Department, showing them that they didn’t just kill your medic but also your friend. They will know your pain so they will know regret.

Contrast that with something like Resident Evil 6, the latest entry in the indecipherable menagerie of A-to-Z viruses and corporate shenanigans. While the enemies are indifferent in a rather chilling way (I assume most zombies are emotionless anyways), the emotional investment in any of the three characters of Leon, Chris, and Jake is pretty much zero. When one of them dies, it not only becomes “well, I’ve got two other dudes” but also “thank god, that guy sucked.” So any one of their deaths gives us zero impetus to learn. Like, anything.

But the bigger problem is that the loop in which you learn from mistakes in Resident Evil 6 is just so god damn hazy. If you are shooting an enemy at the wrong time, you’ll never know because they all react the same as if you were shooting them at the right time, which is to say they don’t. At all. They don’t stagger, they don’t bleed, they don’t do anything except die when they run out of health. Each shot you fire should feed into that loop, but instead they just add link after link to it until you can’t tell where you start and end on the cycle. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Not to mention all of the information it withholds. Whereas XCOM withholds ancillary information like what order you should build your base facilities or what makes for an important role later on in the game both in the tactical and the strategy portions of the game, Resident Evil 6 just doesn’t tell you how to play the game in any way. Diving and rolling, for instance, is vital if you are looking to keep you face looking like a face, but it doesn’t tell you how to do that. Did you melee attack just connect or is that zombie immune to kicks? Instead of feeling inspired at each death, you feel cheated. XCOM shrugs its shoulders when you die, telling you that it was your fault, that you fucked up. Resident Evil 6 didn’t even know you were playing.

Failure is important. It is often the first step towards success. If you start out winning, the journey usually goes the other way, but it’s worse when you start out losing and just stay that way through no fault of your own. Humans are conditioned to strive for more, for victory and the like. Either through indifference or incompetence, you are kept away from your emotional and perhaps tangible payoff for all your efforts and it’s frustrating. But when a game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown manages to make you feel like failing is a good thing and even a necessary thing, it’s rewarding every step along the way.

But when those steps are also littered with Thin Men, well, be prepared to cry a little.

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