What does the community think of death in video games?


No more game overs

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was not at all on my radar when it released a couple weeks ago. But it suddenly exploded in my feed when people talked about how dying works in the game and the fail states associated with it. After a few days of talking about the game’s release, people seemed to settle on Hellblade‘s merits on treating mental illness and psychosis in gaming after everyone was done talking about how death was handled in the game.

But the whole discourse about game overs and death within games was pretty interesting. A lot of times death is just a fail state in games, nothing more than a phase of the game when you make mistakes. Other times, it can be an artistic choice. Think of dumb games like how Superman Returns gave the health bar to Metropolis in order to dictate your game progress. Or how death in roguelikes is a forgone conclusion but you keep on pecking away anyways. Sometimes it can be serious, like how gritty and gruesome the deaths in Tomb Raider are. There are montages of Lara dying in her games because they’re so difficult to turn away from. But it always struck me how hilarious ragdoll physics are, like the ragdolling in the Arkham series (even though they don’t die, they just get knocked out).

It’s even weirder when juxtaposed to the idea that there are no more game overs in Mario Odyssey.

The question was pretty open ended, so there were many comments on the implementation of death, choice in game overs and fail states, and even the general philosophy of how death is approached. But despite some vagueness on my part, there were a lot of excellent responses to this sort of cerebral question.

Ricky Namara is a story guy:

Disclaimer: I’m a ‘story guy’ who judges a game’s worth by its narrative, and that could lead to unfair judgments over things like roguelikes or, indeed, Souls-like games.

Having said that, permadeath always felt cheap to me. It’s an easy way to invoke feelings of loss without investing too much thought into the narrative or character development. There are games that does it real well, true, but a lot I’ve seen is all “Oh you sucked at this game? Well now you permanently lost your favorite avatar! GIT GUD, BITCHES!!”

I already have enough pressure not to suck in my real life; I don’t need that from my escapist fantasy as well, thank you very much.

Bass sees the tricky balancing act in it all:

I like them. I think they have a place, as long as they give an impression of danger to the player without being frustrating. I think a life system in particular can do a lot of good to a video game: While not any player sees a value in collecting random trinkets for a different ending or additional paintings in an art gallery or whatever, every player can see the value of more survivability. They’re a way to reward a player that is consistently appreciated no matter the play style, except maybe speedrunners.

That being said, it’s also a tricky thing to balance. Make lives too frequent, like New Super Mario Bros., and the 1-up’s value decreases to nothing. When dying is too easy in your game, like in something similar to Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy, then a life system would definitely make things too frustrating. They have a time and place.

Death is fleeting for Siddartha85:

My absolute favorite is Super Meat Boy. You’re dead, but so fucking what? It’s a video game. Why shouldn’t you come back in an instant? Why is that not standard at this point? If it’s easy to die it should be easy to load a do-over. Then, when you finish, you get to see the fireworks show of every one of your attempts playing at once.

Time is valuable for Gamemaniac:

Speaking for myself, I think the Souls games generally do it well – there is a consequence to death but you do have the chance to recoup a valuable resource before it goes away forever. Yeah you’ll lose souls if you die in later souls games but unlike the earlier games you aren’t punished again and again for dying aside from losing that resource that really isn’t as precious as it first appears-same obviously goes for Shovel Knight. It does force you to fight enemies again but it allows you to learn and get better without having to deal with serious consequences that make you want to stop playing.

I think generally it’s best to respect a players time. Game overs from not having enough lives or due to time limits that go above a few minutes on certain levels are kind of a waste of a players time if they’re having a rough time with a certain level or if part of the game design is actually somewhat broken it can induce rage and not wanting to play the game for a while – especially if the game gives you nothing at all for your time. Worst example of this I can think of is Freedom Wars – certain levels have you with certain amounts of lives or give you 45 minutes. Due to the game being bullshit difficulty wise sometimes, it can mean that you literally watch 45 minutes of your life tick away and then lose because the game thought that beating 5 super tough mechs at the same time was totes doable. And you get jack shit. I think more games should be willing to compromise like Darkest Dungeon where if you’re losing or about to lose you can run and still get some resources. It’s not without cost of course but at least you get something for your time if you don’t succeed.

I also think if you die, you should make it as quick as possible to get into it if its structured like a Souls game, you should strive to be like Deadbolt or Hotline Miami – if I’m going to respawn and do everything over again don’t waste my time getting there just get me back into gameplay as quickly as you can if that’s how it goes, especially if you don’t have details on what I unlocked etc etc to share.

Salador remembers the World Tendency:

I like to see devs mess around with death and try new things. I mean, ‘death’ in games context is completely contrary to death irl, where you have one shot, that’s it, and we don’t know what, if anything comes next.

I don’t mind permadeath but I think the worst way to implement it is to just have a small number of lives and that be it, game over. I prefer games like Demon’s Souls, where death has meaning not just in the cost to your resources, but also in affecting ‘World Tendency.’ For those that didn’t play Demon’s Souls, this was a system where doing good things like killing black phantoms or assisting other players would raise your ‘player tendency’ towards white. But doing bad things, like killing NPCs, would lower it towards black. For the world, the more times you die, the blacker the world tendency becomes, and this spawns black phantoms, unique events, and opens new pathways. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but I’m disappointed that From ditched it completely in sequels. IMO that’s one of the most interesting takes on death I’ve seen in the past decade because it not only affected your character, but the makeup of the world as well.

