Dying in Video Games

The (Video Game) Death Penalty

My wife and I both work in video games as a career. While I am a writer and designer, she primarily works in QA. And yet, we both have very different tastes in video games (although we both skew towards liking older games). Recently, she’s started trying some newer games, such as Bioshock Infinite and League of Legends. And she’s dying. A lot.

Naturally, this has been frustrating. She feels like she is bad at video games, which seems a little crazy considering that she plays them regularly as part of her job (and actually won an in-office competition once!). But I’ve sympathized with her, because her frustrations have reminded me of some hard lessons I’ve learned over the past several years. As video games change and evolve, how we relate to character death changes, and how players perceive that death is something we as designers need to be reminded of.

“Video game” is a collection of sub-genres. Avid gamers know that first-person shooters like Bioshock Infinite have almost nothing to do with free-to-play social games like Farmville. And yet, from an outside perspective, we talk about them as a collective whole. Further, we often assume that affinity with multiple sub-genres is the norm, and treat “gamers” as a collective audience. And increasingly, I think this is a disservice. I’ve been playing video games since the 80s, and yet I’m still not very good at FPS games. Hell, computer RPGs are some of my favorites, but I’ve finished precious few of these 20+ hour monsters. I’m just learning about heavy PvP and “eSport” style games.

The reality is, it’s very hard to be good at “video games,” but many gamers are good at particular sub-genres. As a culture, one of the disservices we do by lumping all such games together is imply that skills should translate between genres, which it’s just not true. And yet we also do this to ourselves, feeling like because we did really well in The Last of Us that we should be able to do well in Saints Row IV.

This seems like a digression, but it’s important. Dying feels like failure, and the more we lump all video games together, the more that failure in a non-optimal genre stings.

Death is no longer a failure state, but a game penalty. Back in the 80s, once of the main video game outlets Michelle and I both had were coin-operated arcades. If you died, that’s a quarter gone (and, since we both were raised in lower income families, that quarter meant a lot). So when I die for the fourth time in your PS3 game, there’s a small part of my brain that’s wracking up how much imaginary income I’ve lost. My propensity for old school RPGs and adventure games hasn’t helped much — if you die, you better hope you had a save game.1

But in reality, this hasn’t be really true for a couple of decades. Nowadays, a lot of games use death as a measure of player education: there’s little to no penalty to trying again and again until you master a particular skill. In fact, games like Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden take this to the logical extreme. Many modern games have autosaves and savepoints that are so close together that death is barely a bump in the road. Others (such as many MMOs) impose a “death tax” that is mainly just time — you have to wait for a number of seconds and/or return to your previous location to continue. These aren’t failures so much as mild penalties. And we can learn from penalties.

This is a hard mental block to overcome, and the nuance between “failure” and “penalty” gets lost when you’re playing through the same section for the sixth time. But for me, I’ve slowly managed to move my mindset from “Fuck this game; I suck at it” and quitting to “I need to take a break” and walking away for a little while.

The “death penalty” can and should changed based on genre. The intersection between the two then becomes interesting: character death and what kind of penalty it leverages can and should change based on what style of game you’re putting together. In shooters, the death penalty is mild but distinct, because you want to kill the other guy before he kills you. For single-player FPSs at least, you’re learning the skill to clear a stage or master an encounter before moving on, so death needs to be a firm slap on the wrist, but not so penalizing that you won’t reload the stage and try again. If you don’t get that design, though, it just feels like you’re getting murdered again and again, like a gory Groundhog Day.

Michelle has since moved on to Lego Lord of the Rings, and seems to be having a better experience. It’s a game about exploration and trying things. The death penalty is exceedingly mild — you lose some points and go right back to where you were — and if you get stuck, you can just go somewhere else. The game isn’t about mastering skills or patterns, but a more freeform experience. If it were a stronger penalty, the player would be less likely to try things that look dangerous, and much of the point (and fun) of the game would be lost. Certainly a kid-friendly license like Lego also implies a lighter “death penalty,” but games like the NES DuckTales was also very kid-friendly, and yet it had a much harsher punishment curve. (In fact, the misnomer of casual/social/kid’s game as “easy” is probably a whole different blog post.)

Other Articles You Might Like:

Please support my work by buying one of my products!


  1. In fact, one of my most traumatic experiences was playing Final Fantasy 7 on the Playstation 1. I got all the way up to the end, realized that I was too low level to actually win, and had saved over all my old save games so I couldn’t go back and level up. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Final Fantasy games ever since.