The State of Failure States in Video Games


#1

After getting burned out out of video games and not being able to come back to them because of depression hitting hard, video games stopped bringing me joy as they did before: i was afraid of playing games that had an explicit failure state in them.

If i failed in a game, i would start beating myself mentally for not being able to deal with the challenge. I needed to stop playing video games for a while.

So it made me to start thinking how players interact with the games and how a failure state became such a cliche in video games.

Why in many games it is explicitly said that you’ve made a mistake? That you did not do well enough? When the game restarts you at a previous checkpoint after your HP turns to zero or you weren’t able to do a mission on time or any other superficial conditions, the game acknowledges that you’ve failed, that you’ve made a mistake, and it forces you to try again.
What if I don’t want to deal with my failings? What if I don’t want to try to deal with them again? What if I just want to move on and accept that I can’t deal with it?

Video games never really give you a choice to continue after failing, it’s always the repetition. The only way to disengage is to stop playing.

Although failure states are not always restarting from the checkpoint (it can also be not being able to figure out the solution to the puzzle in a point-and-click adventure game, or seeing “defeat” in a multiplayer game which encourages you to try again), games never let you cope with your failure. You can only find the solution to the problem.

But if the problem is you, it’s hard to try again.

Waypont forum, what do you think about the failure states? Are they mandatory? Are they not?
I would really like to see your opinions on the matter!


#2

Sorry you’ve been feeling down recently!

In most Action/Adventure/Shooters, I am quick to bump the difficulty ALL the way down to get past a part before getting frustrated. I’d rather see the rest of the story than prove something to myself. There are games where I won’t do that (Titanfall 2 on Hard is the first one that comes to mind), but those are games where I’m specifically buying into the challenge.

A couple of games I think deal with Failure States interestingly:

Pyre, which plays with failure in really interesting ways. One of its layers is meant to simulate the feeling of Sports Seasons, and in all but the most spectacular seasons, you lose. You deal with that loss, and you move forward. And sometimes, the game nudges you towards losing in various ways, which I found fascinating.

And Opus Magnum, the latest Zachtronics game lets you define your own success state. Sure, you have to solve the puzzle, but the puzzles in that game are designed in a way that, given enough time, most of them can be pieced together step by step. However, doing so might be inefficient, costly, or take up much more area than necessary. So what Opus Magnum does is steps back. What’s important to me, The player? Do I want to make the most efficient (in terms of time taken to complete), the least costly (in terms of materials), or the most compact? Asking me to define my victory conditions is super interesting and something I’d like to see more games attempt.


#3

Thank you for posting this and sharing your perspective on failure in games. I’m sorry depression has hit you hard!

I played a game recently that had a very unique approach and perspective on failure recently in EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK! The game is a response to the traditional ways we view power and asks why we our view of power is based around the oppression of others, and not our abilities to live through failure or trauma. I wrote a piece on it a little while back if you’re interested in learning more but the shorter summary is “power is realized in struggle, not in the capability to oppress another.” Much of the game is about experiencing tiny little experiences in failure, and moving on from it. Alienmelon’s description on the store page sums up the themes well:

I don’t think the icon, epitome, of strength should be how many people you can hurt, conquer, overcome, but how much of this abuse you can overcome. How long you can live with what happened to you. How strong you are for being here. How powerful you are for being strong because you have no other option but to be strong.
Surviving is one thing, but living with it is an entirely different fight, and I think this is where examples of real strength are.

If approached from this point of view then it is an obvious conclusion that you should be celebrated simply for being here.
You are normal for your imperfections, and the way you cope. You are the hero in the story of your life, and you have every right to be proud.

I felt that the game’s unique approach to failure was incredibly cool and I would like to see more games that not only let you live with failure, but become stronger through it (in an emotional sense, not a mechanical sense).


#4

A very important subject, thanks for bringing it up. As games continue to mature as a medium, we’re fortunately seeing more games with either no fail states or with highly customizable difficulty / gameplay, but it’s still a very small minority. Honestly, I don’t see why every single game shouldn’t have the option to either tone down or completely remove combat difficulty. Maybe you want to play Dark Souls just to look at spooky skeletons and hang out at a dilapidated castle. Maybe your interest in God of War consists entirely of wanting to watch buff dudes scream at each other.

There’s nothing stopping developers from making that possible - in most cases, it wouldn’t take more than a few lines of code - and they would probably sell more copies without taking away anything from the “normal” experience for people who are looking for that.

In fact, the only reason I can think of why easy / assist / story-only modes aren’t more common is toxic gamer culture, which would probably see a big backlash to any game with an easy mode, especially games that getting through is considered some macho rite of passage.

