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.
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.
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.