Beautiful failure

I’ve recently become addicted to the new iPhone game INKS — because it lets you fail beautifully.

Je explain. INKS is a pinball game where you have to complete each level by hitting all the colored targets on the pinball board. Lose a ball? No biggie, there’s an infinite supply. But the goal is to complete the level on a single ball. The fewer balls you use per level, the higher your score. Fun, yes?

Yes! But what makes this pinball so distinctive is … the ink.

Each time you hit a colored target, it splatters a big glob of ink onto the game board. Whenever your ball passes through that sploosh, it leaves a trail behind. As your ball crisscrosses the board, it keeps on running through inksplot after inksplot, leaving splats upon splats and trails upon trails, with the ink mixing and reflowing until you’ve got an gorgeous little inadvertent work of art.

It’s easier to appreciate this when you see it — so, a wee video:

As it turns out, this ink-splattering creates a really interesting experience of failure.

As the game progresses, you fail more. The levels get harder, requiring you to bankshot the ball into some lunatic-inaccessible nook of the board. So I’d try and fail and try and fail — which means I’d begin leaving crazed, fingerpaint-style trails of ink all over the place. I’d also start losing balls, and as you lose balls they change color; by the time you get to your fourth ball, the ball is black, and it leaves a trail of that dark ink. So now my accidental art creations were spiderwebbed with black too.

Behold some screenshots of what I’m talking about. These are several games, showing the levels getting harder and my increasing fail-itude:

The worse I play, the more crazy the designs become; they’re a record of my flailing. But the designs are also quite charming and thought-provoking. You see loops of physics written in ink, the iterated attempts and collisions turning into visual poetry. This is a game that turns your failure into art. 

Better yet, it lets you study your failure, because you can see the common patterns in what you’ve been doing wrong. I can’t say I necessarily learned anything from regarding the flight-paths of my errant pinballs, but when I really screwed things up, it was kind of impressive to behold.

I dig this game-design concept: Making your failure interesting. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite racing games, Burnout 3: Takedown, which took the normal fail-state — crashing your car — and turned into something new. Whenever you crashed, you could flip into a bullet-time slo-mo where you’d view your car slowly tumbling through the air. You could very slightly control the direction of the tumble, and if you could successfully smash your car into one of your opponent’s cars, you’d gain points and “boost” for you car. It was insanely fun and transgressive, and tweaked the game’s emotional import in a really curious fashion, because after a while you’d start looking forward to the next time you crashed.

Thinking about INKS and failure made me go to the shelf and rebrowse one of my favorite books about games — Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games.


Juul is fascinated by the fact that failure is an absolutely central part of playing a video-game; indeed, as he points out, failing inside a game is so common an experience that we could regard it as the central point of playing a game.

Juul opens his book by talking about playing two games, one that was incredibly hard and frustrating, and one that was the opposite — too easy. It turns he found the latter game more annoying. I quoted him on this three years ago in a different blog post, but it’s worth quoting here:

I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes of all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions and stories, art, and games.

The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games—when we experience as a leading defeat we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us — they produce the emotions in the first place.

Or, as he sums it up:

Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.

When I pulled out the book again, a couple of other passages struck my eye. More below if you’re interested …

He quotes Benjamin Franklin making a similar point about chess;

The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions… We learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present appearances in the state of affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that persevering in the search of resources.

It’s the constant experience of failure in a game that imparts some of their philosophical heft, Juul suggests:

The big difference between the paradox of tragedy and the paradox of failure is therefore that whereas the philosophy of tragedy is mostly the province of philosophers, the philosophy of failure is taught to children an at early age. Perhaps: when playing games, we are all philosophers.



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