Monica's Story - The Forgotten Beauty of Game Over
A Gamer Story by Monica Albert
I want to mention up front that I have no yarn of aspirational success for you here, nor a tale of friendship or game-related magic or whatever else you may have been seeking. I considered making one up, something quick and cut and dry, but that seemed inauthentic for the purpose. It would exist only as a mockery of the other stories here.
So alongside these tales of the light gaming has brought, let me tell you a story of failure.
I’ve wanted to make games for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall exactly when it started—sometime when I was younger and my parents continuously failed to keep me from sneaking around and playing Pokemon well past my bedtime, I’m guessing—but it was the goal I, as so many before me, set for myself. I would imagine grandiose tales of adventure and the mechanics that would play through to bring them to life, first to amuse myself, but also in the hopes of delighting others.
My first “official” attempt was on a 30-dollar laptop I bought secondhand from a classmate in high school, using an emulator upon which I completely butchered an innocent copy of a game I owned, Pokemon Fire Red. This never got very far; I’d created the maps and was working on the first event of the game, but by some incidence, I made the player character’s rival run up a waterfall during a cutscene due to a few directional miscalculations made at 1 in the morning. I showed my friends, and we had a good laugh about it the next day (and the week/month that followed), but I’d never touched the project again.
My second attempt was in community college, within which I decided I would learn how to program and, with the control I would no doubt obtain, I’d learn to program my own games from the ground up. No more would I make foolish mistakes due to not knowing how the programs I had tooled with functioned!
As anyone who’s ever programmed something could tell you, however, trying to create something—particularly as vast and nuanced as a game—without any bugs whatsoever is a fool’s errand. My approach to programming, too, was rather untraditional. In spite of my best efforts, my thought process would approach the language in ways that made sense to me, but not to my peers, or my professors, or even the program, which spat nonsensical errors back that none of us understood. In frustration, I quit after completing the first year, opting to study something involving writing instead. I at least understood writing. Besides, I could take my new degree when I was done and use it to join EA’s communications team, upon which I would use the power of networking to backdoor my way into Bioware’s writing team. A flawless master plan! That, unsurprisingly, also didn’t work. Getting into lucrative industries is hard, man. I was back at square one. Surely, having learned my lesson in all these many years, I would give up now and accept that I’m not meant to have a career anywhere near—or even adjacent to—the industry.
Although we talk a great deal about the community and interconnectedness video games may bring us, there are two lesser-discussed qualities that any good (or even not so good) game will teach you. Specifically, persistence and the art of failing better.
Back when Pokemon Diamond was all the rage, I went into the battle with the League Champion Cynthia with an entire team that was consistently ten levels under hers. This was certainly a bad idea and I probably should have just accepted the loss and gone back to train, but I’d saved right before her room and was convinced I could do it. And, after four days of readjusting my approach, I eventually set up a strategy wherein I would have my Dialga use Trick Room, which, due to my team being underleveled and slower, meant I would get to attack first. It wasn’t pretty, and I claimed victory likely only due to a fluke critical hit that saved my last Pokemon, but the credits still rolled anyway. The game doesn’t judge your methods.
Nowadays, I try to apply that same philosophy to all my projects.
Just like getting six game overs in a row might bring about the epiphany that the player might want to try a different tactic to win a really hard battle, the process of attempting to make the game I dream of consistently taught me to keep assessing my goals for manageability. Maybe I’m still way too “underleveled” to complete my project easily, but if I break it down into chunks and do what I am capable of doing right now, it becomes bearable. Back then, that meant teaching my Dialga a new TM move; today, I can still write the script and secure art assets, while I study coding on my own. If I’m tired of programming, I can teach myself more about subjects I might not have looked into had I simply given up. Even if I fail, I still learn from it.
Sure, it can be, and often is, frustrating in the moment, but even when the depressing music and crumpled form of your player character are getting you down, you can always turn off the game and recoup. Maybe rely on your friends or a family member to help you out, or play something else for a little while so you can return to the situation with fresh eyes. It all helps.
I still don’t have a success story worth bragging about, so I can’t offer you a justifiable moral here. However, if you love something and want to see it through, pick up the controller, press continue, and keep hustling. Even if you don’t win in the way you planned, I promise you’ll still gain something from the experience.