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Dealing With Death: Streamlining The Player Experience

December 28, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

One of the most jarring aspects of playing a game is the reload sequence. Through its nature, this form of entertainment requires a certain level of investment from its consumers -- more specifically, that they actively take part and immerse themselves in the world set before them. When it reaches its peak, this creates a feeling of "flow", of continuity. It's what makes us lose track of time and become oblivious to our surroundings when playing. However, this flow can be broken when users are faced with a reload or a "Game Over" screen that only serves to add insult to injury.

Since this hasn't changed a lot since the beginnings of the industry, one might consider it a necessary evil. The question this feature seeks to answer is whether we can find a way around it, while presenting some practical examples used in popular games over the years.

I feel that this issue needs addressing sooner rather than later, because reloading a game is sensible when we're resuming our gaming sessions; having to redo something we've already done only seconds before is unpleasant. And, of course, this approach encourages players to take the brute force approach by trying everything until they find one that works.

Diablo II

Blizzard's Diablo II is one of the first games to come to mind, since its developers took a special interest in creating a flow-based experience. Since it has a pretty straightforward quest system and combat-based gameplay, they chose to remove the traditional "Save" function.

This means that certain features became feasible: gambling, random recipes, or drops. It also meant that player characters couldn't just die (with the exception of Hardcore Mode).

Diablo II


However, to retain the challenge factor, a certain penalty had to be applied on death -- big enough to encourage people to avoid it but small enough not to be synonymous with "Game Over". Blizzard's answer to this problem was an experience and gold penalty along with a "respawn in town" mechanic. Basically, the game punishes players in a way that sets them back but doesn't force them to redo anything.

The jarring effect of loss is still present in Diablo II, but to a much lesser degree. Fate or Torchlight reduces this even further by giving players the option of reviving in the same area or in the very spot where their character has met his or her end. Of course, each option has a steeper price.

Unreal Tournament

Another example can be seen in shooters games, such as Unreal Tournament. The player's goal is to reach a certain number of kills before the others do -- the classical deathmatch scenario.


The death penalty is deceptively simple -- when a participant dies, his or her opponent is one step closer to victory. The fast-paced action coupled with immediate respawning ensures that the experience is very dynamic, but also smooth. The jarring is virtually non-existent because failure (death) constitutes the basis of the gameplay: in fact, it depends on it, and it's what drives it forward. The popularity of the genre, if nothing else, is proof enough that streamlining player experience is something worth doing.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Crystal Dynamics took another approach to overcoming death in its 1999 title, Soul Reaver, by allowing Raziel, the the main character, to traverse between two realms -- a physical one and a spectral one.


Raziel feeds on the souls of his enemies, and it is these souls that serve as his life force. When defeated in the physical realm, the character is transported to the spectral one. If he is defeated there as well, he is taken back to a special hub from where he can make his way back to the place of his demise.

There is a small nuisance in that the return to the physical realm requires a portal to be used -- and this introduces a certain amount of backtracking. However, this "spirit realm" approach has proven popular, and has been used several times since -- a more recent example being Venetica, developed by Deck 13 Interactive.

A possible alternative to this method could involve sinking the player character deeper and deeper into successive spirit worlds with every death. The avatar could either become stronger with every descent or the enemies weaker. Return could be immediate or sequential through the same layers; it could depend on the opponents being dead or some in-game currency such as experience or a soul pool.

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Michael Joseph
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Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.

"no one wants to play through a string a déjà vu moments and confirmation boxes."

Some of us do.

Some gamers have a love hate relationship with the "try it again from the start" scenario. Take SHMUP players for instance. Part of the fun is to try and defeat the game with the resources you have and can aquire through play and not to be saved or bailed out by the designers everytime (including when they are playing in a risky way). If you start to put a safety net around players, you also fundamentally change the game in a way that softens it... removes all the edges and makes it into something you play just to get through and see the ending. Boring like baby food...

I'm not sure why it is so many are buying into this thinking that the player must be spared the consequences of game death. It's part of an overall trend to design in a way that will appease every type of player because they all have money. But the really crazy part is how we then rationalize this to ourselves so that it makes sense from a design point of view instead. "No no, it's not about the money, it's about fixing a ubiquitous problem." Games are increasingly becoming viewed as content to be gotten through as efficiently as possible. Oh dear.

RE: Rage - personally i think the Rage defib death avoidance makes the entire game a joke to play. Rage feels completely neutered compared to previous id games.

