The Game is Over: The Nature of Overt and Implied Failure States
The “game over” screen has long been an experience that every gamer is familiar with. This dreaded ending to a gaming session is the most widely used example of a failure state. In a way, failure states are inseparable from video games, and most traditional video games do not go very far beyond that familiar screen. However, as a mechanic they offer another element for games to tell a more compelling story and provide a better experience for the player. Exploring the nature of failure states can lead to using them in new and interesting ways, as some games on the market have done. The final say in any assessment of failure states in video games can be distilled down to a single question: is the use of the failure state appropriate to the context of the gameplay and the story? Any mechanic that is used in the video game must contribute to the experience as a whole.
David Cage, the mind behind such games as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, was quoted in an article by Joystiq as saying, “I've always felt that 'game over' is a state of failure more for the game designer than from the player.” Cage is specifically referring to story games here, claiming that it makes little sense to punish the player in such a manner. “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.," Cage elaborated. What he’s suggesting is that failure states in narrative driven games are actually subtracting from the overall experience. In this frame of mind, games that focused on a narrative experience should instead find alternative ways to deal with consequences.
One of the ways that Cage applies this perspective in Beyond: Two Souls is through alternative experiences in place of the more familiar “game over” screen. There is a situation in Beyond: Two Souls where the player must escape from the police; the expectation if the player is caught is that the screen fades to black and the player must attempt to succeed in escaping again. However, the failure to escape the police actually leads to an alternative path. This alternative path seems to be what Cage understands as a better way to facilitate player consequences. With this kind of mindset it would not be a stretch to think that the traditional failure states would fade from most games. However, this does cause some problems in some understandings of what video games require to be defined as video games.
David Cage’s understanding about the nature of failure states being negative to the player experience conflicts with another idea about the necessity of failure states in video games. John “TotalBiscuit” Bain argues that failure states are essential to the definition of video games; a failure state is one of the elements that differentiates video games from the recent phenomenon of virtual installations such as Dear Esther and Gone Home. The disparity here calls in to question the utility of the mechanic of failure states in video games, more specifically in narrative driven games. If failure states are essential to video games by definition, how can video games make better use of them as a mechanic?
In a video, Bain brings up the idea that failure states, while essential to video games, do not have to be obvious. This idea is getting to the notion of an implied failure state. Implied failure states are situations where the player has, through choice or action, excluded experience from the game. Such situations are more organic and less upfront about themselves as a mechanic. They can often happen without the player ever knowing. This kind of failure state is much different than the more traditional overt failure state. Overt failure states would be the typical “game over” screen, death state, or return to the checkpoint. The idea of the implied failure state actually rectifies the disparity between the two opinions. Beyond: Two Souls does not have traditional overt failure states. Implied failure states allow narrative games another mechanical component with which they can tell a compelling story.
When understanding implied failure states, it is important to consider how meaningful choice functions in games. In a way, implied failure states are inseparable from meaningful choices in video games. One of the easiest and most often implemented implied failure states is through implementing meaningful choice. If you’re given the option between going through the door on the right and the door on the left, with one choice excluding the experience of the other, then that involves an implied failure state. The player chose one and failed to choose the other, and thus excluded the other experience. A lot of video games have some kind of choice as a mechanic in gameplay, but not all choices are meaningful. Meaningful choice, in the case of narrative, is any choice that significantly alters the experience for the player. Video games can take advantage of the nature of implied failure states when it comes to choice to make the actions of the player more meaningful. That way the player can actually see the effect they are having on the game. Implementing this kind of mechanic can create a more organic narrative for the player to participate in.
The Stanley Parable uses the player's expectation of an overt failure state in order to tell its story. If the game is played to the dictation of the narrator, then the game becomes a story of mind control and questions free will. However, the game is dependent on the choices made by the player. The player can choose to ignore the narrator and go through doors and take actions as they see fit. Each choice excludes experience, and is thus an implied failure state. The game gives the player the choice of certain paths, but specifically tells the player to chose certain routes over others. Here, overt failures states are used more as an implied deterrent than an actual game mechanic. The game seems to want the player to realize that there is no actual reason to follow the directions, other than for the sake of following directions. It reminds us of so many games that have scripted beginnings; it seems like we don’t have much choice in the matter. The Stanley Parable uses the mechanic of failure states to enhance its story and examine the expectations of the player.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead makes use of both overt and implied failure states. One of the main mechanics in the game is choice. The player is most often given the choice in dialogue, and the way in which the player approaches a conversation can affect the game going forward. The player often has to navigate a dialogue tree in order to try and avoid conflicts, or lend their opinion about what should be done next. The game being set in a zombie apocalypse means that every decision counts and could lead to either a small victory towards salvation or extinction; decisions are made important by context. With the overt failure state around every corner, the decisions the player makes are even more important. The Walking Dead is an example of how overt and implied failure states are used in coalition to create the compelling experience of trying to survive in the zombie apocalypse
The choices in The Walking Dead matter because, depending on the actions of the player, the story itself can change. Characters can live or die, and the player can be in better or worse situations, depending on the choices made earlier in the game. Meaningful decisions in games are choices that actually affect the experience in some significant way. The game also contains overt failure states should you or your party fall to any of the zombie hordes. Death is especially important in survival games because it creates a sense of tension in the player and compels them to try and survive. Using failure states in this way is not the only method of taking advantage of the nature of failure states, however. Some games comment on the nature of video games as a whole by toying with player expectation of failure states.
In Life is Strange, there is a time manipulation mechanic, with which the player can chose to turn back the clock. In most cases, the situations in which the player can turn back the clock involve implied failure states that are brought on by meaningful choice. In other cases, it is as simple as changing a conversation based on information that you uncovered with the help of your abilities. Each resolution will have its own consequences, but the player is allowed to choose after seeing the initial consequences, unlike The Walking Dead, which gives no option to reverse bad decisions. The time travel mechanic also helps with the immersion of the game. When the player encounters an overt failure state, the mechanic of time travel is used to smooth the transition back in time to a place where the player can make another attempt. This is a much more organic way to facilitate player failure since going back in time to a previous checkpoint is a part of the game’s context.
Many other titles also experiment with nontraditional or modified failure states in other ways. The time travel mechanic was also implemented in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which heavily focused on 3D platforming, acrobatics and combat. It utilized the time travel mechanic in a way that allowed the player to avoid failure states from falling to death or coming close to death from enemy combat, which allowed gameplay to flow better. Failure states in this case would have caused the gameplay to stop and start far too much. A game that is focused on platforming and combat benefits from the player being able to flow through movements smoothly.
Understanding the nature of mechanics can help to inform the design of games in the future. Failure states are a relatively simple mechanic that are often left as such. However, overt and implied failure states can be used to a much greater effect in creating a more compelling experience for the player. More video games could benefit from using failure states to their advantage, rather than just using them in a traditional sense.