The fear of failure is a common motivator in video games. Without it, most games that we know of would simply not work. While I will not debate whether we actually need failure to feel gratification in a game (for now let's assume we do), I will talk about the most common pitfall of this approach: the Game Over screen. How does a capital punishment like this backfire and how can we prevent it?
Why is a Game Over screen frustrating?
"A game is a series of interesting choices" - Sid Meier
- The flow of a linear game
So in the simplest form of game, you start from a state, do some things that move you on to the next valid state of the game, or you do some 'wrong' things that take you to a Game Over screen (usually the death of the protagonist). Then you rinse and repeat until you get to the end. The choice here is between the actions that give you new content and those that don't. Is that an interesting choice? In some cases it is, but that's not really using the interactive medium of videogames to its full potential.
- Ideal flow according to Sid Meier's definition. Note that a win or loss condition is not mandatory
The ideal flow gives the player the possibility to explore a vast tree of game states branching off from her actions. An end state is not necessary by this definition, since enjoyment comes from simply experiencing its complexities like learning mechanics, exploring the lore or crafting one's own personal story.
The Game Over screen breaks this flow because it is a metagame mechanic. It is the typical case of ludonarrative dissonance where gameplay dictates that the player be able to fail and die, but the story is only made to fit a narrative where your endeavors are successful. After both you and the creators of the game have spent time and energy to immerse you into a virtual world, the Game Over screen is a splash of cold water into your face breaking any immersion you had. Anything you have done in the last minutes is simply destroyed, it no longer exists, because it is not what you were supposed to do. It reminds you that your experience is on rails, no matter how much it seemed palpable and alive.
- That's not how you're supposed to play this. Now reload and do it right
So let's take a look at some techniques that various games employ to reduce the impact of such a disrupting break in gameplay.
Justify death in the story
While still having an implicit Game Over, these games try to make it part of the story to reduce its impact.
Bioshock Infinite's story [SPOILER] is centered around infinite parallel dimensions. Every time the protagonist dies, that actually happens in the current dimension. You then take over the character in a parallel universe where different actions lead to a different outcome (preferrably the one that advances the story). This is a simple twist on the Game Over screen, but it adds a little flavor of metaphysics that helps you stay immersed and actually enhances the experience. [END SPOILER]
In Prince of Persia The Sands of Time, the prince is narrating his past experience. He remarks that "I'll start the story from here next time" when reaching a checkpoint or "That's not what happened" when dying. The usage of an unreliable narrator is something commonly seen in narrative, and its usage here helps keep you inside his own narration.
Transform death and reloading into gameplay mechanics
In Braid and Life is Strange, time rewinding is a gameplay and story mechanic so it is also used to justify restarting from a previous point by rewinding time.
In Soul Reaver your physical death takes you back to the spirit world, where your soul cannot truly die, but is simply taken back to a central hub where all souls gather. The spirit world is a place where the physical world is distorted and timeless and this is often used in the game's puzzles.
Hero Generations centers around the idea that your protagonist will die eventually. In order to continue playing, you will have to ensure that you have a child that will succeed you. This child will gain some of the traits of the parents and also new ones that could be beneficial or not. (Note that this is also a core mechanic in Crusader Kings 2, albeit much more complex. The reason why I used a different example is so I could talk for a few minutes without mentioning how CK2 is the best game of all time)
Shadow of Mordor has you playing as a wraith that cannot be truly killed. The interesting thing here is that if you die to one of the orc generals that you're trying to kill, they will actually become stronger, maybe even promoted in their rank and remember your previous encounters and mock you. This adds a lot of flavor to the fights and sets the premises for you to create your own mini stories of revenge and rivalry.
Open ended sandbox
In these games an end goal is not present or is left vague to the player and not presented as a priority. Losing, if present, tends to feel less like a failure, because there was no formal goal to begin with.
Crusader Kings 2 takes not dying to an extreme. Your character might die, but you will assume the role of their successor and continue on from there. Even losing a war will usually just leave you with a few less titles, but not delete you from the game immediately. The only way you can reach a game over state is if your character does not have a heir to his possessions or gets supplanted by another dynasty. Do you still feel pressure in the game? Of course you do! Maintaining 5 kingdoms united under the Hispanic Empire is a huge challenge, and there is also a remote possibility that Muslims will invade the peninsula and depose your Christian family.
