Solving the Problem of Fail States
There are certain aspects of video game design that will never be realistic. Characters can carry numerous weapons, quest items and healing potions all within a tiny magical pouch. The protagonist can complete a mission half-way across the game world, and the quest giver will instantly know the task has been complete. This is why we’ve argued for internal consistency instead of realism. Video games will, to a certain extent, never be realistic portrayals of life.
Because of this, some aspects of game design that first appeared during the NES days are still with us today, because we write them off as belonging to that unrealistic aspect of video games. However, these aspects aren’t quirks to the medium, but problems to be solved. We’ve discussed difficulty before, and how developers should focus more on telling a consistent story rather than increasing difficulty. But there is another problem that has seen little progress in the past thirty years – the fail state.
Fail states are scenarios where the player fails, and the game responds to that failure. The most common fail state occurs when the player loses all of their health or loses a life, and a “Game Over” screen appears before restarting the player at the last checkpoint, or the beginning of the level. There’s a reason fail states were introduced into game design, and the typical fail state still has a place in certain games today. However, as video games become more story-driven and cinematic, fail states begin to look like an archaic form of punishment, with little place in modern game design. Or, as developer David Cage, founder of Quantic Dream, stated in an interview with engadget:
“I’ve always felt that ‘game over’ is a state of failure more for the game designer than from the player. It’s like creating an artificial loop saying, ‘You didn’t play the game the way I wanted you to play, so now you’re punished and you’re going to come back and play it again until you do what I want you to do.’ In an action game, I can get that – why not? It’s all about skills. But in a story-driven experience it doesn’t make any sense.”
Fail states should be avoided whenever possible, but what’s the best way to do this? How do you replace a mechanic that is as old as the medium itself? There are a few developers who have experimented with the idea, some with little tweaks to the formula, others with sweeping changes, and somewhere in the middle lies the answer.
When Fail States Work
Like many of the mechanics discussed on this site, fail states are unique to video games. There is no equivalent in film and music, and the only comparable form comes from literature, with the choose your own adventure genre. But beyond that niche market there is no way for the author to shut out the rest of the story from the reader because they didn’t read it the correct way. But fail states arose from a very real need – as a way to make sure players were learning how to play a game, and to provide an obstacle for them to overcome. If tutorials are a fundamental aspect of game design, then it stands that developers should also include something that makes sure the tutorials are working, and that is the role of fail states. Without them, video games would really be interactive films, and any sense of challenge (and, therefore, goals) would disappear.
Difficulty is the main reason fail states exist. Not only can players fail a specific section of a level, but in addition they can also fail to the point where they have to restart from the beginning. In this form, there are certain games in which fail states make sense, even today. The most obvious are platformers and puzzle games, but in reality fail states still apply to games in which the story is not the first or even secondary focus. Any entry in the Super Mario Bros. franchise fits this bill, as do classics like Tetris and contemporary examples, such as the endless runner Race the Sun. Fail states work in these instances because there is little to no emphasis on story, and the focus is primarily on players learning the skills needed to complete the main objectives of the game. In a pure test of skill, traditional fail states are still viable forms of punishing players for failure.
The issue is that fail states are still seen outside of these genres, and unfortunately occur in story-driven experiences.
Reloading the Previous Checkpoint, One Too Many Times
Astute readers will notice that I’ve been referencing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in nearly every essay as of late. This should come to a stop since, as of this writing, I have just beaten the main story for the first time. And though I could spend the next three-thousand words praising the title, it is unfortunately the inspiration for this essay.
Toward the end of the story, the player finally confronts the final boss in a duel to the death. It’s pretty standard as far as video game stories go, and the final battle feels like the climax of a one-hundred and fifty hour journey to prevent the end of the world. The battle is split into two phases, the first phase being the one in which the boss goes easy on the player, allowing them to develop a strategy to get around the offense and defense of the big bad evil villain. This first phase only lasts for a quarter of the boss’s health meter, and then both are teleported to the top of a snow-covered mountain, this time to really duel, and the kid gloves have come off. The player better have a strategy in mind, because the final boss is not messing around, and if the player makes just one mistake, they can be finished off in just one hit.
