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Opinion: Rethinking Player Death
Opinion: Rethinking Player Death Exclusive
November 20, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

[In an editorial originally published in Game Developer magazine's November 2009 issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers whether traditional player death conventions have worn out their welcome, asking "why is death even part of the equation?" for games if meaningful consequences aren't built in.]

Arcades have brought us a lot of significant advances over the years. From the industry's beginning through the mid-'90s, arcades were still where you’d find the best game graphics, and the best local multiplayer experiences.

A great many excellent design rules and guidelines were forged in these fires. Every so often though, I notice a trope carried over from the arcade days that just doesn’t seem to fit anymore. One of those is the concept of lives, continues, and player death.

The thought occurred to me while playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled for Xbox Live Arcade. I played with three friends, and aside from none of us being able to tell which character we were about 75 percent of the time, I noticed that the game defaulted to unlimited continues.

Playing essentially amounted to mashing the attack button and hoping for the best, with no real consequences to death, though the game did keep a tally of who among my friends had died the most times.

It really stuck with me -- in a scenario in which death essentially means nothing, why have death at all?

Granted, this was a port of an arcade game, but a number of kids’ games operate under a similar basic principle. Dying either places you right back where you were, or it does so until you run out of lives, and then you continue and start at the beginning of the level, lives fully restocked.

The game is basically testing your ability to complete the same actions again and again, rather than your skill. Except in outlying cases, it’s testing your willingness to persevere, and not to adapt.

Rise From Your Grave

This extends in a mild way to the checkpoint systems in modern games. Most triple-A games have rid themselves of the idea of continues, or even the concept of limited lives, but death is still not so much a punishment as it is a setback—you simply lose a few minutes’ playing time, and probably learn some strategies in the meantime.

So why represent this as “death,” rather than in some other way? It could well be because we’ve always done it that way, rather than for any reason anyone spent time thinking about.

Demon’s Souls is going to be a hot topic discussion among alternative journalists and academics for some time, perhaps rightly so. The way that game deals with death is well thought out, and actually has an in-world reason behind it. If you die, your (weaker) soul must go out in search of demon souls with which to reclaim your physical body.

In Assassin’s Creed, “death” is explained as a de-syncing of the player from his host body in history. In Prey, players must fight their way back from the valley of death, to reclaim their place among the living. Even Silicon Knights’ drawn-out resurrection sequences in Too Human are conceptually relevant.

So many games employ outlandish sci-fi or fantasy scenarios that it seems death could be explained away in simple terms -- or, even better, with some entertaining gameplay.

Continues and their progeny are usually not a nuisance. They just seem unnecessary, evidence of the early framework around which games have evolved. When a developer intends it, player deaths can be entertaining, they just need to be given weight.

If you don’t care if you die, the stakes of play seem rather minor. In Left 4 Dead, you feel like you’re letting your teammates down, so death has weight. But in Gears of War, which I otherwise like very much, death is just an annoying setback, and I have to watch cut scenes again and traipse back across the same shattered landscape just to get killed again by the same stupid Troika.

Death can be a good time to provide positive feedback for players, and add tutorial hints. Considering the fact that games are meant to be won, the player is essentially invincible in the grand scheme of things, requiring, again, nothing more than perseverance and the occasional GameFAQs hint. Why not try to create a game that contains similar challenges to standard games, but completely avoids death?

If the end result is the same, and meaningful (or humorous) consequences aren’t built in, why is death even part of the equation? It isn’t really death, after all, it’s really just the proverbial “flesh wound.”

These days we have a buffer against death in games anyway: Most first- and third-person shooters have regenerative health, whether it makes sense for the world or not. Once the player’s regenerative health is depleted, they crumple to the ground momentarily, only to have time magically rewound, with players finding themselves transported to a very familiar (usually identically instanced) checkpoint save state from their recent past.

The Death (Of My Interest)

Of course if you’re not careful, alternate methods of “death” can be even more annoying. Lengthy resurrection sequences (in fact, cut scenes of any kind) will take the player out of the action. Death- or loss-related minigames need to be fun and relevant. Almost any time not playing the game is time waiting to play the game—and that’s generally time wasted.

Innovative ways of dealing with player death aren’t just for the wacky indies, or the fringe titles, which is why I deliberately didn’t mention any. High-end games are starting to change the way they deal with what lies beyond, and it seems high time that more developers start to confront their own (in-game) mortality.

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