I died 40 minutes into Disco Elysium. Tired, I had left my hotel room and interviewed a cafeteria manager downstairs. I ran away when he said I owed money on a bill. I tripped, crashed into a woman in a wheelchair, and fell to the floor, where I had a fatal heart attack. I was a complete and utter failure, which was fine.
You might think I’d be frustrated, to play Disco Elysium and die because I lost a few dexterity rolls. I didn’t have a save file, which meant starting over. Failure is often interpreted as punishment for players, reflecting a lack of skill or planning. If you were a good player, a hardcore player, then you’d never die. Game over? Well, that makes you a fuckin’ loser. Git gud, scrub.
It didn’t feel that way to me. My humiliating death was an illustrative moment that only made me love Disco Elysium even more. It was a reminder that failure—while not a necessary component of a game—is a powerful tool. Do it right and you can set the tone for the entire experience, or even teach important lessons.
Still, players see failure as an annoyance more than an enjoyable aspect of a game. Games are often power fantasies where we can embody supersoldiers or dragonslayers. Enemies smash against us like waves but we don’t stumble. We win. Princess saved. War over. We literally give out fake trophies for these victories. Kick enough ass and that fake trophy might even be made of fake Platinum.
Players know failure is possible, but push the thought aside—even if, given enough time, failure is an inevitability.
In his book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, games theorist Jesper Juul considers this to be a paradox. He outlines it like this:
1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.
The paradox is not that failure exists, but that players actively seek it out. They crave larger challenges that they might fail. They enter competitive spaces where the goal is to make other players fail and where they can have crushing defeats. A loss streak in Overwatch lowers your rank, making you feel inadequate. You die right away in a battle royale and feel like a useless piece of shit. These feelings are powerful and although it makes sense to avoid them, we don’t.
Juul conceptualizes failure in games as comparable to watching a tragic play. Stories ending in tragedy might depress us or cause us to weep in anguish depending on our investment. But unlike the cathartic release of watching theater, games, at least for Juul, don’t offer the same emotional release. So what is the point of failure in games?
“This is what games do,” Juul writes. “They promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy—an inadequacy they produce in us in the first place.”
Disco Elysium thrives largely because it produces extreme inadequacy in the player. The main character is an alcoholic cop who wakes up from a blackout. If you have low enough physical stats, you can die in your hotel room as you fail to pick up your tie from the ceiling fan where it’s hanging. If your speech skills are too low, you can “flirt” with the eloquent phrase “I want to have fuck with you.” Any number of reduced character stats or unsuccessful rolls can lead to the outright degradation of the main character, and therefore the player. These failures are funny in the Mel Brooks “comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die” kind of way. But they help Disco Elysium paint multiple pictures of success.
There are 24 skills in Disco Elysium, representing aspects of the mind and body. These include physical strength and hand-eye coordination, but also concepts like empathy, art appreciation, moral rectitude, and imagination. There are any number of ways to approach a situation. The possibility of catastrophic failure might sometimes frustrate, but it also adds weight to unconventional success. In some ways, it reminds me of Planescape: Torment—arguably the best damn game ever made—where emphasizing your Wisdom stat meant just as much as strength. Intuition could avoid fights, or even rewrite reality. These solutions are of equal validity to success in combat. Disco Elysium iterates on this further by adding additional risk and potential embarrassment.
Failure is fine. Dying in games is a reward unto itself. They are not punishments, they are opportunities. Disadvantaging players and designing for their weakness is as essential as designing for their strength. Hand out cool loot, have players save the day. But from time to time, let them fail. And make their end the most embarrassing, clumsy, shit-eating one possible.