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Fail Forward is bad for gaming

OK, let’s get the semantics out of the way first.

In this essay, I’ll try to make the case that’s strong enough for an unusually broad definition of Fail Forward and “gaming”.

By Fail Forward, I’m not just gonna include “success, but at a cost or with complications or with stuff happening” which is how I usually think of Fail Forward. I’m gonna also include “they get there, but they had to take a different route”.

By gaming, I’m not gonna limit gaming to Maro’s four traits (goals, restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance). Instead, I’m gonna use a definition of gaming that’s broad enough to encompass all processes meant to determine the outcome of something. I’m not just talking about player skill games like chess or baduk here, or games with a mix like Uno or Rummy. A game can be 100% stochastic like Bingo, Candy Land or Snakes & Ladders and I’m still going to argue that Fail Forward is bad. Or it can be a 100% story telling activity like Rory’s Story Cubes and I’m still gonna make the same case.

Maybe the one place I’m narrowing the definition is gonna be for the word “bad”. I mean “counterproductive”. If you’re using eighties slang and think bad is good, then this essay isn’t gonna fly with that.

Now, the reason I’m laying all this out here before we start is that through the life-changing magic of semantics, people are gonna be able to argue anything by having a different definition of words. “Cigarettes are healthy because by cigarettes I mean carrots and by healthy I mean that I buy them by the pound.”

For example, if your definition of Fail Forward is even broader than my already broadened definition and yours include “They didn’t get there, so they had to go someplace entirely different, but they kept going, the campaign didn’t come to a screeching halt”, a lot of the arguments I’m gonna use does not apply. I still think some games are also know that some don’t.

Or, if your definition of gaming includes things like rereading a favorite novel or rewatching a movie, even a movie like The Rocky Horror Picture Show with some participatory elements. Good for you, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The core of the argument is right here, folks. I’m talking about games where you play to find out what happens. A process for finding outcomes is hindered by a mechanic leading you towards pre-set outcomes.

Now, I’m not saying 100% incompatible, paradoxical, impossible, unbelievable. I said “bad for”, not “no one has ever managed to do it”. I’m saying hindered by, obstructed by, made more difficult by. Most games that use Fail Forward doesn’t make the entire game a Fail Forward.

For example, the games might have the participants use some other mechanics (such as the players choosing where to go) to determine one class of outcomes, and then add Fail Forward mechanics onto those routes as an additional spice or to create more grist for the story mill.

The original Super Mario Bros for the NES has an example like that, when you climb a beanstalk to heaven to collect coins. You can’t really fail or fall or be harmed or lose anything, it’s a breather from the game’s stakes & tension, while the amount of coins you collect can have an affect on the rest of the game. You still have agency and even skill input (you can try to collect all the coins, for example) but there’s no “failure state”. Same goes for some similar coin rooms underground. But the rest of the game isn’t based on Fail Forward. Even though the game only scrolls right, there’s different routes you can take. You can go to the water world or the ice world. You can find the princess or you can get eaten by a beetle and die. They managed to make a game with a few Fail Forward elements and they even managed to make those elements add to the game by providing a breather for a ludonarrative tension / release curve.

That’s a far cry from the 90s / early 00s indie RPG infatuation with Fail Forward everywhere in everything.

It’s great that we have mechanics that introduce unexpected costs, complications, inconvenciences. I’ve been singing the praises of random encounter tables, for example, and that doesn’t have to be the only way. However, tying those event-grist mechanics to character attempts or exertions is a complete non sequitur.

“I’m gonna pick the lock.”
“OK, roll to see if you did it.”
“I failed.”
“OK, no, actually, you do succeed but you hear guards coming, what do you do?”

Not into it!

Again, I’m not saying it’s not possible. A lot of games are set up like how that example just played out. I’m just saying it destroys the joy of having different possible outcomes.

Fail forward is a railroading tool.

“This is going to be the story of how the characters stole a gem from a safe in an 30-story skyscraper.”

That’s not a game. This is a game:

“There’s a gem in a safe in a 30-story skyscraper and your characters want that gem. OK let’s kick this off, 3-2-1 let’s jam—anything can happen!”