Here’s the thing: I was certain that I had done everything right. My Digimon partners were evolved to the second highest level they could reach. My journey through the digital world up until this point had been a series of victories and Digimon-taming successes. The story had just started to build steam and I was finally about to face the first real boss encounter the game had to offer. I passed through the server desert area and entered the boss’ domain, in this case that of a hulking metal dragon called Machinedraemon, one of the franchise’s earliest creatures spawned in the late 90s. One final cut-scene played out and then my partner Digimon and I charged at this metallic monstrosity. Clearly not impressed, it proceeded to defeat us with an embarrassing swiftness. Well, defeat isn’t the right phrase. Decimate would be more accurate.
I was taken aback. Not particularity upset mind you; just surprised. It wasn’t even a close fight. We had simply been outmatched. I reasoned that maybe I had left the difficulty level too high (I hadn’t) or that perhaps it was a scripted story requirement that you failed the first attempt (it wasn’t). Eventually I settled on “it was just a fluke” and tried again. It wasn’t identical: we took a slightly larger sliver off the monster’s health bar before getting utterly wiped out.
This time? I got mad. Here’s why. The title in question, Digimon World Next Order, is a role-playing game whereby players are tasked with exploring the Digital World as it experiences a crisis at the hands (mechanical claws?) of a number of rampaging Machinedramon. The player character is mysteriously drawn into this world and attempts to solve the crisis with two Digimon partners of their own. You must raise these partner creatures, enabling their evolution process so they can become stronger, making it possible for you to progress further into the game. So far, so typical for an RPG. Here’s where things get interesting.
This game is based on the model of the original Digimon World (released for PS1 in the year 2000 in North America/ 2001 in Europe). What this means is that you must also feed your creatures, discipline them, get them to the bathroom on time, etc. Most importantly, your creatures can and will die. When they die, you choose from a selection of eggs, which will hatch into a new partner, beginning the cycle of training/eating/pooping all over again. The entire game plays out against the backdrop of your partner Digimon’s constantly diminishing life. A fully evolved Digimon (and bear in mind getting them to the highest level is not a given) will live on average for 18 in-game days, which translates into a few hours of real-world time, depending on how you play. At the time of my great defeat, my partners had been through the training/poop/death/rebirth cycle once and I had successfully raised their second incarnations to their ultimate or second highest stage. That took a while.
So like I said, I got mad. I’d invested a lot of time and managed to produce two powerful creatures. I felt like I was entitled to my victory. I had done everything right! (Spoiler: I hadn’t). How did I find that out? Introspection? Meditation? Google. My biggest problem was the speed at which the boss monster reduced my poor critters health to nothing. I could heal them during the fight, but I just wasn’t able to keep up with the rate at which they were getting hurt. Here’s what I learned: a) My Digimon, who as far as I was concerned were more than powerful enough, were severely under-trained. b) There was a block command that I could have unlocked and started using hours earlier in the game of which I had been completely unaware. I was ignorant to it because I hadn’t bothered to read about all the skills I could unlock, information that was available to me from the beginning of the game.The command could be timed to absorb almost all of the damage the boss could deal out, greatly reducing the rate at which my partners received damage.
How did this happen? Simple. I was afraid of the challenge. I had coasted by doing just well enough and the moment the game got tough I looked for every possible excuse before realizing it was my own poor approach to playing the game. When the digital poop hit the fan, I didn’t want to rise to the challenge. I know why. It’s all Harry Potter’s fault. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone for PS1 to be exact. Childhood segway!
Every game-playing youngster has been there. You’ve got your new game, which is a big deal. You’re a kid and games are expensive so you don’t get them very often, meaning when you do it’s special. At nine years old it’s like Christmas (and often literally is a byproduct of Christmas). I remember going to the store (Game near Trinity College in Dublin city, since closed) and seeing it on the shelf. I was a massive Harry Potter fan (and still am, Ravenclaw for life) so naturally it was a match made in Heaven. The ride home in the car was the purest of anticipation. Popping the disc into the console was bottled excitement.I started playing, exploring Hogwarts, meeting the memorable cast of characters,collecting Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. It was fantastic. Then came the first broom-flying lesson. Then my young heart was introduced to utter and total despair. I was tasked with guiding my polygonal Harry Potter through a series of brightly coloured floating hoops atop a flying broomstick. I failed at this. Again and again and again. Over and over. There was no way to progress, to continue my exhilarating adventures through Hogwarts, without overcoming this task. I could not do it and I was destroyed by that fact.
