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Feb 42012

TEA & DEATH is a talk/ discussion I did at the first Bit of Alright game conference. It was about death in games, served with a lovely cup of calming tea so that no one got too freaked out about their own mortality. I think it went really well; I’m glad it wasn’t just me talking for half an hour or so, the audience were interested and engaged enough that we took up a whole hour, and could have gone on. I had loads of people come up to me during the rest of the day to continue the discussion, so I think I’m on to something.

[CAVEAT: I’ve kind of cut this down, to make it readable. Not that it was coherent in the first place, of course. But just so you know: no, I’m not saying ‘this is how it should be’ and no, I haven’t necessarily ‘thought it through’ like a grown-up.]

Here’s the core of it: I’m increasingly aware that death in games is an outmoded concept. It served a purpose in, like, the 1980s because games were short enough that death worked well as a fail state. My argument is that these days, all it does is ruin narrative and frustrate the player, and that surely as designers we can come up with something better.

I’m not saying no death in games. Clearly in some places it works well; VVVVVV and Super Meatboy, for example, which treat death-as-gameplay in a gleeful, short-fired bursts.

This all started because I was trying to work out how to handle death in The Swindle – it’s essentially an open-world platform game that sees you breaking into buildings. Each of the levels will, I hope, wind up being quite large. So quickloading/ checkpoints aren’t really going to be ideal, and sending the player back to the start of the level if they die just kind of felt archaic.

Which brings to mind Alien vs Predator. The first one. Remember how you couldn’t save, and if you died you had to restart the entire level? What that meant was you simply very quickly learned precisely which air vents the aliens were going to spawn from in the opening, and got annoyed at how far you had to sidetrack to grab the Smart Gun but, God, it’s kind of necessary isn’t it? For the well-trodden opening quarter of the level, you were the badassest Colonial Marine ever. And actually, thinking about it, we all know aliens have a penchant for dragging the important characters away to an antechamber and gluing them to a wall. Couldn’t you do that, and take away my Smart Gun instead? Make me escape?

Just a flippant example, of course. That’d probably get annoying quite quickly, too.

I love Uncharted, it’s amazing, but unfortunately it’s the game that during the talk seemed to best solidify my main problem here – death ruins narrative. Uncharted is a beautiful, well-acted, stunningly-designed game that they’ve taken a lot of care over the script to produce a funny, well-crafted story. Unfortunately, it’s a story that’s seemingly being told to you by a confused, crack-addict uncle:

“And then, after solving the riddle Nathan was attacked by mercenaries! He dove left out of cover, but was shot several times in the face, and died a horrible death, slumped in the sand. ‘NOOOOO!’, Sully cried, as Drake’s lifeless corpse slid off a cliff.

“NO. Wait. Sorry, that’s not what happened. After solving the riddle, Nathan was attacked by mercenaries! He dove RIGHT out of cover, but messed up throwing a grenade and it bounced off an idol and exploded at his feet, sending his lifeless corpse cartwheeling across the ruins while Sully shouted ‘Oh God, Nate! NOOOOO!’

“No, wait. Sorry, that’s not what happened. After solving the riddle…” etc etc.

It’s mental. What a weird way to ruin your otherwise-excellent narrative. Quite what the solution is, I’m not sure. Anyone who’s played DooM with IDDQD on will attest it’s a pretty dull affair, so there needs to be some risk, or there’s no tension.

The audience brought up several good examples of games that deal with death differently, from Bioshock’s Vita Chambers to Soul Reaver and Prey’s ‘spirit realms’, which all solve the ‘breaking narrative’ problem, I guess, but in doing so do they really keep the tension up?

I think the sum-up was this: maybe we shouldn’t unthinkingly fall back on convention. As game designers, we’ve got the tools to make anything happen upon death to explain why the player can carry on. You’ve got everything from time travel, clones, parallel dimensions, freak storms, right up to having God turn up, stuff your ghost back in your lifeless corpse and telling you to buck your ideas up. We can penalise death in-game (by removing score, coins, weapons, powerups etc), but instead we’re locked in this cycle of frustrating the player in the real world, by inconveniencing him while the game reloads. Surely there’s a better alternative?

I just don’t know what it is.


  1. Feb 42012
    Igor Hardy,

    What if the mouse and keyboard a terrible electric shock into the players body each time the controlled character loses all energy? The character is not killed, but instead recovers a little bit of energy. That would keep the players tense while removing the undesired deathly interruptions.

