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Nothing is certain, except death and poor checkpointing

Why has 'challenge' become synonymous with 'death', and why do so many modern games approach the idea of player death so poorly? How can designers use death to pose a meaningful challenge, rather than a repetitious slog of endless checkpoint restarts?

Tom Battey, Blogger

January 7, 2013

14 Min Read

In videogames nothing can be said to be certain, except death and poor checkpointing.

Modern videogames seem to be at a loss with how to handle death. Player death used to make sense in the days of the arcade, when a dwindling stock of lives meant a dwindling pile of quarters in a gamer’s pocket. Death used to be the game designers’ main revenue stream, and in a pay-per-play world it made sense to challenge a player with fiendish difficulty, to always keep the next checkpoint tantalisingly out of reach.

In the age of the cinematic AAA blockbuster, this model doesn’t work so well. Increasingly, designers build their games as glamorous content tours, devices to show off explosive visuals and movie-aping storylines, delivered to a mass market with a lower threshold for punishment than the arcade gamer of old. So games get easier. Checkpoints more generous. The challenge of staying alive is rarely allowed to get in the way of accessibility.

But we still have to die. 

I’ve been playing Far Cry 3 recently. It’s pretty great. It does so many things so well. But one thing it does terribly is player death. When you die – and you will, as FC3 certainly deserves this year’s award for hungriest videogame tigers – you get booted back to the last checkpoint, and all your progress since that checkpoint vanishes like it never happened.

Tracked down some sweet loot in a hidden cave? Too bad, it’s gone now, and good luck finding that cave again (if you can actually be bother trying a second time.) Stocked up on those rare leopard skins you’ve been hunting for ages? Tough luck, son, those are gone, and there’s no guarantee those animals will turn up in the same place again, either.

The frustration is compounded by the game’s super-lazy checkpoint system. It will checkpoint after what it considers major events – so any sort of mission, basically – and it practically babies you through story missions, checkpointing after every minor shootout, but if you choose to kick back and wander the island, your save won’t bother keeping track of what you’re doing. So you can explore valleys and caverns, go hunting for game or for treasure, but take a tumble down a cliff-face, and you’ll find all that progress lost.

It’s just not any fun. Most of the scenarios in Far Cry 3, whether they’re ‘official’ missions or just the result of larking about on the island, are fun to do exactly once. Once you’ve explored a cave and liberated it of treasure, are you really going to go and do it again just because upon stepping into the open you were mauled to death by a pack of giant turkeys? Exploring is fun to do one time. The second time, it doesn’t count as exploring any more.

The same applies to the game’s stealth sections. The first time I go to raid an outpost, there’s a tangible thrill of anticipation; I sit on a far-off hill, scouting enemy locations, spotting the alarms, planning the best route of entry. Then I move in slowly, hanging back behind every wall, breath held while I wait for each guard to turn his back, to silently slice his throat and drag him into the undergrowth. I feel like a master assassin, right up until the last guy spots me after an errant misstep and blows my face off with a shotgun.

Now I’m back up on that far-off hill again, only this time there’s no thrill, no sense of anticipation. I know where the bloody guards are now, only the game hasn’t bothered remembering that I know, so I have to scan the damn camp again anyway. Then I trudge through my pre-established route with gritted teeth, only I probably don’t, because I’m annoyed, so I just shoot all the blokes and settle for the crapper EXP reward. Because I’m not having fun any more, and I just want this bit over with.

After all this, I find myself wondering what the point is. What’s the point of death in Far Cry 3? What benefit is there to making me replay a section again because I screwed up first time round? Who benefits? I don’t; it’s not like I’m learning any crucial new game skills as a result of my mistakes, because I learned ‘not getting shot’ right at beginning. The game is so open to random elements that there’s no way to ‘master’ any given situation, no real learnable method to the repetition. And the game’s designers aren’t getting paid whenever I have to redo a checkpoint, not these days. So what’s the point?

The point is challenge, of course. One of the myriad purposes of games is to pose a challenge, and threatening the life of the player is the no.1 go-to default setting for making a videogame challenging.

Games that aren’t challenging are dull. No one likes a dull game. What many big studios these days don’t seem to grasp is that there are lots of ways to make games challenging. Having the player die and restart over and over is not the be-all and end-all of challenging design that so many seem to think it is.

