There Are No Safety Nets
John Thyer
71

Permission to Fail

A story about Mega Man, meritocracy, and being allowed to fail.

I must have been six years old the first time I laid my eyes on an actual copy of Mega Man in action. It was during a summer school program, where they had set up an NES in our small CPS gymnasium which kids could play for a handful of minutes at a time. That’s where I came across Mega Man 3.

With brief fanfare I was off to face Magnet Man. I never made it to him. The opening area before you plunge into Magnet Man’s fortress is short, but in my imagination it was expansive. The endless pits and magnetic robots were terrifying, but the real obstacle was Break Man.

Appearing during certain stages, Break Man will play a brief tune before dropping in to test you skill. This wasn’t Magnet Man, I deduced, but to me he might as well have been the stage boss. Here I struggled as was crushed until what lives left were taken away from me. Then I was booted back to the stage select screen. Could I even reach him again? Could I beat him? This time I could — and there, I was told, my time was up. My turn was over and it was time to hand over my controller.


concept art for Break Man/ Proto Man

I didn’t reunite with Mega Man until years later. Game systems, and knowledge about them, continued to be out of my family’s reach for years. It wasn’t until I became aware of the existence of emulators in 6th grade that I was able to play these games that had only existed to me through shop windows. The combination of our 56K connection and those small file sizes made them the perfect candidates to explore.

Those games set my pubescent imagination aflame. From the expansive arsenal that changed the way you navigated levels, to the obvious Astro Boy inspired world design, Mega Man had me obsessed.

I became a deep reservoir of Mega Man factoids, tracing timelines and absorbing every detail behind the characters on screen. I spent hours on The Mega Man Homepage and Sprites Inc. drawing my own fan art and sometimes even making fan games. But behind all of that there was a fundamental fact I couldn’t escape: these games never felt like they were for me.


I Can’t Defeat Airman (or any of the other Robot Masters)

No.

Here’s the thing about the Mega Man games: they’re difficult. Notoriously so. The trials of the games are so ingrained you can simply say “Heat Man disappearing blocks” or “Quick Man lasers” and conjure up vivid experiences. In fact, a music video titled “Airman ga Taosenai” (I Can’t Defeat Airman) quickly became popular while banking on this shared experience.

The catharsis shared in these trials isn’t mine. For most of the titles in the series progress and the ability to see all there was in the world was determined by my access to passwords and state saves. It’s no coincidence that my favorite titles for a long time ended up being Mega Man: The Power Battles and Mega Man X5, two titles that allowed you to continue without the severe punishments the series is known for.

These were the first games that allowed me to exist within their worlds without harsh judgement of my failures. If I desired to continue close to where I failed it was okay. They wouldn’t send me back half a stage because of it. But even as we makes strides towards more accessible experiences there remains an attitude that almost worships this kind of exclusionary difficulty. They maintain that this difficulty is not only an absolute boon, but necessary to the quality of the experience. These punishments teach you not to make mistakes, force you to pay attention and understand the systems to continue.

Videogame critic Austin Howe calls these “Republic Dad Mechanics” which he describes as such:

In theory, the Republican dad is someone like this: they want to teach their child how to hit a baseball, but they find that the child is swinging limply, missing, or losing grip of the bat.

Now what a sensible human being would do is give expert advice: plant your feet firmly, grip the bottom of the bat strongly in the palms of your ha- nah fuck that, what the Republican Dad does is throw the ball so hard that they might actually hurt the kid, the logic being “you’re gonna swing the bat or walk away with a bloody nose.”

Do the Mega Man games espouse this approach? That’s an argument to itself. What’s more important is the mentality behind that approach, the mentality that has helped popularize it.


Meritocracy is a Lie

In her article “The Meritocracy of Video Games” Mattie Brice takes on the concept of games an egalitarian space. Responding in part to a piece about “gamers” by Simon Parkin she states:

Simon’s philosophical argument, because unfortunately people don’t find the moral imperative of ‘discrimination is bad’ good enough these days, rests in his belief that game spaces are egalitarian and intrinsically accepts and treats everyone the same. Hence, how gamer culture is often exclusionary based on social identity is dissonant with the basic accepting nature of games.