  2. Feb 42012
    Harry Jones,

    I think Soul Reaver dealt with it quite well. I did both the spirit realm thing and the god stuffing you back in a body if died in the spirit realm.

    So the ideas are used elsewhere, but in a Vampire game it seemed to work better, and it was genuinely a set back – unlike Prey which was just a strange mini-game – it took you a while to get back to the physical world.

    It also still left tension (which Prey didn’t) because there was the possibility of being sent back to the starting zone if you died in the spirit world, but it was quite difficult to die in the spirit world so it wasn’t too annoying!

    Shame my Dreamcast doesn’t work anymore or I’d go play it.

  3. Feb 42012
    Igor Hardy,

    Filling Raziel with energy so that he can go back to the land of the living was terribly boring. Especially since you did that a lot and it served no other purpose than providing a set back.

  4. Feb 42012

    What difference does it make what the explanation for restarting after death is? Your Drake example would be just as stupid if instead of dying he was conveniently winked back in time by 30 seconds, from a coherent narrative perspective.

    Surely the point with death in videogames is not a question of how we justify it (because they’re all the same thing in different flavours) but whether it’s needed at all.

    Vita Chambers are not “dealing with death differently”, for example. They’re just dressing the same mechanic up in a way that makes sense.

  5. Feb 42012

    Well yeah, obviously time travel doesn’t work in the Uncharted games, either, you’d have to pick something that fits with the Universe.

    I don’t have a solution. The best Uncharted example I could think up yesterday is that after you lose all your health you’re bundled into a van, lose your weapons (and whatever other game currency, like the collectibles) and have to escape. Again, annoying if that was all that happened *every time*, you could have context-sensitive ones appropriate for the level, or *whatever*.

    Vita chambers are great in theory (for the narrative), but there’s no punishment for using them, right? You don’t lose Adam or anything? So you might as well have God Mode on, and therefore death loses tension.

  6. Feb 42012

    But however you do it, if the mechanic is still “fail, and something happens, you lose some stuff, and you get sent back to an earlier point” then essentially you may as well just have death and be done with it, because everything else is just going to slow down the process from failing to getting back to playing, which would be annoying.

    I guess I don’t really mind the “Gah! I’m dead! Press Continue.. I’m ALIVE!” thing because it doesn’t ruin the story. The only “canon” version is the one where I survived until the end and then saved the world or whatever. So that’s the version Grandpa Drake would be telling – how would he be aware of the parallel universes where Drake failed?

  7. Feb 42012

    Where is the “edit” button? Oh well.

    Anyway, it all boils down to why people are playing your game. Whether it’s for the challenge or the story.

    If it’s for the challenge, then in my opinion, the narrative only needs to work as a whole on the playthrough where you succeed. The story of Mass Effect was not broken by the fact my Sheppard died numerous times along the way, or that I reloaded if I cocked up a quest for a squad mate.

    Skyrim is not ruined because you can quickload.

    By contrast, I played The Witcher 2 *entirely* because of the story, which was fabulous. In that game, dying (for me) got in the way of progressing. But then, CD Projekt provided an “easy” mode which was quite ludicrously easy. As in “you will never die” easy which says to me, that *they* are more concerned with the story too.

  8. Feb 42012

    I personally enjoyed the way Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? handled death. You have 1000 Prinnies at the start, and if you die you’re back at a checkpoint with a different Prinny. Granted, they all looked and sounded exactly the same. It also helped that in-universe Prinnies were expendable mooks anyways.

  9. Feb 42012

    The most obvious (I can’t believe this didn’t occur to me sooner) example of all of this is DOOM. A game where you spend more time in danger of dying than actually dying. Because of tremendously good design, in most cases you barely scrape through the situation – which provides all the tension of “you will probably die here” with the reward (and narrative continuity) of “BUT YOU DIDN’T! HOORAY”. A side effect is that you feel like a goddamn super hero because of your amazing “not getting killed when it looked like you would” skills.

    Unfortunately, getting that balance *right* like in DOOM is bloody hard. But that, to me, is the goal of these sorts of games and not the mutation and/or removal of death as a mechanic.

  10. Feb 42012
    Ruber Eaglenest,

    Dan, I have left you an extensive opinion about the topic at Indie Games the Weblog, and I think it converges with some opinions that appeared here. I talk about manage failure in a way that is does not resolves in death. It’ the same about Doom design and the management of danger.

    So I think you should bother about how your gameplay allows the player to be in danger without dying, having resources to escape death; and to give the player options so a failure does not mean death or restart or quickload. If I fail to enter this way, maybe I could try the sewers, or by the rooftops?