It’s something I’ve run into in lots of big games over the last few years. Thinking about this as I frowned at another of Far Cry 3′s improbable automated gun stores,* I wondered at what point the whole die-and-redo thing became stale. This has been the bread-and-butter of games for years, of course, and I used to have no problem replaying often massive sections of older games. Have I just become old? Have videogames finally eroded my attention span to the point where I can’t bear to play if I’m not winning? Or does something in modern design actually render the life/death loop somewhat useless?

The conclusion that I came to is that your modern AAA blockbuster gives no reason for a player to value their life (their life in the videogame, of course; these games aren’t that depressing). There’s just no peril to death any more. Back in the olde worlde arcade, your game-life had real-life monetary value. If you died, you had to pay up to continue. There was actual, real-world cost to death, therefore an actual tension to playing, so the emotional reward for victory was much greater. And we’d put up with dying, because we knew how great it would feel the one time we didn’t die.

This carried over to the first console and PC games. Most games gave you a stock of lives, and if you ran out, you had to start the entire game again. The prospect of defeat was crushing, but damn, didn’t you value those few lives a whole lot more for it?

As games got bigger, more expensive, and crucially, longer, their design by necessity became more forgiving. It’s fine to ask a player to replay an entire game from the start if the game is only an hour long. Less fine if the game is ten hours long. As technology allowed us to save and resume our games, thus enabling longer games, the penalty for death became less severe.

Soon losing all your lives only meant reseting to the start of the world. Then it only reset you to the start of the level. Then we did away with lives entirely (and really, thank the stars for that; finite lives have no place in a game where they are not directly related to the coins in your back pocket), and you only have to restart from the last checkpoint. And the checkpoints are only two minutes apart now.

You’d think that only having to replay two minutes of a game would be less frustrating than having to replay a whole hour of it, but the way games are designed these days, this isn’t always the case. Your death is now so inconsequential that all value of life is lost.

It used to be the case that reaching the next part of the game was a major achievement, because there were real odds to overcome. Now it feels like reaching the next part of the game is the default state, with your death just being an annoyance that’s preventing the game from showing you the next sweet set-piece; something best glossed-over and treated like it never happened.

When all that happens when you die is that you have to replay the last minute of the game, you start to wonder why it’s even possible to die at all. If the designer is so desperate for everyone to see the next part of the game, wouldn’t it be better for them to just not have you die at all?

There’s no point in death in a Call of Duty game, for example. You don’t want to die, because then you have to annoyingly replay the checkpoint. The developers don’t want you to die, because they want you to see the next cool sparkly thing they’ve spent millions of dollars on. But if you can’t die, where’s the challenge going to come from?

If I could enforce one rule for all game designers from this point forward it would be this: either make player death meaningful, or find a way to challenge the player without having them die.

There are games these days that do a great job of making player death meaningful, and I think AAA designers could learn a lot from these games. Chief amongst them is Dark Souls, the modern master of challenging design. Death is fundamental to Dark Souls (and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls); it’s woven into every element of the design, from the story to the setting to the core game loops. It’s a punishing game. You will die. Probably a lot. But each death is given real impact, real consequence, and each life feels so importantthat you carry on, even when the game’s beating you into the ground again and again.

A lot of this has to do with the soul currency that underpins the entire game. The souls you collect from defeated enemies are used for everything in the game, from levelling your character to upgrading your equipment to purchasing new items. In Dark Souls, souls are everything.

And when you die, you lose all the souls you are carrying. You do, however, have a single chance to reclaim them, by making it back to the place where you died without being killed again. Do so, and you get to continue with all your souls. Die, and those souls are gone for good.

On paper it sounds like a recipe for frustration, but in reality it gives the player an agency over their character’s life-cycle that few other games achieve. Your entire style of play changes depending on how many souls you are carrying, because the value of your life is tied directly to your soul count.

How you approach a possible boss door, for example, varies greatly depending on how many souls you’re holding. If you’ve just spent your full stock on upgrades, you’re free to proceed with little caution. If you die, you’ve little to lose. But if you’re approaching that silver mist with a few thousand souls, you have to weigh your options; do you proceed and risk losing all those souls forever (as if you are killed by a boss, you’re never going to be able to keep those souls until you defeat it) or do you backtrack to the last bonfire, forcing yourself to battle back to the boss door all over again?

