Extra Punctuation: Death in Videogames

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Death in Videogames

Yahtzee ponders the death mechanic in videogames.

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Yahtzee Croshaw:
There have been several games that have made the connection that, what with players frequently quicksaving and autosaving, death will usually mean nothing worse than using up a few minutes of your time as you're backtracked to a little way before your mistake.

It's not *time* it's *progress*.

It's the kind of difference that only matters when the game is actually challenging in the first place. Not actually losing progress means that it doesn't matter if you die- you can gain ground one inch at a time without ever having to change tactics or get better at the game. Losing progress means that you have to actually be able to beat some defined chunk of the game to move on. When you can oaf your way through anyway, it stops mattering so much.

This is why I far, far, prefer checkpoint systems to quicksaves.

While I haven't play Meat Boy yet, the quantum mechanics version of death and reloading in video games reminds me of the replay at the end of each level of Meat Boy. You're essentially getting to see all the versions of Meat Boy that failed along with the one that succeeds and moves on to the next level.

I had the same sensation playing Fable III recently - I'd been buying up potions to use to restore health but the haphazard nature of not knowing when the screen was blinking because I'd lost a little health or when I was near death (seriously, what's wrong with a health bar) and the lack of consequence of death (oh, my poor little avatar gets a scar) meant that I really didn't care or make much effort to avoid death - five pack of balvarines? Pah, let's run through them and pull the other six in to make it a fair fight.

Which of cause it wasn't as they died and all I got was a booboo or two..

I always said that Next was basically Nicolas Cage: the Sands of Time

I wish the main character in Fable 3 could die, both because he was an annoying blank moron and because he doesn't seem to realise his invincible nature means he can just assault Bowerstone castle all by himself and succeed.

Oh dear, I seem to have fallen over. I'll ignore these bullet holes and get up totally OK. For a game to feel challenging there could be some enemy or situation where turning back is a viable option. It depends on the protagonist and whether this is a response that that character would consider. I can't imagine somebody like Kratos deciding to back off and find a better solution. Somebody like John Marston, I can picture him deciding it's just too risky and there might be another way round the problem.

If the death mechanic is going to be used give the option to back off and find another way through, not less lethal but suitable for a different playstyle. Perhaps backing off from the heavy combat area in favour of the trap filled path that requires a bit of puzzle solving.

I never had a problem with the 2008 Prince of Persia "death" mechanic. You screw up, Little Miss What's-her-name scoops you up and dumps you on the last bit of solid ground you stood on. Like the man says, it was functionally identical to a quicksave. And the mechanic was put to good use with that one puzzle involving the illusionist boss.

However it did raise some questions. If she can carry the Prince while flying, why doesn't she just fly them over the whole level? And how do the enemies get their health bakc when she saves you from them? Did she blast them with a healing spell?

I'm surprised Yahtzee didn't get into the difficulty of games that don't have quicksave and whether that's superior/inferior design. I was fine with Prey's system. I thought you could even have made it harder if the enemies were more challenging. They were easy even on the hard setting. If you died often enough, going to that restart area would be really annoying. A game like that should be designed to be more difficult than most FPSes b/c there's less consequence to death.

Really, if the mechanic's about the same as reloading a save I don't much care what it is. I'm conscience of the fact I'm reloading a save and have to replay through a certain amount of content to return to where I was. Not only dying but coming close to death gives the game a sense of excitement. I think the main problem with some no-death methods is they don't break the game's flow. Having to stop playing is a punishment. It makes you want to play more. It makes you want to play better so you may avoid death. That's why even Bioshock's regeneration was fine. You ended up distant from your destination and enemies respawned so it was very similar to just replaying the section you were in. The change of location and having to rekill enemies interrupted your progress. That's what it's all about.

The problem with Kirby, from the sounds of it, is the thing lost isn't playing the game itself but the means to buy things. The only player this design would be really effective on are completionists and hoarders who want to buy everything.

There's something terrifically unfortunate about game stories. Let's go over a couple facts, and you'll see what I mean.

In most games, you are your main character. In fact, that's in almost every game. Now, when you die in a game, you go back to where you last saved and you get another try. Trial and error, as old as gaming itself, and the one trope that every game has. But somehow, the Prince of Persia titles are the only ones that actually acknowledge it.

