So I’ve been thinking a bit and I’ve decided that video games need to rethink the “game over.” In fact, I think the idea of a fail state in games is an unnecessary holdover from the games where you had lives and continues. Yes, having a game over and having to restart from a certain point adds challenge to the game. But in general, with the way games are developed nowadays, often times the fail state just adds aggravation to what is otherwise a wonderful gaming experience.
The problem, of course, is that most games are based around death. Killing enemies to progress is a large chunk of gameplay loops, and the easiest way to add challenge to the loop is for the enemies to, you know, kill back. Health bars/indicators/numbers are the main tracking agent and when you hit 0, time for a fail state to show you didn’t live up to the challenge!
But, and bear with me here, what if that wasn’t the case? What if we figured out a way for games to keep their challenge but eliminate the need to make the player feel bad because they didn’t shoot the guy with the one-hit KO attack fast enough? What if we eliminated the silly QTEs that if you missing pressing a single button you have to do an entire sequence over again?
I’m going to talk about some games that have recently opened my eyes to how good a lack of a fail state is, and how some games have been hindered because of fail states, and how some games have given you an illusion of a fail state but don’t actually have one and that’s what games should try to live up to.
I suppose I should first define what I consider a fail state. A fail state is anything that takes you out of the game to let you know you’ve failed. The Metal Gear Solid “Mission Failed” screen. If you die and you end up at a loading screen waiting for a level to reload. Losing a life, seeing a continue screen, etc. Anything where you stop playing the game and acknowledge you messed up. That’s what I consider a fail state. Anything that gives me the time to yell and shout at my screen because I totally dodged that attack, you know.
The goose is loose. Chaos reigns.
The first game I’m going to talk about is the recent internet darling: Untitled Goose Game. At its heart, Untitled Goose Game is a puzzle game. As you enter each area of the village, you’re given a list of objectives and have to observe and poke around in the sandbox until you figure out ways to meet said objectives. It plays like Hitman except you’re a goose instead of an assassin, and instead of having death as an objective you’re simply out to cause mayhem.
It also has no fail state.
Sure, you can mess up an objective and get noticed by one of the many humans you’re terrorizing, but the worst that happens is they shoo you away or take back whatever you just stole. Honk at them a few times until they return to their routine, then be a sneaky goose and try again. That’s it. There’s never the possibility of a game over or frustration that you almost had an objective, but now you have to set everything up again. You’re back into tactical goose action in mere seconds most of the time.
In comparison, in the most recent Hitman (and Hitman 2) your punishment for screwing up and getting an alert is, most of the time, getting killed. Yes, there are save states if you choose to abuse them, but that still takes you out of the game by having you jump to a menu, reload your previous save, wait, and then try again. But the major threat of the game is that, if you don’t use the save states, if you die you have to start the entire mission over from scratch. And sometimes it can take a good chunk of time to set yourself up with the right spot without being seen. What kind of unnecessary punishment is it if I screw up one five-second section of a particular objective I have to repeat the first ten minutes of it? Or at least wait a minute for my previous save to load just to attempt the five seconds again?
When myself and my girlfriend were playing the goose game, we were always playing the goose game. We were having as much fun being shooed away with a broom as we were actually completing objectives. That heightens the experience and is a plus for any game: even in our “failure” the game was still providing entertainment.
On the flip side, let’s talk about Control. Now don’t get me wrong: I love Control. It’s one of my favorite games I’ve played this year. But by God was I frustrated with it and let the game have it on Twitter. I got mood whiplash from going “holy crap this is awesome” to “holy crap this is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever played.” And the main problem with Control is the fact that it has fail states and they’re so awkwardly implemented.
Control is an amazing game that is held back by its archaic idea of a fail state.
Control uses a checkpoint system and every time you die, you restart at the checkpoint. Under most circumstances this isn’t the worst kind of fail state – but Control isn’t most circumstances. When you die in Control, first you go through a loading screen because it has to reset a bunch of things in the world. Then, often times the last checkpoint you were at was a significant distance from where you died – most of the optional bosses have a long run back to start the fight again. On top of that, enemy encounters will respawn after you die, meaning you have to spend time clearing out rooms you have already cleared just to get back to where you were.
Now here’s the thing: the Souls games use nearly this exact same system. Bonfires are checkpoints, you go through a small loading screen, all enemies respawn and you’re likely going to be doing a significant run back to reclaim your Souls. So why is Control so much more infuriating than any Souls game?
It’s because in Souls games, the fail state is wrapped into the narrative and the gameplay loop. Part of the game is “if you die, make it back to where you died and you can reclaim your lost souls/money.” There is no complete fail state, only a partial one, because every time you die the game is still giving you the chance to keep your items. This encourages patience and learning about the game. Did an enemy surprise attack you and that’s why you died? Now you know where that enemy is for your next run. Did you get too greedy and try to get that last hit on a tough boss, only for it to combo you out of existence when you were so close to moving on? Well, now you’re going to be a little more patient on the next try. Death is a living part of the Souls games – they have the reputation of being difficult but in reality they use the mechanic of dying as a way to teach the player things.
