Destructoid Discusses: Is death in gaming dead?

I kinda have death on the brain right now, which led me to pose this week’s question to the Dtoid staff. And I learned a valuable lesson: Citing an example in the topic is a good way to derail a conversation to discussing said example for a long time. Still, it made for some good chatter.

This week’s guest is the incomparable Mxyzptlk, who I continue to curse for having to choose the most difficult to spell name in the DC Universe for his handle. Follow along past the jump to see what the gang thinks about the finality of death as it is known in gaming today.

Conrad Zimmerman: The concept of a final death, the “Game Over” screen, has all but disappeared in videogames. Between checkpoints and autosaves, there’s barely any penalty for death any longer. And, as we all know from the latest Prince of Persia, some developers are even working to eliminate the act of dying altogether.

But simply because you can’t technically “die” in a videogame, does that automatically make a game easier? Is death in gaming a psychological hindrance to success? Should we care that this aspect of games is going by the wayside?

Dyson: Anyone who complains about the non-death in Persia needs to reexamine the way the play games. To look at this particular game and say that it is too easy denotes a viewpoint of a person who either; hasn’t played games in the last ten years, or hasn’t been paying attention to the games that they have been playing.

Although no one technically ever dies in a video game – you can always put in another quarter, right? – every game is designed to keep you going. The “deaths” are merely a stopping block to progression and only, in gaming’s current form form, teach how to get better at the scenario in which you failed. Old school games are truly games that occasionally punish you for failing, and they are the main reason that I still think that people who can best older games are better at gaming than people who only play today’s games. There were real negatives to bad games back in the day and complete failure would set you back to an earlier level or sometimes even to the title screen.

Even though that was the case back then, games have become more experiences than true challenges in today’s market. Games now will always give you infinite second chances when failing. Dead Space, for example, will restart you back at the last loading pint. Halo, Crackdown, and Call of Duty, will all give you a respawn point when you get overwhelmed and die. To credit Persia with some sort of lack of challenge is ridiculous because it only does the exact same thing that all other current games do, but it gets penalized because it’s a platformer.

So you can’t really die in Persia? Wow. Show me a current gen game that you do die in, please. The only difference in Persia is that is doesn’t say “you die” when you fail. It still sends you back to the last checkmark like all other current games and still provides a challenge in gaming skill. If you’re a person that finds this unpalatable, then I suggest that you find some other type of hobby to enjoy because this is how gaming is today.

As far as there being no true Game Over screen in today’s games, I feel that it is indicative of the type of games that people of this generation are used to and is now the industry standard in game development. If you’re missing out the feeling of a true challenge in gaming, I suggest you go back at least one or two game generations and play those games. If you are upset by the way that games have moved from challenging experiences to just experiences, then I suggest that you direct your ire towards yourself.

The way games are today is because of you. Your dollars spent on games that support this play style are directly responsible for the continuation of the style. To quote V for Vendetta, “If you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.”

Adam Dork: Ummm, does this mean we need a new discussion?

I can’t argue with that…although I feel that PoP‘s “set-back” death thingy was no hindrance to your progress in the game in which other games do feel you are “punished” or set back in some way cause I actually cared if i didnt succeed. In PoP, I never had any cares about what happened to the Prince, especially during the fight/duels. There didn’t seem to be any consequence for doesn’t something wrong which steers me to be a better player.

Who cares if I miss a block in a duel with the warrior, I can’t die or get hurt. At most, he gets a little health back that takes a hit or two to bring back down. It didn’t make me want to try at all. Same with the jumping sequences, I didn’t want to try cause the deaths seemed meaningless.

So that is my problem with non-deaths in PoP.

Joseph Leray: That’s interesting. Even though Adam agrees with Dyson, there’s still something missing. For me, dying in God of War or Ninja Gaiden just made me want to try again. Even though there’s no “penalty” except for some lost time, something about the game(s) made me want to come back and be better (or, sometimes, just luckier).

I haven’t played the new Prince of Persia yet, so I can’t comment, but Adam’s explanation makes it seem like there’s some sort of psychological disconnect between Elika saving your ass and the need to become better at the game.

Dyson: Apologies if I sidetracked this. I just get a little irked when fools be nagging on this game for something that happens in every game out today.

Does not dying in a game make it easier? Yes. To quote Topher, who I think inadvertently quoted me, “the only thing keeping you from finishing a game these days is time.” I’m pretty sure that I’ve said this multiple times on RFGO! and I still believe that it’s true.

Joseph Leray: Well, there are still a few that adhere to old ways — Godhand, most shmups, Ninja Gaiden (although some of its difficulty is artificial), etc. But yeah, for the most part, this is an argument we should’ve been having 8 years ago. Which isn’t to say that this Dtoid Discusses isn’t relevant — I just think it’s interesting how Prince of Persia has created a polemic out of a design choice 10 years in the making. Weird how we latched on to it.

Anthony Burch: I think it’s more interesting to ask whether or not this death-that-isn’t-death choice affects other aspects of the design.

