The other day, my friend told me about an in-progress video game snafu that he could neither confirm nor deny had happened at all. He advised me that he may have launched an in-game satellite without any accompanying means to communicate with it. Since a lonely satellite that cannot send information back to Earth is effectively space junk, this would be a problem if it had happened. Of course, he could neither confirm nor deny whether he had launched virtual space junk. We may never know the answer to whether this video game fail occurred.

(Updates: I reorganized this article on July 20, 2022, moving the featured image down a level and removing the first-level heading. This article is otherwise unchanged from its original publication – references to specific times (e.g., “the other day” refer to the same days that they did when this article was originally published. I published a spirtual successor to this post in June 2022. I now present the content as it appeared in 2020.)

A Fire Emblem Video Game Snafu, Fail, or Nothing of the Sort

Later that same day, I sat down to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses, for Nintendo Switch. Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy game wherein the player moves his or her military units around a map before the computer-controlled enemy moves its units. I play on the highest difficulty setting with permanent death enabled, meaning that in order to not lose any of my units, I must either restart the level if I make a mistake or use one of my limited charges to turn back time.

While I usually choose my moves carefully – as evinced by the fact that I am now on the final stage of a 100-plus hour campaign, I am not infallible. I thought back to my friend’s space junk incident when, in my zeal to eliminate a very annoying mage manning a magical ballista, I may have inadvertently sent my dragon-mounted archer unit within range of “Death Knight,” one of the two boss enemies on the map.

Close up photograph of a TV showing Death Knight in Fire Emblem Three Houses.
I took this life-action photo from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, with by BlackBerry Classic at about midnight on July 24, 2020. Victor edited the photo for publication. Pictured is Death Knight, shortly before he may or may not have taken advantage of my grave error, if I made any error at all, that is. I asked Victor, who has never played Fire Emblem, if I was wrong to find Death Knight a little bit endearing. Victor replied: “I think he has a softer side.”

If this did indeed happen, you can imagine that leaving any of your units within range of a skull-masked, horse-mounted, scythe-wielding gentleman who goes by Death Knight might be inadvisable. One may even go as far as to say that it would qualify as a video game snafu. But as they say, things happen – unless they did not happen at all, that is.

Before continuing, I should note that even if I did leave my unit to fall, it mattered not. For having discovered the turn on which enemy reinforcements appeared, I would have restarted the stage entirely and proceeded with a careful strategy to work through the map and safely eliminate Death Knight and clear the other battle objectives.

Eureka! A New Way to Treat the Video Game Snafu or Fail in Strategy Guides

The combination of my friend’s story or non-story and my own experience later that day, which may or may not have occurred, sparked in me a eureka moment.

Now, back in my day, the internet was not ubiquitous, especially for kids. For that reason, I often studied video game strategy guides from publishers such as Prima Games and Brady Games, which now apparently coexist under the Penguin Random House umbrella. These days, I prefer to work through games on my own, and, if I need to know something, I can easily find it with a quick search on DuckDuckGo. But it suffices to say that I have extensive experience with both paper and online strategy guides.

Normally, strategy guides attempt to keep players from error. That is, they tell the player what he or she needs to know in order to make game-play as smooth as possible. For example – and just an example that does not necessarily relate to real life – a strategy guide may have told me that even if I eliminated that one mage manning a ballista before turn three – the three Pegasus knights and one monster would have appeared at the south gate anyway, contrary to the game’s suggestion at the start of the battle. Thus, the key was to get all of your units out of their range, not to eliminate that one strong-hold before turn three. Had I known this, perhaps I would have not, in that one instance of a video game snafu, have accidentally left my unit within range of the Death Knight’s scythe. Of course, this is just an example and I cannot confirm that it ever happened.

A New Way Forward for Video Game Strategy Guides

Is saving players from committing a dramatic video game snafu or fail the best approach for a strategy guide? These experiences led me to believe that perhaps it is not. There is an oft-used saying that one should learn from his or her own mistakes. Also oft-cited is the idea that one should learn things hands-on, through trial and error. It is for this reason, I presume, that schools insist on having science “labs” in addition to teaching students through books and lectures.

Now, follow me here. If one should take a hands-on approach to learning and one should learn from his or her own mistakes, is it not best for one to make all the mistakes that he or she should learn from on his or her own? It is said that he who does not know history is doomed to repeat it. Can there be any better way to know history than to be the subject of the historian’s pen? I think not.

