Video games are master classes in dealing with failure. The medium welcomes and rewards failure in ways other forms of media can’t. When the player is in control, success pushes the narrative forward while failure brings it to a standstill…but not completely.
Many games shape their mechanics around failure, weaving the player’s inevitable deaths into the core story. Losing a life or dying in a video game is seldom the end of the line. Doing the wrong thing can lead to a successful outcome, or it can provide crucial information that informs a more successful attempt down the line.
Due to their unique playable nature, video games teach important lessons about failure. The five games below each taught me something about failing, what it means, and how to cope with it. And as a bonus, they’re all incredibly fun to play…
Celeste: Over Time, Failure Begets Success.
You may have seen memes preaching this lesson, perhaps in the form of an iceberg. The smaller bit above the water represents success, while the roughly 90% of the ice chunk lurking below the surface is littered with failure, hard work, and reshaping of the initial goal. It’s a ham-fisted take, but you get the idea; Celeste imparts the same lesson with much more grace.
Protagonist Madeline sets out to summit Mount Celeste. She brings meager supplies with her on her journey and must reckon with her inner demons along the way. Celeste’s gameplay is hardcore 2D platforming, with various powers and abilities that inject fresh life into the game’s ever-more-difficult locales.
Celeste is a polished and exquisite gaming experience from bottom to top. The story, music, mechanics, and art combine to form a powerhouse piece of media that shouldn’t be missed. Everything clicks in Celeste—plus, it accepts and even rewards failure within its structure.
Devoid of traditional 2D platforming “levels” and instead favoring single screens, each world of Celeste has players traversing individual screens, each with its own set of challenges. Play the game, and you’ll die. A LOT. But when you do, you’ll spawn right back at the start of your current screen, ready to try the challenge anew. Over time, each failure incrementally teaches you the game’s lessons, strengthening your grasp on its mechanics. The rush of completing a challenging screen is hard to beat, but Celeste tries anyways…by serving up another one immediately afterward.
Celeste drives home the value of incremental improvement by rewarding patience and perseverance. Every lost life, every failed attempt at a single screen, leads to more knowledge and eventual success. I should note here: Celeste is hard. But the game has plenty of options to make things easier for less-experienced gamers. Use them to your heart’s delight, and I’m sure the experience will still be fulfilling and fun. If you want an extra challenge, collect all the hidden strawberries within Celeste’s world. They mean nothing, but they are great opportunities to earn bragging rights!
Bonus tip: If you’re hankering for games that teaches incremental improvement over time through many, many failures, give Cuphead a try.
Chicory: Failure Is Okay.
Chicory plops players into a colorless world and thrusts a giant magical paintbrush into their hands. The previous wilder, Chicory, is depressed and doesn’t feel like she can continue her work as the creative force bringing color to the world. Your character (mine was named Toffee) takes up the mantle and sets out to bring the color back, but not without undergoing extreme bouts of self-doubt and uncertainty.
Chicory doesn’t ask too much of players in terms of reflexive gaming mechanics or high-speed platforming. The stakes are high, but the gameplay is breezy and fun. You can stop at a single screen and paint it to your heart’s content, then resume the story at your leisure. You won’t face gruesome deaths or standstill gaming challenges here (though there are some tough-ish segments).
Eschewing the gameplay gauntlet, Chicory instead teaches that struggling with failure is okay through its story and characters. Chicory feels she’s failed as a Wielder, and the protagonist struggles to deal with the burden of her new responsibilities. Toffee and Chicory both grapple with their own perceived failures while their overlapping support networks insist their shortcomings aren’t the end of the world.
It’s hard to accept such a lesson, but over time both Chicory and Toffee learn that they don’t need to be perfect, and that failure isn’t necessarily bad. It can be good. It can teach you about yourself, provide you with context that helps you move forward, and shape you as a person. It hurts, sure. But when you have friends and family to help you shoulder the pain, failure doesn’t seem so daunting.
Fall Guys: Failure Can Be Hilarious.
Squid Game meets Wipeout in Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, a cute-looking but hard-hitting battle royale game pitting up to sixty players against one another in different obstacle-filled courses.