    Death? Who cares? what about the typical save/load/quicksave? In Thief series works pretty well, and they are the best stealth games ever.

  11. Feb 52012


    Yes! Escape and running away and *not dying* will hopefully prove a crucial and brilliant part of the core gameplay. You’ve got all the tools you need to stay alive and outfox guards at every turn.

    But it’s a game with guns and shooting, and somewhere, at some point, I have to make it so the main guy can ‘die’ (or do I?), and I’m just wondering if there’s something out there that’s *better* than the typical save/load/quicksave (and checkpoint system) that works “pretty well”. ;)

  12. Feb 52012

    Sorry if this comes across as moronic, I don’t normally leave comments but this is a subject that really interests me.

    Why does it have to be in black and white? Life and death? Isn’t there something in between of those two things?

    In Doom, what made you think you were going to die was that your little face looked all bloody and beat up. You knew you were near the exit of the level but could you make it? You could look around to try and find some health or you could take the risk and try to complete the level despite being wounded.

    Why not physically wound your character in The Swindle? Make it harder to reach the goal. It’s much harder to just from one rooftop to another when you’ve got a broken knee or gunshot wound to the shoulder.

    And if the game is about gaining money, then why don’t you pay a Doctor to heal you? If you carry on in the level and end up getting too wounded you could just have the character be captured and then your excuse for restarting is he’s broken out or something but you have a much larger penalty, like ALL your money is gone and whatever upgrades you purchased just before attempting the level are gone.

    That’ll teach them not to go to the Doctor.

    See, I half read that back and it WAS moronic. Easier than this would just be making game progress autosave, so you can start where you left off if you have to go do something, but go for permadeath so when you die it deletes the save game.

    I do wish more games would experiment with fail states so good on yer for bringing it up.

  13. Feb 52012

    “Skyrim is not ruined because you can quickload.”

    No, but it is completely ruined because you can die and reloading takes x cups of tea at a time.

    If you’re going to slaughter me (and in some cases, slaughter me often in quick succession) you better damn well make sure I’m not sitting on the naughty step for however many cups of tea whilst you reload because that’s worse than a disabled dinosaur.

  14. Feb 52012

    I like perma-death. Games like Minecraft and any rogue-like is good fun if you know that when you’re gone, you’re gone.

    Otherwise, getting the balance right so that players can evade an unlikely battle, or escape one that’s going wrong, is preferable to dying. It turns what would be a frustrating death-and-restart into a victory (“I knew when to get away!”) but still one that’s punished (“I best go away and lick my wounds”).

  15. Feb 52012

    Incidentally, there’s a couple of really bad examples to take a look at for the psych element of things.

    (Well, they’re good examples of bad practice, I suppose)

    Swarm Arena, when it gels perfectly, has this almost space ballet bringer of death quality to it *but* it’s marred by the most drawn out death in a game I’ve come across. You have big swarms to protect you (and to fight with) but when you die, you’ll leave the swarm spread out across the screen and you’ll lose your power ups.

    So you have to gather the swarm once more and then you’ll have to gather the power ups too. You need the swarm to win and to break down the enemies and they protect you also. They get whittled away gradually in battle and in death. It’s amazingly slow and messy.

    You can still battle on until you’ve got nothing left and that can take *ages* so you have to kill yourself or let yourself be increasingly humiliated. It’s quite the thing to discover how dispiriting this is. From KING OF NEON DEATH DANCE to pathetic little dot in a minute or so.

  16. Feb 52012
    Ruber Eaglenest,

    I think my preference is clear, “to die” with “save/load/quickload”. I don’t like checkpoint systems in game like this (thief series, bioshock, and such). At least automatic save, but talk of it like “checkpoint system” does not fit with “open world stealth”.

    So, sometimes the simple is the better, you have bullets? then he can die.

    Thief 3 (Deadly Shadows) did something very interesting. In the Hub world, if you die, that is, if there is a fade to black once Garret fall under the weight of the swords of the City Watch, he regain concious in the jail, and you can escape from there.

    If you have an open world, maybe you could put the player in Jail or in a hideout of friends who heal the protagonist. This rescues or jailing could happen in a discrete number of times. In the end, they are live to have several lives, however this is hidden to the player and is far more elegant.

    However, once you start a mission breaking in an edifice, there will not be more lives, no jail no friends to help your ass. So if you die, is to restore a savegame or restart that mission (checkpoint? automatic save at the beginning of the mission).

