Nineteen Years of Failure

descent

When I was a kid—probably about six or seven years old, but I can’t be sure—my parents brought home a new PC. With the new PC came some new PC games. One of these games was Descent, a 3D first-person-shooter-meets-flight-simulator in which players explore intricate, maze-like mines to destroy mining robots infected with an alien virus—and then the mines themselves. I can’t remember what it was that seized me with a desire to play it, but at some point the desire struck me and wouldn’t let me go.

I asked my parents if I could give it a try. They said no.

“It’s too hard for you.”

I wasn’t really sure what had brought them to that conclusion. I had seen them play it maybe once or twice—but even if it was too hard for them, how could they possibly know that it was too hard for me? I hadn’t gotten to try it, and no one could know it was too hard for me until I tried. (And really, one of the best ways to motivate me to do something and to ensure that I will do it is to tell me that I’m incapable of doing it). So I took my I’ll-Show-You attitude and whined and cajoled and pestered until I got my way. And once I’d gotten my permission to play, I channeled that attitude at the game itself.

I loved that game. Yes, it was hard. Yes, it was frustrating. But I picked up the controls fairly quickly and soon was well past any point that either of my parents had managed to reach. It took time and it took practice, but soon I was progressing through levels and feeling pretty good about myself and my gaming abilities. My introduction to Descent came years before I started thinking of myself as a gamer. It came before Pokemon Red and Dragon Warrior Monsters and Final Fantasy VIII, the earliest games that would later come to define my understanding of myself as a lover of video games.

Eventually, though, I hit a wall: Level 10. The tenth level of Descent is irrevocably embedded into my memory—its red walls, seething lava, winding and disorienting corridors. I remember where the enemy robots waited in ambush, the placement of each key, the path I would eventually learn to take to maximize my likelihood of succeeding.

I have no idea how many times I failed that level. I played and played—and failed every time. Countless times, I restarted entirely and tried to build up as many lives as I could. With all of those failures came new strategies, new tactics, new skills. I dodged enemy fire and raced through the level and came so, so, close so many times.

Once I beat the level—once. And then I went straight to the next level and instantly died and it was all over. A moment of victory that flashed into existence and then was gone, exploding with my ship, its shards scattered into zero-G. I was faced with my nemesis still.   

Over some time, I got older and so did the PC. I started playing other games and my family got a new PC to replace the now-old Descent-playing PC, and somehow in that transition Descent got lost. I’d never really gotten past that tenth level. Not really.

Every couple of years or so, I would get it in my head that I needed to try to find Descent, so I would go down into the basement and dig through mountains of storage. Even if I couldn’t play it, I just wanted to have it again. For nostalgia’s sake, I guess. I’d pull out plastic containers stuffed with ancient America Online discs and never find Descent. It became the great unbeaten game of my life. Sure, there were plenty of other games that I had started and never finished—but there had never been a game like this one, a game into which I had invested so much, only for it to be left unbeaten, lost to time.

Recently, I started reading Jesper Juul’s Art of Failure. I’ve been interested in concepts of failure in video games of late and had decided that this would be a good place to start delving into some general theory on the topic. Juul describes video games as “the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience and experiment with failure.”i A great deal of his book is spent exploring the paradox of failure, the idea that we generally tend to avoid failing yet seek out games, an activity in which we experience failure.

Juul points out that games give us a space in which to experience failure while also denying responsibility for it—we can easily say that our failure doesn’t matter, because it’s “just a game.” We can blame the game for being unfair or too hard. However, Juul complicates the claim of “it’s just a game,” arguing that failure in a game is not neutral simply because it occurs in the space of a game. Feeling responsible for failure is the only way to improve, to gain the techniques and learn the strategies necessary to advance in and complete a skill-based game like Descent. In order to get better, we must acknowledge our own faults and deficiencies, acknowledging and facing our failure.

At the time that I was reading Juul’s book, Descent was released on Steam just before its nineteenth anniversary. I jumped at the opportunity to face my old adversary again. Overjoyed, I told friends and family that I was being reunited with that rival of nearly two decades. An older an more experienced gamer now, I was sure that I would have the game completed in no time.

It was…harder than I remember it.

As of the writing of this post, I am stuck at the boss at the end of Level 7. I don’t recall this ever being a problem for my childhood self (and with how much time I spent playing and failing in the game, I think I would recall if this had been a problematic spot for me). I am playing at the second-lowest difficulty setting (Rookie) and just can’t do it. …At least, not yet. I’m still trying.

I can’t help but admire my child-self—the skills I had learned, the resilience with which I constantly returned to the game, so eager to defeat it, to show that it wasn’t too hard for me. I realized as I have returned to Descent that at some point it became no longer “just a game.” That is no longer an excuse that I can fall back on to shrug away my continued failure in the game. The sense of neutral failure that allowed me to start the game, that allows gameplay to occur at all, has gone. Maybe it’s the span of time, the fact that I’m still trying to do this after so many years, the fact that I’m still so driven to finish this game after so many failures. Maybe it’s being told that something is too hard for me, that I can’t do it, and wanting to prove that thought wrong. 

What keeps me motivated?

I wondered about this after a particularly frustrating session with the game—two hours spent reaching the point at which I’m now stuck. Could I do this now? If I were starting this game for the first time now—without my childhood history with it—would I want to keep playing such a brutal, difficult, punishing game? I wasn’t really sure.

Juul’s book touches on the perceived changes in difficulty in video games over the years. Some players and developers argue that games of today aren’t, on the whole, challenging in the same ways that those of the nineties were (like Descent)…or, more simply, that current games just aren’t as hard as they used to be. Responding to this idea, Juul points out that it’s first necessary to distinguish between failure and punishment. In current games—as opposed to early video games—failure occurs more commonly. The punishment for failing, however, has supposedly tended to diminish in recent years (I’ll have more thoughts on this in the future, once I get farther in Dark Souls—so for now, hold this thought).

Thinking about my perpetual failure in Descent and the punishments therein, I wondered if I could stay motivated if I were just now being introduced to the game. Could I put up with this sort of punishment? Could I keep playing in the face of it? …In fact, can even my intense childhood conflict with this game compel me to finally finish it?

I’m not entirely sure.  

And while I may not have all of the answers now, these are questions that continue to preoccupy me. What keeps players motivated to continue playing video games in the face of failure? Sure, as Juul argues, games are only fun with failure, failure in games drives us to want to improve and succeed, so on—but what about those games that are viciously difficult? What about those games in which losses are constant, punishing, devastating?

I’m still working on Descent. And earlier this week, I started a new challenge: Dark Souls. Just before I started the game, I ended up watching Yahtzee’s recent review of the game, in which he compares it and its constant failures to learning to enjoy stepping on rakes. I’m gradually coming to understand what he means as I start to get the hang of Dark Souls, and I can’t help but think that that also at least partially describes my relationship with Descent.

These are all themes that I’m hoping to look into more soon, and will continue to consider. In the meantime, I’ll still be trying (and failing) to struggle through Descent and Dark Souls.

More soon. 

i. Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

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