Luckily, some developers don’t really let that bother them. @M_o has already mentioned Pyre, which is indeed a great example of weaving more traditional gameplay mechanics into a story without any failure states blocking players from getting through the whole thing. In addition to that, I would like to mention Even the Ocean, a game that, while not a masterpiece, is certainly worth playing. It’s tells a very nuanced story, mostly well-written, and featuring characters that you don’t often see in games - queer women of color and non-conventionally attractive people, mostly - and, while it has platforming and combat, it allows you to completely customize that part of the game. You can make platforming trivial and only keep combat, make combat trivial and only keep the platforming, make both trivial, skip the sections featuring them completely - you can even keep just the action parts and skip the story, if I remember correctly. It’s definitely a game I’d recommend checking out if you want to enjoy a good story that doesn’t force you into any mechanic you don’t like, and I’m pretty sure you can make those changes on the fly as well.

Funnily enough, I think multiplayer games actually do a better job of giving you this choice than they’re given credit for. Sure, Overwatch will tell you when you’ve lost, but nothing about the game is locked out to you based on your skill rating. The lowest rated and highest rated people in the game will see the same characters and levels, and no matter how many times you win or lose, your next time in the game will start from pretty much the same point. If you stick to the non-competitive modes, there’s not even a rating that tells you if you’re doing well or not. Plus there’s roleplay servers, which I’ve yet to visit, but the idea seems pretty cool.


#5

i absolutely love Even the Ocean! There’s so much nuance to that story in a surprising way, and I found myself thinking about it long after I was done. I even ended up writing about it for Rock Paper Shotgun, touching on the very analog failure states the energy system uses, compared to the binary of most games, and how it actually integrates that thematically.

This medium post on designing the difficulty and accessibility options of it by Sean, one of the developers, is worth reading as well:

On the subject of finding other ways to enjoy games like Dark Souls outside of their intended play, Amy Dentata has a great video series called Let’s Walk, where she does her best to remove conflict from a game and engage with it simply as a space to walk around.

it gives a real interesting viewpoint of things you might not recognize when obscured by all the mechanical systems. my favorite is probably the Saints Row IV one, because chaos continues to happen around her as she calmly walks through the world:


#6

Thanks, I’ll definitely check all of that out! Specifically, I’m glad to see a second person has reviewed EtO. It deserved a hell of a lot more attention than it ever got.


#7

hah, yeah i kind of bring that up in the piece too. it sucked to see everyone grumble about representation in big games and accessibility specifically while totally ignoring efforts like EtO. even when the conversation around Celeste and difficulty happened and it was brought it up nothing came of it because it wasn’t part of the big hardcore platformer niche.


#8

I read that part nodding hard. To think Overwatch can claim with a straight face to challenge stereotypes with these games around.


#9

This might be too old and too inside baseball for anyone to remember, but the complaints around the 2008 Prince of Persia’s handling of failure was a prime example of toxic culture inhibiting what was a really cool approach. Basically in the game the player is accompanied by Elika, a princess with powerful magic abilities. Whenever the player missed a jump or was about to die by an enemy, Elika was there to pull you back to a safe spot. In practice it was simply a generous checkpoint system that cut down repetition due to failure. But because the developers baked the mechanic into the lore, people were aghast that there were no stakes. The game tanked, owing in no small part to the online backlash surrounding it.

But I for one loved the mechanic. It cut down on repetition, encouraged experimentation, and it elegantly tied in with the story and Elika’s character and her relationship with the Prince. Perhaps it made the game “easy”, but not every game needs to be difficult. Sometimes low-stakes gameplay is what the game needs to compliment its story and world.


#10

it’s really hilarious that it was considered an “easy” game because if you consider the difficulty of the jumps by how often you failed and had Elika pull you back then that game was by far way more demanding that the Sands of Time trilogy before it. you just didn’t land in spikes or get punished for running out of sand.

and on that note while the sand seemed like a smart choice at the time, running out was always annoying. I also think it’s interesting how that particular concept transfered to other high difficulty games like racing sims, some of which just let you wind an unlimited amount


#11

This topic reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend over fail states in the BATMAN: ARKHAM games.

It’s always bothered me that if you’re playing and you “die” during a brawl, the screen goes black, one of Batman’s arch nemeses taunts you, then you restart from a checkpoint as if nothing happened. On a narrative level, it’s like time was rewinded. And I proposed the idea that instead of dying and restarting, Batman should be caught. The thugs that knocked you out have taken you to another location you wake up in, and they’re waiting for their boss (Penguin, Two-Face, whoever to show up to have the honor of unmasking the Batman.) Or maybe they have you in a van and they’re taking you to some location (that way when you inevitably escape you’re not far from your previous mission.) But then a number of things could happen. One of Batman’s allies could show up to rescue him, or you trick one of the thugs into activating a trap on your utility belt, that sort of thing. Then, when you resume the mission you originally “failed”, maybe it’s changed a bit. Like you’d hear the thugs say “Last time the Bat came through the skylight. Everyone keep your eyes up there until we get word Bats was taken out for good!” And so you have to change your strategy. (Sort of like SHADOW OF MORDOR, which was already a lot like an ARKHAM game.) The world adapts a little bit, and your previous failure isn’t erased by a “rewind to checkpoint” mechanic and instead becomes part of the narrative in your playthrough. It makes it feel less like failure, as the game never explicitly is like “you died, start over” and instead just presents you with more sequences to keep playing through.