    Or not! maybe that edifice has a cell for intruders, like in Zelda Wind Waker in Devil Island. Or maybe some friends could get inside and rescue your ass. Or maybe there is an infiltrator between the guards that opens the door so you could follow with the mission, etc etc.

    And, if you have a steampunk world, you can reduce the amount of bullets, saying that they are a precious resource, so not everybody has a bullet weapon because they are very expensive… Maybe the guards have predominantly melee weapons, maybe bullet turrets are scarce, etc.

    Good luck! ;)

  17. Feb 52012
    Ruber Eaglenest,

    This phrase has bad wording (I’m Spanish):
    ” In the end, they are live to have several lives, however this is hidden to the player and is far more elegant.”

    That is, this opportunities to escape death, are like normal lives in games, but really more elegant.

  18. Feb 52012

    The other one has had the worst of it patched out but Bunch Of Heroes. It’s a 4 player Crimsonland done a bit poo thing and it’s one of those games that takes things from other games without really considering whether they’re actually a bit on the poo side.

    But! It also brought its own smart arse solution to death.

    On one stage, you have 4 players and no healthkits. If you die, you sit in time out. Not entirely out there in the realms of multiplayer stuff, yeah? EXCEPT! BA DA DUM.

    With each death, the time you spend in time out increases. Before they patched the edges off it, this would mean that in a game that keeps you ill equipped to deal with the threat at hand most of the time, in a game where you can have your good weapon replaced with a crap one by virtue of a crate landing close to you and in a game with no way to restore the health… you were only ever really a few deaths away from 20 minute time outs.

    Die a few more times and there goes an entire evenings worth of time you’ll be sitting in time out. So you could have 2 team members “die” in the game within 5 minutes of each other and one could be back in 5 minutes (still way too long) but the other has died before so he won’t be back playing until 10 minutes have passed or more.

    Incredibly abusive design that made a lot of people *incredibly* viciously angry. Which I both understand and find amazingly fascinating.

  19. Feb 52012

    Prince of Persia The Sands of Time handled it rather nicely.

    Basically, the Prince is telling a story (the story you’re playing through in the game), and every time you die, you’re given a small piece of dialogue saying “that’s not how it happened” (or something similar).

  20. Feb 62012

    Not had a chance to contribute to this yet due to a busy ole weekend but on our way home we did discuss a few other options. Not sure anyone has mentioned it but Omnikron : Nomad Soul had an interesting take on all of this…I’ll let Wiki explain the key bit we discussed…

    “One of the main features in this game is the possibility to reincarnate in a different world character upon the death of the one you “incarnated” in. However, doing so results in all character stats resetting prompting the gamer to fight in tournaments or buy more potions to jot stats back up.”

    It’s a pretty interesting take on death in a game.

    Fits the narrative.
    Don’t have to restart an area.
    You can reincarnate into somehow more suited for the task at hand.
    Risk of death still high as you lose any stats you’ve built up during the game.
    Brings up interesting puzzle based situations (If you’re locked up in a jail simply jump to the body of the security guard.)

    If you die you lose ALL your stats which could make progression in the world tough.
    Need a constantly populated world.
    Can be hard to bond with a character if continuously changing.
    Some characters still know who you are no matter the body which seems odd.
    Could be a difficult system to implement and balance for gameplay.

  21. Feb 62012

    Interesting you brought up Bioshock’s Vita Chambers. They totally ruined the tension, and therefore the entire game for me. Knowing that you can just spawn n’ spam ad infinitum, wrench in hand, arms flailing around like a demented octopus made me as fearless as I was relentless.

    Narrative be damned, I’ll take the quick-load key any day sir.

  22. Feb 62012

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned planescape torment yet! They managed to fit character death perfectly into the game by making you immortal. TNO would just heal every time he ‘died’.

    In fact, until you got into the mindset of an immortal protagonist, there were things you missed by reloading when you died. For instance, at one point you are mugged, and if you let them kill you, you hear them talking amongst themselves about a further plot twist!

    A story telling device that would work only in video games…

  23. Feb 62012
    Facebook Indie Games,

    I loved how in Horace Goes Skiing when you suffered a serious injury an ambulance turned up, fixed you up, and returned you to the slope. Every time this happened you got a medical bill.

    I can see it working in a modern game like this. Instead of dying, a medic gets called in. He fixes you but you run up bills and you have to pay these off before you can buy cool stuff like better weapons.

    You might win the game but still be horribly in debt for all your medical care and get sent to debtors prison anyway.