Mega Man, and its spiritual and literal successors, rely on this idea of meritocracy to sustain themselves. They rely on a cultural acceptance of this attitude to free themselves from critique of their difficulty. Mega Man is difficult, but it is fair. It gives you the tools to succeed and every mistake you make is your own. However, Brice further expounds:

Game design is political. Not just the field — but the designs that makes up each game. How a game allows a person to interact with it is extremely loaded with discriminatory politics, because they are usually made for particular players in mind.

In a cultural landscape that fetishizes challenge and presents a false meritocracy these games are seen as largely apolitical, and their design decisions largely unquestioned. Why are lives necessary? What would be lost by more liberally placed checkpoints? Why do so many objects in the world kill you instantly? As Brice details, most of these games, Mega Man included, are made for “gamers”, and so value what that demographic values. In doing so they become inherently exclusionary.

This is not to say that these games are less valuable, but that inherently, by design they will be unplayable and possibly miserable to a large set of people. The forms of resistance that videogames often have us fight against define who gets to experience them. These can provide a valuable catharsis when finally breached, either by application of problem solving skills or simply through the physical performance required.

Fugitve, John Thyer

In “There Are No Safety Nets”, John Thyer details how SaGa 2 continually removes safe guards from you in order to force you to use every tool and present story themes through its systems. While reading it I couldn’t help but find parallels within my experience of his own game, Fugitive. Without saying too much, Fugitive widely follows a similar arc, teaching aspects of its design with dangers and periodically changing the context in order to sustain a mood and push your performance. (It’s a deeply intelligent piece of design that I very much admire).

It also brought to mind how I would never be able to experience SaGa 2 as John does, and how my final moments during Fugitive almost had me give up on it entirely. I spent so much time on those final moments of the game that I almost broke into tears of frustration. Here was a game that minutes ago had me smiling and shouting at the screen in recognition, now boiled down to a hateful antagonist that was gating me from the final moments. When I completed the final hurdle in Fugitive my feelings weren’t of catharsis, but of relief, anxiety, and resentment.


Failure is (Not) an Option

Dark Souls II, From Software

Fugitive is not the problem. Mega Man is not the problem. Rather the problem lives in our expectation that everyone can, and should, be able to push past these frustrations and continue. So much of videogame culture relies on a shared history, a monolith Video Game Canon. To establish this canon many often feel the need to come to a consensus, to espouse the qualities of a certain work, to assure others that if someone plays something long enough they will “get it”.

This comes to bear every time I declare annoyance or frustration at a game. Expressing these feelings often means being bombarded with unsolicited advice, assurances that if I push through I’ll enjoy it, or admonishments for “playing it wrong”. I’ve heard similar things from others. What I want is simply permission to fail, knowledge that if something frustrates me it’s okay, that I don’t need to understand or love every game. It’s okay to drop the difficulty level. It’s okay to walk away from something you’re frustrated with.

So much of our “membership” within the sphere of games is reliant on a certain level of performance. Games become chastised for “holding your hand” because we feel a desire to feel as if we achieved success autonomously. Difficult games become fetishized because they allow us to see the meritocracy in action. Here, in the realm of videogames, you can prove yourself to be as good as the others, to be equals.

This idea also works the other way. Those unable to struggle through the complexities and difficulties of these experiences become seen as lesser, if not explicitly, then implicitly. Some games themselves even go out of their way to insult players for taking a lesser challenge.

Wolfenstein: The New Order, Machine Games

I’ve seen so many people struggle at difficulty levels above what they can cope with because of this. I’ve done it myself. We feel pressured to perform, to prove ourselves. To us, to take an easier challenge is to fail by default, even if it’s not what we came for.

Here it all comes together: the constant, defensive battle over the Great Works of Video Games, the function of game releases as events of collective catharsis, the pressure to perform to the standard of our false meritocracy. These are the great cultural expectations, coming from both within the games sphere and our larger societal contexts, that tells us that we can make it if we just try hard enough. It tells us that we need to keep pushing through, regardless of whether what we’re pushing for is valuable to us.

But why should our experiences be invalidated if we don’t perform to that arbitrary standard? Why should our reactions and thoughts be considered less valid than those of the “elite”? We should be allowed to define our own experiences, not have them defined by external forces.

You know what? I’ve actually beaten Magnet Man, I’ve beaten Mega Man 2. It doesn’t matter that I did it with help, that I did it on easy mode. I earned it.
Those lasers are still bullshit though.