There are no insightful lessons with profound implications to be learned here. Simply, Fall Guys taught me that failure can be funny. Gut-splittingly funny. The game is built to make you stumble and fail. Your bean-shaped character will be launched into abysses galore, flung into the air by robotic rhinos, and pushed into oceans of slime. Other players will grab you at just the right moment, causing a spinning bar to catapult you into a crushing last-minute defeat. Every time, it’ll be hilarious. Frustrating, too—but always hilarious. The bulbous Fall Guys avatars ragdoll through the air as they careen to their demise, removing you from the running; the dwindling contestant pool shrinks until the last player standing is finally crowned the winner.
Laughing at your own mistakes, especially when they only matter within the context of a game you can play over and over again, can be cathartic. Fall Guys offers that catharsis in abundance, making each failure worthy of a laugh (even as you rage-quit back to the main menu).
Dead Cells: Failure Creates New Opportunities.
A sprawling island fortress! Deadly monsters! Reincarnation time loops! Dead Cells melds some of fantasy’s best tropes into a cohesive, procedurally generated roguelike game, rewarding constant vigilance and adaptable gameplay.
Every time you die in Dead Cells, you start over…all the way over, from the very beginning. During each run, the levels are generated anew, so you won’t be running the same path every time. At the beginning of each adventure, you’re given three items to choose from, and you can only hold two: a shield, a ranged weapon, and a melee weapon. There are dozens of options with various powers and buffs, but you only start with (and can only carry) a few. You may encounter other weapons further along in your run, but you start with what you’re given, and you have to make it work.
Failure in Dead Cells means making the most of what’s handed to you and accepting the new opportunities that become available. Every run is unique thanks to the combinations of weapons, shields, and dungeon layout at hand. Plus, there are stray powers you can pick up and branching pathways you can take. No two runs of Dead Cells are identical, and that makes a failure, even as you near the final boss, acceptable: Dying means another chance to traverse the lore-heavy world of the game with new techniques and abilities at your disposal. Death frustrates for a fleeting moment until you realize, “I get to try again…” and dive back into the world. And when those failures culminate in a single successful run, defeating the final boss, and watching the credits roll, it’s satisfying as hell.
If you’re a glutton for failure and want even more opportunities to explore the many pathways and dungeons of Dead Cells, you can try for multiple successful runs with new difficulty options and stronger enemies.,
Bonus tip: Slay The Spire is a roguelike deck-building game with a similar structure. If you enjoy building a strong loadout in the hopes of conquering increasingly difficult challenges, it’s worth a try.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Failure Is A Matter Of Perspective.
“Ah yes,” I say, “I’ll head to that shrine over there, complete the challenge, then find another and conquer its puzzle. Then I can up my max HP and head to Divine Beast Vah Medoh!”
Oh, how silly of me.
Chances are I don’t need to explain Breath of the Wild to you. It’s one of the most revolutionary open-world games in recent memory, and that’s precisely why it teaches such a great lesson about failure.
Really, though, Breath of the Wild redefines failure. I never got to the shrine I mentioned above. I climbed a mountain and snowboarded on my shield from its peak to the bottom of it, then did it again. I picked some apples and cooked some food, experimenting with different recipes until I concocted a dish that upped my speed. I tamed a few wild horses, glided down from a tower to slay a few stray monsters, and then visited the shrine.
That’s the nature of Breath of the Wild. It’s a virtual playground chock-full of stuff to do, stuff that has little or nothing to do with the main quest. Sure, I failed to stay on the rails, to conquer the story-requisite challenges. I explored the vast world, engaging with the myriad opportunities popping up around me.
It’s all a matter of perspective. To date, I’ve clocked more than 100 hours of play in Breath of the Wild (paltry compared to many players, I know). And I still have yet to complete the primary questline. Hell, I have yet to finish any reasonable number of shrines. When I load the game, I am enthralled by the vastness of its world and energized by the sheer enormity of its potential. I ride the wave, catching vibes left and right, following whatever whimsy strikes me in the moment.
I may be failing to accomplish the main goal, but it can wait. I’m happy to bask in the game’s sprawling glory without worrying much about what I’m supposed to do. Perhaps doing anything else, following the prescribed path at the expense of my own enjoyment, would actually be failing.
What insights about failure and success have you hit upon while gaming? Are there any specific games you’d include on this list? Let me know in the comments!
Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.