  24. Feb 62012

    Saints Row 3 does the Horace Goes Skiing method by transporting you to the hospital with a bill incurred.

    It’s probably in GTA also but that would mean playing a GTA game to find out.

  25. Feb 62012

    If I could agree more I would, but I can’t so I wont.

    An most excellent piece on game-design.

  26. Feb 62012
    David Ostman,

    Interesting to read your thoughts on this. I think we have two different views on this, and experiences when we play games.

    I’ve never experienced death ruining narrative in games. It’s part of it being a game, and even if I die one hundred times playing a game through, in the end the entirety is mostly one long uninterrupted narrative in my mind; unless of course there’s a great imbalance in the design, creating specific scenarios where the difficulty ramps up, causing extremely frustrating bottlenecks.

    The way I look at it, our brains manage very well to filter out the death aspect, and knit it all together nicely. It’s when developers try to stray from the norm that I sometimes get frustrated and think they should just let me die, reload, try again.

  27. Feb 62012

    I would highly recommend you analyse Amnesia, a game that does not punnish death at all, but still is the most scary game ever to die in. In this talk by Frictional Games’ Thomas Grip, he talks you through the design-choices that resulted in no death penality (as well as no combat and competative gameplay)

  28. Feb 62012
    U Nu,

    I jumped down here at about halfway through the comments. To me, it seems like a feasible strategy for a stealth based game to have the player become more and more incapacitated by being injured (i.e. the the screen or controls become more obtuse), thus forcing them to flee the situation. This would sort of mimic real life.

    Or film life. I’m thinking about No Country for Old Men, where Bardem takes off to nurse his wounds. A downside to this is that in real life, a lot of people just die straight up without even realizing what actually killed them.

  29. Feb 62012

    I was never a fond of gimmicky death systems.

    When I die in video games it is never because I was planning on abusing the system. When I die, it pretty much means that I made a newbie mistake. So, my punishment for not knowing how to play your game is that I have to play a shitty version of your game? Hell no!

    I feel like this stream of reasoning is the same kind of reasoning that leads to quick time events and forced stealth sections. Sure they add tension and contribute to the narrative, but they also force players to play a game they don’t want to play.

  30. Feb 72012

    One problem with replacing the normal way death is handled in games is that a number of alternatives end up making death more punishing. For example, being taken out of a mission and warped to a hospital or jail with some of your money removed demands more time and punishes a player far more than simply restarting at a checkpoint.

    These solutions also pose problems for the narrative. If the player is constantly breaking out of the same jail, why don’t the people in charge fix the giant hole in the wall behind the bed?

    I think one solution that might work for The Swindle is to replace health with some kind of steam-punk force field. If your force-field falls below a thresh-hold, then it warps you to a checkpoint. If your force-field falls to zero then you surrender and go to jail rather than die. Alternatively you could have a finite number of warps.

    This would make the more punishing failure rare and wouldn’t hurt the narrative as much as having a character constantly die. Though, force-fields and teleportation might not fit steam-punk all that well.

  31. Feb 92012
    Ben Nizan,

    I found the way that the reboot Prince of Persia (yeah, that one everyone hates for one reason or another) handled ‘death’ was pretty cool.

    You mess up a jump, Deus Ex Elika saves you. Though she puts you back to the start of the assault cause, or at least a checkpoint a long the way. Mechanically, this is exactly the same as dying and re-loading but oh my god did I never hear the end of “The game is too easy, you can’t die!”, “It’s stupid, where’s the challenge if you can’t die!, from people at the time. There’s a wierd gameplay/narrative dissonance going on there rooted in quite specific expectations of experience.

    Basically my point is there’s a whole big can ‘o worms about player attitudes regarding death in games. It’s a delicious can though, we should open it and feast on their tears.

    Err. I mean we should definitely experiment and push the boundaries! (And then feast on their tears.)

  32. Feb 122012

    One example of death intruding on a game’s narrative for me is God of War. Kratos is this ridiculously powerful guy who can kill gods and suchlike, but then he has to walk across a slightly narrow beam and falls to his death, suddenly pathetic. Surely walking across a beam should be trivial for this guy.

    That’s why I enjoyed Enslaved. During the climbing sections it was literally impossible to jump off the platform or miss a hand-hold. Since Monkey is meant to be a great climber, the player should feel 100% confident in being able to traverse the environment without dying.

    The problem is the same should be true of combat situations, in cases where the main character is meant to be adept at combat. Implementing that is significantly tougher though.

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