What’s Wrong With “Fail States”?

What’s wrong with the term fail state?

It’s attached to the definition of game for many people, and it doesn’t mean anything real, so it causes semantic fuckery when people try to argue about what constitutes a “fail state” and whether a given game has one.

So what counts as a “fail state”?

Here’s an obvious one most people will agree with, game over. Meaning you reset the whole game, do it over from the beginning. You’ve lost the entire game. It’s all over. Multiplayer games have this as well. You can see this in tetris, contra, street fighter, and a bunch of others. Kind of went the way of the dinosaur except for short games and multiplayer.

Slightly less clear but widely accepted is, “YOU DIED”, getting sent back to a checkpoint. This is in pretty much every game.

Less clear than that is getting sent back to a checkpoint without dying, like when you’re grabbed by a wallmaster in Zelda. I don’t think anyone would identify this as a fail state even though it’s functionally identical to the previous one.

Less clear than that is falling down a pit and needing to climb back up. Or getting hit by enemies or other setbacks.

Some people attempting to argue stupidly about the definition of games will attempt to say that gone home or journey have fail states by interpreting the smallest thing possible as a fail state. Then other people arguing stupidly about it (or the same people, being double dense) will try to argue that most games cannot be lost, since you never get a true game over and are only shunted back to checkpoints or save states. Also it can be pointed out games where you’re never shunted back at all (wario land 2) or which lack “win states” like Tetris. It’s a large measure of absurdity.

From a strict systems perspective, there’s no such thing as a fail state. States are unmarked, they just are what they are. More important than obsessing over the definition of fail state is just recognizing how all of the tools above can be used. Or more subtly than that, recognizing that they’re different ways of essentially teleporting the player around and setting certain world states in response to different interactions.

When you free yourself of the preconception of what things are, you’re capable of taking apart their components and rearranging them for different effect. You can question why we settled on shunting the player back if they get hit too much, and ask what other things you could have happen. You could try changing the relationship between what shunts them back. You could try shunting them to different places than strictly back. You can change what other variables and states of objects and entities in the world are affected during this shunting. You can change what triggers the shunting at all.

tl;dr: fail state is a weird term that doesn’t really describe anything and gets bandied around because people have misconceptions about how to define game.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t have fail states. Is it a video game?

This is why the term fail state is dumb. I mentioned Wario Land 2 as an example of a game that is like this already.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn stymies progress with obstacles that are extremely easy to overcome, but still may be subject to variable success and failure. You do not have perfect consistency and always get your way. You need to press buttons with timing and coordination, even if it’s absurdly easy. A game doesn’t have to kill you to create variable success and failure, and it’s possible to create much more difficult versions of this same concept than kirby’s epic yarn (wario land 2 being one such example).

And of course there is the other game in it of getting perfect scores on all the stages by collecting all the gems and never getting hit. So you can definitely at least say Kirby’s Epic Yarn contains a game that the creators intended you to play.

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