Please insert coins to continue

What is a fail state in video games? Is it when the screen fades to black and you have to press a button to continue or to reload at the last checkpoint? Is that point of death in Braid where the screen goes grey after jumping into spikes and you have to rewind time, is that too a fail state? It certainly is much more of a soft one than the others and quite literally sends you back to the moment before you jumped. I’ve recently been going through the excellent episodic series Life is Strange, a game too that is light on fail states and uses it’s time manipulation mechanic to undo them. But it also uses failure of that mechanic, the ability of the character Max, to emphasise key story beats where failure is an unfortunate, potential, consequence. Ultimately that is what fail states and their various incarnations are used as signifiers for, consequence, you didn’t kill the dragon, try again from back here, the way in which they are implemented and their punishing nature can very much change the entire dynamics of the game.

Do then all video games need fail states? Does the nature of choice inherent in a game, even a relativity linear one like the Uncharted series, require failure as a sort of test of engagement? There are certainly games, like the Mario series, that have a larger overarching sort of failure counter that seems to only hang around for legacy reasons as running out of lives in such a game is a non-trivial task. Failure ultimately is one of the near consistent aspects of video games, whether it’s baked into the design itself or whether the player quits before the end (assuming it has an end) there are rare counterexamples but the removal of a failure state requires also removing far more choice from the player than should be expected for an heavily interactive medium like games.

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