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Dealing With Death: Streamlining The Player Experience

What creative solutions have developers come up with over the years to make dying less destructive of flow and immersion? Designer Dan Andrei Carp presents solutions from across the years and in multiple genres.

One of the most jarring aspects of playing a game is the reload sequence. Through its nature, this form of entertainment requires a certain level of investment from its consumers -- more specifically, that they actively take part and immerse themselves in the world set before them. When it reaches its peak, this creates a feeling of "flow", of continuity. It's what makes us lose track of time and become oblivious to our surroundings when playing. However, this flow can be broken when users are faced with a reload or a "Game Over" screen that only serves to add insult to injury.

Since this hasn't changed a lot since the beginnings of the industry, one might consider it a necessary evil. The question this feature seeks to answer is whether we can find a way around it, while presenting some practical examples used in popular games over the years.

I feel that this issue needs addressing sooner rather than later, because reloading a game is sensible when we're resuming our gaming sessions; having to redo something we've already done only seconds before is unpleasant. And, of course, this approach encourages players to take the brute force approach by trying everything until they find one that works.

Diablo II

Blizzard's Diablo II is one of the first games to come to mind, since its developers took a special interest in creating a flow-based experience. Since it has a pretty straightforward quest system and combat-based gameplay, they chose to remove the traditional "Save" function.

This means that certain features became feasible: gambling, random recipes, or drops. It also meant that player characters couldn't just die (with the exception of Hardcore Mode).


Diablo II

Solution

However, to retain the challenge factor, a certain penalty had to be applied on death -- big enough to encourage people to avoid it but small enough not to be synonymous with "Game Over". Blizzard's answer to this problem was an experience and gold penalty along with a "respawn in town" mechanic. Basically, the game punishes players in a way that sets them back but doesn't force them to redo anything.

The jarring effect of loss is still present in Diablo II, but to a much lesser degree. Fate or Torchlight reduces this even further by giving players the option of reviving in the same area or in the very spot where their character has met his or her end. Of course, each option has a steeper price.

Unreal Tournament

Another example can be seen in shooters games, such as Unreal Tournament. The player's goal is to reach a certain number of kills before the others do -- the classical deathmatch scenario.

Solution

The death penalty is deceptively simple -- when a participant dies, his or her opponent is one step closer to victory. The fast-paced action coupled with immediate respawning ensures that the experience is very dynamic, but also smooth. The jarring is virtually non-existent because failure (death) constitutes the basis of the gameplay: in fact, it depends on it, and it's what drives it forward. The popularity of the genre, if nothing else, is proof enough that streamlining player experience is something worth doing.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Crystal Dynamics took another approach to overcoming death in its 1999 title, Soul Reaver, by allowing Raziel, the the main character, to traverse between two realms -- a physical one and a spectral one.

Solution

Raziel feeds on the souls of his enemies, and it is these souls that serve as his life force. When defeated in the physical realm, the character is transported to the spectral one. If he is defeated there as well, he is taken back to a special hub from where he can make his way back to the place of his demise.

There is a small nuisance in that the return to the physical realm requires a portal to be used -- and this introduces a certain amount of backtracking. However, this "spirit realm" approach has proven popular, and has been used several times since -- a more recent example being Venetica, developed by Deck 13 Interactive.

A possible alternative to this method could involve sinking the player character deeper and deeper into successive spirit worlds with every death. The avatar could either become stronger with every descent or the enemies weaker. Return could be immediate or sequential through the same layers; it could depend on the opponents being dead or some in-game currency such as experience or a soul pool.


Prince of Persia

Ubisoft's 2008 installment of the popular series used yet another approach to save the main character from certain death. The game's mix of acrobatics and combat as well as the mystical setting allowed the choice to seem refreshing and natural.

Solution

An A.I. controlled character, Elika, accompanies the hero throughout the game serving as a "guardian" of sorts. She assists the main character in his acrobatics, but she also returns him to solid ground whenever he falls to his death.

This allows players to continue from the exact place where they "fell off" without any sort of break of immersion. The fact that Elika doesn't appear only when the character dies helps integrate this experience into the normal gameplay instead of setting it apart.

Borderlands

Borderlands is a fast-paced FPS/RPG hybrid that stood apart thanks from its distinctive art and solid, addictive gameplay. When a player-controlled character dies, he or she respawns at a nearby checkpoint while incurring a penalty in cash. But the important thing to note in Borderlands is what happens before death.

