Games that do not allow you to die (or fail, for that matter) lack challenges. When failure occurs, what purpose is there in defying it? Success loses its meaning when there’s no dread. However, player deaths don’t have to end in frustration or the player having to play the long stretches of the game again.
Death mechanics can be integrated into the story and the gameplay, where they become part of the experience. In this article we’ll take a look at different ways to deal with player death and failure, both good and bad. Some games manage to do both at the same time!
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The best ways to deal with player death are fully combined the narrative and gameplay, these are the ones we should use as inspiration in our titles.
1) Narrative Deaths
a) Good: Keep Narrative Death and Gameplay Death Separate
The difference between the two is that one death exists in the narrative, while the other deaths exist in the gameplay. The game deals with that by keeping both things separate and never referencing each other.
b) Bad: Mix Narrative Death and Gameplay Death
Borderlands 2 fails at this and mixes the two. The game has a system of New U Stations. These work both as checkpoints from which to restart the game and as resurrection points. When you die, a New U is created: basically a clone of your previous self. You lose some money, and the voice of the machine quips that you should avoid jumping into lava and states how much money you have made for the company.
2) Giving the Player Another Chance
a) Bad: Magically Save the Player at the Last Second
In the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia, you can’t actually die. When you’re about to fall to your death, you are saved at the last second and deposited back where you started. When your health is about to run out in battle, you are saved, you get your health back, and the enemies regain their health too, which is another break in the logic of the universe.You end back where you started, with no progress made.
b) Good: Let the Player Rewind Time
One of the best features in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the use of the titular sands to affect gameplay. The sand shows up in several story segments, but you can also use it during gameplay! When you die, you just rewind time to a point where you are not dead. Instead of quick-loading, you stay in the game, and the gameplay fully supports this.
In a time-travel game, this feature practically comes with the gameplay. Braid allows you to rewind after death back to when you were alive, and even further to the point where you began the level.
c) Good: Use an Unreliable Narrator
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has another fun system for dealing with player death. When you actually do run out of both health and sand, the hero says, “Hang on a second. This isn’t how it happened!” before you need to replay.
What’s happening is that the entire story is actually told by the character after it happened. The game starts right at the end, and everything is told in flashbacks. This feels as if the prince might actually have made a honest mistake. Realizing you have an unreliable narrator is fun and softens the impact of being pulled out of the game to reload it.
Good: Allow the Player to Escape
In Batman: Arkham Asylum(and its sequels) the grapple-hook is a central element of the game. It permits you to quickly move around the world and climb objects.If you should fall into a pit in the game, you do not die. Instead, Batman pulls himself out where you began the jump.
This nicely integrates the grapple mechanic to prevent some player deaths. As there are plenty of other ways to die in the game, this does not feel like a cop-out.
e) Good: Keep the Player in a “Downed” State With a Way to Get Back Into the Action
When you run out of health in the Borderlands games, you don’t die at once. Instead, you have “last chance” mode.The screen color fades until everything is grey, and you can only crawl. But if you try to kill an enemy, you get a “second wind”, stand up, get a portion of your health back, and can fight and walk again.
You can also be supported by another player, if you are playing co-op. This is a good system. It keeps you in the game and engaged, and doesn’t immediately throw you out. This have more tense fights and moments where you might get downed and have to weigh the chances of your team mates being able to revive you. The AI is also good enough to support this – with horrible AI it wouldn’t work as well as it does.
3) Above All…
a) Best: Integrate Death Into the Story
Bioshock Infinite designed the theme of multiple universes. You jump between them in the story. And when you do die, you suddenly wake up in your office, which looks like it did in flashback sequences. But opening the door puts you close to where you were when you died. This tells that you did actually die.
Then the universe-hopping characters that engaged you in the first place went to another universe to get another you, and fast-forwarded through the story to leave you at the point of your previous death.
This is alluded to at the start of the game, where you see a list of decisions you have made before, and it implies there were several dozen yous. Once again player death is woven amazingly into the gameplay, and actually extends the mythology.
b) Good: Keep Downtime to a Minimum
If there is no way to have a fun death mechanic, at least make sure it’s as painless as possible. This means mainly two things: Allow reloading or restarting as quickly as possible.
When you fail in Trials you can press the restart button, which puts you immediately at the last checkpoint. There is no load time or lengthy animation. Players aren’t frustrated by failure, yet it still retains its heft. Also, keep automatic and fair restart/save points, so the player doesn’t feel punished by having to replay segments.
In conclusion, game’s failure is also vital, as it shows the story meaning and its substance. Applying an unreliable narrator is related to cost-effective way of having player death integrated into the story. Avoiding having in-game characters acknowledge resurrection systems as part of the narrative also keeps maintaining the suspension of disbelief.