An end to death?

impending death

Is death enjoyable to you?
How many times did you die today?

Video games it seems are the stuff of life and death. When I walk around the show floor during E3 and glance at the monitors what I see usually amounts to something like this:
Guy running, firing weapon, taking damage, death. Reload.
Next monitor:
Guy running, firing weapon, falling in hole, death. Reload.
Next monitor:
Guy running, firing weapon, swimming in lava, death. Reload.
Ad nauseum.

I witness the same sequence of events whenever my non-video game savvy friends come over to try out games. And regardless the setting, the reaction from the player is always the same: frustration. Death is no fun. No one enjoys it. It takes you out of the game experience, and the immersion you were enjoying, usually to some form of save-game reload screen. For players unversed on load screens, the experience is jarring and even somewhat confusing. Which game to load? Why do I have to go so far back? Where are the weapons that I previously acquired, and so forth. I know to hard-core gamers this stuff sounds moronic, but it’s real. And I feel it is part of the reason why games are considered “no fun” by so many of the uninitiated.

I’m going to skip past my general belief that games these days are simply too difficult for most mass market consumers… and go straight to the question of death. Why do we continue to use death as a game mechanic in video games? Why is it that video games are the only medium to employ the repetitive life/death mechanic?

Not suggesting that we get rid of ‘death’ per-se, but that death not be something that takes you out of the game context. Right now most games remove you from the game and take you up a level of immersion in order to display a load screen. Whenever this happens I feel that the amazing entertainment experience I was just enjoying has been hijacked.

If you ever owned a laserdisc player or have watched a VCD movie, then you know the feeling. You’re watching the film, completely into it, anxiously awaiting the next scene, the next bit of action, and BAM! The screen goes blue (or whatever flavor your player sports), and you are prompted to insert the next disc. It’s like the lights being turned on at the bar at 2AM. Huh? Where am I?

That same thing can be seen with video games. Watch your friends the next time they’re playing a game: Head craned forward, eyes locked to the screen, fingers twitching madly, body movements mimicking in-game actions, mouth agape, totally oblivious to the outside world, then BOOM. Death. Everything changes. The neck straightens, the mouth closes, the eyes blink, the head comes round, and the experience is ended. Where are they now? Sitting in their living room in real life, death-limbo on screen. Out of the game.

Grand Theft Auto 3 is a great example of a game where the load screen interface is replaced by an in-game construct, the hospital, or the police station. You die and then, instead of being prompted to load a saved game, are taken to a logical in-game location where your character is reset and control is returned to you. Loss of immersion is very low, at least compared to viewing a load game menu, waiting for a game to load, and then effectively traveling back in time to your previous game state.

I think there are limitless possibilities for wrapping the death/load mechanic into some less jarring wrapper that makes sense in relation to a game’s characters and setting. Helper characters can take the fallen main character to be revived. The main character can have some intelligent death-handling AI that allows him a death-time interaction with the player. Perhaps death is replaced with an accelerated “sleep” from which the player can awake after 5 seconds after having watched the nearby environment clear itself of hazards. So forth and so on…

If death is going to be a core element to video games, then it should be something as seamless as turning a page in a book or transitioning from one scene to the next in a film. It should not distract from the quality of the game or remove the player from the experience. If it does then it becomes a heavy-handed crutch and means of increasing difficulty without delivering any play value.

14 responses to “An end to death?”

  1. Excellent point –

    The cycle of death is an unfortunate burden- the product of gameplay that unfortunately due to the constraints of any virtual world exists in some form. Wouldnt it be amazing if after that gang battle, a practically entirely unique instance could ‘revive’ you based on exactly what happened? Something almost entirely dynamic? Using GTA3 as an example, it would be amazing if, for example, say you and your AI partner went into a battle, and your ‘health was brought to 0’ and ur partner was alive, he could do something that scares away gang two and then limp you back into a car where you could recover at home base. Or then, say, your buddy gets shot down and you get shot down , the cops arrive and send you both to the hospital where you wake up.

    One thing that I think can be equally as jarring as the loading screen is the redundant alternative. Games where you need to ‘sneak out’, for example, get annoying when you are seen and suddenly you get that familiar “umph” as you return to the jail cell in the exact same fashion only to do it over and over (i.e. Zelda Windwaker, Fable).

    im afraid though this idea of many , many ‘exit solutions’ is pretty far off in the game development world . So much content is expect already. Maybe if games become even more mainstream the funds will be there for huge amounts of content , but until then its death to me.

