Gamasutra is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
February 25, 2020
arrowPress Releases

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


'If one cannot lose, there is no reason to win.'

by Joel Christiansen on 12/25/10 03:14:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


"If one cannot lose, there is no reason to win."

When I was in college I read some books on zen philosophy, and one of the maxims that stayed with me was "if you could not die, it would be a real problem for you". I think this is true in life, and lately I have come to wonder if it might not be true in games as well.

I pondered this question most seriously as I sat and watched my son playing Prince of Persia, enduring the "hand clasp of salvation" cinematic about nineteen thousand times, and staring with torpid indifference as the Prince and his magic flying genie-girl battled bravely against really tough-looking enemies who were apparently about as dangerous as newborn kittens.

I absolutely loved the graphics in this game, but after watching my 8 year old blast through it in a couple of days I felt that going back and playing it myself would be basically a waste of time. I am a huge fan of the entire Prince of Persia series, going all the way back to the original game; I even have the graphic novel by Jordan Mechner and A.B. Sina... but the obvious lack of challenge I saw before me completely squelched my desire to even press start on this game.  

Prince of Persia got it right with the graphics and visual style (no complaints there), but it is missing something even more vital to the success of the game--the looming threat of defeat. Once you make the realization that nothing in the game poses the slightest danger to your character, the experience disintegrates into a gorgeously illustrated ten-hour exercise in column-jumping.


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time wasn't a difficult game, but at least there were a handful of tough puzzles and intense battles that kept me playing for a couple of weeks. In The Sands of Time it was really satisfying to finally succeed in finishing off a room of armored zombies, or escaping from a puzzling area, and the infamous "corridors of traps" are still my favorite part of any Prince of Persia game.

Once or twice I was stuck for a day or two as I tried to find the path through an elaborate area (the mirror puzzle in the Hall of Learning took me a while to unravel), and I was mildly annoyed that I couldn't progress as quickly as I would have liked. However, staying with it and eventually breaking past the puzzle gave me the satisfaction of matching my wits against a worthy challenge and coming out on top, and left me hungry to experience the next leg of the adventure.

When I imagine playing The Sands of Time with a mystical sand dagger that never runs dry, the danger and urgency that drive the game's action fade away to nothing. It would completely ruin the game if the Prince could use the powers of the dagger as much as he wants, any time he wants, right? I mean, how hard is it to slip past 20 traps if you can rewind time 20 times?


So why did the creators of the more recent Prince of Persia game feel they could design it this way without any problem? And for that matter, when did it become generally acceptable to start designing games that are utterly devoid of challenge? I mean, offering the player an easier difficulty level is one thing... but completely removing the possiblity of player death--isn't that breaking some kind of unwritten law of game design?

Has the concept of "Game Over" become obsolete? Is it really so demanding to ask the player to start a level over after he or she dies numerous times? I have known players who use invicibility cheats 100% of the time, and just rampage happily through games without a care in the world, and no thirst for greater challenge whatsoever... but do we all have to be like that?



I don't mind simplicity in games. In fact, I admire it. Many of my favorite games are incredibly simple, like Klax and Super Monkey Ball. But if you play these games you will notice there is plenty of challenge to be had. They are not nearly as ruthless in difficulty as other games like Ninja Gaiden or Shadow of the Beast, but at least there is an outside chance that you will not finish the entire game on the first try.

I remember reading a book on dungeon game design many years ago, and one of the chapters was titled "Give your villains a fighting chance". That really stayed with me, and as games continue to get softer I find myself hoping that there are still a few seriously dangerous enemies lurking out there that it will take every ounce my skill and resolve to vanquish.

Instead of challenging, compelling gameplay, all the player gets from many modern games are paper adversaries, followed by meaningless achievements, trophies, medals, and assorted virtual debris that adds next to nothing to the experience. I have long held the opinion that "trophy rooms" in games accomplish little except to waste resources that could otherwise be spent adding more playable content to the game.



I have made the same argument against cut-scenes in games many times: that they are too expensive and time-consuming to produce, and (unless they are absolutely top-notch) add little if anything to the game experience. Usually I don't even watch them, and if I find I cannot skip a cut-scene I am sure to direct a few choice comments at the game and its designers as I wait for the cinematic to play out...

So the other day my son sees me playing Brutal Legend and enjoying the cut-scenes, and he calls me out on it. I told him that if all cinematics in games were as awesome as these, I would never speak a word against them. However in the case of 90% of games out there my judgment is that cut-scenes are at best a waste of resources that could be put into developing more playable content, and at worst actually detract from the quality of the game experience by forcing the player to watch boring and/or poor-quality cinematics that he or she would rather not see.

The same holds true, in my estimation, for achievements, tropies, medals and the like. If they don't help the player win the game, or serve some other purpose at least remotely related to the gameplay, they are extraneous. The reason to play games is to enjoy playing them, and no matter how many lame trophies and achievements are crammed into a game that fact will never change.



Now consider Muramasa: The Demon Blade, one of my all-time favorite Wii games. Even though the penalty for dying is minimal, the game provides a consistent challenge all the way through. After finishing the main stories, there are even more intense enemy lairs waiting to test the player's ninja skills, and each one yields some kind of item that relates directly back to the core gameplay.

The combination of intense fighting challenge and the strategic challenge of combining different swords and items effectively (as well as truly beautiful visuals) are what makes this game memorable. There is nothing soft about this game; the threat of death is ever-present in Muramasa, as are the quality and interest of its experience.



Related Jobs

Guildhall at SMU
Guildhall at SMU — Plano, Texas, United States

Professor of Practice
Digital Extremes Ltd.
Digital Extremes Ltd. — London, Ontario, Canada

Senior Lighting Artist
Purdue University
Purdue University — West Lafayette, Indiana, United States

Assistant Professor in Game Development and Design
Sucker Punch Productions
Sucker Punch Productions — Bellevue, Washington, United States

Gameplay Programmer

Loading Comments

loader image