Written for Continue Play, recreated here with permission.
Anyone who has ever completed a stage on Super Meat Boy knows that failure is inherent to the human condition, and a very large part of how humans think.
In part, this is because human failure is inevitable. Humans will always make mistakes. From the first moments of life, mistakes are expected and adjusted for. Terms life “baby-proofing” exist because of that, the very natural aspect of human nature to try and explore the world hands and face-first, often to great cost. These failures are expected, seen as natural, and examined. It is through mistakes and repeated trials that humans learn from the beginning of their lives.
These discoveries yield to experimentation. We learn things from our failures, and we try new approaches and considerations based entirely on the educated guesses we extrapolate from our failures. Titles like the aforementioned Super Meat Boy are evidence of this, with each red-splattered buzz saw or scorch mark lingering on the ground ahead proof one failed approach made evident, and requires the player to think through the alternatives. We look at these failures both as mistakes made, but also as opportunities to drive forward, test a new theory, and likely fail in a new, spectacular, and educational way. We learn from these errors, and we try again.
Super Meat Boy is the turbo-speed version of human trial and discovery. What we learn during each attempt informs the way we tackle the next. The more complex the task at hand, the more we have to build up our techniques, using what we’ve learned as the foundation for rising to the next challenge. Sequences of blades and bullets aren’t there to scare us into inactivity, they’re meant as lessons. They’re a way to see each problem is a surmountable hurdle, giving instant feedback on what went wrong, and a new, fresh attempt at resolving the problem follows shortly after.
While this can become frustrating, the frustration comes from the knowledge that the problem is surmountable. It’s how we are mentally wired to learn. We’ve been this exact way from the beginning.
Games like Super Meat Boy explore the idea of humanity as a learning machine, and games as education tools. We build our knowledge base from the idea that we have challenges we understand the resolution to, but don’t know precisely how to achieve it just yet. Even if the sequence is apparent, as it often is, the particulars to the execution must still be learned. Muscle memory needs to be built, reflexes need to be sharpened, and the way we understand the problem has to be shifted in order to create the most efficient and functional result. If the problem was simple, easily executed, and completed quickly, there would be no pleasure in its resolution. It would simply be rote. Something to do. Humans take pleasure in succeeding only after it has also failed.
That is what makes the post-stage screen so satisfying. Watching tens of hundreds of little meat boys crashing through the stage, with each passing second revealing the eventual triumphs over the meat boys that have already fallen, and the inevitable failures that end those still remaining, make the one final success that much more gratifying. The catharsis of a problem identified, experimented through, and resolved is practically magical.
This principle isn’t found just through challenging platformers like Super Meat Boy (though Dustforce is also an excellent example of the same principle) but also in other genres. The presence and use of quicksave and quickload functions in titles like the Elder Scrolls or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series emphasize the importance of thinking through complex problems from a distance, formulating a plan, and executing on it. The failures themselves mean less than the overall process learned. Minor progress is lost when the player loads back into the last save, but the knowledge stays with them, letting them make wiser decisions going forward.
In particular, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat has an excellent scene that characterizes this. There is a long stretch where players must navigate to the end of a long tunnel. This tunnel has no jump-scares, no sudden visceral horrors flooding from the ceiling or through the vents. All of the challenges that approach the player do so with preamble. Not long, but enough to formulate a plan, take stock of the surroundings, and execute an approach to maximize the potential for victory. It’s a quiet, tense, and difficult task, but one whose challenges were sign-posted throughout the game. The players were given ample tools to take with them. It’s the result of a majority of the game’s techniques up to that point, and players who plan properly can pass through the tunnel successfully. It isn’t necessarily easy, but it is perfectly achievable.
The same could be said for rhythmic games like Super Hexagon or Chime. While the ability to stay in beat with the music isn’t precisely necessary to play the games, having an understanding of the timings involved makes approaching the problems that much more understandable, comprehensive, and that much easier to accomplish the tasks laid out for the player. Super Hexagon specifically requires of the player a close affinity with the pace of the music. The backing track provides players with the innate understanding of the urgency of play. It’s a game where seconds feel like hours, and the ability to play for an entire minute is an almost unattainable milestone. The richness that comes from that single, solitary, almost mythological minute makes the achievement so satisfying. All within a single minute of play.
Games like these are, by that regard, human traps. They force our mind to do what it does best, and does so through the act of playing. The constant flow of challenges and failures and challenges are what make the later victories so valuable. These games are tools that remind us how we learn, and teach us how to better employ the techniques we use in problem solving. We play these games just as much for these failures as we do for our victories.
Because of that nature, the fact that we will fail is inevitable. But it’s all a tool to prove not just that humans learn and play simultaneously, but do so with the expectation that failure isn’t the end game, but part of the process. We’ll find new adaptations, reconsider our methods, and find new ways to accomplish our goals. There is victorious merit in the failures we accomplish every time we challenge the game. The struggles we face exist to make us not just better players, but better humans. We use games as entertainment, and also to maximize our potential. The failures are an integral part of what makes the whole process work.
So as the death knell of “Game over” appears terminally on the screen, it’s almost inevitable that a “Begin” is soon to follow. Failure is an inevitable part of the human condition, but so too is the next trial.