Having followed me this far, and surely being convinced beyond any doubt, you might be thinking that all video game strategy guides should be banned. But why go to such an extreme? What if, instead of banning video game strategy guides, we instead used them to deliver players to error before delivering them to victory.

Examples of Teaching Through Leading Players to Video Game Snafu

Below, I will offer two examples touting the benefits of teaching video game players how to fail spectacularly in strategy guides.

Example One: The Lonely Satellite Failure

Consider the first example. A video game strategy guide offers a series of steps for launching a virtual satellite. The steps omit one crucial step – providing for a means to communicate with said satellite after launching it. You obediently follow the steps given and then realize that you cannot communicate with the satellite that you just launched. In a panic, you return to the guide, only to confirm that you followed all the steps perfectly. You then turn to the next page to find that he or she followed the steps to a letter. What a relief! The guide explains what happened to the player: “We just showed you the steps to failing just like we did. Now that you have replicated our video game satellite snafu, you will remember what you did, and what you should never do again, better than if we had just warned you in the first place. Please, you’re very welcome.”

Example Two: The Death by Death Knight Failure

Now take a second case. A game strategy guide informs you that, just as the game told you at the start of the battle, clearing three enemy ballista positions will prevent enemy reinforcements from appearing. While two positions are very easy to capture within two or three turns, the third position is well-guarded, and will require taking some risk to clear. Now, move your most mobile unit to this spot and take out the ballista. After following the guide, your mouth drops in horror as Death Knight, who only moves when a unit steps into his range, leaves his pedestal to eliminate your mobile artillery unit in one vicious attack.

You look back in the guide, only to find that you followed the directions to the letter. When you turn to the next page, you discover that you followed the precise course the guide charted for you: “We must reveal two things to you. First, we told you to move into range of Death Knight unnecessarily. In case you did not already figure it out from the previous four or five times you encountered Death Knight earlier in the game, you should never, ever, let Death Knight attack you. Second, we intentionally omitted that even if you clear all the reinforcement positions, the first set of reinforcements will always appear on turn three. Since you probably thought they would not, you may as well just start over and design your strategy around making sure that your more fragile units are out of range of the turn-three reinforcements. You are very welcome.”

Lessons Learned From the Best Bad Advice

In both of the above examples, the proposed strategy guide puts the player on the path to video game snafu and laughable failure. In the second case, the strategy guide declines to clarify something that the game itself did not explain in a clear way. But in both cases, one cannot deny that the player would learn much from being put on the path to failure.

In the first case, is it not more likely that the player who launched a lonely virtual satellite would be more likely to never do it again than the player who only followed instructions on how not to do it? In the second case, is it not more likely that the player would subsequently be even more cognizant of Death Knight’s range of movement than the player who never accidentally left a beloved unit in the zone of death?

Furthermore, the second lesson teaches players to not trust what a game itself tells them. In the case of younger players, I think video games can provide a healthy lesson about how it is important to trust nothing and no one. Just because the boss character strongly suggests that reinforcements will not arrive if you clear all of the strongholds does not necessarily mean that no reinforcements will arrive?

Plato had Socrates argue with the utmost sincerity in Lesser Hippias that the voluntary liar is better than the involuntary liar. Clearly, Socrates was not making a questionable argument for mere sport against an over-confident interlocutor; he was foreshadowing an argument about teaching people how to best learn video game strategy that would not find its genesis for more than two millennia. Bravo, Plato.

Teaching Failure, Learning Failure: Final Thoughts

Having spent this article touting the possible benefits of teaching people how to fail at something, it would be negligent of me to fail to acknowledge that those who turn to strategy guides to get through a difficult spot in a game may simply be looking for a solution to their problem. Perhaps, for example, it is because they have already perpetrated every sort of video game snafu in their current situation that they turn to a guide to save them from error. Furthermore, it is possible that some players use guides to obtain different views about strategy as they perfect their own. Although I am loath to concede as much after my epiphany, I suppose there is still a place for strategy guides that provide correct guidance.

There is much to be said, though, for trying to get through a difficult spot in a game on one’s own in the first instance before turning to external guidance. While launching a lonely satellite, being ambushed by reinforcements, or losing an ill-placed unit to Death Knight may be a bit annoying at the time, in addition to being instructive, such snafus and assorted failures are often among the most memorable video game experiences. Perhaps the memories are not always as pleasant as enjoying coffee with the virtual family, but they are memories all the same.