Games that do not
allow you to die (or fail, for that matter) lack heft. When failure is impossible, what purpose is there in defying it? Success
loses its meaning when there's no dread.
But player deaths don't have to end in frustration or the player having to replay long stretches of the game. Death mechanics can be integrated into the story and the gameplay, where they become part of the experience.
In this article we'll take a look at different ways to deal with player death and failure, both good and bad. Some games manage to do both at the same time!
The best ways to deal with player death are fully integrated into the narrative and gameplay; these are the ones we should use as inspiration in our titles.
(Note that we'll focus on non-competitive games. In multiplayer games, like Team Fortress 2, other rules apply. Also note that games can get away with no death if death or failure isn't expected. Point-and-click adventures like Monkey Island do not need to have death mechanics as there is no expectation of them.)
Good: Keep Narrative Death and Gameplay Death Separate
Spoiler: In Final Fantasy VII a main character dies halfway through the game. Which is weird, because you and your teammates die all the time, but use resurrection spells to bring people back to life again.
The difference between the two is that one death exists in the narrative, while the other deaths exist in the gameplay. The game deals with that by keeping both things separate and never referencing each other. Nobody says, "Hey, couldn't you use Raise [the resurrection spell] on [Character] and save all that heartache?" as that would break the barrier between gameplay and narrative.
Bad: Mix Narrative Death and Gameplay Death
Borderlands 2 fails at this and mixes the two.
The game has a system of New U Stations. These work both as checkpoints from which to restart the game and as resurrection points. When you die, a New U is created: basically a clone of your previous self. You lose some money, and the voice of the machine quips that you should avoid jumping into lava and states how much money you have made for the company.
This could work like in Final Fantasy VII, a system separate from the narrative, but it is not. The New U stations belong to Hyperion, one of the companies in the game. After a while you may start to wonder why you can't just use it to bring major dead story characters back to life, or why the enemies don't just use them as well.
This is especially egregious when Handsome Jack, the main antagonist who is trying to kill you, gives you a mission to kill yourself. You can do it, and you get insta-resurrected... Then why is he trying to kill you?!
Lead Writer, Anthony Burch, laments this as one of the major faults in the story. Keeping player death in the gameplay and out of the narrative should be done in a strict manner to prevent these weird overlaps.
Giving the Player Another Chance
Bad: Magically Save the Player at the Last Second
In the 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia, you can't actually die. Ever.
When you're about to fall to your death, you are saved at the last second and deposited back where you started. When your health is about to run out in battle, you are saved, you get your health back, and the enemies regain their health too, which is another break in the logic of the universe.
You end back where you started, with no progress made.
Good: Let the Player Rewind Time
of the best features in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the
use of the titular sands to affect gameplay. The sand shows up in
several story segments, but you can also use it during gameplay!
When you die, you just rewind time to a point where you are not dead. Instead of quick-loading, you stay in the game, and the gameplay fully supports this.
In a time-travel game, this feature practically comes with the gameplay. Braid allows you to rewind after death back to when you were alive, and even further to the point where you began the level.
The racing game GRID also allows this, and is maybe the only game in that genre to do so (apart from its sequels). Races can be long, and failing one due to a slip-up or a freak crash can be very frustrating, especially since racing games usually do not have in-race save systems. In GRID, however, you get a few rewinds per race, which you can use to save yourself from a major crash. The limited nature of this feature also keeps the player from abusing this system for minor slip-ups.
Good: Use an Unreliable Narrator
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has another fun system for dealing with player death. When you actually do run out of both health and sand, the hero says, "Hang on a second. This isn't how it happened!" before you need to reload.
What's happening is that the entire story is actually told by the character after it happened. The game starts right at the end, and everything is told in flashbacks.
This feels as if the prince might actually have made a honest mistake. Realizing you have an unreliable narrator is fun and softens the impact of being pulled out of the game to reload it.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger centers its entire game around the conceit that the story is actually a tall tale told in a saloon. The narrator changes details and facts, and the game world reshapes itself in front of your eyes to fit the new story. Sadly it doesn't involve the player dying, which would fit perfectly.
Good: Allow the Player to Escape
In Batman: Arkham Asylum (and its sequels) the grapple-hook is a central element of the game. It lets you quickly move around the world and climb objects.
If you should fall into a pit in the game, you do not die. Instead, Batman pulls himself out where you began the jump. This nicely integrates the grapple mechanic to prevent some player deaths. As there are plenty of other ways to die in the game, this does not feel like a cop-out.