In Rebuild or This War Of Mine you probably won't instantly lose, but just suffer for a long time and have a slight chance of getting back on your feet, but it's ok, because the games teach you that it's not about winning. The win goal is vague or non present, survival is the primary goal, so dying feels part of the experience, because it is what the game was setting up to do.
Fake death with a malus
This is a technique where you get punished for 'dying' but have a second chance to come back from it.
In Transistor, if you die in combat, it simply respawns you with a huge disadvantage: One random skill of your 4 is unusable until you reach the next checkpoint. You can do this a few times, until all your skills are disabled. In this case, dying is a punishment, but is not the capital one.
Here I would like to make a note on why XCOM is so frustrating to play in ironman mode (no save games), without delving too much into randomness (which is another topic entirely). In XCOM, you might level up a character for hours and hours only to find them getting slaughtered by a lucky crit after missing a 90% shot. Medpacks in combat are very hard to use so it's probable that the character will die. Having lost something you spent so much time on to a random event like that is infuriating to say the least. It takes so much control away from the player, when the reason you're playing in the first place is to BE in control. Let's not even mention that if you lose a couple of top soldiers you will also probably lose the game as a whole because the game is balanced around save scumming so your your top soldiers don't die.
Expeditions: Conquistadores has a very nifty fix to this problem. If a team member dies in combat you can try to medicate him back to health in the strategic portion of the game. The drawback is that doing this will cost you valuable resources that you might not have: the time of your medics and the herbal cures they produce. Even after this, recovery of the member is not guaranteed. It might take a long time, or might leave him with a crippling disability that will affect him forever. But nonetheless, it gives you an ulterior chance to save something you worked so hard on. If all else fails, it creates a tragic moment in your personal storyline where you can almost feel your other party members mourn with you at his passing.
Prepare a loss scenario
In many strategy games when you lose the battle it's over. Failed a mission in Starcraft? Do it again until you win it.
Ultimate General: Gettysburg has a campaign with branching scenarios. If you lose one scenario a new one is chosen in which you have to deal with your loss. There is obviously a certain depth up to which you can do this, but it does make the game feel more organic and gives it a genuine feel of "I lost the battle but not the war". Note that it does this even though it draws inspiration from a historical battle. Simply implementing a linear series of real events would be the simplest thing to do, but this choice entertains you with 'what if' scenarios based on real world documents mixed with pure conjecture, and creates a naturally flowing game.
Interactive stories like those made by Telltale are inherently interesting for this very reason. There is rarely a disastrous decision that leads to an end game, and the game reacts to your decisions, even the bad ones.
Death in competitive games
Now let's think about Dota for a moment. Do you truly die in a game like this? Sure, you're taken out of the combat for a couple of seconds, but the game still goes on while you wait. Your teammates might finish the enemy you dueled with, avenging you, or that DPS you applied might go off, bringing some sweet karma to your killer. In Counter Strike the round still goes on and your actions could pave a way for your teammates to still win it.
Death in multiplayer games is not the same as in a singleplayer game. In one case the world goes on even without you and you can see the effect of your actions ripple through time. If you die in a singleplayer game, it simply stops. Everything you did since the last savegame is wiped, leaving you wondering "What have I done with the last X minutes of my life?"
So if you take away the fear of failure aren't you holding the player's hand? Aren't you making it too casual? Not necessarily. I've never truly died in Hearts of Iron, but it is far from a "casual" experience. Difficulty does not only stem from death and losing, it stems from challenge. Ideally, the player is in the flow so the game is never too easy, but never too hard for him to actually die. And an argument can be made that many games are not even played for extreme challenges or maximizing your proficiency with the game systems, but for the experience they provide, or the story they tell.
I am not saying that Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy need to change. Much of the entertainment of these games comes from losing continuously (although I do want to note that Dark Souls still justifies deaths in its story and actually gives you a chance to recollect the souls that you lost in the last life). The point I want to make is that alternatives the classic die->reload scenario are often a breath of fresh air and should be at least considered and experimented with more.
The questions you should be asking yourself are:
- Do I really need to punish my player through death?
- If yes, can the game react organically to it, maybe justify it through the lore?
- Can I punish the player, but still give her a second chance? (reloading doesn't count)
- If not, how can I make the Game Over screen (even an implicit one) as less traumatic as possible?
- Or more generally speaking: how long after the failure of the player can I keep her engaged into the experience before showing the Game Over screen?