The constant risk of permanent loss makes death seem like a much greater risk. It can be hugely frustrating to lose a stock of hard-won souls for good, but at least the tension enforced by that possibility means that a re-tread of a checkpoint is almost never boring. It’s this permanence that lends death such weight.

Another great touch is that while the souls you are carrying are lost upon death, the items you pick up on the way are not. This adds another layer of strategy to each life-cycle. If you have a low soul count, it makes more sense to explore unknown areas to search for items. But if you amass a stack of souls on the way, you’re suddenly left in an unfamiliar area (that perhaps you don’t know how to get back to should you die) and find yourself desperate to retrace your steps until you at least see something familiar, so those souls are retainable should you die.

These mechanics open up a huge number of options for every life-cycle. Suicide runs into lethal areas to try and grab rare items become a legitimate option. Sometimes the prospect of killing a powerful opponent to open a shortcut overpowers the risk of death; other times you have no choice but to turn and run to preserve your life. By making life and death into meaningful game mechanics, Dark Souls gives players greater agency over how they approach the game’s multitude of scenarios.

I’m not suggesting that every game needs to internalise the very concept of death to the extent that Dark Souls does, although I’d certainly encourage designers to try. I think the key thing, the key difference between a challenging system and a boring one, is that element of permanence.

What annoys me most about dying in Far Cry 3 is that it renders everything I achieved since the last checkpoint completely meaningless. It’s effectively erasing that chunk of time entirely and demanding I do it again. It’s wasting my time, and I hate having my time wasted.

If all that changed was that it let me keep the items I’d picked up before death, death would suddenly be less frustrating. Sure, I’d still have to replay the last gunfight, but if I could keep the tiger-skin or relic I’d pillaged beforehand, it would mean that the last 5 minutes of game weren’tcompletely pointless, and I’d be more inclined to keep playing.

It’s a technique used by recent roguelikes such as Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac and FTL. All of these games are deliberately difficult, seemingly delighting in killing you again and again, and all of them demand that you play the entire game again every time you die.

But these games also give you objectives outside of the standard life-death loop. In Spelunky you unlock shortcuts, in Isaac you unlock new characters, and in FTL you unlock new ships. All these optional objectives alter the way you play the game, and give you different ways to approach each life-cycle.

The long-term objective remains ‘finish the entire game in one go without dying’, but you can also choose to shoot for short-term objectives, such as opening the next checkpoint or unlocking a specific new ship. Much like inDark Souls, these options let the player choose how to approach each and every life-cycle, let them set their own goals, and coupled with randomisation elements that ensure you’re never playing the same thing twice, mean that while death occurs frequently, and can still be frustrating, it’s never boring.

Being boring is about the worst thing a game can be. There’s a lot of debate about what games can or ‘should’ be at the moment, but whether as a piece of entertainment or an artform, the one thing games should never be is boring. Yet still we’re being pushed through life-death cycles of tedious repetition, with design that refuses to acknowledge states other than ‘alive’ or ‘dead’, and the resulting game systems are at best boring, and at worst a complete waste of a player’s time.

Knowing how (and how much) to challenge players is one of the toughest tasks in game design. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore it entirely, and hope that a lowest-common-denominator difficulty curve will stop too many people getting bored of your game. If games are to move forward, designers should take a long hard look at the nature of the games they are designing.

Does your game actually need to feature player death? And if it does, how can you make it so that player death is meaningful, and player life valuable? Tough questions, yes, but the games we see when they are answered are unquestionably more engaging, more interactive, and crucially, more entertaining.

*(A note on Far Cry 3‘s automated gun stores. These stores are a hilarious concept. They’re like armoured vending machines, where you presumably put coins in and guns come out. Seems cool, but massively open to exploitation. Here’s what I’d do:

First, I’d purchase a single grenade. I’d pop the pin, stick it back in the slot, and make a quick exit. One the dust had settled from the resulting explosion, I’d nip back over the remains of the vending machine and pick up all the free guns that have fallen out. I’d grab the coin I’d spent while I was there. Unlimited profit. Sadly, FC3 doesn’t have a QTE for doing this, but I’d suggest that Ubisoft include one in the next update.

I also don’t buy that 3 whole separate rocket launchers would fit in a box the same size as a Coke machine. How would you even get one out of the slot?)

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