This is a problem to me. Every game puts you in a position where you have no choice but to become Nicolas Cage from Next. Kind of alters up the story a bit when the protagonist is clairvoyant and can relive every five seconds of his life over and over again until he gets it right, but gaming has made it so mundane that we don't even talk about it. Every single protagonist in gaming has this super power. I think that particular weirdness needs attention. Thoughts?

The fact that there's no way to die in Kirby's Epic Yarn sparks the old debate in my mind as to whether or not dying needs to be a mandatory risk in every game (save Cooking Mama, I guess, but one could argue that the look in her eyes when you fail to stir the pot on time implies your impending murder).

If only it could be done in Farmville, then maybe people would stop sending me requests to water their crops

Ragnarok2kx:
I always said that Next was basically Nicolas Cage: the Sands of Time

Really, as piss poor of a plot Next had, I did find myself thinking that this would have made a decent videogame. and actual modern day version of Sands of Time. I also liked Yahtzee's idea from the end of his article, reminds me of Second Sight.

Yahtzee, that is the greatest thing you have ever said, in the history of the multiverse, ever, in all of time and space.

You know I've started to see death in video games akin to Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day. In that movie, Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over again until *spoiler alert* he is able to do as many good deeds on a single day and get the girl of his dreams. To get to that ending, Murray had to essentially perform trial and error when he went on dates with the girl, learning new information about her preferences and history. He also manages to become a jack of all trades by learning French, piano, ice sculpting, and life-saving techniques over his time in the time loop. To make the video game connection even more related, Bill Murray actually kills himself in a variety of ways, but each time he does so, the time loop repeats itself.

In video games, you have to trial and error your way through the situation, essentially repeating a near-endless time loop as you try to give your character his "perfect day". While I would argue that the Prince of Persia Sands of Time Trilogy and Assassin's Creed Series are the only ones which acknowledge the existence of time loops and correcting the perfect story; applying the logic to other games makes them far more interesting.

I like your quantum leap theory, Yahtzee. I just think my Groundhog Day theory is a little easier to understand :)

I've always liked the Pokemon method.

Take my money!

I keep the EXP gained in the battle. I have to travel back to where I lost, but with less money. And I still have to beat the challenge previously presented to me.

I think it'd actually fit rather well in some other RPG series, since money takes time to get.

Although, this does fail miserably from a narrative standpoint. And only really works in the happy-go-lucky, all-for-fun world of Pokemon battles.

BloodSquirrel:

Yahtzee Croshaw:
There have been several games that have made the connection that, what with players frequently quicksaving and autosaving, death will usually mean nothing worse than using up a few minutes of your time as you're backtracked to a little way before your mistake.

It's not *time* it's *progress*.

It's the kind of difference that only matters when the game is actually challenging in the first place. Not actually losing progress means that it doesn't matter if you die- you can gain ground one inch at a time without ever having to change tactics or get better at the game. Losing progress means that you have to actually be able to beat some defined chunk of the game to move on. When you can oaf your way through anyway, it stops mattering so much.

This is why I far, far, prefer checkpoint systems to quicksaves.

Quicksaves are indeed bad for challenge.

You can save DURING a fight. Meaning you play out each second of the fight exactly as you wish, and walk away from the final "boss" of something like Morrowind or Fallout 3 without taking any damage.

your game idea at the end would be awesome, it could possibly work with the game being told through some sort of minority report set up, that'd be cool

Funnily enough, this actually reminds me of Doom 95's mulitplayer. Each time you died, you respawned, but your last dead body remained on the map. After a while, the entire map is strewn with your and the other players' dead bodies. The visual message of dead bodies strewn throughout the map is more powerful than any number showing you frag counts...

My problem with people bitching that certain games don't have death mechanics is that, well, sometimes I just want to relax. For a game like Kirby's Epic Yarn, losing the monies is fine. 2008 Prince of Persia, it was also fine because I just wanted to wander the environment in a fun fashion.

Prey? Well, I was fine enough with it, but it killed a lot of what the game was going for.

