I thought about the possibility of allowing the player to theoretically solve this game on his first playthrough, with respect to the question, Must we always kill our players? Must they fail? But for a game to be any good, there’s got to be some kind of development involved, i.e. some effort exerted on your part in order to overcome the game, either by means of a deeper understanding of the world and yourself, or via the refinement of skill and execution. Or some combination of the two.
The way this works in movies like Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, is that it takes time. We are not born supermen. Nobody makes the first jump. The first time is always pathetic. Comical even. Especially in light of what you’ve achieved at the end. Should it have been possible for Tom Cruise to have destroyed the hive mind on his first time through? In theory, sure. However slight, there was still a chance he could have pulled it off. But it’s so unlikely that it might as well have been an absolute impossibility. In the first battle, he could barely even disengage the safety of his gun. What can you expect from such a soldier that fumbles at the basics? Being so woefully incompetent, he’d be marching straight into his grave. As was so eloquently put by one of his squadmates, there was something wrong with his suit. “There’s a dead guy in it.”
Here’s another example. One of my favorite parts of the first Modern Warfare, is the training section. You’re at the base, newly arrived, and they’ve set up a test for you that roughly simulates the upcoming mission aboard a cargoship. It’s all put together with wood and cutout target dummies. Though crude, it gives you an opportunity to become familiar with your weapons, and teaches you important tactics and how to be quick on your feet. And you can run through it as many times as you’d like.
Once you’re happy with the results, you can then go embark on the real mission. I don’t exaggerate here when I say that these two scenes together (training + mission) constitute a moment of inspired genius. You just have to play it for yourself to see what I mean. It’s one of my favorite missions in any game for a reason.
But the point is, most games skip the training. They skip the years it takes for you to become as good as you’re expected to be. Sometimes they’ll just dump you into the middle of a battlefield and expect you to either adapt or die. Sometimes even gleefully grinning at the walking corpse who thinks he’s got a chance.
Failure is inevitable in situations where you’re dropped in, oblivious, and effectively fast-forwarded to the point where the game actually begins. It’s a compromise given that your life within a game is almost always a pre-existing one within a world you never made. And so failure is natural.
What is unnatural, beyond absurd even, is to think that someone could master such a situation on his first go through. Which is why games like Thief: The Dark Project, Rainbow Six, and even to a small extent Modern Warfare, games built around the idea of immersive simulation, take preparation and planning so seriously. They don’t laugh at the odds like a daring, cartoonish rogue might. They take it seriously. And they are all better games for having done so.
But in games where preparation, training, and planning aren’t possible, the battlefield will be your instructor, and death will be the result. Unless of course, the game is pornographic.