Bring On The Pain, Let Me Die In My Game

Personally, I’ve always considered the learn by dying approach to be quite an effective teaching method. You throw a ball out into the middle of a busy road and ask the annoying little boy who lives next door to retrieve it for you, and he learns not to do it again because he is now dead. Learning occurs far quicker when the teaching material elicits emotion because the information becomes grounded in a meaningful context.

I am of course referring to a game design feature when I use the term ‘learn by dying’, the feature that originated in traditional arcade games such as Space Invaders and Missile Command, but went on to feature in certain action and/or adventure games such as those in Oddworld Inhabitants’ Oddworld series. However, the pervasive notion of game accessibility has caused this design feature to recently come under fire from developers. Players should not be forced to learn the mechanics of a game through being ‘punished’ by failure, or so the argument goes.

There certainly exist fundamental laws of game accessibility, models implicating so much advantage that to ignore them means almost certain commercial suicide; tutorial modes, redefining controls, difficulty level adjustment, the provision of 3D audio cues, and so forth. But designing a game so that your avatar is unable to die is, to me, ludicrous.

Of course, the example I began this blog with is purely fictional and such an affair would illicit entirely impractical learning conditions due to its whole ‘being dead’ element. But in games, we cannot die. We are permitted the ability to attempt success as many times as we like. So, teaching players the algorithms governing success in a game world via avatar death is not the same as doing so in the real world. Why, then, is it the modern condition of videogames to increasingly restrict a player learning the mechanics of a game in this way? I ask you, where on Earth is the fun in that?

Take the latest Prince of Persia game as an example. The Prince is unable to die when falling from a platform because his accompanying partner Elika rescues him. It is noteworthy that this game was received negatively by gamers due to the absence of sufficiently challenging gameplay.

This guy has to be saved by a girl? seriously?
This guy has to be saved by a girl? Seriously?

There are certainly better and worse ways to go about employing this mechanic. It’s no good having the player-character die under ill-defined conditions, for example. The death must work to help define a goal in some way. The player must understand what it is they did wrong and what they must now do in order to succeed. Abe’s Odyssey is a fantastic semi-modern game that is notorious for its level of difficulty. Avatar death is central to the learning process. At several points, the player-character is required to save fellow Mudokons (the alien breed of the protagonist, Abe) by pulling a lever which shuts off an electrical barrier. However, if you pull the wrong lever, you will kill yourself. It is only by trial and error that you learn the nature of the two levers. “Wow, what a conniving little developer” you mutter to yourself as your sorry Mudokon ass is obliterated by the thriving electricity.

Games that involve a high amount of avatar-death, such as Abe’s Oddysee, keep your feelings of satisfaction, excitement, frustration and disappointment in a constant state of flux. As a result, you come away from the experience feeling exhilarated. Regardless, however, the majority of modern game design textbooks will actually talk to you as if you are some kind of dirty, perverted deviant to want to make the player die once in a while (first-person shooters aside). It will actually teach you that it’s wrong to design games in this way, that it is unfairly penalising that poor, naive little player who simply wanted to engage with your project. Will somebody please, for heaven’s sake, give that player some frikkin’ respect?

Back in the day when death came in that familiar Koopa shape
Back in the day when death came in that familiar Koopa shape

Bad UI design frustrates me. Poorly implemented difficulty adjustment frustrates me. Defining a challenge by initially causing me to fail, however, excites me. I want to feel the fear that accompanies the possibility of death. I want to feel the thrill of mastering a jump that has laid claim to my avatar several times over.

So, I say to all of you game designers out there: challenge me, taunt me, hurt me. It’s what I’ve come to you for.







14 responses to “Bring On The Pain, Let Me Die In My Game”

  1. Markatansky avatar

    It wasn’t until I read this article that I realised why certain games were so easy! It was because you couldn’t die! Or maybe I was just too good at them? ;D

  2. James avatar

    The Mario Bros. Wii demo mode thing freaked me out a bit. I didn’t shell out £40 on a game to watch it play itself. That’s hand-holding on an entirely new level. Same thing with strategy guides. I appreciate people get them for a whole bunch of reasons – locating all hidden items, maxing out weapons and stuff – but it’s just a written version of the demo mode to my eyes. Let me discover the game for myself. Otherwise, what the hell did I buy it for in the first place?

  3. Celeste avatar

    Maybe this whole issue doesn’t even exist, we’re just too damn good!

  4. Kirsten avatar

    Personally I don’t like the frustration factor in games. I see it as an outdated concept left over from a time when games where frustrating because there was no room for nuance. I think games are these days and should be more about exploration, narrative and imagination. I appreciate though that not all gamers think alike or want the same things just like, viewers, listeners, readers and any other type of consumer of art. The fact that there are games that are made to appeal to different types of players is a good thing. PoP may not let you die but plenty of other games do, so it’s all cool.

  5. Simes avatar

    There are plenty of other ways to die in PoP, so I don’t think that’s necessarily a good example.

    I think we should have moved beyond player death as a learning mechanic in the same way that the motion picture industry has moved beyond custard pie fights as a central plot device.

  6. MrCuddleswick avatar

    I enjoyed reading this, and I agree with you on some points.

    I do think there’s room for both the “punishment” and “coddling” approaches to be used appropriately in different situations.

    Ironically, I remember suffering huge frustration when I lost 15-20 minute races on the final corner in Forza 2, and yet now Forza 3 has come into criticism for providing a “rewind” function.

  7. MarkuzR avatar

    I actually agree wholeheartedly with the idea of leaning by dying. It’s a little more extreme than my own outlook on gaming, which is that I try to never use saves until I’m actually ready to call it a day or I reach a point where I’ve done what I want to do and I’d hate for a crash to wipe out hours of work. What I don’t do, however, is to use save points to safeguard decisions. I believe in consequence, even in gaming, so if making a particular decision means that I’ve screwed up a quest further on in the game – so be it. I made the decision, and I’ll live with it.