For instance, many jumps and obstalce sections in PoP were not particularly well-done (you could dodge one killer black thing on a wallrun but run into a second during the same run because you can’t change speed or direction after initiating your wallrun), seemingly because the level designers figured, “eh, fuck it, they’re only going to get pushed back thirty seconds.”

Dyson: I do like where this discussion is going, though. And it’s not to say that there are things lacking in the new PoP, but it getting slammed for the reason of never having a true death is stupid.

Being a person that totally enjoys gaming in all its forms, I’ve noticed that the lack of any true end game in games of today does make for better experiences, but worse gamers. I don’t rail against this idea too often, but when people of this gen tell me that they’re good at games I just laugh.

Not being able to die in a game takes away from trying to be better at it. Not saying that games today don’t project that fail/succeed impact, but PoP was the only current game that gets rid of that mentality completely and allows the gamer just experince. Isn’t that what gamers want these days? Maybe I’m a little out of touch, but I can’t see how in this landscape that this is nothing more than a progression of how games are headed as opposed to a failing on the game’s design. PoP gave you what you wanted, did it not? A game that lets you play it without any penalty.

Jonathan Ross: Some of DtoidLA was actually talking about PoP earlier today, and a discussion similar to this came up.  If done properly, I don’t think that no death is necessarily a bad thing.  I think when people criticize Prince of Persia for being to easy, they get drawn to the no-death aspect of it, but it’s really more of the fact that the game is just a giant series of quick time events that don’t even really require precise timing.  I haven’t played a ton of the game so I don’t feel qualified to really go into it, but even from watching people play it really just seemed like a “press A every 5 seconds” kind of deal and it didn’t matter if your timing was off.

Because PoP is the only game that is coming to mind right now where death is literally absent (I know there are more, but I’m too tired to think of them right now), I don’t have much else to add.  If we want to add in a discussion though about how games are becoming easier in general, and it’s much, much harder to die in the first place, then I have a whole boatload of things to say about the bullshit that is immediate regeneration of health in most of today’s FPSes.

Adam Dork: Yeah, PoP was definitely a big QTE game. I felt like I played half of the game with only one hand on the controller. It could’ve almost been made for a DVD player and be the same.

Jonathan Ross: I’m going to do something crazy and use a sports analogy here, but generally to me, a game with no penalties whatsoever almost seems like a sports game where you don’t keep score and “everyone wins”.  Some people like it, but it’s not particularly my cup of tea.

I view games (with a couple exceptions) as a competition.  I’m either playing against other people, playing against the computer, or playing against myself.  Victory feels much more hollow when there really weren’t any obstacles along the way.

Adam Dork: I never wanted a game without penalty. Penalty makes me try different tactics and makes me want to play the game better. It strives me to do a better job. Penalty makes me care.

Dyson: Ross, I could spend hours on the fact that if you hold still in an FPS you get “healthier.” If games are going for true realism, and one of the many detractors of that idea is the I found a ham in a garbage can that is ubiquitous in games like Final Fight from back in the day, I can understand the mentality. But to say that somehow holding still regenerates your overall health, to me, is equally dumb.

Stating that some factor of keeping yourself alive over another is a somewhat moot point when all the mechanics of staying alive in any game, regardless of their generation, needs a certain amount of belief suspension.

Jonathan Ross: The belief suspension I don’t really mind, since picking up a health pack and being fine, or getting shot 5 times and still being alive are just as unrealistic, and some games actually give a semi-decent reason as to why your health regenerates.

The problem I have is with what it’s done to the gameplay, and I understand that a lot of it has to do with putting twitchy shooting games onto consoles, where they generally have to run at a slower pace for a variety of reasons.  I have two big problems with it:

1.  If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, you just hide behind a concrete barrier, basically become invincible, and then pop out 10 seconds later with a brand new “life”.  There’s no incentive to aim well, play strategically, or really try to plan anything because if you get in trouble, you can just hide and everything is perfect again.

2.  To compensate, the “difficulty” in these games typically comes from the computer just throwing cheap, almost unavoidable 1 hit kills at you, where progressing almost becomes more about luck than any kind of skill.  Some parts of the original Gears of War I could blow through on the hardest difficulty, and then other parts I would just get one hit killed over and over again, and the parts that would happen at changed every time I played.

Left 4 Dead still stands out to me as a game with a perfect challenge level, because when I die, I KNOW it’s because I (or my teammates) fucked up.  It’s not because a hunter fell out of the sky and one hit killed me, it’s not because a smoker halfway across the map I couldn’t see headshotted me with his tongue; it’s because my teammates and I made a critical mistake.  Someone shot a boomer, someone ran ahead/behind, I decided to continue on instead of taking out the smoker I saw stalking us through the last section.  THAT is the kind of difficulty I fear we’re moving away from, and we can even see it in PoP where Anthony was talking about the jump you have to make where you can’t time it properly because you can’t see what’s around the corner.  I can enjoy an easy game just as much as a hard game, but I want to know that the actions I take and the decisions I make have a direct impact on whether I succeed or not.

Hopefully I’m not derailing the original topic too much, but I think this talk about difficulty is pretty closely tied to death in gaming…

Jonathan Holmes: I’d like to get back to Conrad’s original question for a second. (editor’s note: Why bother?)

