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Putting an end to fail states

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Welcome to The Level Grind, a column hell-bent on asking questions about video game design from the gamer's perspective. This week we examine scary games, in celebration of Halloween!

Linear storytelling isn't inherently a bad thing. Some of my favorite games of this generation have stories that abandon the ability to make your own choices. Half-Life 2, Dead Space, Assassin's Creed 2 are all, primarily, focused on telling a specific tale.

But something has emerged out of telling specific stories that has altered my perception of lack of choice: linear gameplay.

Linear gameplay builds walls in front of my enjoyment when it employs fail state situations. These issues occur most frequently when players run into the classic "Game Over" screen or booted back to a retry menu for not completing tasks exactly as the designers intended.

Games like Heavy Rain and Mark of the Ninja (and others) get it right. Accomplished or failed tasks aren't requirements for progression; those outcomes branch off and create different gameplay experiences. The story changes in some cases, or the challenge scales based on these moments. We're left with a feeling that we've affected the world as a resident, rather than interrupted it as a visitor.

For years, the stealth genre was guilty of this offense, restarting levels because a player was seen or heard. Action games have employed this method of gameplay linearity with quick-time events for a number of years, as well. Fail at pressing a button at the right moment and Leon Kennedy was crushed by a boulder!

Few and far between, these moments don't completely hinder the enjoyment of a game, but some games are so lazy in the use of these concepts that it completely turns me off toward completing the adventure: world on the brink of disaster be damned, I say.

The worst offender in recent memory is Battlefield 3. On multiple occasions during the game's single-player campaign, players will die for not activating quick-time events. While in most games (and even early in BF3) failing these events is followed by a gameplay snippet that shows your character dying, in one particular instance in the game your character will just fall over and pass away for no reason for not killing an enemy when told to do so.

The poor-quality video above showcases this moment, revealing a soldier so embarrassed he didn't press the melee button fast enough that he falls over and dies of shame. Or who can forget that time Spider-Man fell on his face and died in a fire, as seen below?

Assassin's Creed 3 and Liberation both have moments like these as well, some ending the level and others ruining perfect "synchronization." The "real" Connor wasn't spotted when he did this, so you are not worthy of bonus points, the game seems to yell during these spots.

It's nonsense, and has absolutely nothing to do with game difficulty or skill. Someone may claim to be the "best" first-person shooter player in the world, but I don't know many that claim to be the best at "hitting those buttons when I'm told to." That is a brag worthy only of Simon.

Dedicated stealth games have grown out of this, for the most part. Splinter Cell Conviction doesn't reload when you're spotted, you are given the chance to fight your way out. Dishonored is another great example, allowing players to approach any situation in the way they prefer.

I'm tired of being ripped out of the moment because I didn't follow a carefully crafted plan. Fail states are something we need to grow out of in all genres. Either games can branch based on our gameplay, or these moments need to be removed completely. It doesn't matter how great the destruction of a world looks from my character's perspective as he or she jumps through hoops to make it to the end of a corridor when I need to stop to try again for pressing the wrong button. Not only does that kill my character, it kills my enjoyment.

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