  2. There have been some attempts at alternative death scenarios. In Gothic, for example, you wouldn’t really die, just get knocked down. The character would take a minute to recover and then be up and animate. Of course the problem with that is: I’d rather reload than wait a minute. In Psychonauts you couldn’t save while in a mind level and if you died you would be tossed out of that person’s mind only to go back in and pick up where you left off, which wasn’t too obtrusive as it flowed with the game. Then there is the old multiple lives scenario, which was resurrected with Scrapland where you only pause game play for a moment and then return to the same spot ala Mario. The most creative solution I’ve seen was in Thief Deadly Shadows. If you “died” in the city you would open up a secret level that is not part of the main game where you now must break out of jail and regain your confiscated equipment.

    I believe there are several solutions to the monotony of death if the developers look hard enough. The important thing is to choose something that will make sense in the context of a specific game. For instance let’s take Bad Day LA, for an obvious example. Instead of dying, your character could gain an extra arm from radiation poisoning and have to go to a back alley doctor to have it removed. Well okay that might be a bit much but there definitly are plenty of ideas out there.

  3. in some MMORPG games like WoW, when you die you can go to your dying place as a soul and revive yourself again, or pay some for an angel to revive you in the graveyard (what a greedy angel). so death is not the ending making you continue from 5 minutes ago or something, its more like youve been dragged down from the real world to another world, and you have to restore yourself in order to go back to real world.

  4. I like to point out a very valid method of providing a “death” mechanic in the game “Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver”. Raziel is of the ethereal and the physical plane, and when his body in the physical plane is lost (like death), it melts to reveal him back in the ethereal plane, causing pretty much no loss of continuity as far as the player’s immersion goes.

    I agree that menus, loading screens, and other in-game distractions do bring you out of the immersion. I think that probably the issue with changing something like that is our level of technology. At this point, we can receive input from all of our senses (except smell and taste) in a game, but only put back into it with our hands. I know that there are games out there with voice interaction, but they’re primordial at best. Until we have more interaction with our video games, things like menus, death screens, loading times, etc. are a necessity. Just my two cents.

  5. Making in-game death sequences more immersion-friendly is quite an interesting, yet arguable idea.

    Uninitiated gamers may indeed find recurring death sequences frustrating and “no fun”. However, for more hardcore gamers gaming experience includes, what’s more, requires those disrupting sequences. They turn gaming into a kind of initiation rite for real. Such a rite gets indeed passed only by the best. The rest dies, gets hurt, flees, gives it up – or uses cheat codes. The immersion-breaking shock, a world-shift does help the gamer’s mind familiarize itself with the ultimate challenge of the human condition – real death. Just what initiation rites do (at their core).

    Initiation rites – including games – have to carry the risk of sudden and shocking negative changes in their participants’ state of consciousness to be able to provide similarly powerful positive changes upon their final completion. The death of one’s enemies in an FPS, for example, is less cathartic if one’s death is a less shocking, less disturbing event. To me, a lot of gamers seem to seek not only immersion in gaming, but catharsis as well. Entering a fictionary world is one thing – but one needs catharsis to be able to leave the real world behind. “Die” in this world, get reborn there – and vice versa.

    Gaming experience is not limited to in-game events. It includes the very act of sitting down in front of a computer, loading a game, performing and failing in it… perhaps in front of one’s friends. Proving what one can and cannot do. Gaining renown, which in turns builds and reinforces hiearchy and communities.

    Of course a lot depends on what genre a given game belongs to. And also on the gamer’s personality, expectations, friends and cultural background. Perhaps the more immersion-friendly and less shocking in-game death sequences become, the less weight and grip they will have on hardcore gamers. Exploring death-situations becomes okay, but a game lacking the “loader screen shock” will, in my opinion, be judged – by the “thoroughly initiated” gamers – to be softer, less challenging.

    Thank you for your thought-inspiring post!

  6. I’ve been arguing this for a long time now! It’s great to know I’m not the only one that thinks that player death makes the game lose immersion. Certainly there should be some sort of consequence to a player’s actions, but it shouldn’t involve forcint the player to go back and repeat his previous actions, trying to find an alternate solution.