It all depends on whether the game wants the player to be on the edge of their couch, sweat pouring from their brow and soaking from their palms onto the controller, or if they just want the player to sit back, relax and have some fun. I have no problem with the relaxing route as I have enough challenging games, and I always believe in variety.

No mention of Demons's Souls? Your character dying has significant implications for game play and is integral to the story, too.

Onyx Oblivion:

Quicksaves are indeed bad for challenge.

Not necessarily. Often I use quicksaves to break up levels into tiny areas that, once I've mastered them, I can attempt to put together into one unbroken playthrough with no saves at all. Blood Money, being as open as it were, couldn't really use quicksaves since you could do objectives in any order, and sometimes even part of one objective then part of another. The solution there was to limit the number of quicksaves you had for each mission depending on difficulty.

Here's a presentation Chris Avellone gave where he talks about death in Torment, a game where the protagonist is immortal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Wv0Ob-xG-s&feature=related

Yahtzee Croshaw:
There was a rather poorly-received movie a few years back called Next ...

Next took a mechanic out of The Golden Man by Phillip K Dick -- who also wrote the stories that became Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly.

OT: Nothing. Good article.

I watched Next for a reason I don't remember. To be fair there were some decent scenes, that army of clones being one of them. I didn't get how he was able to get the bad guy to empty his gun into his (Nics) alternate selves though. Don't those alternate selves not exist?

I loved the way death is dealt wth in Legacy of Kain:Soul Reaver. It fits the way the plot and game structure is designed. Very clever.

That whole thing about all of your attempts being different universes tends to be how I think of it.

If just because the idea of there existing several realities where Wesker tears Chris's head off.

Wasn't the first Prince of Persia told as a story? If you or your sidekick died, the prince would explain that you misunderstood and that's not how it happened? So in the reality of the game, the whole gameplay was a flashback, and if you failed, you had not killed the prince but failed to understand his story, or make him tell the story wrong.

A Curious Fellow:

This is a problem to me. Every game puts you in a position where you have no choice but to become Nicolas Cage from Next. Kind of alters up the story a bit when the protagonist is clairvoyant and can relive every five seconds of his life over and over again until he gets it right, but gaming has made it so mundane that we don't even talk about it. Every single protagonist in gaming has this super power. I think that particular weirdness needs attention. Thoughts?

It's something we take for granted, so much so that I don't think it necessarily ruins the immersion or the atmosphere. If it does, the developers did something wrong.

It would make for a very frustrating gameplay if you were only able to try every mission once. Or were unable to replay your games.

Some old arcade games only gave you one life, and if you fucked up, you had to try again. Would this be the kind of gameplay you'd want?
Well, there are the games like Pokemon that punish your failure by other means, in pokemon's case, taking some of your money away, and teleporting you back to the last Pokecenter.
But you still can reload an old save.
However, in some challenge battle areas like in Pokemon Stadium or Battle frontier, you can't save during your challenge so if you lose, you can't just reload a save and try again. You have to take the challenge from the start, but as the pokemon and the trainers change, it won't be the same thing.

I think I know a solution to the continuous timeline problem.

The character never dies, but can "faint".

Think of the Pokemon games. Pokemon never die, they faint. If you lose a battle, you'll restart at the last healing centre. That way, the flow of time continues as normal, but the player still must replay the battle until they win.

You could apply this to other games (for example Fable 3).
-Player starts quest
-Player is unsuccessful and character faints
-Character is saved from death (by an NPC?) and attempts the quest again, essentially restarting the quest
-Rinse and repeat
-Player completes quest

Dectilon:

Onyx Oblivion:

Quicksaves are indeed bad for challenge.

Not necessarily. Often I use quicksaves to break up levels into tiny areas that, once I've mastered them, I can attempt to put together into one unbroken playthrough with no saves at all. Blood Money, being as open as it were, couldn't really use quicksaves since you could do objectives in any order, and sometimes even part of one objective then part of another. The solution there was to limit the number of quicksaves you had for each mission depending on difficulty.

You are using Quicksaves for a SELF-IMPOSED challenge, but the fact that you can even use them in such a manner, speaks volumes about how exploitable they really are.