Is death in gaming dead? No, in traditional videogaming, death is alive and well. Games like Geometry Wars, Wii Play: Tanks, Mega Man 9, and The Last Guy are all fairly punishing in terms of the amount of death they hand out, and far those deaths set you back.  However, in “interactive narrative experiences” like BioShock, PoP, GTA, and in the typewriter free Resident Evil 5, it looks like death is dying. It’s not totally dead yet, but it’s headed there, and I think that’s Ok.
If you put over fifty million of dollars into making a game, you’re going to want people to play it from beginning to end, and for them to have fun the entire time. You wouldn’t want to risk the player getting frustrating and quitting your game permanently because they died. When people who haven’t been playing games for +10 years die in a game, they often think “Shit, I’m dead. Death is permanent. Therefore, I permanently quit playing this game.”
That’s why I think they chose to make death not really “death” in PoP. The series is all about defying natural law and doing the impossible, so I can see why the really didn’t want anyone playing the game to get that sinking that they”died”. For me, not having that sinking feeling is a turn off, but I can imagine that for a lot of people it makes all the difference in making a game appealing.
Like take Pikmin for example. For years, I’ve been trying to get people to play that game (and by “people”, I mean girls that I’ve dated). Almost all of them hated the game. Why? Because they can’t stand the guilt they feel when even one Pikmin dies. They’d rather not play the game at all than shoulder that kind of life responsibility.
I’ve told them so many times “Don’t give up! That one Pikmin might have died, put you’re still alive! You can always grow more!”, but it doesn’t matter. The death of just one Pikmin is usually enough to turn them off to the game for good.

Nintendo did too good of a job at maiking you love those little fuckers. 

Brad Rice: I just went through several hours of grinding last night in Soul Nomad in an attempt to make the last boss easier to beat. In that time, I most definitely died a half dozen times, and lost a few hours worth of gameplay. I think that in RPGs — especially tactics RPGs — you have to make a big gamble with grinding and death. In both Soul Nomad and Disgaea, I have to be smart about how I protect every unit, and most importantly, my leader. So, the fear of death is constantly upon me as I try to win big in terms of leveling up and getting some kick-ass items, but I could lose all of it if I make a wrong choice.

So, at least in one genre, the fear is still alive and well.

Jonathan Holmes: Good point, Brad.

One of the main reasons I don’t play a lot of tactics RPGs these days is that the fear of loosing a unit is often to much for me, since death if usually permanent in those genres. 

Mxyzptlk: I believe that the goal in phasing out the “Game Over” screen hasn’t necessarily been to make games easier, just less tedious.  To be frank, the entire reason it exists in the first place is as a carry-over from the arcade days, where the designer’s job was to get you to plunk as many quarters in the machine as possible.

Games are still evolving as a medium, and developers are torn between trying to cater to gamers who crave skill-based challenges and those who play for the experience.  As I see it (and I have yet to play it, so I can only go on what I’ve heard and observed second-hand), Prince of Persia is leaning heavily towards being an “experience”.  I think we’ll be seeing more and more games with a narrative go this route.  Other titles like Alone in the Dark have experimented with ways to make titles more accessible to a larger number of people.  Let’s face it, if someone hits a brick wall and isn’t able to beat a game because of a high difficulty, they’re less likely to spend the money to buy more games.  That being said, there’s always going to be a place for titles that reward players for skill, such as Geometry Wars or the highest difficulties in Rock Band / Guitar Hero.

I’m sort of amused that for all the complaining about Prince of Persia, nobody has mentioned another recent game where death has zero consequence: Braid.  All you need to do is simply hold down a button and rewind time back as long as you wish.  Even in PoP: Sands of Time you were limited as to how many times and how long you could go back.

Jonathan Ross: In regards to Braid, I think it works because of the type of game it is.  In a puzzle game like that, you’re not going to be able to move forward until you figure out what you need to do; if you restart and keep trying the same thing over and over again, it’s not going to work.  The game is really figuring out the puzzles instead of brute force trial and error like Mega Man or Gears is.  In Prince of Persia, there doesn’t seem to be much thought or figuring things out – you push A when it tells you too and sometimes something you couldn’t see or avoid because you don’t have control over the timing would kill you, and you just do it again hoping you guess the timing right.

Additionally, a number of the later puzzles in Braid acted as a “game over”, because you could very easily get stuck and have to restart the level.  You weren’t dying, per se, but you could mess up to the point of having to go back to the very beginning.

I do agree though that having death not be a consequence is not necessarily a bad thing.  I Wanna Be The Guy would usually throw you just back to the beginning of the screen when you died with unlimited lives, and there were typically saves on almost every screen. Because of the nature of the gameplay though, you still feel a sense of accomplishment and that you’ve beaten something when you pass a level, just because it’s insanely hard and often takes a fair amount of thinking to figure out.  My concern is that the shift to these “experiences” removes the sense of accomplishment, which is one of the main reasons I enjoy playing games in the first place.  I don’t want games to end up basically becoming movies where you’re just pressing “A” to get to the next 5 minutes worth of footage – at the very least, I want to have to do something to earn it.


Conrad Zimmerman