Game-mantics: Health (Entry #1 — Failure State)
One can learn only so much in one’s lifetime. Philosophically speaking, one will never learn everything that there is to learn. Thankfully, video games provide additional lives to help us learn.
Dying in a video game is a trivial matter. Didn’t make the jump over the death pit? Dead. Didn’t dodge a one-hit kill attack from an enemy NPC? Dead. Made a wrong choice in a visual novel? Dead.
By dying, one learns how a dangerous situation looks like and provides them with information that will let them succeed. Now the player knows how high their jump needs to be, where they shouldn’t be in a pattern of coordinated attacks, what choice to make given the opportunity to answer the same question again.
Failure state is not necessary for a game to be called a game but when it is present failing becomes part of teaching the player how to play the game. Players can make “mistakes” in any type of games but only in games with failure states their “mistakes” are highlighted. Truly, if there is no “mistake” highlighted it means that no “mistake” was made.
However, “failing” the player constantly won’t make them learn the game and will probably be a cause of frustration. It is almost impossible to learn anything if you are only shown your mistakes and not celebrated when you are victorious. Akin to teaching a language, game design cannot be expecting the player to know how to play the game from the get-go. Systems are to be taught by limited exposure and with space to make mistakes without being penalized.
In the early history of video games, fail states were used as a way to get money from players in arcades. Many games got to be designed around the idea of players spending more coin to try again. Even if the game was partially designed around teaching the player, the main focus was to make it so players spent money on playing the game while making them rewarding enough for players to want to continue playing.
Nowadays, a failure state could be seen as an homage to those old games. It persists in many games to this day even when it is not necessary. In a way, a failure state became a cultural pillar that was set in stone by the society. If a software program has a failure state, it is deemed to be a game.
Although, one needs to define “failure” in this instance. Does making a typo in a text editor count as a “failure”? If so, would it make a text editor technically a game? Not everything that has a failure state is a game, not everything that is a game has a failure state.
In the end, failure state is a great teaching tool and a bad habit of video games.
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