I'm playing through Dragon Age: Inquisition at the moment. It's great—probably my game of the year—and you should read about that elsewhere. Its greatness isn't what I want to talk about right now. Yesterday, I made a decision in the game that actually broke my heart. I picked a dialogue choice from a list and something happened that made me so unhappy I had to take a break from the game. I thought about it, and talked to Phil, our News Editor, who has finished the campaign, and then I went back and unmade that decision. Normally, I would never do that. But this time I decided that I didn't want to be sad and so I loaded a save and picked the other option from the list.
That is how 'regret' most commonly manifests in your experience of playing a game. You go back and replay the section and alter your decisions, or play with more skill, and you bring about an outcome that you're happy with. Even in competitive games, where exact repeats are less likely, there are still scenarios that you can vow to approach differently: next time, they won't get the flag out through the back entrance. Next time, I won't fall for a Dark Templar rush.
Dota 2 is a little different, at least in my experience of it. The individual components that make up a given competitive scenario are so complicated that you never really get repeats: you might experience a base race more than once, but it's very unlikely that you'll ever experience the same base race again. Your hero, your friends' heroes, your enemies heroes; who's alive, who's dead, who has buyback; items, ultimates, cooldowns. All of these things matter enormously. They all factor in to the decisions you make, and when you make the wrong decision it can be as heartbreaking as watching a tragedy unfold in a singleplayer RPG.
Last weekend I played another round in the games industry amateur Dota 2 league, The Rektreational. My team, Venomancer? I Hardly Know Her, doesn't really practice. Actually, there's no need for 'really'—we don't practice. I jump into games with Pyrion, Shane and Phill from time to time and play with Pip a little more regularly, but as a stack our only experience of playing together is these matches. This means that the first games are always a little rough.
Our first game against League of Legends (best team name in the tournament, there) was more than a little rough. And we should have won, but I made a big mistake. With their carries dead but our ancient exposed we charged down mid and went straight for the throne. As Tidehunter with a Refresher Orb, I was sitting on a double Ravage: I felt confident that we could push through the three remaining supports and take the game. But they weren't there.
LOL pulled an Alliance-in-TI3 and bought Boots of Travel, closing in on our ancient as we took down their tier four towers. I should have teleported back then and there, but I didn't have a scroll. Stupid. I hesitated, thinking there might still be defenders in their base, and waited slightly too long before running to their fountain to buy a town portal and jump back. I ran from the fountain, Blink Dagger on cooldown, to try to get their supports in range of Ravage. I was maybe 200 units away when our ancient exploded—and among those tumbling fragments of our game-critical glowy rock garden were little shards of my self-regard. I was gutted. And you can't go back and fix that.
I'll never encounter that scenario again, and I'll never get to unmake that mistake. It just happened that way. One of the things that can be so frustrating about learning Dota 2 is that you can learn to recognise the mistake but the process of implementing that knowledge takes years to bear any kind of fruit. Another example: last night, in a JoinDota League match, my team successfully ganked a way-too-farmed Spectre carrying an Aegis. As soon as she fell we got ready to fight again. A thought wormed through my mind: their Tidehunter probably has Ravage. Brewmaster probably has Primal Split. They've got time to get here. We're probably already--
Whose fault was that? I genuinely do not know. Perhaps we were only delaying the inevitable. Perhaps I should have said something, or said it more clearly. Maybe the other members of my team should have seen what I saw coming too, and overcome the natural human urge to cooperate enough to back off on their own. Trying to unpick that game-ending catastrophe is like trying to unpick any other act of irrecoverable bad luck and failure—the unshakeable minor grief of missing the bus to somewhere really important. Except with wizards.
You can vow to do things differently next time, but that's only realistic to a point. You've probably learned something, but you'll probably never know: next time will always be different, and the reasons for your success and failure then won't necessary have much to do with how much you do (or don't) learn now.
Instead, the conclusion I've arrived at is this: that making a mistake is, in some ways, its own reward. The feeling of recognising a mistake, horrible though it might be, is the only sign you are going to get that you are improving at the game. You were not a good player in that moment, but you are aware of some of the reasons why. You can never guarantee that you'll fix those problems, so you have to learn to derive satisfaction from your awareness of them. There are no repeats. But there is always the ongoing linear progress of your understanding, a mass of experience that can only ever be grown, never diminished, by the things you regret.
I still wish I'd teleported earlier.
To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.