The ‘Failure State’ and Its Various Versions

Existence of a ‘Failure State’ is of utmost importance for a real gaming experience

Published: 15th October 2014 06:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th October 2014 06:04 AM   |  A+A-

It’s an interesting exercise to try and nail down what makes a game. After all, the idea and practice of games have existed long before video games came about. And in the wake of the non-traditional games that the indie scene has released in recent times — The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, Gone Home, to name a few — there’s some relevance to the conversation of whether all interactive experiences are necessarily covered under the umbrella of gaming.

Popular Youtuber TotalBiscuit aka John Bain recently put out a video addressing this very topic, with his conclusion being that there needed to be a ‘Failure State’ for the player, in order for the experience to be counted as a game. This holds with the traditional gaming ethos, from sports to board games, where there is traditionally a ruleset, and victory or failure has to be determined by those rules.

The failure state itself is an interesting subject, since in competitive games it tends to be the darkest time, the end of a path littered with unoptimal decisions, but in single-player games, often it is just a momentary irritation. Occasionally, developers for the latter have tried to work out, with varying results, how to make the failure state for their game something more significant than a short death animation while the player mashes the button to reload the last save.

Super Meat Boy, for example, rides on the assumption the players will fail several times on most levels before the trial-and-error procedure leads to their internalising the actions necessary to succeed and carrying them out. To that end, reloads are instantaneous — the failure state is not dwelled on, and the player is thrown back to the start immediately, encouraged to give it another go. Along with that, being a skinless blob, the player character leaves a slippery discharge across all surfaces that it comes into contact with, and these aren’t wiped out for future tries. This means that the first playthrough of the level will almost always be the easiest, and failure only increases the level of difficulty.

Dark Souls is another game that thrives on trial and error, dropping you in a hostile environment and passing on vague hints about the right way to go. Get it wrong, and you could end up vastly overpowered in a cemetery a short distance away from the game’s start.

Then of course, you have roguelikes where failure states are permanent for each playthrough, and force you to start again from scratch. That’s the completely other end of the spectrum from games where a failure state is just a quick splash screen before you charge back into the fray.

One factor to note is that, from the transition from boardgames to pen and paper RPGs to modern video games, attention has been spread between rulesets and narratives, to the point where many people tend to focus on the latter.

When Jennifer Hepler, writer for Bioware, said that she’d like to play a version of Mass Effect where you could skip the combat and focus on the story, she was inundated with hate mail in return. But if we’re being honest, the mechanics of Mass Effect, with its terrible minigames and its aping of the Gears of War waist-high cover system, aren’t really its strong point.

Most of the effort has definitely gone into the world-building, the characters with their minor celebrity voice acting, the plot choices, and the story arc. In light of that, maybe giving it an option to make it an interactive movie is not that egregious an option.

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