EVE Online also has a unique way of escaping before actually having to die.
When your spaceship in EVE is destroyed, the "pilot capsule" remains. This is a ship that can do nothing other than move. Usually you use it to get back to the nearest station, where you can get a proper ship.
The capsule can be destroyed, however, killing you and taking all your costly implants with it. You can get cloned at the nearest port, but without the implants that were part of your character.
This creates a unique mechanic in MMOs. Capsule killing is frowned upon, but is used in assassinations and other plots.
Good: Keep the Player in a "Downed" State With a Way to Get Back Into the Action
When you run out of health in the Borderlands games, you don't immediately die. Instead, you go into "last chance" mode.
The screen color fades until everything is grey, and you can only crawl. But if you manage to kill an enemy, you get a "second wind", stand up, get a portion of your health back, and can fight and walk again. You can also be helped up by another player, if you are playing co-op.
This is a great system. It keeps you in the game and engaged, and doesn't immediately throw you out.
Long before Borderlands, though, Prey already had a second wind mechanic.
In Prey you get the ability to enter the "spirit world" during gameplay. Inside, you are invisible, you can move through certain barriers, and you can use paths that only exist in there. It is necessary to use it within the main game.
When you die you go into this spirit world, a ghostly version of the level you are in. If you manage to kill a certain number of spirits with your bow, you get resurrected right on the spot where you died and can continue playing.
Left 4 Dead has a similar system, where upon losing all your health you are "downed". You fall to the ground and cannot move, but you can still fire your pistol. All the while the screen slowly turns grey, until you actually die. You can continue playing if another player helps you up, which keeps groups of players tight.
But the most integrated version of a downed state is in Republic Commando.
This was the first game to include the resuscitate option, way before Battlefield 2, Left 4 Dead, or Mass Effect 3. When one of your teammates dies, you can bring them back to life with an injection of the magical healing substance Bacta and a defibrillator blast.
What it does (still!) uniquely is offer you the choice to command whether they should get you or keep fighting.
When you die, you see three options displayed on your (now blurry) in-game helmet (pictured above). Maintain Current Orders has your squad continue to engage the enemy, and Recall and Revive calls one of them over to bring you back up. In the heat of the battle it might be more useful to have them reduce the danger by eliminating a few enemies first, so you can't just call this automatically. Only the last option has you reload a game, and becomes necessary when your entire team dies.
This creates tense fights and moments where you might get downed and have to weigh the chances of your squadmates being able to revive you. The AI is also good enough to support this—with horrible AI it wouldn't work as well as it does.
Best: Integrate Death Into the Story
Bioshock Infinite handles the theme of multiple universes. You jump between them in the story.
And when you do die, you suddenly wake up in your office, which looks like it did in flashback sequences. But opening the door puts you close to where you were when you died.
This implies that you did actually die. Then the universe-hopping characters that engaged you in the first place went to another universe to get another you, and fast-forwarded through the story to leave you at the point of your previous death.
This is alluded to at the start of the game, where you see a list of decisions you have made before, and it implies there were several dozen yous.
Once again player death is woven beautifully into the gameplay, and actually extends the mythology.
Bastion uses a similar approach in its New Game Plus playthrough. At the end of the game you get the choice of leaving the broken world or engaging a machine with unknown properties, which could possibly turn back time to before the game started. If you do the latter, characters refer to the repetition after the game has been started again, integrating the out-of-game action into the game itself.
Good: Keep Downtime to a Minimum
If there is no way to have a fun death mechanic, at least make sure it's as painless as possible. This means mainly two things:
Allow reloading or restarting as quickly as possible. When you fail in Trials you can press the restart button, which puts you immediately at the last checkpoint. There is no lengthy animation or load time. Players aren't frustrated by failure, yet it still retains its heft.
Also, keep automatic and fair restart/save points, so the player doesn't feel punished by having to replay segments.
Gunpoint uses a fun system of staggered reload points in the past. When you die, you get to chose from several reload points at different times in the past, which essentially turns it into a time-travel mechanic.
Having the ability to fail in a game is important, as it gives the gameplay and story meaning and substance. Using an unreliable narrator is a relatively cost-effective way of having player death integrated into the story. Avoiding having in-game characters acknowledge resurrection systems as part of the narrative also helps maintain the suspension of disbelief.