And for me, that’s what I don’t like about fail states that make you start over and it’s like time reset. Especially in games with a deliberate narrative. When you fail, but the game (and thus the story) finds a way to keep going, that’s great! But when you fail and the game sends you back as if none of it ever happened, it feels a little like Groundhog Day.


#12

I’ve been thinking of failure a lot lately in the context of Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy. In many ways the ‘it’ in getting over it is frustration, is failure.

I’m not particularly good at most kinds of video game, especially ones that require a lot of timing or precise skill. When I first finished it, it was after about 18 hours of resolutely not-finishing it. Now I’ve finished it lots of times, and on a good day I can do it in about 18 minutes.

When I first tried it, every fall, every mis-step felt like a huge deal. An erasure of something that had taken me time and effort with what felt like no compensation. I’d groan, I’d gasp, I’d shout and every time I got a little further I was wracked with tension because I knew it could all go wrong again at any moment.

But what felt like a waste of time initially suddenly started feeling like … just playing the game. The whole thing was about this flip of perspective from seeing the failures as catastrophic to seeing them as learning. I started deliberately sabotaging my progess so that I could ‘warm up’ by repeating a previous part.

Like you I often don’t get on very well with failure. I’m the type of person who would absolutely advocate for an easy mode in Dark Souls. I don’t know what it was about this game in particular that made me appreciate its use of failure. The voiceover, which talks in praise of difficulty and frustration never quite convinced me of its thesis, it always seemed too dismissive of more forgiving approaches which I think are perfectly valid. But it did give me a new appreciation of how failure and frustration in a game can, in itself, communicate ideas.

Maybe part of it though is that, when I think about it, Getting Over It doesn’t have failure states in a traditional sense. It’s not like it sends you back in time to before you failed. If you fall, you fall, and carry on from wherever you fell down to. Getting to the top is one continuous, uninterrupted story from start to finish. You could draw an unbroken line from when I first started to the 18 hours later when I first finished, and in that context it stops looking like a series of failures, and starts looking like one long, long journey with (sometimes literal) ups and downs. And somehow, perhaps that’s easier to swallow - and kind of beautiful to think about, in a way.


#13

That actually sounds really good, but to the flith, it’s doubly offensive: making games accessible and make it because A WOMAN ONE HELPS ME? Perish the thought!


#15

There are different cultures about difficulty. A thought has glimpsed in my mind about recent talks of ‘games are not as hard as they were before’. They are going for a lot of time, actually. So it depends partially on what different people want, how they relate to challenge, and how widespread their opinion comes.

Games are created by different people as well. They partially listen to audience, and to their own values. Usually it’s down by lowering difficulty of game to the point that failure doesn’t mean much. Some games tailor difficulty based on your performance – some Final Fantasy games, Left for Dead, aforementioned Pyre. In some you have different ticks to tailor for your own experience.

Prince of Persia is very interesting example of inventive ‘hold your hand’ type of help. Need to be mentioned it’s sole purpose is for game to have more flow in it – so it’s less broken by mistakes, to have a feeling that you have a special edge against all those traps. Search the Object have highlight in case you can not find anything in a certain time. On the other hand, some revolve around difficult (Dark Souls), or failure as narrative (FTL). So generally, you have to choose a genre and tell that it has too little of an example for fail through mechanics, or more inventive and game-theme-suitable difficulty tailoring (action shooters are probably first in queue, as beat’em’ups).


#16

I’m not quite sure why, but this post made me think about what a FPS game where you played a disposable clone, or robot, or something would look like (as a way to fail forward vs. restart from checkpoint).


#17

Wasn’t the Battlefield 1 campaign what you’re describing? I haven’t played it but my understanding is that once you die, your character’s name and birth/death dates are displayed and then you respawn into another grunt. Seemed like a neat way to spotlight the immense loss of life in WW1.


#18

Oh, really? Huh. I missed Battlefield 1 cuz the marketing campaign extremely put me off but that’s interesting.


#19

They did that in the intro / tutorial as a (in my opinion, pretty clever) way of highlighting just how bloody the ground war was, but just there. The rest of the campaign behaves like a “normal” FPS.


#20

Ah, that’s disappointing. I’m thinking less of like, you bounce from faceless grunt to faceless grunt and more that each death should mean something or push you forward in some way. I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s an IOS platformer game where you have to die, because every time you do, your corpse remains as a platform, and you often have to die in very specific ways to create platforms to progress.


#21

Which reminds me - Zombi U did that. Every time you died in that game you were a new survivor.