Solution

In single player, the character enters a pre-death state, in which his or her vision gradually darkens and the player has a chance to obtain a "second wind". This effectively means that the character gets up right there and continues fighting -- all it takes is scoring a kill before the screen goes completely black.

In co-op, this mechanic is still present, but there is also the option for one teammate to help another -- i.e. to restore him or her to health.

As a means of expanding on this idea, I propose giving the players a certain emergency item or skill that they could make use of to save themselves. If they don't have it, or they take too long, a normal respawn would serve as a failsafe.


Braid

Braid

Number None's platformer is a memorable achievement of the indie scene, its challenging and inventive game mechanics playing no small part in this success.

Solution

Time manipulation is used to "erase" mistakes in a most intuitive manner. Players can rewind their actions in the game, on the fly, as far back as required, and continue seamlessly from there on. This system also allows the correction of minor missteps, such as falling off a platform. As with Prince of Persia, the mechanism that circumvents death is also an integral part of normal gameplay.

An idea to expand on this would involve creating alternative planes of existence or moving the character from one such plane to another. This would also provide some interesting gameplay opportunities since the past of the protagonist isn't necessarily the same past as the one in the player's experience. Specifically, after such a shift a character's statistics and skills might have changed, or the way he completed certain quests might have.

The 3rd Birthday

The 3rd Birthday was developed by Square Enix and released in the West in 2011. It features a blend of shooting and RPG elements, and uses an interesting system for safeguarding the main character, Aya Brea, from death. An earlier iteration of this mechanic can be seen in Shiny Entertainment's 2000 game, Messiah.

Solution

Aya has the option of swapping bodies with NPCs to avoid death and to gain control of these characters and use them to complete various tasks. During combat, this ability makes it possible to "direct" one's team to focus fire, defend, or perform other manoeuvres.

Depending on how exactly this mechanic is implemented in a game -- i.e. swapping physical bodies or swapping souls, for example, there is the option of expanding upon it. When traversing a character's essence into another shell, his or her skills and abilities could suffer some transformation based on this new shell's own abilities. A powerful body would allow the player to perform actions that a flimsy one wouldn't and when inside the body of a wizard, one would have access to powerful spells unavailable to a mere human.


EVE Online

CCP's massively multiplayer spacefaring game continues to thrive in 2011. Though it boasts many innovations that have set it apart and helped create an identity which, in turn, ensured the developer's hold on its player base, of particular interest to this feature is CCP's approach to handling player death within the EVE universe.

Solution

Players have access to two types of clones beyond their "current clone", or the body they presently inhabit. Everyone has a Medical Clone, which is where he or she is taken after the avatar's death. This Medical Clone can be upgraded to ensure that it has enough memory to store the acquired skill points. Additionally, a body can have a number of implants which are lost when it is destroyed.

The second type of clone -- the Jump Clone -- can serve as a teleportation enabler and it also allows players to enter dangerous situations without the risk of losing an upgraded clone's implants.

A different take on this mechanic would allow players to redistribute their skill points when they create a new clone or pre-emptively add physical upgrades (such as implants) to the replacements. Also, by giving them the option of choosing the body in which to respawn one would add an extra layer of tactical reasoning -- the choice of location, the choice of skill set, and the choice of physical upgrades.

Depending on game type, a shuttle drop or teleportation option could prove beneficial in avoiding the overhead of getting back to where a player met his or her end.


Rage

Rage

Id Software's latest creation made streamlining player experience into a design goal and philosophy statement. Menu navigation and HUD elements are reduced to a minimum and player character death is avoided through the use of a minigame.

Solution

When the character's health drops to the bottom, the player is faced with a minigame screen for using a "defibrillator". Depending on reaction speed and timing, the character returns to the fight with more or less health, but is, regardless, saved from demise.

This minigame approach is effective because it always works (the only difference is how well it works), and it effectively removes the need for a respawn or another death-saving mechanic.

As an alternative or complementary solution, the introduction of the luck factor on top of player skill could help close the gap between players of different abilities. While not essential in single player, this is still important to ensure that the gaming experience doesn't differ too much.

Conclusion

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it provides an overview of practical solutions to a ubiquitous problem. The fact that our playthroughs are split over several sessions is bad enough -- no one wants to play through a string a déjà vu moments and confirmation boxes. Developers have clearly taken an interest in this, with more and more titles trying to streamline player experience and reduce overhead.

I also feel that the old save / load system has to either be removed (as was the case with Diablo II, for example) or revamped. The idea is that a system that deals with player failure within the game's boundaries will always be superior to one that does so outside those boundaries.

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