There's a really poignant example of the "alternate timeline where you fail" idea, in the Vietnam war game Men of Valour, whenever you died, the "game over" screen would be a reading of the letter sent by your commanding officer to your character's family, and it changed depending on where you were when you died, referencing specific points in the game, including the odd occasion when your usual CO wasn't around at the time where it was written by someone else.
Certainly drove the point of dying home.

Also, that game had the most horrific checkpoints in the last parts of the game, where there was a horribly long section which even had a non-skippable in-game cutscene in it with no checkpoints in-between.
I eventually resorted to using a god mod cheat to simply get to a reasonable point as it was easily 10 minutes long by playing normally to even get to the cutscene, let alone get beyond it, as there was a fair way to go after that before hitting another checkpoint. It didn't help that it was one of the hardest parts of the game anyway.

marcogodinho:
I loved the way death is dealt wth in Legacy of Kain:Soul Reaver. It fits the way the plot and game structure is designed. Very clever.

I was just about to post my comment on the Legacy of Kain series in general, and how by the end, the characters themselves knew they were unkillable, but by now they were fighting not for themselves, but for history itself. Essentially, the threat of death was replaced with the threat of everything they do being futile.
Even though the game was linear and you had no real choice in the matter, it still worked very well.

I would mostly agree, with you, save that this is a children's game. I compare Yoshi's Story: a relatively brutal death mechanic in a game, in where you had a limited number of Yoshis (baby Yoshis, mind), and if you ever died, ever, they were gone, and could only come back under extreme circumstances.

I grew attached to my Yoshis, because the game made me love them. I had favourite colours and favouite fruit which influenced my favourites, before the Yoshis died they would pant and look distraught, and there were special Black and White Yoshis that were really rare and hard to find that I spent hours chasing.

In that game, death motivated me because I really, really loved my Yoshis. I was young, mind.

Since this seems like an excellent home for ideas that will never be made because people are thick, I have envisioned thus.

Think of a game like Prince of Persia circa twenty-aught eight. Let's say the whole meeting scene didn't happen and say the game got the ball rolling already. After a scripted (possibly with player control) first time you fall in the goop and get your ass saved, the hero's says:
HERO: "What just happened?"
GIRL: "I just saved you with my powers."
HERO: "Oh... cool. How many times can you do that?"

Then we have an in-game content choice, a-la the beginning of Brutal Legend, of your standard difficulty settings, Easy ("enough to complete our task"), Medium ("only x times, but I'll recharge when we claim a piece of the maguffin"), Hard ("only once more. Period."), and Badass("I can't"). Choosing a harder setting get's the added logic of their team up: instead of some remarkablly happenstance meeting and need of someone to kill things for her, you were picked for hero duty because she needed your athetic chops to get from A to B, and to kill things for her.

But here's the spice, in easy or medium you'd get saved with increasing disdain and brilliantly written humor (why not I'm already in pretendland)

I guess Pokemon is a good example of what you can do without dying.

I think death is a problem do to the type of games you are referring to. People don't die in Gran Turismo, but they die in anything which has combat.

Really, what else can the ultimate failure be in a combat situation that isn't combat. Sorry, but Pokemon kinda has it nailed. The only thing I can think of is a kind of tiered game, where failure physically returns you to a previous level...

A similar thing has been on my mind in terms of RPGs lately. Is it fine for players to kill lots of small creatures and gradually whittle down their health and MP reserves, or is it better to constantly restore those stats to full in order to make each encounter more interesting?

Holy shit, Yahtzee, I've never put that much thought into the death mechanic in video games.

In gran turismo there is an equivalent to death though. It is called "losing a race".

To me the whole issue just seems to be a struggle to justify the old ways of doing things. "I think it's better this way because that's how it was in my day of gaming! But that's not a good enough reason to convince you all, so... here's my attempt to try and make it sound vital to gaming itself on a fundamental level."

One size doesn't fit all though, and I'm sure for some gamers harsh penalties and punishment in their gaming is a big plus. Can't say I'm one of them though.

To draw a comparison (albeit a flawed one, as the two mediums aren't exactly identical): some people watch movies to be really tested. They want to really think about what's happening, they want to struggle to figure out who the murderer is, what the twist might be. They want to agonize over the symbolism, the meaning. Other people just want to watch crap blow up on film.

Some people want both, others want both but at different times.

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