I wasn't a fan of Duke Nukem 4's health regeneration scheme either :(

Vinicius Capiotti
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I agree with you. To define something as a problem to be fixed from a design standpoint, you have to take semiotic value into account. And when you are talking about a potentially artistic entertainment media, semiotics have even more importance.

It's easy to see the "frustrating and unpleasant" process of repetition in games is not just an activity related to how you perceive the content, it is content itself.

Victor Vllfors
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Meh, one could argue that the game over screen itself is a relic from the arcade era where the game had to end sooner rather than later to squeeze the most amount of cash out of kids.

As long as you put some thought into why you make it easy or hard on the player I don't really thnik it matters which one you decide on.

Luis Guimaraes
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Rage scheme sounds like the same as in Prey. Borderlands is the same as Bioshock, helped by perception because of open environments, which is also basically the arena shooter scheme translated into single player. There should be an analysis of Soul Reaver also.

Cary Chichester
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This is a pretty good list! I do think that the traditional Game Over screen doesn't have as much use today since our games today are never really "over". At the same time I wouldn't want to see death completely replaced by these mechanics, as it would remove the challenge that some games have of successfully defeating enemies without dying. Enemies can be more challenging for the player if they have to start the fight from the beginning every time they fail to defeat them without dying, and while it becomes an annoyance after subsequent retries, it also makes the taste of victory that much sweeter.

For this reason I pretty much hated the Prince of Persia mechanic where you were always spared from death. For platforming segments it meant you had to start over, which is fine. In battles however there was, as far as I could tell, absolutely no penalty. The enemy did not lose health and you did not lose any progress or abilities, it was nearly impossible to lose battles. It feels like those scenes in movies where a noble is fighting some guys in public and they end up throwing the fight to make the noble look good. When we see those scenes, we know that person is not deserving of praise and that he's really being looked down on by the people he's fighting. How am I supposed to feel when it happens to me?

Jacek Wesolowski
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In Prince of Persia, the enemy would regain health when they hit you. Getting hit several times in short succession boiled down to having to start over. I wouldn't say it was particularly well communicated, though. I only noticed it half way through the game.

Carlo Delallana
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Let me add Forza as another model that oddly enough takes its cues from time rewind titles. The really interesting design choice made by turn 10 was giving the player an incentive to turn the feature OFF by applying a % credit bonus to your final score. The feature is there if you don't want to deal with having to start over but the game gives you an incentive to turn it off creating a meanigful choice scenario for the player.

Adam Bishop
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I don't think there's anything wrong with player death or respawns per se. I think the problem comes when player death interferes with narrative intent. For example, I died an awful lot of times while playing Mirror's Edge. I was only able to complete many sections by playing them repeatedly and getting events to line up perfectly. The end result of this was that I came to the conclusion that Faith, the main character, could not have accomplished what the game's story said she did. After all, if she really was good enough to achieve the tasks that the game set out for her, why did she seem to die so often in the process?

That's why I think games with narratives need to find better ways to deal with failure than "death" and reloads. It's not just that it's annoying to have to replay the same content, but also that it just doesn't make sense. I'm glad that you mentioned Soul Reaver here, because I thought that was one game that handled this situation really well within the fiction of the game world. Another great example would be Heavy Rain, in which failure alters the story, but does not impede your overall progress. I'd really like to see more games find ways to work failure into the fiction rather than simply reloading to a checkpoint.

Owen Bennett
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I felt exactly this. I've always felt that the punishment in Mirror's Edge shouldn't have been dying, but breaking your flow. I only really started to enjoy the game once I'd completed it and went back to do speed runs - since I now knew the maps, and what I had to do, losing a few seconds having to climb up something caused much more of a sense of loss than randomly jumping off a building (because I didn't know where I was supposed to be going) and falling to my death.

Ara Shirinian
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Is your premise that breaking the continuity of experience when the player makes a mistake is an inherently undesirable (or even jarring) outcome? If so, I disagree with this premise in general, for the same reasons as some have previously mentioned in comments.

After all, certain emotional/experiential levels of performance and mastery, which are quite valuable and indeed unique to the medium of games, can only be achieved through failure and repetition. Plus, many compelling games have a certain staccato short sequence structure that would lose all meaning without simple repetition upon failure (super meat boy, trials, shooting a basketball, etc.)

I think that the concept of "dieing" or having to re-do a sequence of gameplay is not inherently wrong/bad/undesirable/jarring at all. Rather, it is certain specific ways in which the player might encounter such a state that makes the situation undesirable and/or jarring.


- you fail and do not understand the reason why, or what you could have done differently.

