Should you even die once in a well-designed game?

How hard should a video game be? Should it tromp on your skull the whole way through until you break multiple controllers in aggravation? Or should it hold your hand throughout, offering a plethora of tutorials and stages easy enough for anyone to complete? Of course, the obvious answer is somewhere in between the two, but I think that it is even a little more complicated than that.

Take dying, for example. Losing a life in a video game is obviously something you want to avoid as often as possible. Heck, in Contra you can only do it three times before you have to start all over again (without the code, of course). So if you are a good player, why should it even happen once? In a perfectly designed game shouldn’t you be able to make it through an entire quest without ever seeing a “Game Over” screen?

Find out why I think so after the jump.

Most gamers would argue that you have to die a lot of times to get better. Kind of like with anything in life, you have to practice something before you can master it. One could never expect to walk onto a football field tomorrow and immediately throw a winning pass without first having months and months of training. You could hand me a trumpet right now and there is pretty much no chance that anything melodious would come out of it. Give me a year, though, and you may have a different story. So why then are video games any different?

When you play Super Mario Bros. for the first time you have no idea how to master it. It takes multiple tries to finally learn what is coming and give you the required skills to make it to the flag at the end of every level, right? Yeah, but that doesn’t make it okay. Video games and video game players alike have grown accustomed to a system of “trial and error” that has become the norm in the industry today. And I think that is a serious problem.

Some games are challenging solely because of their poor game design. Take a game like Total Recall for the NES. That game is downright impossible. Not only are the controls completely wonky, but there is so much stuff being thrown at you at all times that the game just turns into a chore. Add in the fact that there is almost no sense of which way to go in the poorly executed levels and you have a big ol’ hot mess. These kinds of games are completely unfair and, even if you were a master game player, could never be beat without dying at least once.

It’s like giving a professional race car driver a car that always gets a flat tire. The driver could be the most talented stock car racer in the world, but if his equipment is bad, he will never stand a chance of winning anything. Games like Total Recall offer no hope for the player whatsoever, regardless of skill level.

Things start to get fuzzy once you focus on games that actually are genuinely well-designed (and well-received). One of my favorite games of last year, Gears of War, has so many things going for it. The graphics are perfection, the control is solid, and the challenge is pretty comparable to what most players are looking for in a successful, entertaining game. But there were plenty of places in Gears where I would die constantly, having to try again multiple times.

I have to admit, the satisfaction I got when defeating an extremely tough enemy was pretty darn rewarding. But how is a game where a player is pretty much guaranteed to die several times at certain parts not considered as sloppily designed as something like Total Recall? Why is it excusable for a gamer to have to keep trying something over and over until he/she finally conquers it?

You may have to humor me on this analogy, but bear with me for a second. If I was a soldier fighting a war I would have to approach each battle with as much strategy and skill as I could muster. It would be real life, so I would only get one shot at whatever I was trying to attempt. Yes, I could throw myself in front of the enemy, bullets flying, screaming at the top of my lungs with my shirt half ripped open (showing the world my impossibly huge six-pack), but that would most likely result in me, well, dying. If I were smart, I would strategize and use all the skills I had learned up to that point to take on the enemy in the best way possible, thus insuring a victory. I would only have one shot — I would need to make it count.

But if this was a scenario from a video game, I could do whatever I wanted with no real consequences (there is always a checkpoint or continue waiting in the wings). I could hop out from behind a rock, let the enemy kill me, learn its pattern, and try once again (knowing this time what was coming).

If real life battles were akin to something like Devil May Cry 3 no one would ever survive and there would be no victories. I would give you everything I have ever owned if you could show me someone who picked up Devil May Cry 3 for the first time and beat the game without dying once. Seriously, I would even make the same offer if you took the best DMC3 player in the world and asked him/her to do the same thing. It probably wouldn’t happen. Playing video games is a skill all of us have worked hard honing over the years. Shouldn’t we be rewarded for this improvement rather than punished with increasingly harder and more frustrating games? High skill levels should come with benefits!

So what does all this bitching and ranting mean, Chad? What can be done to make you happy? Well, first off, I am very happy. I love video games more than anyone and I don’t mind utilizing “trial and error” to beat most of the games out there. Gosh, I am so used to it after all these years I can’t expect it to change overnight. But there are definitely some things that designers can do to really work on what it means for a game to be “hard.” Challenge should not be based on how many times a game kills you.

First off, get rid of the “cheap tricks.” This is the most common thing games utilize to increase the challenge level and one that I could easily do without. Mega Man 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, but think about how ridiculously hard levels like the Heat Man stage were. In one of the most challenging sections, a set of bricks you must hop across appear and disappear in an obvious pattern. Of course, all of this is done over a molten river, so one wrong jump results in an instant blue explosion (accompanied by that Mega Man death sound we all know too well).

This level is totally classic and a great memory from my childhood, but, honestly, it almost completely relies on the player retrying the jumps over and over again until said pattern is memorized. There is almost no chance of anyone making it past this on the first try. It just isn’t designed that way. Same thing goes for Battletoads, as anyone who has experienced the hover bike sections can attest. Without “trial and error” and memorization those levels would be, literally, impossible. That just doesn’t seem right and is definitely not an example of good design.

Secondly, and maybe most importantly, satisfaction should not come solely from beating a game that killed you more times than any other. I remember patting myself on the back the first time I beat the original Castlevania. Hell, I think I actually threw myself a little parade. It was an immensely satisfying feeling to complete a game that had no shame in throwing effin’ Medusa heads at you while you tried to navigate some narrow gears (yeah, Castlevania, that’s fair).

Just recently, though, I went back to play the game again and realized it was not “fun” hard; it was just “annoyingly” hard. I lost more lives defeating Frankenstein alone than I think I did in God of War in its entirely. And, technically, Frankenstein really shouldn’t be that hard when compared to an overly complicated battle with, say, the Hydra!

I am not asking for all games to be so easy that you can’t even die if you tried. Nor am I screaming for the reverse, cheap tricks added to just make the game easier (really, Wind Waker? I only lose half a heart for falling in that pit of lava?). I just challenge game makers to design a game that offers the possibility of completing it without once losing a life. Sure, I guess it is possible to beat any game without dying. I mean, just the fact that it can be beat means there has to be a chance, regardless of how slim it may be. But how much more rewarding would it feel to beat a really hard game because of the skills you learned along the way, not just based on how well you can memorize things.

I am not going to pretend there are any concrete answers (because there may not be). I have a huge respect for video game designers and think almost all the games mentioned above are works of art. It is just time for a change. This is a new generation for the industry and a lot of us are becoming pros at playing video games. Instead of trying to match our mad skills by just ramping up the challenge unfairly, game designers should embrace creative new ways to offer an experience that is both challenging and fair (since you must be curious, I feel like ICO and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time have come the closest so far to perfecting this).

Hopefully the days of the “Game Over” screen are long gone.

Chad Concelmo