All Hail No Fail

I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that I want to completely turn off failure in games.

(To make this explicit right at the beginning: I am talking about my own experiences. Other people have different experiences, desires, priorities, and so on. This is normal and good.)

Consider Rock Band: missing individual notes is technically failure of a sort, but you can keep playing unless you miss too many and fail the song. At that point, you’ve triggered a binary failure mode which is recognized and punished: to keep going, you now have to restart the song completely. However, you can avoid this by turning on “No Fail” mode. With that mode active, you can still miss individual notes but you can’t fail a song and will never get kicked out of one.

That’s the kind of “turn off failure” I’m talking about: not a “win” button, but opting out of punished binary failure modes.

I’ve said before that every game should have a No Fail mode, and now I’m at the point where think I would turn it on in just about every game if I could.

Here’s why.

I don’t want a sense of accomplishment from a game.

One of the most common reasons people cite for wanting games to have failure modes is how satisfying it can be to come back from repeated defeat and finally overcome a tough challenge. That feeling is real and I’ve absolutely been into it in the past. But I’m not interested in getting that from games anymore and in fact view it as a trap that would trick me into filling my need for accomplishment through easier but valueless in-game achievement instead of doing harder things with real-world impact.

Not everyone’s wired like me. But I’ve used games in unhealthy ways in the past (and been leery of others) and I am always aware that many games are deliberately designed to encourage these behaviors and that I am not immune to their tactics. And though I know not everyone is vulnerable in the ways I am, I fear that there are people who are vulnerable and don’t realize it, because I know that I didn’t always recognize my own vulnerability.

A sense of real accomplishment from a game is not a selling point for me. It’s a giant red flag. And once that’s no longer a motivator, failure modes lose a lot of their appeal as well.

I don’t want mastery challenges.

One of the other functions of punished failure modes is to set the scope of challenges, and in particular to turn “learning” challenges into “mastery” challenges by requiring a higher level of consistency and endurance. A player who is still learning how to use their plastic guitar can practice by muddling through a tough Rock Band song on “No Fail” mode; without that mode they cannot beat the song until they have largely mastered their instrument.

As a corollary to wanting to avoid a sense of accomplishment in games, I want to avoid mastery challenges and would rather master real-life skills. I do enjoy learning challenges since I find novel mechanics or applications engaging and fun. I like when a game shows me something clever and new that broadens my mental model of its world and invites me to playfully experiment with it. I am much less interested in being blocked off from the game’s other fun surprises until it decides I’ve done a good enough job with the current one.

If I did play games for a sense of accomplishment, I’d mind this less. After all, this is how a game ensures that players get that experience. But since that’s not why I’m playing, this approach just turns a toybox into a series of exams. And since I don’t have anything to prove, I find that far less appealing.

Failure messes with tension and pacing.

Another common defense of failure modes is that they mean you have to pay attention and try hard, which can make the gameplay more engaging. The risk of failure and thus punishment creates a pleasing level of tension.

I’ve written about a few ways this can go wrong when used for the wrong kind of challenge or for people who process tension differently than the designers expected. But the other thing that’s always bothered me about this is that it replaces intrinsic tension with extrinsic tension.

I suspect this is also a personal difference thing because I’ve absolutely heard some people say that the fear of losing in-game progress is a good way to create stakes and make an in-game challenge feel meaningful, but to me it often has the opposite effect. The emotional response it triggers in me is to take me out of the game’s world since the failure and punishment are not part of the fiction (Prince of Persia (2008) notwithstanding). The threat of rewinding progress and replaying a level or encounter breaks flow and reminds me that I am playing a video game with no real stakes. Repeating segments of content completely deflates the carefully-placed pacing and emotional cues along the way (especially when you can’t skip them).

As a point of comparison: When I’m reading, sometimes my mind wanders and I realize I’ve basically just skipped a couple sentences. What if when that happened, I was forced to go back two pages instead of just rereading those sentences? And what if this was somehow more likely to happen at the most climactic moments of what I was reading? I’m pretty sure all that careful narrative buildup and immersion would be destroyed immediately.

Failure puts up walls.

Many games have a variety of types of content and challenge, and sometimes players are lured in by some of what the game offers and then find their access to it blocked off by things that they don’t care about or actively dislike.

I’ve written about hypothetical players buying Wandersong for its story and being unable to pass its stealth and platforming challenges and about the lack of No Fail mode in Dragon Age: Inquisition meaning that Allie could be blocked from the story and characters by a combat system (and related systems) that she found unappealing. But it’s happened to me, too. Multiple times.

I was drawn to Catherine for the story and its visual novel sections but found myself unable to beat its mechanically-unrelated block-sliding-and-climbing puzzles and only completed the game because a friend did them for me. If I could have turned on a No Fail mode, I’d have been able to finish the game regardless.

I was lured in to Horace by its story and art and enjoyed its very gentle first hour until suddenly it became a demanding precision platformer with tough boss fights. Losing repeatedly to an early boss was frustrating enough that I rage-quit the game. If I could have turned on a No Fail mode, I would have persevered and seen the rest of the story, which is what I did do with Celeste.

I loved CrossCode’s characters, story, and themes but found that its other experiences were highly challenging in ways I often found unappealing. These other aspects are not skippable and the game’s assist mode does not go all the way to a No Fail option, so I actually rage-quit multiple times before coming back and finishing. It’s the most frustrated I have ever been by a game that I ended up beating, and despite the fact that I have to call it a good game overall I kind of hate the idea of ever playing it again.

I’d much rather not risk this kind of thing and just know that I won’t need to bash my head against something I don’t like to get to the part that I do like. In the absence of No Fail mode (or the ability to create one) that mostly steers me away from games entirely.

Failure punishes playful exploration and experimentation.

One of my ironclad rules of game design is that games should never punish exploration. I don’t think that’s the intent for most punished failure modes, but it’s a common side effect.

In Final Fantasy V Advance, I found an optional dungeon that had level-appropriate battles and treasures but ended in an unmarked difficulty-spike boss fight that totally wrecked me. Game over; I lost all the progress since my last save, which was before I’d gone into the dungeon (there hadn’t been a save point within the dungeon). The game taught me that curious exploration might lead to things like sudden boss fights I had no way to anticipate or prepare for and which would result in burning half an hour of my time. I was no longer interested in exploring its world and I stopped playing.

These sorts of scenarios, where an individual challenge can wipe out your progress from earlier challenges, increases the risk of each individual challenge in a way that can suck all the fun out of exploration and experimentation. Finding an optional challenge is exciting and fun if it means an opportunity to play with the toys offered by the game in a new way and increase your skills; I find it much less so if I expect the game to punish me for trying things I’m not yet expert in by destroying unrelated progress and disrupting attempts to learn. It creates a perverse incentive that encourages the player to play it safe rather than engage deeply with the game’s systems.

With a No Fail mode in place, I don’t have to make these trade-offs. I can freely explore and experiment without doing a risk calculation as to whether playing with this new toy might result in me having to redo several minutes of other progress. I can just have fun.

Lately, when I hit one of these punished binary failure modes in a game, I ask myself, “Did this failure improve my experience of playing this game?” The answer is always, “No; it just got in the way of that experience,” for all the reasons above.

I don’t want to worry about not being able to enjoy my entertainment product. I want that enjoyment to be as inevitable as it would be for a book or a movie. Dying and resetting to distant checkpoints, running out of lives and getting kicked out of a level, or anything that ends in a “GAME OVER” screen–these are all just time-wasting and flow-destroying interruptions for me.

I’m ready for a No Fail mode in every game.