It’s a mistake that games don’t use mistakes more

Here’s a question for you: if you fudge something up in a game, and it doesn’t kill you so you can still continue on afterwards, albeit with the undesired outcome, do you? Or do you reload?

For a long time, I reloaded. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. The games I grew up on, that’s what you did. You quick-saved, you reloaded, you got your desired outcome. That was how I always played. By the end of a game, I’d done everything exactly as I intended, or I hadn’t done it at all. If only life were that simple.

But would you do the same in life if you could? Because how many times have you heard someone say they wouldn’t change anything, even the mistakes, because those are what made them who they are? It’s cringey but however I look at it, it feels true: mistakes have a huge impact on our lives.

So why is progress in games built around not making them? Well – aha! – not all games are. And it’s some of these games I want to talk about. Because being forced to live with your mistakes in games: it transforms them.

What happens when you take your XCOM squad out, or a squad in another permadeath world, and one of them passes away? It’s not the desired outcome; you’d keep them all alive, particularly your favourites, if you could. But if you let them die, something far more interesting happens: you, in a manner of speaking, mourn them. You think about that blasted mission where something went wrong and they died, and the mistake you made and what you could have done differently. You relive that little moment of dread you felt when you realised what was going on. And all of this thinking: it pulls you in closer, and it becomes a story woven into your ongoing experience of the game. Maybe you tell people about it. Maybe you associate the game with the memory forever more.

The point being: your experience of the game is now stronger than had everything gone your way. Smooth-going isn’t as interesting as bumpy-going.

You see it more in tabletop role-playing games, I think. All the best advice there about building characters for an interesting campaign revolves around building flaws into characters as much as it does powerful positive things. Flaws are the imperfections designed to manufacture bumps or conflict or confrontation along the way. And there’s no saving and reloading in live TTRPGs. There, you live with your decisions, live with your mistakes. And the most memorable moments of my adventures have depended on it.

There’s a video game built directly around this idea: Pentiment. And I can’t mention Pentiment without telling you about this wonderful podcast, where this guy Bertie talks to the game’s lead creator, Josh Sawyer, and they have a wonderful time.

Pentiment forces you into making a mistake. There’s no way, as far as I can tell from talking with Sawyer, that you can solve the original mystery. So when the game first asks you for an answer, you do the only thing available to you: make your best guess.

The problem is, your best guess has consequences, in this case someone’s life – a disastrous thing for someone like me who likes pressing big red buttons when games present them. This red button meant someone lost their head, and I felt awful for it, for condemning someone and then having to watch while their sentence played out.

In other words, I had a powerful reaction – a much more powerful reaction than had things smoothly gone my way. And, more importantly, it was exactly what Pentiment wanted from me. It counted on it, because the game didn’t end there, really, it began there. It needed my regret to power the major second act in the game, where I am older in the game and making amends for the decisions I made. That is what Pentiment is about, and I haven’t seen a video game do that before. Suffice to say, I shall remember it.

I think it’s a mistake that games don’t use mistakes more.