That being said, not every game has to have fail states. Some games do fine being either incredibly forgiving, or just not having failure states at all.

Kerrik52 appreciates some good checkpointing:

I’ll just drop some assorted thoughts on the subject.

I like fail states as means to punish failure in a certain section of the game. But lives can go to hell and only add annoying tension. I like it when a game is properly checkpointed and lives mess with that, sending you back to the start of a level if you run out. That’s only annoying, as you have already mastered the earlier parts.

If the devs want a marathon that you need to clear in a single go, they should do so. Lives are this unhappy medium where you can fail a bit, but not too much. Either give me checkpoints or have me clear the whole level. The world has room for Crash Bandicoot (without lives.) and Super Meat Boy.

Permadeath is also an annoyance. I can make my own challenges runs, just have some achievements for them.

But experimenting with death can also lead to some interesting games, like Demon’s Souls or Soul Reaver. It’s not set in stone.

ZombZ remembers the Seymour fight:

My biggest issue with permadeath and game overs is that, if you chose to include them, you need to make damn sure your game is mechanically flawless. I’ve made 3 hardcore characters in D3. All three died to lag spikes. That’s wrong on so many levels.

Another thing is that “time” should never be treated as an investment. If a game threatens me with having to play it again, it’s essentially saying it’s a crap game.

Then there a glaring oversights, like watching Seymour monologue for 30 minutes every time you want to try his boss fight again in FFX. Put a f*ing save point right in front of your boss fights and make cutscenes skipable. And add a “retry” screen.

I’m increasingly upset with games wasting my time and death/fail-state systems are a BIG contributor there.

On a positive note I love the soulsborn’s death system. There’s always that feeling of risk, but all you gotta do to get your stuff back is…. do exactly what you did before. And you still gain souls while getting back to your corpse, which cuts down grinding later down the line. Even if you die, you’re still being “productive”.

Roguelikes are fine too. They just don’t work if you disable the death mechanics. I got 200 joyful hours on FTL, without permadeath that would be maybe 5 okayish hours.

Cockaroach refused to change:

I love death in Vidya games. Lives do kinda suck as mechanic, but maybe they can be creatively used in the future. My favorite fail states are ones that move the Narrative. Chrono Trigger‘s “and the future refused to change” is one of my favorites, as was Banjo-Kazooie‘s Game Over with Gruntilda becoming pretty.

I dunno. I could take or leave lives as a mechanic. Depends on the game, and how it handles 1-ups and how punishing the game is for failing. The Lion King for the SNES was pretty good in this regard. Certain levels gave you a respawning life and continue that you could attain with enough practice so that the difficult section doesn’t cause a game over, at least you could indefinitely keep trying until you get better and pass the difficult section (I’m looking at you, rhino tail swinging section of I can’t wait to be king level).

Cedi believes in adding weight and tension:

“Fail states are a failure on the game developer’s part.”

… said nobody ever. Speaking extremely generally, failure states are good to have in games because they offer players an incentive to try hard at accomplishing their goals. Knowing that there is a risk of failure makes it all the more satisfying to triumph over that failure. With that said, failure states aren’t necessary by nature, and I’d argue that other incentives can be used to punish the player with many smaller failures instead of one giant Game Over or Permadeath.

Looking closer at your own example of Super Mario Odyssey, yes, it’s true that no game overs exist in it. But dying still punishes the player by costing them their hard-earned coins. Similarly, look at Kirby’s Epic Yarn, where it’s impossible to die, but all damage taken costs the player their hard earned beads. Failure states are but one tool to motivate a player to accomplish their goals. They are a good element to use, but like any other element of design, there are benefits and detriments to their inclusion or exclusion. How much of a benefit it is depends on the other elements structured around the game.

Pixie talks about Enrage mechanics:

I look at permadeath like photography on film. It conditions you to learn, anticipate, plan and improve. You become more willing to take big risks for big rewards

Checkpointing and autosaves are more like digital photography. You can retry many more times and save time while experiencing fewer consequences, but this means the learning curve is less consistent as there is less consequence for failure. Just like an avid digital photography neophyte may not learn to value the rule of thirds until further down the road, you might take longer to learn advanced tactics in a game that would have helped sooner.

A film user or permadeath player will take the failstate more seriously. You can’t roll back and delete a bad shot on film. You either find a way to salvage it in the darkroom or you toss it.

A form of phony difficulty for me of late is offering freedom at the outset of a cooperative multi-player game and then demanding a player specialize by changing the reward system at endgame and employing arbitrary “enrage” mechanics.

In FFXIV, I’ve been reaping the benefits of various daily and weekly point-based rewards since the start of the game. Raid content increases the challenge but also lowers the payoff by like 90%. Simpler point systems are gone, replaced by older, decrepit item systems where you fight and then win against other teammates by letting. And you can only get one drop per week.

And, of course, you will run it over and over during that week to ensure everyone gets one. It’s designed to exert social pressure, a phony illusion of teamwork unscrupulous players are more bound to abuse.

Enrage Mechanics are like fighting Elizabeth or Margaret in Persona. A certain set of conditions will wipe your group without question, but the game telegraphs the 50 turn limit, so that is fair but not the item-based punishment, which is unfair.

Now add social mechanics, time limit and some roles facing more performance pressure than others, like healers and tanks.

Enrage mechanics that are arbitrary are bullshit bad design that erode the faith of diligent players, but reward players that enjoy psychological abuse.