Friday, August 29, 2014

Fail States and Teleglitch

"Sometimes, after you've tried really hard and failed, you feel like giving up. The cool thing about life is that it's okay to give up. It is totally okay. But it's also totally okay to keep trying even harder. The really hard thing about life is making a choice between these two." 
-- Teleglitch death screen

     Death is a. . .peculiar thing in video games. At times it is the most compelling piece of gravitas the medium can bring to bear: a permanent, destructive operation in an interactive environment. At others, it's the least consequential thing you could imagine: a minor setback, discarded from the world's memory when you're forced to reload and try again. A fail state, as they're often referred to.

     Games - in the traditional sense, at least - are kind of about their challenges, which in turn makes failure a sort of glitch in the system. Protagonist's aren't supposed to fail. The hero is triumphant and the villain defeated with their plans sundered; that's how it's supposed to go. Imagine for a moment if Luke never learned how to use the Force, or if Tony Stark died of his heart condition before he made the Iron Man suit. It'd be weird, right? The question isn't whether or not the main character will overcome their struggles, it's how they'll do it. It's the same with games. Despite being about their challenges, games are meant to be beaten; it's a paradox where obstacles are designed to stop you but simultaneously are meant to be torn down.

     Hence the oddity of fail states. Ideally you never see them, or if you do only for a brief moment. They're like wrong way roadsigns. "Hold on! You're doing it wrong! It's not supposed to happen like this, go back." Some games cut them out entirely, rewinding the clock and throwing you back in the moment you fail (e.g. the automatic, instantaneous respawns of Borderlands). And that's fine! I happen to enjoy success, so a reality where all roads eventually lead to it is cool in my book.

     What if success wasn't the point, though? What if instead of turning around at the wrong way sign you find a way to keep going and make it work? (PSA: cars are dangerous and you shouldn't actually try to do this.)

     Teleglitch is one answer to that question. The Estonian-made, visually-pixelated shooter is a curious little piece of media. You play as a scientist trapped in a research facility with an army of plankton-based mutants and cybernetic zombies. For what it is, the lore of the game has some nice craft to it, straddling the line between grim and satirically humorous in a future dominated by megacorps. But it's not the lore of Teleglitch I want to talk about so much as it is the difficulty.

     This game is hard. I'm not the most skilled of gamers, nor am I the most dedicated, but I feel I can safely make that assertion. At the most abstract level, Teleglitch is an exercise in risk management. If you explore too much of the game's semi-random landscape, sooner or later you'll be overwhelmed by monsters. Explore too little, and you won't be able to find or make the high-end equipment you need for later levels. The learning curve is brutal, and I feel like it kind of should be. You're just a single person, you know? It's amazing you can fight your way past a single zombie, let alone a facility full of them (and many other, far worse opponents). The game captures that feeling pretty well, I think, and any progress you make - any - is an accomplishment. Teleglitch, like so many other games, is absolutely centered around its challenges and how you complete them.

     Note the wording there, "complete" them. Not "overcome", but complete. Let's get into that for a second. In most games, it's just a matter of time before you win, and that's how it should be. If a game is about conquering obstacles, I should probably be able to, you know, do that. That's the point. Teleglitch is different. See, death is permanent; there's no reloading or respawning. You get one chance and that's it. It's not a matter of time before you win - most likely it won't ever happen at all. How, then, can this game you might never beat be "about" its challenges? The answer lies in its fail states. Death is permanent, which means the fail state is permanent. When that happens, we can't really call it a "state" anymore, can we? It's absolutely final, so it's just. . .the end, right?

     That's the key that makes Teleglitch a rarity: endings. Death isn't just a temporary failure, it's an end to your story. Every attempt I've made to navigate the game's treacherous facility has been its own emergent narrative, and every one has been self-contained. My story ended because I did, not when the game's plot arbitrarily decided it should. That's also why I specified that you "complete" challenges, because death doesn't mean failure. There's more than one "correct" conclusion to a fight in Teleglitch, and I love that.

     "It's totally okay to give up, but it's also totally okay to keep trying even harder." That death screen quote sums it up pretty well; your tale can end in failure, and that's okay. Or, if we put it another way: You don't have to succeed to have a good story.

     If nothing else, it's something to tell myself as this Squidbot guns me down for the umpteenth time.

This image comes from the game's website, but I think it gets the idea across pretty well.

1 comment:

  1. It kinda reminds me of Angel Beats!, or some of the other more twisty anime without a clearly-defined win state or even direction. Angel Beats too could've ended in various different paths, and the one that they chose at the end popped right out of the blue. In the heat of the moment, it seemed as if that ending was the only true one, but in retrospect, four years later, I feel like the entire thing could've played out very differently without ever being a 'fail'. It's like all those visual novels with multiple ends, I suppose—even after reaching the Good End or True End or whatever, no true VN enthusiast would just stop the game without reaching all of the Bad Ends as well. It feels like that's becoming more of the case with traditional games, too...