Designing for Death

Death comes as no surprise in most video games. Frequent and familiar, dying is an all too common occurrence. We get overwhelmed by zombies, misjudge that one jump, take one too many bullets, and we die. Maybe we lose some progress, maybe we yell out an expletive, but more often than not we just mindlessly reload our last checkpoint. We have become largely desensitized to our mortality in video games and it has become meaningless to us. Given that death is largely inconsequential but still quite frequent in most games, making death feel impactful again (or even just make sense in the context of the game) is a tough problem for developers to crack.

Death and the Arcades

Originally, death meant game over. Failing to survive also meant that the game ended, and all progress was lost. Due to limited technology, home consoles like the Magnavox and Atari 2600 effectively had zero capacity to retain save data. The Nintendo Entertainment System introduced the ‘save game’, but even then it was only supported by a limited number of titles. The ability to save was not native to the console itself, but instead to the cartridge, and therefore was notoriously finicky. I cannot tell you how many Metroid and Zelda saves I lost due to the system. In the games of yore, every game was a roguelike, and every game was restarted upon death.

Arcades bifurcated and split-out the concept of player-death from traditional ‘game over’ fail-screens, treating them as separate game states. During the boom of the arcade machines in the ‘80s death came at a stiff financial cost, but not as punishing as on the contemporary consoles. Players could avoid a hard ‘game over’ by coughing up more quarters. Here then, player-death no longer meant the game would have to be restarted, and instead the chance to progress further could be bought. Developers then made arcade games extremely difficult to master (, resulting in progress to the endgame being effectively impossible without giving up lots of money, and death became quite frequent.

This was death borne out of artificial difficulty, however, intended to make it difficult (and expensive) for the player to progress through the entirety of the game. While this worked for arcade games, which were often designed to be an exercise of skill, it didn’t translate well to games in later generations. Despite arcades themselves falling from relevance, this fundamental approach to death in games, didn’t.

game over insert coin

In the years and even decades that followed the arcade boom, games frequently sought to kill players for no real good reason. Often we would lose hours of time invested, having to replay chunks of the game which artificially lengthened the experience. Bosses were designed to be bested only through trial and error and memorizing attack patterns. Even when games started to address this issue, it was through a finite quantity of lives and continues that once depleted, would result in a hard game over. When games weren’t as cheap and readily accessible as they are now, we didn’t mind filling the hours experiencing the same content over and over again due to poor save systems and arbitrary difficulty spikes.

As the games industry came into the new millennium, however, keeping the player’s attention became paramount in an increasingly competitive environment. Social media accelerated the conversations around games and exacerbated anxieties of fear of missing out, making games increasingly hit-driven affairs. You either capitalized on your 15 minutes of fame or you failed to reach an audience of sufficient size to justify the endeavor of making a game.

[pullquote align=”right”]What then is the point of player-death in modern video games? [/pullquote]More modern games addressed this issue by implementing checkpoint and auto-saves systems, which quickly became ubiquitous. Player-death no longer meant losing hours of playtime or having to cough up more money, and instead you were put back in the action as quick as possible. As the most recent generation of games progressed, checkpoints reduced the lead time from death to action, and games where you could lose even upwards of 15 minutes of progress were subject to derision for being too draconian.

What then is the point of player-death in modern video games? How can it be an effective teaching tool for lack of skill when the impact on the player’s progress through the game is effectively nonexistent? How can the thrill of narrowly defeating enemies or landing that tough jump resonant with the player when the consequence for failing is minimal at best? These questions don’t even bring up the fact that death in play is rarely explained within the context of the game let alone coherent with the rest of the design.

Games have been addressing this issue in a variety of ways as of late and while all methods are not successful, it’s been refreshing to see new approaches to the issue.

Designing for death in modern games.

Some games have attempted to make fatalities more impactful by making the animations more intense. The Dead Space franchise is notable for having gruesome, involved kill animations when the player makes their demise. Decapitation, impalement, death by face-hugger, dismemberment, and taking a drill through the eye (my personal favorite), were only among a few of the length kill animations used by the game. These certainly shocked and awed, but they also made death a bit of a macabre celebration. The type of player drawn to games like Dead Space are certainly characterized by having a morbid curiosity, and are in some ways then incentivized to die to see the full series of animations.

[Spoilers for Dear Esther and BioShock: Infinite in the next two paragraphs, respectively.  Skip to the ones after them if you want to avoid spoilers, if that kind of thing matters to you. It shouldn’t.]

Other titles in recent years have made death the entire point of the game. Dear Esther is a game that’s in one interpretation a story about a man making a final spiritual pilgrimage to die. What’s interesting here is that death is the goal of the game. There are no enemies, and the only obstacles to overcome are moving the character from point A to point B. Here then, the avatar’s demise is the win-state of the game, and there is no formal game over or kill state. The entire game is a reflection on our mortality, and what it means to spiritually prepare for the end, which is incredibly refreshing given death is a fleeting, unaddressed issue in most video games.

BioShock Infinite was another game that tried to address the mechanic of dying directly through the narrative, although in a different manner than Dear Esther. In BioShock, part of the conceit of the game is that the player-character, Booker, has been pulled into the game world from another dimension. Every time Booker dies during the game then, his companion Elizabeth (who has the power to pull things into the world from other dimensions) then pulls a ‘new’ Booker from a similar (but different) world into the game. Each player ‘life’ then is a new copy of the character Booker.