- you fail and and are forced to repeat a laborious sequence of play which you may have already mastered, until you get to the failure point (which you have not yet mastered).

- the game is not actually a skill game and you cannot overcome failure with skill, or you feel that is so.

- you fail and you feel like the game is not treating you fairly (i.e. you attribute the failure to the game and not to yourself).

- you fail so frequently that you do not feel like you can extract a meaningful experience from the game.

- you fail and feel that the penalty is so extreme that you lose all motivation to continue.

Having said this, there are certainly many situations where the player can learn and improve skill without having to force them to re-play certain sequences to an extent- but if you take this to its ultimate extent, you pay for it by effectively eliminating the opportunity for the player to learn and master their performance. At that point the game is more like an art gallery or just a narrative exposition - which is fine if that is all you want from the game, but highly dissatisfying otherwise.

The important part is that the player must feel like there is something new that was discovered (or the prospect thereof) with each repetition, whether that is a slight change in the dynamic, or learning something new, or maybe even something as small as different window dressing around that repetition.

James Coote
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To give some examples

Recently, I've been playing mass effect and one of the things that really got me was that if I'd just killed a particularly difficult spawn, but the next wave had spawned, even if it was two rooms away and not aggro'ed yet, I couldn't save because I was 'still in combat'.

In one case, I used up all my health packs just before getting locked in a boss zone, and after each room was cleared, had to walk back several rooms just so I could save, before tackling the next room

Conversely, I really liked having ammo replaced with weapons overheating. There are many games I've played where I die repeatedly, simply because I used up all my ammo in previous fights. Since the player has no way of knowing what enemies and ammo spawns are up ahead, ammo can indirectly cause you to fail through no fault of your own, or force you to replay the game, but this time conserving ammo

James Coote
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Eve is interesting not because of clones, but because it gives you an escape pod when your spaceship blows up. You get a second chance to get away and avoid losing implants or avoid respawning miles away

I think though that the best death mechanic depends on what you are playing the game for. If the player just cares about the storyline, then they should die as little as possible. However, if they are playing for the challenge of completing faster/better/with a higher score, then they should be punished far harder than normal for dying

Timo Naskali
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My biggest gripe with free saving/loading isn't even repetition but how it removes the unpredictability of choices. The Witcher was able to get around this problem to some extend by often delaying the consequences of the player's choices by a lot, but this seems like an Ad hoc fix to me, dancing around the real problem.

It also makes it hard to have there be any kind of natural setbacks in the story, when the player is trained to think that they can overcome any obstacle by "abusing" the quick save button.

And it also tends to break or render unusable many chance-based mechanics (slot machines don't make sense in a game world where one can quick load) as well as trivia-style gameplay - which multiple choice dialogue often boils down to.

Sometimes the ability to quick load just feels like a cheat that the games industry has embraced (especially on the PC platform) for weird historical reasons. It's like every game came with noclip enabled because players just enjoy the freedom of movement, or god mode enabled because players just hate the feeling of losing.

Or a compass arrow pointing you exactly in the direction of the next objective because players just hate getting lost...

Edit: Maybe a bit off-topic but I had to get that off my chest :P

Steven An
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Demon's/Dark Souls. Also, the author mentions Diablo.

Ramon Carroll
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Demon Souls and Dark Souls should also be added to this list.

Mike Blackney
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Dark Souls and Demon's Souls go against this article entirely. You die, then you need to replay a whole section of the game.

As I read it, what this article calls a weakness of games is one of the Souls games' greatest strengths. Replaying a section of the game is only boring if you're not being engaged or challenged.

Ramon Carroll
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Well yeah, I understand what you are saying. I'm only saying that Demon's Souls and Dark Souls should definitely be mentioned in an article like this, because they cleverly bypass the "death" issue by cleverly integrating it into the gameplay mechanics.

I think the way they approach the death issue is worth mentioning.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jitesh Panchal
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I agree. Dark/Demon's Souls are the games that make sure player feels what Death is like. The penalty incurred is intense in the sense of reviving your soul; or in the case of Demon's Souls playing with lesser health.

Core mechanic of Death is dealt with extremely well in these games. It is certainly based on it completely!

Steven An
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D'Souls absolutely needs to be on this list, and it's actually a great example of death being contextualized in the fiction.

Its actual death mechanic is not all that groundbreaking (bears resemblance to Diablo's), but it makes one very strong and bold point: Repetition can be fun (to some of us) as long as the action being repeated is engaging. On one end of the spectrum you have games where death is punished by cut scenes - whether death cut scenes ("Snake..SNAKE??") or those terrible pre-boss cut scenes you have to sit through again thanks to bad check points. These deaths are simply annoying. But, in D'Souls, I didn't really mind doing the whole damn level again because the combat system is just that good.