    On the same note, saving and reloading a game in general also breaks that immersion. Originally, savegames were there to allow a player to take a break from a longer game without losing the progress already made. Now they serve as a crutch for players to go back and avoid any consequences to the actions they’ve taken. This isn’t just for FPSs and 3rd person games, but RPGs and RTSs as well. The point of a game is that if you get in a mess, you should be able to pull yourself out without resorting to your savegames. Otherwise, what’s the point in playing? It just becomes a repetitive puzzle.

    Fortunately, it seems that games are slowly fixing this problem, as in the aforementioned GTA example, as well as in games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Hopefully this trend will continue.

    (NOTE: Games like shoot-em-ups, side-scrollers, etc are exempt from this rule. Their purpose is to make you die right-n-proper.)

  7. I recall Hideo Kojima commenting on this very thing in an interview once. Though he did keep the “Game Over” mechanic when you die, he did try to keep you immersed by allowing you to take a “Fake Death Pill” (limited in number) instead of actually dying.

    To quote him, “I guess it’s just a remnant of old arcade games, when people had to get game-overs to allow the next person in line to play.”

  8. I believe a good example of ‘quick death’ transitions would be similar to that of Halo or Halo 2 while playing via LAN. You die, you wait a few seconds for the system to find a safe area, and you resume play – you hardly have enough time to clean up the drool!

    Then again, the transition from ‘game life’ to ‘game death’ is also a critical moment in which the player can actively choose where to re-enter the game. The feature in the video game Oni allows the player to choose between a quick load (which loads from the last save) and a manual load (which loads a saved game of choice). This allows for much greater game playability, or durability as it were, because you’re no longer just appearing; rather, you get to understand the cause and effect of your mistake and are presented the opportunity to correct it at a previous point in time.

    I believe that without load screens, gamers are less concerned with gaming intellectuality and more passively concerned with gaming visuality.

  9. OMG dieing in Jade Empire could throw you back over an hour or so in gameplay forcing you to redo numerous actions and rewatch numerous cutscenes. Of course you could manually save ever 3 min but what if you get caught up in the game and forget?

    I noticed PREY had an interesting way of dealing with death. You go to a mini-game where you have to fight to get your soul back and return to the game.

  10. “We believe you play games to be entertained, not wacked over the head every time you make a mistake. […] We think you’d prefer to solve the game by exploring and discovering, not by dying a thousand deaths.”

    –manual for Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990)

  11. People keep on using GTA style death as an example (re-awakening at the hospital). You appear with a little less money (to pay the hospital staff apparently), and all of your weapons gone. I just want to say that dam that is a crappy system! Not to poo poo on this whole different-way-of-death idea but dam I hate the GTA system! Its worse than in other games where you simply click reload a save point because in GTA you either:
    1. Go all the way back to the mission, rebuy all of your guns and everything which ends up costing a fortune,
    2. Or you simply reload
    I totally agree that there must be a more immersive way of doing death but I don’t think that “situation death systems”, like appearing at a hospital are the key.
    Personally I think that Halo 2 has done it best.
    When you die the last save point is automatically loaded (as opposed to having to select it from a load-screen). The Halo engine is fast enough that the last save is loaded almost instnatly. Also, (and this bit is genius), the auto-save’s occur just before each battle. So, say you walk into a room, nearly kill everyone but a stray grenade takes you out. You reappear just outside just before all the action starts. It works so organically while you’re playing because as soon as you die you’re back outside the very room or area that you failed to defeat before. It keeps the experience seamless and keeps the action going. So, what do we need for seamless death’s? Two things.
    1. Auto-loading upon death (load the most recent auto-save)
    2. Well placed auto-save points (just before each major battle)
    3. Good re-load times (diferent to when the game originally loads the level)
    Well, hope this provides a bit of food for thought.

  12. Excellent points American! I pondered this too, and that’s why I proposed “Joe Won’t Die” as a game in my Game Design classes at AI. Basically a game where the character can’t die no matter how much damage in inflicted, because he’s undead and immortal. Rather, the experience is fun because there would be so many ways to execute enemies and the creative ways in which you avoid damage. Acid melting skin, bones breaking only to heal themselves instantly…which also means the challenge is puzzles, saving others, or successfully killing bosses. Obviously the same concerns come up that may take the player out of the game, but it is a nifty way to eliminate death and still have it “make sense.”

  13. You know, I always thought that the Prince of Persia death thing was a pretty good system. I mean, you could always learn from your mistakes and do something different than you did before, as long as you had sufficient sand tanks, ’cause otherwhys your fucked.

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