Meanwhile, in Control death is not teaching you anything. 95% of my deaths were to one of two things: explosives/attacks that deal half your health in damage or accidentally falling into a pit. I would walk into a room, a firefight would break out, and before I could really get a handle on what I was facing, rockets/grenades from an unknown explosion would take out a majority of my health and then I would die. Or I’d have mastered a boss battle and be getting through it with no damage, only to fall into a pit because I have to keep my camera facing up to see the boss’s attacks while the attacks open pits in the floor that would require me to look down and get hit by said attacks instead.
This ends up making me angry at the fail state because I feel it is an external issue – poor game design is making me have to start over instead of me being at fault. Adding the run backs, respawning enemies, and a long load time just takes me even further out of the fun of the game because I’m repeating things that add no value to my gameplay experience and gives me more time to stew.
Similarly, I bounced off of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night very quickly because I died twice at the first boss and because of this triggered a fail state that made me have to go through a cut scene every time I wanted to retry the boss. It made me drop the game before I’d even put an hour into it because I was already frustrated and felt like the game was wasting my time.
(As a side note, Souls games are still on the chopping block as games with fail states. Sekiro, which came out this year, was singlehandedly one of the most rage-inducing titles From has created due to their fail states. I’ll briefly touch on this later.)
Now for the third point: games that give you the illusion of a fail state. First, let’s talk about Borderlands 3. Borderlands is a series based around gunplay, looting and killing things. But one of the most unique things about Borderlands is that there is no fail state. Yes, you can die. But as soon as you die, you’re respawned at the nearest checkpoint respawner thingamajig. You lose some of your money, but you’re thrown right back into the action. Yes, there may be a slight run back, but all the enemies you’ve cleared out stay cleared out. The only pause in the gameplay is self-controlled if you want to stop and replenish your ammo or leave the area to grind up your levels.
So dying is an illusion of failure. The game never tells you game over or jumps to a loading screen or segments off your progress. You’re always IN the game. And that’s a plus, because Borderlands cut-scenes are long and unskippable and it would be annoying to go through them over and over again. Dying ends up being a slight setback on your way to completing your objective, not a total mission failure.
You think Dedue is talking about Sylvain? Nah, he’s talking about game over screens.
In a similar vein, Fire Emblem: Three Houses also plays with fail states in a spectacular way. As I mentioned in my review, the power of Divine Pulse lets you rewind time at any point to any previous point in the battle, so if you lose a unit or make a critical strategical error you don’t have to restart the entire battle. In my 70+ hours of playing Three Houses, I never once got a game over or lost a battle completely due to this mechanic. Now is it possible to run out of Divine Pulses and actually lose a battle and have to start everything over? Yes. But the game gives you more than enough tools (and uses of Divine Pulse in the later game) to completely avoid it if you play your cards right and strategize.
This is yet another illusion of failure (granted it’s placed on top of a possible actual failure) because when you lose a critical unit, you’re given the chance to think about what happened and strategize on how you’re going to avoid making the same mistake twice. Much like how Dark Souls entangles death & learning, Three Houses uses a unit’s death to help you learn the best way to proceed and realize the mistakes you’re making in battle.
When I look at the games I’ve played so far this year, I’ve realized I’ve had more engaging fun with games that don’t have definitive fail states (untitled goose game, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Borderlands 3) versus games that do (Days Gone, Sekiro, Control). I’m starting to see a pattern. Even XCOM 2, a game that I love to death, has a malleable fail state: you can fail an objective but still be able to continue playing the overall game. Yes, the Avatar Project timer reaching critical does end the game permanently, but the fact that you can still keep going even when you lose soldiers (and outright blow full missions) is a huge plus for the game itself.
The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to realize I prefer games that either don’t have fail states, disguise them to the point that they don’t feel like fail states, or stretch them to the point that you have a multitude of chances to keep yourself in the game and away from failing.
If you know me, you know that I’ve avoided talking about one genre I love very, very much. The roguelike/roguelite genre. And if you know anything about the genre, you know its very existence is antithetical to my “no more fail states” crusade.
Roguelikes/roguelites are predicated on user dying. Your first run in a roguelike is almost guaranteed to end in failure. In fact, the times you fail in a roguelike are very likely to outnumber the times you “complete” a run. So why do I love this genre, a genre that expects you to fail, while I get super frustrated at Control and Sekiro?
Because dying in a roguelike run isn’t a fail state: it’s progression.
