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Avatar ImageGaming To Die For
By: | March 30th, 2009
Exclusive |Feature

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After finally getting around to completing Prince of Persia this weekend, it led me to ponder on player death in video games. For those of you who have played, or read about the game, you will know that in Prince of Persia the player is unable to die. Mis-timing jumps will result in your AI partner diving in to rescue you and mis-played combat will see her doing the same, allowing your enemy time to heal as she does so. So how important is this whole death thing, and is it an essential component of gaming?

Did the lack of death detract from my enjoyment of the game? Would I have preferred spending 25% of my time watching a loading screen as my Xbox searches for my last save? Am I fooling anyone that I only died enough to spend 25% of my time at a loading screen? I guess the answer to all of them is ‘no’, unless you think I can actually play games well, then it is a ‘yes’ and two ‘no’s. Taking the emphasis out of survival, the game became much more based upon skill and timing, allowing for much more elaborate level design.

If you compare the game to something like Tomb Raider, in which you are able to do similar running, jumping and climbing maneuvers, the shift in the level design emphasis is clearly apparent, and this shift makes Prince of Persia the better game in my opinion. However, that is just one aspect of the game, the other is not executed quite as well. The other aspect is combat. The elements of skill and timing seem to be forgotten here and instead you are given a lackluster sword fighting event, which with or without the risks of death is particularly boring.

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To reset, or not to reset to eliminate this scar?

Fable 2 is another game that chooses to take death out of the game play equation, instead offering a loss of all uncollected experience and an unattractive scar. Is this removal a step too far, or simply a re-imagining of a step that is taken throughout games across all genres? Is the loading of a checkpoint and the loss of a few minutes of game play in Gears of War 2 or Dead Space really a death to be scared of? Some games have eliminated the possibility of dying from the game altogether, and it hasn’t seemed to harm their reputation in the eyes of the hardcore gamer if Day of the Tentacle is anything to go by.

The idea that a game needs to contain death to be challenging is redundant, but what about fear? Can a game that has no mortal consequences really create that shiver down your spine that has you demanding the light switch be left on whilst you play? A game that removed almost all consequences of death is Bioshock. As each death saw you emerge healthy and happy from a nearby Cryo-Stasis tube with the only consequence being that you may have to walk to where you died.

This game creates a world, and in this world creates an atmosphere, filled with terrifying sounds and sights that actually had me pressing pause to tell myself that everything was going to be okay. Any absence of consequences of mortality were forgotten due to a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Death in most games isn’t a fear, it’s an inconvenience.

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He's so rich, he can AFFORD to die

World of Warcraft never had me worry about my chubby little Dwarven Paladin, only his repair bill. Final Fantasy never had me hope Zell would make it through the fight, only that I had saved it recently. The list goes on, so why do gamers yearn for a mechanic that is little more than an inconvenience? A mechanic that was implemented as a means to get more money in arcade cabinets. To hijack a Bob Dylan quote, just remember that the end of death is not the end.

  1. In any PC game where you have quicksaves, death doesn’t matter anyway, and probably is less of a hinderance that in POP where you are returned to a previous checkpoint.

  2. Great article, Paul. I am definitely starting to see a move away from the traditional “Oh no, you died!” scenario in gaming. I really enjoyed the connection you made back to arcade games and the dying factor as a means to get more money from the player. Perhaps the days of the ‘Continue?’ screen are over? I believe that there needs to be rewards for playing a game well (such as advancing towards the end of a game, item rewards, unlockable content, etc.), and there needs to be punishment for playing a game poorly (in the traditional sense, this would mean dying). I’m interested to see if Devs will use innovation and continue to use this formula, or if they will simply make games easier. I hope the latter never comes true.

  3. I definitely don’t like it when games don’t give you a punishment for dying. Hardcore games usually give you the old “start back at this long checkpoint; everyone is respawned” kind of deal.

    Games like Bioshock just throw that idea in the garbage, and let you re-spawn with everything how it was after you died. So basically there’s no incentive for me not to grenade crazy an entire room then come right back? You stop being cautious in games when there are mechanics like that, and it makes them less of an experience.

  4. I miss “game over”

  5. Great article, you inspired the discussion of the week for this weeks limitcast

  6. I only realised the Bioshock system 3 hours into it. Before that I was continually reloading after i died. After I fugured it out I took little to no care about what I did

  7. @chris
    You say you don’t like not having a punishment, would you class having to play the last few minutes from a checkpoint severe enough? Or would the effects of something like City of Heroes in which after dying you get an experience debt, where you can’t earn any experience until you earn that back, is that something you feel games should lean towards?
    I personally feel that, as mentioned, Prince of Persia’s mechanic of failure doesn’t mean death, it just means you proceed is a good way to go. Failure instead of forcing you backwards, is just keeping you at a static point. Although, applying this methodology to all games probably wouldn’t work.

  8. I like a punishment in a game; and more than a few minutes from a checkpoint (more like 5-10). Or, in Bioshock, I would have been fine if it resurrected you with 0 health and eve. Or, like Resident Evil 5 even, at the end of the level you get less points/score because you died more.

    In an MMO though, it’s a completely different experience, and a punishment is completely banal. You spend months playing those games, and experience hits just make the game completely unfun; hence why WoW is on top.

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