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Narratives of Failure – What Works and Why?

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In recent years the video game industry has sought to present their products in a more sophisticated light, to demonstrate as it were that they have ‘grown up’. The option gone for, in these cases, is the bleak ending, with the notion that, in the end, all your hero character can do is choose how to fail, not how to win. Mass Effect 3 is one well-known example, but the recently released Batman: Arkham Knight is an equally worthy, perhaps worthier, contender.

Say the words ‘narrative of failure’ to a Star Wars fan and two options spring to mind – The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith. Yet, though both tend to get lumped into the category of ‘bad guys win’ stories, do they really? ROTS ends on a hopeful note for the future and while they’ve been blasted by their experiences, no one is dead at the end of ESB.

It is important to recognize the importance of the medium used. There are notable differences between film and video games, particularly with regard to the user, that suggest that film can get away with certain narrative moves video games cannot. The principal difference being activity. While the audience may indeed become emotionally or intellectually hooked on a film’s plot, they are still essentially passive in the sense they are the audience and cannot impact the tale. In contrast, video games require a level of active involvement with, in the best games, an ability to affect the plot outcome. At its most basic, this is simply in continuing the game and not being killed, but has gone much further with games having multiple endings that are chosen by player choices.

Mass Effect is an interesting case because, depending on where you start playing it, the way the final act looks alters. Like many, I started with Mass Effect 2 which gives a potted summary of the first game, plus key decisions it requires from the player. This game has you on an against-the-odds suicide mission and, if you play it well, you can pull that off without losing any of your crew. It very much has a ‘yes, we can’ vibe to it. This badly impacts the third game’s far gloomier plot of galactic annihilation by fleets of Reapers that are practically unstoppable, even by the Turians, the game’s resident warrior bastard bunch. But Mass Effect 1? The summary did what it could but it omitted a massive amount of context, the key point being that at the finale of the game – one Reaper nearly destroys everything! And it is only just stopped. When I played both games in sequence, the third chapter then looked very different.

So what was so horrific about Mass Effect 3? The problem is it did an awful lot of things right, all the way to the end and then, catastrophically, it failed. Conclusions have great power to affect an overall work. A great conclusion encourages revisiting, a poor one does the opposite. Where ME3 fell down was in taking the high art road of not allowing the player a positive outcome. Thus the sense of reward for playing the game a certain way was removed in favour of a set of more realistic, imperfect choices. Coupled with the fact that this was right at the end, so occupying an ‘all roads lead to this’ position, and players could justifiably see it as dirty pool on the part of Bioware. Not least as the player’s ability to affect the final outcome was a, if not the, selling point of the series. With this concluding section Bioware went against the entire ethos they had set up!

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Why then does ROTS get away with everything going wrong? Partly it is playing to audience expectation – they know the PT has to set up the OT, thus Sith happens. But they’re not in the character’s shoes at an active level, with an expectation they have other options. For the audience, the characters are on a fixed track and that’s fine, as the OT fixes the mess the PT creates, which also takes the edge off of the failure aspect. They are one step removed from it all and that distance is crucial.

The other big thing that ME3 forgot is that video games’ selling point is to often make the players feel better about themselves, not worse. If a game ever follows up the player crashing a Lamborghini at 200mph with a sequence detailing the player’s funeral and insurance claims, it’ll probably bomb. ME3 fell into the trap that many creative works before it had – it felt it had to be responsible and educational, that players did not know you get imperfect choices. Yet this is a part of life everyone knows unless you are one of those exceedingly few people for whom success in everything flows from minimal effort. Most of us are well acquainted with less-than-great options and having to play with the cards we have, rather than those we would like. Similarly, the last thing people want from a video game is grinding their face into failure…. (Unless there is some truly superb writing at work; its reputation suggests The Last of Us does this successfully.)

Which gets us to Bat-Crap: Arkham Knight. The game piles on a narrative of failure which, coupled with the fact that it’s night-time and always raining, just wears down the player. Well that and the frequent TV addresses from Scarecrow that are taunting Batman about his failure. It ends up just being depressing and monotonous when it should be fun. There have been quite a few ‘Batman is an egomaniac and total bastard to his allies’ tales over the years, with varying success. Certainly this is where the term Bat-Crap comes from, that if you work with Batman, at some point, he will be a complete dick to you. One thing I was unaware of is that Paul Dini wrote the first two Arkham games but not this one, which explains some of the more baffling moves made.

For a failure story to work, I think the audience has to be convinced of the legitimacy of the failure the story is built around. How might this be achieved? By convincing them there were no options other than those that the characters take. There is a logic to the constraint on their choices and a logic to the decisions they make that is clear and acceptable, it is not simply because the writers require it to be so. In this respect Empire is the clear winner because it starts at a brisk pace and whisks the audience along with it. Even if some of the audience resist that spell, there’s nothing for them to prise apart – going into an asteroid field is nuts, isn’t it? Yes, but less so than taking on a pair of Imperial Star Destroyers, each of which can kill the Falcon with ease. Once the audience or player starts thinking its own ideas and options? As another film memorably put it: “Game over, man, game over.”

3 thoughts to “Narratives of Failure – What Works and Why?”

  1. I don’t agree that the problem with the Mass Effect ending was that it forced the player to make difficult choices. I think the bigger problem (as you allude to in your conclusion) is that the choices made no sense. The Mass Effect series built a huge universe populated by numerous compelling characters and fascinating, and then had Shepard end the game alone on some giant Space MacGuffin that didn’t appear until the third act of the third game. No one complains about the sequence in which Mordin dies to cure the Krogan (or doesn’t die and the Krogan remain sterile), even though either way that is a super-downer moment. The reason that Mordin’s death works is that the emotional weight of that moment feels earned, given what we know of Mordin’s past and what we have seen of his development as a character. The end of Mass Effect 3 does not feel earned in the same way – it comes out of nowhere, and seems to revel in ignoring everything that came before. (That doesn’t mean that a video game narrative couldn’t be an effective tragedy; for all its technical faults, I thought that Dragon Age 2, for instance, was an excellent example of a tragic narrative in a video game).

    Honestly, I feel that Revenge of the Sith is very similar to Mass Effect 3, mostly because I do not find Anakin’s character development particularly compelling. His turn to Sith-dom comes out of nowhere, and seems tacked on in a way similar to the end of Mass Effect 3. In part, it does have to do with the logical quality of the narrative, but it also has to do with building effective rising action such that the narrative climax seems to follow from what has come before, and not just appear out of nowhere.

    1. I like your analysis and agree with a lot of it.

      I think there should have been a difference in the end choices given that reflected your play through. That would have helped a lot. It would have enhanced the reward aspect too. If you’d played it as a strong paragon then the options should reflect that and vice versa for renegade. As it was, the position was: You get this trio no matter what. Such a shame, up to that point it’s been quite the epic.

      And yeah, Mordin’s resolution just works beautifully so no one objects.

      (I played ME3 with the EC added and went in knowing of the ending mess, the combination of both defanged it neatly.)

  2. Ivan Morris wrote a book about Japanese History entitled “The Nobility of Failure” in which he looks at many of the failure heroes of Japanese History. Even though they were on the losing side, they were viewed as heroic, normally because their sincerity showed forth – because they followed their principals even at high cost.

    For a failure to work, you have to have either sympathy for the person failing or you want to delight in their fall and comeuppance. Anakin in ROTS doesn’t work either way. However – Rebels in some context failing COULD have a lot of that nobility of failure weight.

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