Similar to how Borderlands 3 looks like it has a fail state but is really just dumping you immediately back into the action, roguelike fail states are actually progression disguised by your death. In Dead Cells each run you’re collecting more cells to unlock new items, or outright finding new items as you explore each area. In Enter the Gungeon you can unlock new guns with each run and when you die you get a full stat screen about your playthrough. In Slay the Spire, the EXP you earn directly translates into new cards for your decks. Most importantly, you can immediately jump into a new game after your failure in all three of these examples. One particular run may have ended in failure, but the games are designed around these failures and encourage you to get right back into the game with some new abilities unlocked.
Roguelikes are designed from the ground up to incorporate death as not a failure, but as incremental progression. You get so familiar with both your items and what you’ll come across in a run that you have no trouble pushing through to the end and getting that dopamine rush of completing a successful run. Then you’re excited to do it again with a different character. That’s why I still love roguelikes – they don’t treat me dying as “you failed, time for a punishment.” Dying is “good try, you’ll get ’em next time.”
It took many tries and a half-year break, but I did eventually complete a successful Dead Cells run.
In Super Mario Bros, the game is designed around your lives and continues. If you die, you hit a minor fail state and start the level over (or from the midpoint). If you lose all your lives and continues, you trigger the major fail state and the entire game is over. That’s punishment. Arcade games were designed with fail states explicitly to draw more quarters out of kids who wanted to keep playing. More punishment – we’re going to take your money if you suck as Sub-Zero.
As game design changed, fail state design changed. When memory cards were abundant, so were save points. But if you died – time for your punishment, you’re going back to your last save point on your memory card. The idea of fail states doling out punishments persisted even as lives and continues started to fade away.
Now practically all games run on autosaves. Games will still use a checkpoint system, but having to manually save a game is nearly a relic of the past. Consoles now even have a suspend game function where you can put your console into standby and when you turn it back on you’ll be exactly where you were when you left. And games push completion times into the 40, 50, 60, 70 hour mark routinely. Games want you to always be moving forward, always progressing.
So why keep fail states that serve nothing but to punish you, make you feel bad, and add more time to a playthrough when time is your most precious resource?
The world of Control is built around the supernatural. What if the main character binds an object that allows her to rewind time? And when she “dies”, you’re rewound to the start of the current battle and she says something quippy? This keeps you in the game and also establishes a rule for what is happening in-universe. Katana Zero, a fast-paced game I played at PAX East, used something similar to this – the main character had precognition, and all your “deaths” when trying to complete a room are actually him looking forward and seeing the best way to complete his mission. Because of how quick everything goes and how the mechanic is directly supported in the game, there is once again only the illusion of a fail state as you’re never ripped out of the game.
And okay, I know Control has a lot of moving parts (and physics-based destruction) that makes a simple reset a lot harder to implement than a 2D sprite-based game like Katana Zero. And I know game development is a very tricky process that I’m mostly an outsider to. But the fact is the design of Control’s checkpoint system and use of fail states is fundamentally flawed and detracts from what is otherwise an unbelievably good game. Finding a way around that would do nothing but improve everyone’s experience.
Like Control, Sekiro was an experience I alternately loved and hated. Sekiro uses the typical Souls take on fail states – shrines that work as checkpoints that you return to each time you die. Unlike Dark Souls, one of Sekiro’s unique mechanics involves being able to bring yourself back to life after your first death. So in this way Sekiro muddles the idea of fail state even further. Unfortunately while the idea was novel, in practice the extra life rarely helped in the most frustrating parts. You could never lose aggro from bosses, and all the returning from death mechanic did was give you one or two more hits before you died again.
If the resurrection mechanic in Sekiro actually prolonged the fail state in a regularly useful manner, I would have been more in favor of the game. As it stands, Sekiro ends up being a very punishing game where the resurrection only occasionally comes into play when you’re fighting regular enemies. Bosses require you to get perfect parry timing down to the point that you shouldn’t need a resurrection when you win. It has the right idea for changing up fail states but ends up implementing them in a way that doesn’t actually make the game less frustrating.
Some games are meant to be challenging, but games can be challenging without taking you out of the game. Puzzle games like The Witness, Baba Is You, and Return of the Obra Dinn are some of the most challenging games I’ve played due to how much they make you think. I just think with how a lot of games are designed nowadays – with the idea that you’re going to be working through a story for 20-30 hours minimum – they should start coming up with intelligent ways to keep the player engaged without removing them from the game itself. Games like Fire Emblem and the untitled goose game have done it very well. I’m looking forward to see if a big game like, say, Death Stranding manages to do something unique with avoiding a true fail state.
So this has kind of been a rambling post. I ranted about fail states and how they take you out of the game. And I do believe that, like continues and lives, the game over screen can become a thing of the past in games. Stop giving the people playing your game punishments and start giving them opportunities to try again with new knowledge.