“Oh no I died again!” – not something you generally get to say in real life is it? Yet gamers readily accept death as a temporary failure state – just a blip towards achieving their goal. Death has been abstracted in games in many varied ways over the years and in some games abstracted away completely. It has been used to provoke emotion, to punish, to teach, to up the stakes or just to increase a score.

But the cat came back the very next day…

Arcades with video games and pinball machines are quite rare now in the UK (now they are full of fruit machines) but are still a good starting point for looking in to players’ lives in games. Lives in Pinball are represented by identical silver balls – a limited resource per game. A player may start with three balls and might even win extra balls but eventually the game will end with a score. Score is used as a measure of success across all of your lives, with each finite reincarnation another chance at increasing the net accomplishment.

Space Invaders sees the player’s ship explode and be replaced with an identical clone a limited number of times. PacMan actually shrivels up in to nothing and makes a pitiful whining noise as his little spherical body implodes at the touch of Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde… but another identical PacMan takes his place. These games are over thirty years old but the themes of credits, lives and scores still permeate throughout modern games in all sorts of disguises.

This kind of death and credit system is useful to monetize failure. Want to see more of the game? Well okay then… you have ten seconds to cough up the money and we will let you see some more. If you do not come up with the money then back to the start for you! Progression therefore will cost you, mastery of skills and patterns only earned after costly failure. Is it worth antagonizing a player with this kind of death in games that are not pay-per-play?

Mario and Sonic teach via death. I cannot believe that these games were designed so that a brand new player could get through the entire game without learning through a fatal kind of trail and error. Punishment for death can increase from the arcades where you can always bribe your way through a section, because in some games you pay in time instead. After dying a few times in a row the punishment goes from a pained animation to having to restart an entire area – taking away hard fought progress from the player. While some players thrive on this type of this type of challenge I would argue this action can be demotivating. Only a certain kind of player continues on to conquer this, others will just walk away in frustration.

‘Splosion Man has death but you just bounce right back in a glorious splodey sentient cloud of insanity. The game has levels and stages to clear and it is not possible to save your progress in the middle of a stage. The game does offer the player an option to skip to the next stage if you die in a section too many times in a row. So a frustrated player can skip forward to see new content and get some sense of progress. I never took up the option… too much gamer pride. But I did hear something about a pink tutu you have to wear in the next stage if you do!

Games with lives and credits often also keep score, either in terms of points or fastest times. They promote competition through leaderboards, with players trying to out do each other for bragging rights.

If it bleeds we can kill it (apart from if it is the player)

There is a snowy mountain path continuing to the NORTH. To the SOUTH a noisy group of villagers carrying flaming pitchforks are closing in on your location. They all seem kind of angry. Well apart from the springer spaniel that is wagging his tail furiously. He seems to think this is the best walk ever.

> NORTH

You tripped over something and fell off the cliff, a whooshing sound fills your ears followed by a very nasty crunching noise. Breathing heavily and looking up you see the villagers standing where you were laughing. One shouts down to your broken body “enjoy your trip?” Another takes your INFRARED SUNGLASSES that fell from your pocket before your tumble and puts them on. “OOOh INFRARED SUNGLASSES, I’ve always wanted a pair of these! I’m seeing red… oh look at that INVISIBLE TRIP WIRE across the path!” Rolling your eyes, you promptly expire.

THE END.

If only the player would have typed USE GLASSES. Ah well. It was all great playing that text adventure until you died, then you had to consider if you really wanted to play through all *that* again. It is like not being able to cheat in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Part of the reason I like Monkey Island II so much was that you could not get in to that situation. Sure you could get stuck, but Guybrush could not die (but could certainly embellish the stories he told about it). The lack of death (but the presence of peril) made the game a very accessible adventure game.

In Fable III, you get knocked down, but you get up again. There is a price though; you get scarred up and you could lose some experience towards your next guild seal. This cosmetic toll is unbearable to some – I have known people to quit to the dashboard to avoid the auto save kicking in and saving their character in a knocked out state. Of course others play well but get knocked out on purpose… because scars are cool and perhaps they like the villagers making negative comments about their looks (just another reason to take the safety off).

The player in these games has one life that is constantly threatened but never ends. It gives a player license to experiment without fear of a sticky end. Games where the player cannot die often focus on telling a story rather than keeping score. They might also have to fight against the perception of being “easy”.

Ouch that really stings

There are a breed of games where death is both an inconvenience and a common occurrence. Gone are the limits on lives and credits. A player can retry many different things in different ways without fear of being sent back to an arbitrary check point a designer decided would be a good place to start again.

In Braid, everything fades and pauses… whoops better rewind time to before that death happened. No penalty really, unless the backwards noise really grates against you.

Crackdown and Bioshock have the concept of clones… so just like Pacman and the hero’s ship in Space Invaders there is always a new vessel for a player to jump in too. Though in Crackdown & Bioshock the effects of the previous clone are still present in the world. You literally are a player clone army and in Crackdown II there is actually an achievement rewarded for finding all the ways an agent can die. Death then can be its own reward.

Demon’s Souls adds a community aspect to death. Death can come completely out of the blue but blood stains can be used to communicate to other wary players what is in store for them – death is a form of shared learning experience.

Limbo sees the little boy avatar you control dying over and over again with very little game penalty. I take it back, the deaths are really quite disturbing and stomach churning though I’m sure there are those reading that just think it is funny! Heck it is probably a good way of acclimatizing to that kind of horror. Each death is over so quickly and so little ground is lost that it hardly costs any player time at all to die.