Keith Burgun
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The first thing to realize is that "death" is just a thematic dressing on mechanisms. "Losing" is a lot more important to pursue, and "the loss of the loss" is one of the biggest problem with today's games.

>Since this hasn't changed a lot since the beginnings of the industry,

Wait what? It totally has. Death in most games used to mean "losing". Now it just means an annoying little setback.

>having to redo something we've already done only seconds before is unpleasant.

It's more than unpleasant, it's idiotic. You should *never* have to simply "re-do" something in a game, ever. If the game ends, and you play again, it should be randomized so that it's a different experience. If "death" doesn't end the game then it had better do something else meaningful in the game, or ditch it completely.

Steven An
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"Never" is a strong word, sir. IMOH, redoing stuff is fine if the actions being redone are actually fun and interesting. See how many people love the repetition in Demon's/Dark Souls. If it ain't your cup of tea, that's fine, but we thrive in a diverse industry.

Tora Teig
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A lot of valid points here. Though it is obvious we can't all agree. As mentioned by others I think it is important to tackle the idea of death in correlation to the concept and narration (if any). Obviously Super Mario wouldn't be the same if you couldn't die. But not every game is Super Mario (or Super Meatboy).

Trial and error and “beating the game” are all well-established concepts that in some instances work great! While in others-- well, not so much, or not at all.

This is like how an action sequence will seem well off in a romantic drama, while as perfect in a shooter movie or similar.

We can't say, that because it has always been possible to die in games before, that is the only way games should be made, or if you can't die in a game it is "too easy" or we are being "saved by designers". Challenges can lie in every other aspect of that game BUT in death. Like in Braid.

In Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword if you fail any of the Imprisoned bosses or the last boss - the game world has come to an end. According to the rules and the story you have failed. The game, and the world is over. Your chance is wasted and you couldn't save Hyrule. But absurdly you do respawn anyway, you can reload, even despite the fact that it is obviously stupid and any other character that die, dies for good in that universe, right?

Except the player. And we are willing to accept that because such is the norm in games. But it does mean that the player has to redo content, re-watch cut-scenes, and for each time the player has to do so, the scenes and content loses its meaning exponentially. Yes, obviously, you would suck a little at gaming to make that happen, but this is just as an example.

Heavily narrated games, especially linear ones -- totally undermine the meaning or emotion of their game when content is replayed the same way time and time again because the player has to "suffer" and be "punished" for dying in the game. Yes, yes, the player gets that momentary satisfaction of "beating the game" which, in instances can be super important, right! I agree. But UNLESS it is part of the vision for the game that the player SHOULD die and will experience something through it. I see no point in exercising the rule of death just for the sake of tradition.

I mean, that doesn't make any sense at all. Games are a lot more technically advanced today than they were at the beginning. Just terminating the game as an incentive to start over to either "stall time" or "make money" is really, really old fashioned. I totally agree that death has its place in games, always will - it is also an essential part of being human, so, naturally it translates well into our mediums and stories. But seriously, it isn't compulsory, and we shouldn't be ashamed or stagnant about that. Just do what works for YOUR particular game and feel and meaning. The word “game” spans a whoooole lot of genres.

Edit: I am sorry I wrote an entire novel :(

Galen Ryder
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On the topic of Prince of Persia '08, I actually think Sands of Time had the better death mechanic. The thing with PoP'08 is that Elika checkpoints you back to the last flat surface you stood on which works well early in the game when time between flat surfaces is short but as the game ramps up it tries to increase the difficulty by increasing the time between flat surfaces. Near the end of the game there are lengthly platforming sequences that go on for minutes at a time and when you fail you need to repeat these multi-minute sequences which isn't very fun since there is no freedom in how you tackle them, they are very trial and error.

Sands of Time has the rewind mechanic, so if you fall or die from a trap/enemy you can rewind to right before you screwed up, even as your running across a wall. So even as the game gets more demanding the punishment for death stays the same. You can technically run out of the Sand resource and not be able to use the time mechanic but the game was balanced in a way that this very rarely happened and if it did the checkpointing was quite fair. Similarly if you die while fighting an enemy in PoP'08, Elika picks you back up but the enemy resets and gets his health back but with Sands of Time you can just rewind the fight back a little bit.

Sands of Time takes a little more skill than the automated Elika system in PoP'08 but I found it ultimately less frustrating.