Crafting: Death in Video Games

Rayman OriginsThere are plenty of games on the market in which players are likely going to die quite a bit. However, despite the frequency of deaths that may inevitably occur, it is very possible to ensure that it is never too frustrating. Sadly, that assurance isn’t always the case in games, and the question of “why” ought to come to mind. In the case of titles like Rayman Origins, gameplay and death are handled well, and the game makes for a strong challenge without the sacrifice of player sanity, walking the fine line between boringly easy and absurdly difficult. Death occurs in games, but believe it or not, removing users from this mortal coil is a lot tougher than it sounds.

There are two game extremes when it comes to death mechanics: Those that cater to the ultimate hardcore (i.e. Dark Souls) and those that gently hold the player’s hand. While both extremes do appeal to certain players, such tends to be limiting with the former becoming annoying and the latter a joke. With games like Dark Souls, slight errors result in death and a jaunt back through a level for the umpteenth time. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, penalty is virtually non-existent (a good example of this is the platformer of Prince of Persia (2008) which carries players to the far end of missed jumps). In both cases, the level of fun becomes stunted with rage filling one and complacency the other. Believe it or not, games are supposed to be enjoyable; even in death.

Of course, failure tends to be less than entertaining, so this comes down to mitigating the blow of death. In order to accomplish this, a handful of concepts need be used: Pacing, penalty, and awareness.

Keeping with the Rayman Origins example, the title crafts all three elements beautifully. By its nature, the game tends to be fast-paced with game modes that contain self-scrolling screens, whipping rapids, and precarious leaps of faith. However, the game never once slows down that pacing; not even for death. This is a huge step towards tapering frustration. When players expectantly die in Rayman Origins, it’s done quickly. Their avatar balloons up, pops, and they are quickly taken to the last checkpoint.

Bascially, Rayman doesn’t sit and ponder death. The sequence is short and amusing. Such is important on two levels. For starters, death leads to frustration but entices a “try again” attitude that births drive. The quicker the user can dive back into another attempt, the longer anger will be belayed. In fact, this leads nicely into the next major quandary of penalty.

In the case of many games, the most common death penalty is restarting from a recent checkpoint. For the most part, gone are the days of limited lives and replaying entire levels from the beginning. Some might pine for the days of yore, but there is a reason such has been phased out. Players want to see more of a game, find new challenges, or experience a compelling story; not replay the same content ten times. With this considered, the penalty needs to be something that sets them back, but must be relative to what killed them.

Dark Souls - Artorias of the AbyssThere is a distinct relationship between the amount of content a player must redo and their frustration levels. Perhaps the worst upon worst situations is where they die to a boss and view the same introductory sequence again. When death occurs, drive can be born, but the longer it takes to get back to the real challenge, the more aggravated users become. That’s one of the reasons Dark Souls tends to only appeal to the most hardcore of players. A single mistake on one boss can force them to start again from scratch, but then, in their inevitable frustration, they make mistakes on fodder creatures leading up to said boss, and become more angry at the game for not letting them go to the applicable challenge. In the case of Rayman, should players die, they expediently return to their last checkpoint which is only about a minute from where they faltered.

Thus leads to the last major aspect of death mechanics. Players need to be unquestionably aware of what they died to. In fact, they need to be aware of it before they die (to have a chance to avoid death in the first place). This is something that plays into general usability and intuitiveness, but it’s more prevalent in death mechanics due to the irritation involved.

Players have to know what killed them and it must have some distinctive tell to display the danger. To draw from other examples, think back to the earlier years of World of Warcraft in which learning boss abilities was trial and error. Sure, there might have been distinctive spell effects, but no one had a way of knowing what it did beforehand. Other titles like Sonic Generations have similar problems with pitfalls. Players move so fast that if they blink, they can completely miss a jump they never knew they had to make.

Suffice to say, creating death mechanics is not the easiest thing in the world, but it is a critical part of design. Fact of the matter is that penalty and challenge are hallmarks of great games and while those differ between genres, the basics for enjoyment remain consistent. It’s not always fun to die, but the sting can be mitigated with well-conceived pacing, penalties relative to challenge, and actually giving players the chance to learn what they did wrong or avoid the death completely.


Posted on October 18, 2012, in Casual Games, Core Games, Crafting, Design and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.