Tomb Raider Legend(ary death)

When I’m designing a potential level for a game, with enough time, I’m constantly checking backwards over what I’ve done, running through the layout in my head, and then begging the question “Have I made something that’s going to piss everyone off?”

When I started designing content properly, I thought I knew what annoyed me in the design of a level (and a mix of how the game plays). Things like dying, being sent far away and repeating the same bit of level over and over again, awkward jumps, awkward controls, girls singing and dancing, AI shouting at me, and, honestly, just dying regularly. With feedback from friends, bloggers and journalists I can see that I’ve managed to include a number of these elements somewhere along the line so far.

…on awkward jumps

“The jump mechanism makes no sense”

“I really think the way I can control a jump sucks”

“It will be dangerous to your mental health and the health of your iPhone”

…on awkward controls

“…like trying to compete in WipEout while at the helm of an oil tanker”

“Hard to control”

“Clunky controls”

“It’s rather like using a rocket launcher on a pram” (Make of that what you will, it’s my favourite because it amused me)

Now that we’ve noted my inadequacies, I want to pose a question. I’ve always made the presumption that the worst outcome when you’re playing a video game, above every problem I’ve mentioned above,  is death, and that in my designs I should help the player avoid death at all costs. But, is death really the worst outcome? Well, usually it is (skill in beat ’em ups and FPSs is generally measured by your ability to stay alive), but sometimes death plays a big part in the whole experience. One of my favourite memories of Halo was playing the campaign co-operatively, and having such a good natter with my friend that we both ran off a cliff together completely oblivious of the death awaiting us. Arguably death played a large part in Shadow of the Colossus – if you define death as being debilitated and sent back to your starting point, each of the games’ bosses sucked life away one by one in a compelling journey, and spat you back out at the start looking more haggard and damaged every time.

However, one game that I find simply outstanding because of its death is Heart of Darkness, a side-scrolling platform game on the Playstation from 1998.


Andy is a small child lost in a world of darkness, simply on a quest to find his dog, Whiskey. I found the game punishingly hard at times, and death was a very regular occurrence until you got the timing right, understood the puzzle, or knew how to dodge the enemy; the knowledge of which was acquired by dying and exploring almost every possibility that was wrong, resulting in one of the many graphic deaths above (the neck snap at 4:40 is my favourite).

Heart of Darkness

For me, this was an important element that highlighted Andy’s helplessness. There’s no delicate prodding from bog standard enemies, no shop to sell you potions, shields, or armour, oh no, the enemies in Heart of Darkness will kill you the instant you grant them an opportunity.

Heart of Darkness wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same impact on me if death had been designed differently. I can’t remember the last time a game punished and immersed me like this, with the threat of instant death around every corner, but I’m looking forward to the next, wherever or whenever that may be.






5 responses to “Death”

  1. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    Death in games can help you develop your skills to progress through the game. And as long as I’m aware of the possibility of death. The original Prince Of Persia game was good for that. If I didn’t take the proper run up for a jump, if I didn’t check below me before I jumped down, if I didn’t time things right, then death ws my fault.

  2. Celeste avatar

    Ah, 1998, back in the day when all I seemed to do when playing videogames was die. But I liked it. And I would love to see more of it again.

  3. Alex Austin avatar
    Alex Austin

    I think death/consequence in games is one of the most challenging design problems out there. In most games the consequence for dying is replaying the level, which is definitely the easiest to implement but not the best solution. I’d like to see more games with different types of consequences, like if you fail on a level you still go to the next one but the story is affected somehow, or have branching levels based on success or failure. It would makes games more intense knowing that you can’t just retry if you fail.

  4. Simon avatar

    I remember seeing Heart of Darkness at the time. I was inspired by Another World, wasn’t it?

    Anyway, I think I’m on the same page as you on gaming death. When you die in something like Oddworld, you’re usually just put back to the start of the screen/section, and confronted with the same problem to solve, and you get there eventually. As has been alluded to, death is part of the learning process and not so much of a frustration in itself.

    It’s perhaps when a game penalises you for dying by forcing you to replay huge sections, that it becomes truly frustrating.

  5. Michael avatar

    Well, I don’t mind death (much) as an incentive to improve and learn. In fact, I introduced some of my sisters – admittedly with limited success – to FPSs through Prey, where you really weren’t penalised for lack of skill. Although gravity going bananas did f*ck them up… >:D

    They still prefer RPGs i.e Final Fantasy but there is the occasional stroll in the gear of Master Chief or The Rookie. My work is done.

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