Nobody likes to lose. We hardly ever set out to intentionally fail. But just because it wasn’t the goal doesn’t mean losing is always bad. Often seeing the dreaded “Game Over” screen a number of times makes finally winning all that much better. And on rare occasions losing is what makes a game so much fun to play.
Over the last few days I’ve been buried in They Are Billions. I’ve made terribly survivor camps and awesome ones. One time I even made it to the oil age with a slew of awesome upgrades and fancy looking buildings. Every time I’ve lost though. And yet despite my repeated failures I’ve never felt demoralized coming out of a play session. I think about my mistakes and what I could have done differently, but never the frustration of having to start all over again from scratch.
I never try to lose. In fact every new game I try to do everything in my power to win, and yet seeing the zombie hordes eventually crush my defences and flood my city with infected feels rewarding in its own way. Like seeing the waves wash up against a sand castle and slowly pull it back into the sea.
You can watch where the water breaks through first and which other parts last until well into the tide coming in. Once invisible design flaws are laid bare and for a few moments you get to see what you created unravel before you and in so doing learn from it, improve, and start all over again.
I thought I might tire of They Are Billions after a handful of matches. Since the object is simply to survive for a set number of in-game days, you spend the early parts doing a lot of the same stuff you did the last time, first building tents to grow your population, than adding more electricity and food to take care of them, and finally growing out production in mining and timber to generate resources for higher level defence and technologies.
Anyone who’s played a lot of Age of Empires or similar real-time strategy games will know the feeling.
The maps you start on are always somewhat different, however. As you begin building up a new city, the ways you grow and expand then end up changing too. Within an hour you realise that while it all felt familiar the small details, stacking houses more efficiently in one area and expanding toward more favourable choke points in another, have rendered your new playthrough unique.
And when death inevitably comes, as it always has for me (so far), the ways it comes end up being unique as well. Unlike missing a jump in a platformer like Donkey Kong Country or miss-timing your dodge and counter-attack in something Dark Souls, the graves you dig for yourself in They Are Billions are always different and never feel predictable until they’re revealed to be all but inevitable.
FTL: Faster Than Light achieved something similar, as do lots of games that toe the line between roguelikes and management sims. Whenever my ship started running out of fuel or oxygen or caught fire or got boarded I was never frustrated with myself or the game. Losing in FTL, like They Are Billions, was just another part of the adventure building on the litany of success and failures I’d engineered leading up to that point.
Of course, I did at some point beat FTL and it felt fucking amazing. I plan on beating They Are Billions as well. In fact, a not insignificant portion of all my waking hours over the past week have been preoccupied with it.
Fortunately, unlike some games that seem to revel in punishment for punishment’s sake and are happy to obliterate large portions of tedious progress just because you forgot to save when you had the chance or simply grind for a handful more healing potions, They Are Billions hasn’t made all of the failed attempts to get there feel like a waste.
So what’s your favourite game to lose in? Maybe you liked getting the chance to start fresh or found the game’s deeper layers only revealed themselves during your darkest hour. Or maybe you just got a kick out of seeing your avatar get chewed up like in Limbo and Super Meat Boy. Let us know.