These games attempt to limit the frustration of death by placing the player close to the point of failure. They dust off the player and say “have another go, try something different”. Many of these games want you to complete them and know that some of the challenges they offer are tough.

No you really are dead

Something that computers and home consoles can do that I have not known in the arcades is the game save. A precious area of memory where a player can save their progress through the game and return to it at will. This allows the paradox of a player dying and a game ending, yet able to return to a certain point of time before that happened. Kind of like Ground Hog Day, where the entire world in unaware that all this has happened before (and all this will happen again). The player though has hopefully gleaned some knowledge to progress past that sticky point, so perhaps after x amount of times it will actually happen differently!

The downside of this is that the game does not know you played through a section either, so if there are any sections of non-interactive play then a player is doomed to sit through them again and again. As a player I really, really do hate times where I am forced to sit through sections of the game deemed so essential that I must watch them before interacting again. Perhaps there is a happy compromise, a separate save file held that indicates if a player has experienced that oh-so-important content once even if they revert to a previous save?

Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption do sometimes have fresh dialogue for retrying a totally failed mission from a checkpoint. GTA does exact a penalty for death (or at least lack of heath) – the player does not automatically revert to a save but instead ends up in a hospital with the contents of their previously bottomless pockets empty.

Red Dead Redemption did rely on teaching me that I cannot disarm people in story mission duels via killing me off and reverting me to a save / checkpoint. I really would have preferred disarmed opponents that had to die to have killed themselves rather than gimping the disarm mechanic and killing me in duels. Being quite a persistent gamer I believed them to just be formidable opponents, so I did try one particular duel over and over again for an hour before I caught on (sigh).

If a player veers away from where the story teller wants them to go, they are killed off and put back somewhere they can make a different choice. It does become frustrating if that choice is not clear, or if a player sees what they are supposed to do but lacks the skill to do it. Perhaps worse still, when the player remembers something from several hours ago that would change things now. Arguably save slots offer redemption for mistakes… at the cost of perhaps many hours of player time. Multiple save slots also potentially endanger the weight of player decisions.

Should a player be able to decide to “cheat” and turn the pages back, or should that temptation be removed? Do you trust a player to not replay one part of the story again and again to see all the different outcomes? Does it even matter if they do? I don’t think so if the player is having fun, but Mr. Resetti would disagree!

You wear yellow, they wear red

When a hero dies there is a save point or usually a special something that allows them to fight another day. The same cannot be said of other characters and things the player interacts with in a game world. You are Captain Kirk, the other characters are red shirts.

Games in the Civilization, Age of Empires and Command & Conquer series reward units that survive many battles with experience. They reward the player for leadership that keeps the minions alive. Cannon Fodder also had this but had an extra twist. Giving my squad names and knowing the penalty of seeing a new grave on the hill at the end of the level made me work just that little bit harder to keep my squad alive (see comments from other gamers on this vid).

Some game’s deaths actually are a vital part of the storyline and they expect the player to accept that. Characters in The Sims eventually die if you play with them. Sure you could just switch characters, keep reverting to a save or allow them to continually imbibe from the water cooler of youth but you are always able to let time take its course and eventually death will come to collect them. Then they are gone. Ok, well you might get a ghost hanging around but they are not remotely the same.

Mass Effect makes the player choose life or death for their own team members at points during the game. Mass Effect II rewards good leadership and truly knowing the players own team with extra story and different outcomes. There comes a point where deep knowledge of a the supporting cast strengths and weaknesses can save their lives.

Having a player care about their supporting cast is terrible when it feels unfair (why won’t this healing potion work on them this time… it worked the other thousand times?!) When done right though it gives a player extra emotional investment in not only the avatar they control but more of the world they are experiencing.

That’s all folks!

I would be very interested in hearing about how you think player death may evolve in the future, more examples of the above and your own personal experiences in the comments. Many argue games are getting easier – some would say they are becoming more accessible. A few designers have designed away player death completely in their games.

Death serves a few purposes, but chiefly to either completely end a score attempt or to impede progress through a larger game world. Geometry Wars understands that smashing down a button lots of times should just let the player try again (a touch many gamers I am sure appreciate). Other games use checkpoints and saves to snatch failed player actions out of the air as if they never happened; or return a carbon copy of that character back to the world sometimes none the wiser of the predecessors fate.

While writing this blog I asked an open question on Twitter about player and character death. The many replies even then just go to show what a wide subject this is in both narrative and gameplay. Grim Fandango, Planescape: Torment and Die2Nite have been suggested to me as games that explore death itself, though that is a topic for a different article. As a programmer and gamer I believe the way death is handled in a game very much defines how the game feels and plays overall. I do hope this article sparks off a few interesting conversations. You may leave comments here or try joining a conversation on Twitter – I suggest the hash tag #PlayerDeath @paulecoyote.

Thanks

Tweeters that helped me out in no particular order: @DaveFeltham @zackfreedman @lingmops @glamgeekgirl @oOSTVOo @twonjosh @paulnew @acroyear3 @BusterMcFearson @Stomp224 @JurieOnGames @ChrisA9 @ColleenDelzer @Renmauzuo @NaviFairyGG @FatalWebMunki @bjoernknafla @daredevildave

Also many thanks to my lovely wife proof reading this for me several times before I published it.

Paul Evans is a central technology programmer at Lionhead Studios. He has worked on the Fable II, Fable III and other unreleased titles. You can find him on Linkedin, see other things he has written on his personal blog, and follow him on twitter. Everything in this article is Paul’s opinion alone and does not necessarily reflect his employer’s views, nor constitute a legal relationship. Copyright ©2011, Paul Evans.