    In over 230 hours of Oblivion, I never once died and in 200+ hours of Fallout 3 I only died once. Each of those games has only two saves – the autosave and my own save. I like it that way. I can’t remember if I’ve ever played a game where you simply CAN’T die… and I’m not sure I’d like that, although I do remember being “killed” in Two Worlds and I was simply respawned at the closes healing stone so I suppose that’s the closest to not dying.

  8. wcd45 avatar

    I couldn’t agree with you more, one of the things that is currently dampening my enjoyment of Borderlands is that every time you do get killed you just respawn close to where you died. All the enemies that you have killed are still dead and it just makes the game very easy.

  9. Celeste avatar

    I have to rush out so I haven’t had the time to put together a proper response to some of the interesting points that have been brought up here, but I will do very shortly. I did just want to say one thing though: @ MarkuzR, 230 hours of Oblivion and you never died once??? How the…? You are my god!

  10. Simes avatar

    So “very easy” is “when you die you don’t have to do the exact same stuff over again”? Seems like “not tedious” would be a better match for that definition.

  11. MarkuzR avatar

    Celeste… it was an utter fluke, believe me. I remember running through to tell Lorna how I’d stumbled upon this really strange Aelyid Ruin (Vindasel) and was absolutely demolished by this bizarre woman. If I hadn’t bought so many strong healing potions (and mapped them to the D-Pad) I’d have kicked the bucket within seconds but, with heart racing, I managed to eventually kill her and took everything she had. This gave me Umbra’s ebony armour and the Umbra Sword by the time I reached level two. It wasn’t until later that I found out it was part of a pretty high levelled quest, but I never turned the sword over. Had it not been for that sword, and the armour actually, I’d have died many times over 🙂

    In my experience of Oblivion, even with Umbra, it was the Goblins that gave me the most trouble. The gate creatures weren’t as difficult as they could/should have been, and the various Wraiths and Liches were certainly hard to kill without a heavily enchanted weapon, but the Goblins were still tough with Umbra.

  12. Celeste avatar

    Ah you shouldn’t have let on, MarkuzR. I was extremely impressed there for a moment. 😉

    I am of the mind that chance still has a place in games. It always plays a part. As long as the player is able to use that experience to devise strategies for overcoming a challenge, then it’s all good. This is used in many traditional games such as ‘snap’; after you’ve turned over the first card, it’s only down to chance as to whether the next card you turn over is the same as the first, and the odds are highly stacked against you. But as you continue with the game, turning over more and more cards, you create a mental map of the card locations. It is one’s ability to do this that will ultimately determine whether they win or lose the game.

    It is my experience that many modern games have become too easy. It’s been a long time since I have come to play a game as challenging as Abe’s Oddysee, one where failing is central to the experience. As Kirsten says, it’s good to have diverse offerings from the games industry. But with modern game design books encouraging the designer to primarily create in-game hand-holding by using a hand that regularly pats the player on the head, I don’t see how that will happen.

    The Resident Evil series demonstrates clear examples of the industry changes I’m referring to. The earlier Resident Evil games had several extremely challenging sections, such as when you encounter the Hunters in the second half of the first game. You can only learn how to deal with these creatures by tackling them head-on. This leads you to a death screen a fair few times before you realise you need to adapt the strategy you had previously developed for fighting enemies (zombies) because these creatures possessed different strengths and weaknesses. This leads to a richer game experience for hardcore players, players who are satisfied by being able to adapt a technique based on new information. It keeps you on your toes and can completely redefine a single map. I thought Resident Evil IV to be far too simple, that there wasn’t enough of this kind of challenge diversity. I found the game underwhelming and lacking in the series’ signature atmosphere as a result.

    Exploration, narrative and imagination are great in games and I would like to see more of these, but they are all central to other forms of media also. Interactivity is the one thing that separates games from other media, and consequence is absolutely fundamental to interactivity.

    Of course, first-person shooters are somewhat different, but action series like Devil May Cry have always been simple in terms of player consequences. Further, those like Tomb Raider have become increasingly so. I personally felt that the Tomb Raider games started to play themselves.

    Luckily this is far from the case for every game, and series like Metal Gear continue to offer challenging gameplay featuring at least an element of ‘learn by dying’. The Metal Gear series faithfully offers challenges with death lurking around every corner. You are able to devise an appropriate route to your goal destination only after having your evidently not so solid ass kicked several times over.

    I should also make the point that I do rather like my games to challenge me. I have a real aversion to overly simple games and I think this is perhaps the reason all this bothers me so much. Others may well experience this very differently.

  13. Celeste avatar

    I apologise for the extremely long response I have just left, but I felt people had brought up some very interesting points and that this issue holds several implications for games.

  14. Leon avatar

    I know I’m a little late here (a year, but the article was linked so there), but this article pretty much expresses how I feel – death, or at least some kind of consequence, means that the challenges are that much more exciting. While I don’t think you should ever *have* to die in order to figure out a puzzle, I do think that a fear of consequence makes gameplay much more satisfying. I loved Abe’s Odyssey, even though I never got the good ending, I loved all the Prince of Persia titles except for the cel-shaded one. I hated the Maw, and it was purely because there was no sense of threat. It feels as though games have generally gotten easier as I’ve gotten older, and at times it is a little saddening – we have difficulty modes for a reason.

    Sure, “lives” are not a realistic gameplay mechanic, but neither is invincibility. I find when there’s no fear of failure, there’s no sense of success. As a game puts us in the shoes of the story’s protagonist, we should share at least some of their fear of the hazards that are placed in their way.

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