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What is a Failstate?

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Forum and discussion culture revolving around any topic seems to always include some amount of jargon and arguments regarding semantics. What is a game? What is the barest consistent definition, what does it include, exclude? When it comes to gaming, a regular way of classifying them centers around the idea of fail states and whether or not a game has them. I.e a walking simulator like Dear Esther is often considered not a game because the player can’t lose.

Lately I’ve seen more pushback on this conceptualization and I’m glad for that. Maybe arguing these kinds of things is less relevant than it was a few years ago, maybe people care less about how interactive media is defined, but the term failstate still appears with frequency and I’ve been thinking about it today.

The argument as I understand it goes, A game is defined by the ability to win or lose (in part), and while worthwhile media exists that doesn’t fit that criteria, those examples are not ‘games’, they are something else.

But this just has me wondering, within the scope of video games, what exactly even is a failstate?

Basically, it’s not achieving some kind of objective or goal. In most games this would mean that an enemy character depleted the player character’s life bar before the player defeats the enemy. Obviously it extends to all kinds of abstracted inputs the game wants the player to perform in the play space, a difficult platforming maneuver, a puzzle, stealth, etc etc. How can we abstract this down even further to its defining elements? If a game is an obstacle course that requires you to do X before you can get Y, not achieving X is the failstate. So basically, consequences? Not Y is the result of Not X. In order to Y, X.

Ok then, so what are consequences? In Dark Souls I die ten times to a boss before I am able to defeat them. What happens each time I die? I reload at the nearest bonfire/checkpoint and am expected to retry. What happens in Celeste when I mistime a tricky jump? In half a second I reappear at the left edge of the screen to try again. Both expect me to try again. All games expect you try again. So what was the consequence? Is death a failstate or just another mechanic?


Especially returning to Dark Souls, in my opinion, the game is designed with the expectation that the player will die and restart. It’s literally baked into the narrative. When you enter a boss arena for the first time you will have no idea what enemy will be waiting for you, what their moves and weaknesses will be. The fundamental game loop the designers made is one where you have no or incomplete knowledge on how to win and through the act of repeatedly trying you gain the information and skill to proceed. Dying is as much and as fundamental to what playing the game is, as succeeding and beating it is.

I guess what I am getting at is the idea that games by and large do not have failstates. The idea that Dear Esther is not a game because you can’t lose is not different to me than Dark Souls, where you basically can’t lose either, you can just be warped back endlessly to retry. The only failstate that exists at all is to stop playing the game. I know some indie games have incorporated systems of permadeath, but I think that unless such a system identified individuals and denied anyone from ever reinstalling, taking the controller from someone else, or some other super extreme mechanism, that’s not a failstate either. And such a game would probably not be very fun for the vast majority, where you get one try, ever, in your life.

I think the trend of games placing a higher priority on mass accessibility through toggle-able systems is a really good one. In Control you can just open up the options and scroll to the bottom and click the button to make your character invincible. To me this takes nothing away from the experience and doesn’t make it ‘not a game’ because being able to die, I.e. being able to be delayed and respawned forever, isn’t something that is core to what Control is to begin with. It’s a funhouse, it’s a theme park. All games are. If what some or most of the players enjoy engaging with is difficulty and being challenged and asked to master mechanics, that’s really cool and they should be able to play it that way too. But that specific subset of interactivity is not foundational to the essence of the concept of ‘game.’ Its a mechanic like any other.

I have vague connected thoughts like relating this to Sleep No More, an interactive theater piece in New York City, or the achievement in Stanley Parable you can only get by not playing the game for 5 years, basically making playing the game a failstate, but this is long enough. I’m sure a lot of smart people have good reasons they disagree. Let me know what you think.

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