It was disheartening to see such an uninspired boss fight at the end of such a great game. We’ve discussed the flaws found in boss battles before, and sadly this seems to be a recurring theme of The Witcher franchise. But here the errors seem even more egregious, because this was the end to an epic fantasy trilogy that could have rivaled Mass Effect in terms of characters, canon and player choice. But sadly I had to watch as one misplaced dodge meant that eighty percent of my health dropped in one hit, and I had to start all over again, from the first phase of the boss battle. It was a fail state shoved in at the most inopportune moment, and instead of getting wrapped up in the moment my sense of immersion was broken, just so the game could remind me that I didn’t fight the final boss the correct way, and this time I had to do it right. It was now up to me as the player to get reinvested into the story, and that’s a burden that players shouldn’t have to endure.
Of course, more games include traditional fail states than those that don’t, and the problem cannot be blamed solely on CD Projeckt RED. Despite telling some of the best stories of the past decade, developer Rockstar Games still utilizes fail states in even their most story-driven titles. Grand Theft Auto IV, for example, introduces player choice into main story missions, a first for the series. But these choices seem meaningless when players failed to trail a car at a certain distance, and were magically transported to the previous checkpoint to try again. Wouldn’t it have been more tonally consistent if players could fail and then have to go through more missions to get back to a successful state? It would blend in well with the inclusion of player choice, and provided a much more immersive experience.
Solving the Problem of Failure
Developers have been attempting to fix the issue of fail states for quite some time now, and these efforts should not go unrecognized. Some of them are small tweaks to the formula, more content to add a new idea to the conversation instead of a major overhaul. Others have had such an impact that the game seems centered around avoiding fail states altogether.
Death is rarely a concern in the three-dimensional entries in The Legend of Zelda franchise – these are games that for a long time have been content to focus on fun gameplay mechanics first and story second. But one level stands out, years after its first appearance – Snowpeak Ruins, from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Snowpeak Ruins stands out for one specific reason: no enemies in this level drop hearts when they die, meaning that the only way the player can regain lost health is to consume a soup that a Yeti makes in the kitchen of the ruins. This soup starts out only replacing a few hearts at a time, but the player can locate more ingredients that makes the soup stronger. Because of this, every time players lose even half a heart it feels more impactful than it did in previous levels, where vanquished enemies would drop more than enough hearts. It’s also because of this mechanic that I noticed that Twilight Princess altered traditional fail states in a subtle way – if players accidentally jump off into one of the many bottomless pits that plague the land of Hyrule (and Snowpeak Ruins), they wouldn’t get a game over screen, but instead would respawn, down a heart. It’s a small change, but it introduces one of the mechanics developers employ when trying to alter fail states – changes to the player and the world that persist even after entering a fail state.
BioShock attempted this same idea – when the player dies, they are revived at the nearest Vita Chamber, which works just like check-point flags in Super Mario Bros. games. However, instead of being a hard-reset on the world, the player’s progress is kept, meaning that enemies defeated before failing are still gone, and enemies that received some damage from the player maintain that damage. Although this lessened the impact fail states have on immersion, it also made the game considerably easier, since players could defeat enemies over multiple lives without losing any progress or resources.
The idea of players losing resources while maintaining some persistent change to the world was demonstrated in the Borderlands franchise. When players lose all of their health, the game enters one of two phases – the first is called “Fight For Your Life,” in which the player has a limited amount of time to kill one enemy. If this is accomplished, the fail state is avoided completely, and the player resumes whatever objective they were working toward. However, if the player cannot accomplish this, they will respawn, but not at a previous checkpoint. They will respawn in the same world in which they died via a “New-U” (very similar to BioShock’s Vita Chambers) and in the process lost seven perecent of all of their money, as a “re-spawning fee.” Any enemies they managed to kill before dying will remain dead, however, all enemies that survived will regenerate all of their health. This system works great with the fast-paced gameplay of the franchise, and it provides enough motivation for players to survive, unlike BioShock which doesn’t punish the player for failing.
In all of these cases, traditional fail states were avoided by applying some persistent change to the world or player, whether that be health, resources or enemy health. However, some games take a different approach, and incorporate non-traditional fail states into the story. The most famous example of this is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The narrative framed the game in such a way that the gameplay was a story that the protagonist was recounting, so when the player failed the game reloaded to a previous checkpoint with the narrator remarking “No no no, that’s not the way it happened. Shall I start again?” It gave the game a sense that this was a story that already occurred, and was being told to someone instead of being experienced first-hand. This mechanic was also emphasized with a rewind feature, in which players could rewind the game a limited amount of time if they were about to make a mistake. Players literally had control over the sands of time, strengthening the connection between the story and the non-traditional fail states.
