Failure is an Option

Failure is a large part of games of all types. It’s necessary for a lot of games be they free-to-play, soulesque, rogue-likes. Some games don’t have failure states at all, namely walking simulators. But it’s rare to find games that have failure states that contribute to the narrative. More often than not the game state resets itself to an earlier time aka save. But I’ve tired of these, I want games that accept failure as part of the story. After all every good story has a try-fail cycle.

So what games do you know that incorporate failure into their stories? I can think of only three - FarCry 2, Moon Hunters, and Rogue Legacy.


souls games usually do have some narrative hook as to why you keep dying and coming back to life, but it’s not really acknowledged directly with how vague the storytelling usually is in those games. similarly in a lot of grand strategy like Crusader Kings 2 the odds of all the interplaying mechanics are such that you can’t realistically always be winning. kings will die, territories will revolt, wars will be lost and all of that shapes the story you’re telling with each game.

aside from these vague examples all I can think of is when games have one fight in them that you have to fail for the story to progress, and what a terrible and confusing idea that is in games that don’t teach you that it’s fine to lose.

I also might be misremembering but didn’t Alpha Protocol have pretty wide allowance for how much you could fuck up while still moving forward in the story, watching all your fuckups make the situation worse and worse?


I know occasionally games like Witcher 3 let some questions be failed or never completed but those are sidequests. That fact means failure can be entirely bypassed as an option. And as you mention @swords few games train you to accept failure as part of the game. Something I’d like to see more of.

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Pyre is a very good example of a game that treats failure as something that does not mean the end. Sometimes you kind of even wish that you’d fail since winning could make things rough for your opponents.


Pyre is a great example.

The old Wario games never let you die, getting hit by enemies or falling down pits would just be a setbacks or the like. Like, falling off the screen would send you to a new area below for example. It was a neat thing.


I’m at the end of my first cycle of Pyre and I’m a little disappointed I haven’t lost a match yet because I’m curious to see what happens. I’m assuming I will probably start losing more on subsequent cycles trough the map.

If I remember correctly, if your party wipes in Darkest Dungeon you just go back to the village and recruit more characters. As frustrating as the lost progress can be, it’s certainly a game that tries to get you used to losing characters as part of the game.


I’ve always really liked games where the narrative is tied to a constantly moving clock, like Majora’s Mask and Dead Rising 2. If you get to Romani Ranch after the first day in Majora’s Mask, Romani’s gone and you don’t get the opportunity to get your horse back that cycle. If you miss the time limit for a story mission in Dead Rising 2, the game keeps going with a worse ending being the only option for the player. I love games like this because they imagine a world where the player didn’t exist and characters in the world just end up succumbing to their problems, where the lack of your presence ends up at a narrative failure state. A friend of mine’s always told me that Pathologic has a similar dynamic but I haven’t played it and I’ve decided to wait for the remake I backed on Kickstarter a few years ago.


If you want to consider phone games I think Reigns and Reigns: Her Majesty could qualify here? The monarch dying is a pretty inevitable failure state and there’s a continuation of some story stuff as you go through one monarch to the next.


Things start heating up after that and you will probably need to actually use tactics. Most of the people that i have heard from had the same experience with the first cycle but don’t worry you will probably start losing soon or atleast being close to it.

I have a weird one, but I find losing militarily in Civilization to be quite enjoyable. Mainly because I inevitably pour all my resources into culture and science, making the utopian society I always wanted, and then I play out a narrative in my head of the wonderfully advanced pacifist society getting wiped out by the barbaric and militaristic hordes at the gates. I guess it stems from my fascination with lost culture and knowledge throughout history, like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.


I’m showing my age, but that goes back to Wing Commander - you could lose a mission and continue the campaign (usually at the cost of a wingman’s life), and if you won the next one it would put you back on the winning track; lose two in a row and you’d be in a final battle you can’t win, and get the bad ending.

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Fun thing about Pyre is that, from the second cycle onward, there will be situations where you might actually want to throw a match as a way of manipulating the tournament. You’ll see…

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I refuse to believe I’m the only one who deliberately threw a match to the Oldhearts. :slight_smile:

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Came here to say that Pyre is a great example of this so I’m glad others have brought it up. Also, there are a number of games that eventually have your player character die and be replaced, like Zombi or Crusader Kings II (admittedly these two have very different approaches).

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The first cycle is quite easy, the difficulty ramps up considerably after that.

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Excited to start losing! :+1:


Celeste doesn’t necessarily incorporate failure into its story, but its story is about failure, specifically learning through failure.

The heroine is having a tough climb up a mountain, so each platforming death is narratively equivalent to, like, slipping on a foot- or hand-hold. That’s how I read it, at least.

Still, it’s not really systemic in the way you’re looking for. XCOM? Darkest Dungeon? Any perma-death game, really.


Interesting design route, albeit potentially a dangerous one as well!

I had designed my previous game around this very principle, writing dedicated scenes both for player’s academic and combat failures and planning the calendar around giving them enough chances to win despite some failed attempts (3 out of 6 wins in combat/3 failed tests was enough to reach the ending), but in the end, most players chose to reload when they failed a test/a fight, and I heard extremely little feedback about those “fail” routes (despite many that can still lead to an ultimate “win”).

To be honest, it’s as likely to be a result of poor communication on my part that the game did indeed take failure into account, than simple ingrained player reflexes that “failure=bad” (most players in fact admitted they did not even stop to consider if the game would allow it, and simply reloaded out of habit before seeing if their failure led anywhere), but it was interesting to see that most players unintentionally skipped over large parts of their potential experience simply out of habit! :smiley:

To cite another example, I think Heavy Rain might fit - based on the narrative, it’s very possible to “lose” characters early on, and have the final chapters in the game be entirely “unwinnable” (depending on one’s definition of victory in this game), or at least play out very differently.

(also, +1 to Pathologic, and to a good example of a game that doesn’t communicate anything yet still works on so many levels - indeed, it’s possible to “fail” very early yet still play through the entire thing :smiley: )


I loved how Tearaway worked in a forced failure partially through the game because - in the narrative - the game’s designer/creator thought they’d messed up and created too short of an experience initially. It pushed the player to traverse back up the mountain and experience everything again and think about what the opening few hours had done for the narrative