For as long as I can remember, people have naturally accepted that games must always have some kind of failure state.
If you take a fireball to the face in Mario, you die. If you get bit by a dog in Contra, you die. Run out of lives and it’s game over. You have to restart the level, or world, or sometimes the entire game.. The punishment for not doing well in a game is dying, and many people will measure a game’s worth by how often it made them die and go back to a checkpoint. For as long as there have been games, there have been deaths, game overs, and fail states.
So why is this?
People have said that the threat of failure is what makes a video game a game, but I’d disagree. For me, the more important defining aspect of a game is the interactivity. Whether or not you are able to fail doesn’t define a game for me. And in fact, I’d argue that insisting games must always have a fail state simply serves to hold games back.
There have been plenty of games which have experimented with not having a fail state before. Most notably the Lego games, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn. In both cases some people have disregarded them as “kids games” and “not worth my time.” But is this really true? Is Kirby’s Epic Yarn really any less fun or well made, due to the fact that you can’t die? The levels in Epic Yarn are well designed, interesting, and bursting with life. The bosses are mechanically interesting and quite enjoyable. You are still punished for failing in the form of losing beads for getting hit, Sonic-style.
The game doesn’t simply let the player stroll through the levels unchallenged, and there is still plenty of challenge in finding all the game’s hidden items. So why is it that this is considered any less of a game, or looked down upon, for not letting the player die? Why do we assume that being able to die immediately makes the game better?
Failure states also present a problem when you don’t really want to devote your attention to a game. I have often found myself in situations where I’ve wanted to play a game, but felt too tired to do so. Any other form of media, I can consume even when tired. Reading takes some amount of effort (but only in the form of reading the words and turning the pages), but movies or TV shows take no effort on the part of the viewer. There is no prerequisite, no involvement, no challenge in watching a movie. You simply start it up and watch it.
But with games, there is a constant pressure put on the player to do well and not die. You cannot simply load up a game and screw around without worrying about dying. There is always a threat, always a requirement, always a task you must successfully overcome without dying. If you are too tired to play a game and give it your full attention, you run the risk of being unable to progress in the game without dying.
This also becomes a problem when going back to older games. Games which people often consider classics oftentimes don’t age as well as one would like. A prime example being Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I love Sands of Time. It’s one of my all-time favorite PS2 games. But going back to it is often a painful experience, due to how finicky the controls can be, how bad the combat is, and how much it sucks to run out of sand and have to start a section over. Dying over and over because the game has bad controls/combat is not fun, and only serves to frustrate you.
Before anybody suggests otherwise, I’m not saying all games need to do away with failure states. There are games that would not feel complete without them. But the insistence that all games must have failure states/death is regressive and close-minded. A game can still be fun and present the player with a challenge without necessarily forcing the player to replay a section over and over, or worry about how many lives they have, or keeping an eye on their health. The ability to die is not what makes a game fun.
Video games can be many things. This is a medium which presents near-endless possibilities and which allows they developers even greater creative freedom than movies or books. So why do we shackle it and insist that games must be a certain way, or have to be a certain thing?