Wing Commander and the Awesomeness of the Epic Fail

by Cameron G on March 29, 2012

When’s the last time you completed a video game by losing every mission? Many video games are designed with a destiny in mind: you will finish the game only by winning. I’m talking overwhelming success here. You must be the victor in every battle. You must kill (or disable or avoid) every enemy. You must overcome all obstacles. Your destiny in the game is basically to beat everyone, win everything, and be awesome forever.

That sounds a lot like “infallible” to me, and frankly, I just can’t relate to that. More often than not, I’m reloading and re-attacking a game with prior knowledge gained from a splattery death. My in-game avatar, however, would remember it differently. There’s a discontinuity between me and the avatar. He can’t see the quick saves and the rage-quits. In his story, he’s just an awesome guy with an awesome destiny.

But destiny didn’t always have its day. As game studios began to unify video games and filmic narratives, the idea of multiple endings emerged. I’m going to explore how multiple endings work in one particular game here: Wing Commander, released in 1990 by Origin Systems.

Wing Commander is a good focus for narrative exploration and variation, in part because Origin’s designers explicitly wanted to create a movie-like experience within a video game. Movies usually only have one ending, but the variability of the player/machine interaction gives video games more flexibility. That tension between singular and multiple endings, and the way it intersects with the player/avatar discontinuity, invites inspection.
Losing the war one Rapier at a time. KABOOM!


The motto of Origin Systems was “We Create Worlds.” The pride of their games was depth of emotion and range of play. In Wing Commander, Origin used an unusual strategy to exploit both emotions and exploration. They created a set of player-driven world histories: paths through victories and defeats in the Kilrathi War. It’s easy to face defeat in Wing Commander: fail to protect a transport, fail to destroy a capital ship, fail to stick with your wingman. Where Wing Commander breaks from rail games like Half-Life or X-Wing is that Wing Commander’s failures are mostly survivable– even productive. Only outright death or the conclusion of the war campaign will stop the player.

Since the game isn’t dependent on victory, the goal of winning out the war is subverted to the goal of simply surviving long enough to see it through. This difference is the axis upon which the emotionality and depth of the game can turn in unexpected directions. As long as I come back alive, I have to face the consequences of my performance. Those consequences build up over time. Fail a few times and the missions turn more defensive. A few more, and I’m scrabbling to turn the tide of the war. String enough failures together, and now I’m covering a hasty retreat from the sector– alone, if my would-have-been wingman already bought it in a furball a few missions back.
No, we’re not sending you out to try the mission again. Loser.


My avatar can now embody how much I suck at being a fighter pilot in deep space. In some strange way, I think that’s a step forward in player/avatar relations. Failure brings my story as a player more into line with my character’s story as a potential hero. We can share the same causality as well as the same fighting skills. We can explore the world in terms of cause, effect, and consequences.
It’s like playing Plinko with the fate of mankind!


Failure also enables an existentially sublime interpretation. By doggedly winning every mission, I am denied the experience of defeat. The point is that the potential experience exists, waiting to be engaged by losing. Nor is there a single path to victory or defeat. By accepting losses, Wing Commander turns mission-ending catastrophes into more missions to play.

If failure adds to the quantity of gameplay, it also adds new qualities to the characters. In the ship’s lounge, my crew mates reflect on their experiences of the war. I see different aspects of the same characters emerge as victory nears or defeat looms. The lounge becomes a profoundly affecting place upon discovering an vacant seat where a wingman would have sat, had he or she not died in a prior mission. Since wingmen can usually die only when they fly with me, the emptiness becomes personally significant: I know the cost of my failure, but I am rewarded with a richer emotional experience.
Who’s got the medal of suckage? I do, bitches.
The reward of failure even undermines the determined perfectionist gamer with a Gödellian twist. Medals are collected for extraordinary wins in battle, but that collection will be incomplete without at least one critical loss: the Golden Sun medal is awarded for surviving the destruction of one’s ship.

 

So, to achieve victory, I first must admit defeat. But oh, what a victory for video games and the people who love them. Wing Commander creates its avatar as someone more like myself as I play. In the cinematic moments of triumph or tragedy, its hero is a guy for whom life is uncertain and death must be dealt with.

 

Origin got these lifelike qualities right with Wing Commander. It is a game I love to come back to, and I play as much to lose as to win.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Morina March 29, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Great article; I really wish failure was accepted more frequently as an option. I personally believe that we lose a lot in games due to the save and reload. I think it would be far more interesting a lot of the time to allow the player to continue playing, but have each defeat actually mean something (unlike say Prey or Bioshock). Alas, seems like game designers (at the pressure of money grubbing publishers) are just making games easier and more mainstream (read: less original).

Here’s my vote for a solid (indie?) title that could bring back this great idea for Wing Commander.

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LongTailGamer March 29, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I’m with Morinar — an indie game that embraced failure would get my attention right quick.

What other games did that? Really let you screw up and still enjoy the game itself?

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