Dear Esther’s approach largely works because of the tone and story, it feels coherent. Mechanically, however, it doesn’t really address the fact that most games require frequent player-death based on their core gameplay loop. BioShock’s solution, on the other hand, was a clever narrative twist on player-death, but in terms of the story it didn’t really add anything. Neither did BioShock’s approach do much with the mechanic of dying itself, it was more a smart and slightly gimmicky solution.

the_prince_and_elikaThe 2008 reboot Prince of Persia did away with death altogether, sort of. Largely a platforming affair, and as is the case with most platformers, making a mistake can easily mean falling into a great abyss and losing precious minutes of your life. Whereas in most action games there is a tolerance for losing health, taking bullets, and failing to block before player-death, in platformers one minor mistake can mean failure. Prince of Persia then also used a companion character to design around death. Whenever a player would make a jump that would end in tragedy, the companion character would grab him and reset him to the last platform. She was essentially a walking, talking auto-save and the gimmick was a bit of a jerry-rig, but it helped keep the player in the platforming loop and not get taken out of the experience. This had the unintended effect of causing many players to equivocate that the game was ‘too easy’, being faced with an in-game symbol of the auto-saves that have become so ubiquitous in games. It wasn’t that the game itself was too easy, but that without player-death there was no stick to add stress and incentivize the player to try and avoid death.

Clearly auto-saving and frequent checkpoints are hard to account for in ways that both feel both narratively coherent and also like a proper punishment for failure without wasting the player’s time or pulling them out of the experience. Perhaps as an unintended response to the declining difficulty curve in games due to these systems, roguelikes have made a comeback in a big way. Games like FTL and The Binding of Issac have been huge breakout hits, returning to the old tenant that player-death equals game over. These games do not save your progress, nor do they really care if you ‘make it to the end’ and experience all of the content the game has to offer.

These games then completely forgoe a lot of the trends in modern design. Forgoing auto-saves, checkpoints, and a mentality that the player needs to be brought through the entirety of the game to experience everything it has to offer has freed them to create tight, tense experiences. They are largely able to do this because digital distribution has allowed these smaller-budget independently produced games to find a niche market. They may not compete with the likes of GTA V and Call of Duty: Ghosts, but they are able to provide an experience that rewards mastery of finely precise mechanics and create a tense experience most AAA games fail to achieve.


But that’s a bit of an overstatement, big-budget games aren’t condemned to mediocrity.

Considered one of the most brutal games in recent history, Dark Souls, showed its commitment to designing specifically for player-death in its marketing tagline, “Prepare to Die”. The game is uninviting and designed to make the player feel as though they are invading a dangerous, forsaken world. A game set on reanimating mechanics long thought dead, Dark Souls also completely reinvented how player-death is approached in games. Death is frequent in Dark Souls.

The concept of the auto-save was completely turned on its head. Literally saving after nearly every action, with no option to hard-save, auto-saves were no long a safety blanket erasing every error instead cementing every failure into stone. The in-game equivalent of saving, taking respite at a bonfire, reset all of the enemies in the level. Death meant loss of the universal currency needed to do just about anything in the game, but players were given one chance to ‘recover’ their lost currency if they could make it back to their place of death before dying again. This added an incredible layer of stress to a game where death was frequent. Often players will make rash decisions trying to rush back to their place of death to recover, or inversely feel an amazing sense of accomplishment when they are able to succeed.

Narratively, the idea of constant death was well addressed. Inhabitants of the world of Dark Souls are all undead, condemned to thousands of deaths and revivals until they lose their mind. Being revived was a temporal conceit as well, as time in Dark Souls is described as an amorphous thing resulting in death being one-part time-travel back into the past. Player-death wasn’t then a reversion of the game-state, but instead woven deeply into the game. Death then no longer results in the designer plucking the player out of the game and placing them earlier in it.

The Future of Death

This is largely the goal: designing for death in games in a manner that feels less like interfacing properly or improperly with a piece of software with binary states and more like something that makes sense both narratively and mechanically within the context of the game. The fact is that most games will continue to rely on player-death as a failure state since most video games are about overcoming challenges. Being more mindful of how we address both ‘game over’ and ‘you died’ screens in games is crucial to creating gameplay experiences that feel rewarding.

With most games increasingly seeking to place a strong emphasis on telling interesting stories, player-death is an increasingly dissonant concept. It makes zero sense that the player-character would die within the context of the story, let alone multiple times, only for the game to tell the player, “um try again I guess”. It’s as if the author of a book were to tell you that you read the last page wrong, and forced you to go back. Developers need to find more interesting ways to either avoid or incorporate the concept into the game.

Similarly player-death simply as a mechanic needs to be continued to be examined. If you’re just going to revert the game state back a couple minutes, what then is the point of killing off the player? Are you actually punishing them for failing to succeed and creating tension? Does it make sense for your game to feature permadeath, or even no death? Should the player lose anything other that time when they die? Do you communicate player-death within the context of the game, or break immersion with a ‘you died’ screen? These are all important questions that often feel unsatisfactorily addressed in modern games.

Of course it’s not an easy problem to solve, and clearly there is much unexplored territory here. Here’s to hoping that next-gen gaming isn’t just about increased graphical fidelity and online connectivity, but also a new generation of design.


Nick Hahneman

Nick Hahneman

Nick Hahneman

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