Sands of Time wasn’t the only game to experiment with this rewind feature – it even made an appearance in Forza Motorsport 3, of all places. And it certainly wasn’t the only game to incorporate fail states directly into the story – Prey had a similar technique in which players, after losing all of their health, would enter a realm called The Death World. Surprisingly, the goal of the Death World was not to avoid death – the player’s body will eventually return to the land of the living, however, their health when they return is determined by how many spirits the player is able to kill when in the Death World. Kill enough and the player respawns with maximum health; kill just a few and the player respawns with low health.
The goal of these non-traditional fail states was to weave gameplay into the story, to strengthen the bond between these two aspects which, for a long time, have been separated. The obvious goal would be for a game to incorporate the persistent changes outlined above, while also tying this element into the story. Fortunately, such a game exists, and the success of this game is perhaps the strongest evidence that traditional fail states need to be erased from most modern game design.
How Dark Souls Fixed the Fail State Issue
When we think about removing traditional fail states, there will be those that argue removing them will make video games easier, that it will remove all challenge completely. While that was the case in some of the previously discussed games, I counter with the game that, to date, has had the biggest impact on overhauling the fail state system, a game known for its brutal difficulty. Dark Souls is proof that fail states can be removed or heavily altered, while still maintaining the sense of challenge many gamers demand.
Discussing the canon of Dark Souls is always a tricky subject, since most of the backstory and plot is told through textural stories (such as item descriptions) instead of more traditional storytelling methods. This technique is divisive to say the least, and it’s one that series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki seems content to use in all of his games. So when Miyazaki actually takes the time to explain a story element, players should listen, because it’s more than likely very important to understanding the whole game.
The entire plot of Dark Souls revolves around something called the First Flame, and the player is told that if this flame were to ever die out, the world would end. At the same time, a curse known as the Darksign begins to inflict the residents of Lordan (the world in which Dark Souls takes place), and this curse prevents people from dying. Eventually, these people go insane (known as going Hollow), and when that happens they are locked within the Undead Asylum. It is within this context that the game starts – the player character is locked in a cell in the Undead Asylum and has been branded with the cursed Darksign. However, they are not Hollow, and they break out of the cell to start their adventure.
Immediately, Dark Souls uses the story to set up the notion that the player character cannot die, which means that traditional fail states are non-existent. That Miyazaki uses the majority of exposition in the game to set this up demonstrates how integral to the game this is – Dark Souls is not a game in which the player will fail in the same way players can fail in nearly every other game. So what happens when the player does lose all of their health? They will respawn at their nearest save point, but their impact on the world persists, to a degree. Any bosses the player defeated before death remain defeated, and any paths the player has opened throughout the world remain opened. However, upon death, the player will drop all of the experience points (or Souls) they have accumulated and will need to to retrieve them; if they die again before doing so, the souls are lost for good. This means that even though the world persists between fail states there is more than enough motivation for the player to not die, thereby avoiding the issues BioShock ran into. Also, experience points are also used as currency, meaning the player has even more motivation to not die. However, not all changes the player has made persist – just like the player character, the majority of enemies will also revive whenever the player respawns at a save point or uses that save point. Fail states are so thoroughly removed from Dark Souls that even the most common enemies are not impacted by them, which adds even more tension for the player as they backtrack to where they last died in hopes of reclaiming the experience points they dropped. Furthermore, there is no pausing in Dark Souls, and there is no way to save a game over multiple file slots. When players start up Dark Souls with a new character, that new character is bound to that one world, and it never reverts to a previous state. This increases the level of immersion to a degree that most games will never achieve, simply because they rely on traditional, outdated fail states.
Always Moving Forward
When it comes to story-driven video games, David Cage’s words ring true – many fail states are a failure of the developer, not of the player. Fail states, if utilized incorrectly, destroy the sense of immersion, and provide an unfair, cheap shortcut for developers to artificially inflate the difficulty of their games. Although certain games benefit from traditional fail states, the vast majority of games released today do not, and it’s time that developers began to closely examine how fail states impact their game designs. Any worries that non-traditional fail states will make games easier and move them more toward interactive films are rendered moot by games such as Dark Souls, which demonstrate how creative thinking about death in video games can lead to some extremely successful results. But it’s not alone – many of the game listed in this piece try to tweak the use of fail states, and many succeed. Challenge will always be inherently a part of video game design, but that doesn’t mean these old mechanics should continue to be used in modern gaming. For many games, traditional fail states are not only unrealistic, they are also tonally inconsistent.