I see this in my nightmares
Some weeks or months later I did clear that challenge and continue the game. That feeling of utter despair at a game’s impassable test stayed with me though. I have loved games for as long as I can remember, but I have tended to avoid ones that touted difficult challenges as selling points since Harry Potter broke me. Surprise surprise, I’ve never played Dark Souls, fearing its highly publicized difficulty. I was aware that Digimon World Next Order was challenging, but I’d been placated by previews stating it was much more approachable than its original PS1 predecessor. All of that fell apart when I was beaten by that Machindraemon the second time. All of a sudden, its metal, dragon-like design was replaced with that of a series of purple rings, like glowing Polo mints sent straight from the depths of hell to cause me concern.
There is a distinction between these two games. Harry Potter on PS1 had poor flight controls, which I eventually learned how to use through sheer trial and error. One could argue that the difficulty came from the game itself. My failings in Digimon World Next Order were mine and mine alone. I had been given the opportunity to further train my partners but I’d ignorantly decided that I had already raised them enough. I’d ignored an essential block command. This failure opened my eyes to how I could improve my creatures and my own battle tactics. Something beautiful followed. This realization asked for a change in attitude and approach and that’s exactly what it got. I did not throw my Digimon at the boss again. I did not quit. I knew the risks of returning to the starting town and training my creatures: their life spans could reach their end during the time spent training, necessitating hours of raising them back to a point where we could challenge the boss again. It was worth it. Patience would make them stronger and even if they died, their reincarnated forms would inherit some of their improved stats, meaning they would become incrementally stronger than their previous incarnations. The Digi-gods smiled on me that day. I trained my partners, one of whom evolved to the highest stage, Mega, as a result. My first partner to do so. My pride in that collection of pixels was real, ridiculous as that may sound. Then I unlocked and practiced the block command until I knew how and when to use it properly.Then we passed through the desert again. The same cut-scene played and the third fight with the Machinedramon, embodiment of nine year old me’s darkest hour, began.
All things considered, it was over pretty quick. Both of my partners were stronger than ever before. The higher evolved one, Ophanimon, began laying into the boss. My second partner, Taomon, took a hit from Machindraemon. Not too bad. Then another, heavier blow. Taomon’s health bar shot down. My heart sank. It was all for nothing. Then I remembered, the notion riding atop a broomstick, expertly passing through a series of luminous Cheerios floating in the abyss of my mind; block. Taomon drew the attention of the beast, successfully blocking and absorbing the bulk of the hits, leaving Ophanimon free to rail Machinedramon with hit after hit. I was convinced that it would take my Ophanimon’s special attack to finish it off. Slowly building the power required, carefully watching both of my partner’s diminishing health, it was almost time to unleash Ophanimon’s strongest attack. I kept checking every few seconds to see if we had built up enough energy, my finger twitching on a trigger that I believed would be the only way to secure the win. The time to pull it, however, never came. The beast seized, then fell. The battle ended. They had defeated the boss monster without my ever needing to give the order to use our trump card. Pure, honest pride, for pixels. Dork? Maybe. Happy dork? You betcha.
My victorious Digi-pals: Ophanimon on the left and Taomon on the right
Games have taught me a lot over the years. Problem-solving skills, history, vocabulary, what makes a good UI, the dos and do nots of game-play mechanics: all of this and many more things. Most of them, however, were absorbed over years, subconsciously imparted through play. This example is different. I will always remember the time a video game taught me the value of what can be learned from complete and utter defeat and how to use those lessons to better oneself. I will never forget how sweet that eventual victory felt. This is not a unique experience, mind you: plenty of people learn this through the challenges game pose. To be honest, I’m a bit late to the party, but I got there eventually.
Losing is hard in the real world. The stakes are so high. If I’d lost at college, I wouldn’t have my degree. If I’d lost at work, I wouldn’t have my livelihood. Losing is also important though. We learn from loss. We remember the fights we lose while the ones we win blur into one another. Winning is the reward for learning from loss.
The fear implanted by Harry Potter has been demolished by my Digi-pals, opening a door once held shut. I’m going to play more Rogue Legacy, finally pick up Fear in the Flood and eventually see what all the fuss is about with Dark Souls. These games will show me something: I’m going to be a loser, over and over again until I earn the right to be a winner.
Digimon World Next Order was released in both NA and Europe in January 2017 and can be played on PS4.
I’m also on the tweets: @RJPowPow if you like the words I mash together into a fine wordy paste.