Tag Archives: video game

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.)

  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.

What I Learned From “Gemini Rue” and “Seven Days A Skeptic”

7daysscreen4First off, I’ve been getting a couple of requests from game designers for me to do reviews, which is flattering. However, “What I Learned” isn’t really a series of reviews so much as a way to deconstruct games I’ve played because I’ve either learned something or it illustrates something I consider important – I’ve skipped fantastic games and blogged about games I didn’t like as a result. As such, I’ve added a bit about my review policies on my bio page – if you’re okay with this and want me to review something, let me know and I’ll see if it works into my schedule.

Secondly, the two games I’m looking at here both address narrative in gameplay, and as a result I need to actually talk about said narrative. While I generally try to keep spoilers down when I do these because I hope that readers are playing these games themselves for their own study, in this case oh my fucking god there are so many spoilers that if you drink milk next to this post it will turn into cheese.

Gemini-rue-2bLately I’ve been going through my backlog of “indie adventure games using VGA-style graphics” (yes, that’s a thing). I’ve been playing through Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw’s “Chzo Mythos” series of adventure games. These are free, even the special edition versions, and they’re super-lightweight – I actually have them in my Dropbox so I can keep playing between computers. The second one in the series is “Seven Days A Skeptic,” a sequel to “Five Days A Stranger” that takes place hundreds of years later – it helps if you’ve played the first game, but it’s not strictly necessary. After that, I wanted to give that series a break, so I moved to “Gemini Rue” by Joshua Nuernberger, another one-person indie adventure game set in a bleak future. Both games also have developer’s commentary modes, so I ended up playing them both twice – which is good, because each has an ending that puts the rest of the game into a new perspective, so it gave me an incentive to play them through again right away and see the pieces I missed.

SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT. Particular for “Gemini Rue” – I highly recommend you play it first if you can.

Continue reading What I Learned From “Gemini Rue” and “Seven Days A Skeptic”

What I Learned from The Path


Continuing through my queue of games that I’ve learned from, here’s what I learned from playing The Path. (Special thanks to Link Hughes for buying a copy for me, even if he mocked me later for playing it.)

Before I dive into this, The Path is really one of those games you absolutely love or absolutely hate. I’m going to be upfront: I didn’t enjoy it. I know this game is quite the darling in the indie video game scene, and that’s awesome – I wish Tale of Tales the best of luck in continuing to make games that work for them and their audience. I’m not their audience, but as someone keenly interested in the design of games and other interactive media, I can and will play things I don’t like to learn from them. So if you’re gearing up to leave comments or send me emails telling me how I should have loved the game, save us both a lot of time: I don’t love it, and probably won’t no matter how much you tell me I should have.

Continue reading What I Learned from The Path

What I Learned from Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

Vampire: The Masquerade - BloodlinesI haven’t done this in a long time, and the breakdown I did of “The Witcher” is one of the most-viewed pages on my site. So, I’ll start going through my Steam queue and catching up on these not-quite-reviews and not-quite-game-design-deconstructions.

Over the summer I played 25 hours of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and then briefly toyed with some of the game mods. Here’s what I learned from it.

Choice should be balanced. One of the things I remembered about the game when I first played it was that you could resolve problems in multiple ways, similar to games like Deus Ex. Different clans have different strengths and weaknesses, and implied that stealth and seduction were just as viable routes to resolving problems as combat.

Continue reading What I Learned from Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines

A Study in Death: Lemmings

Yesterday, I talked about the role that death plays in game design. Today, I want to give an example of how death plays a part of the overall game experience: Lemmings.

If you’ve never played this game before, the premise is simple. You have a number of lemmings who march steadily towards a series of dangers, and towards eventual safety and freedom. Certain lemmings can be promoted to having certain powers (blockers, builders, and so on) who can change the course of the lemming tide. The object is to get a certain minimum number of your lemmings to the safe zone to go to the next level. If you don’t stop the lemmings in time, they will blithely walk off cliffs, into pits, and otherwise die. You also have the option to tell all your lemmings on screen to self-destruct.

The object of the game is simple and obvious: save as many as you can. You are shown the percentage of lemmings you’ve saved this level, and the implication is that a higher percentage is more desirable. Sometimes, you accidentally put your lemmings into bad positions, and have to cause them to self-destruct in order to complete the level. It’s all very straight-forward – you want to save as many as you can, and any who die could have been saved.

Except the blockers.

One of the first lemmings you get is the blocker: a lemming who immediately stops once you promote him, and all lemmings who reach him are sent back the other way. But the poor blocker never stops in his duty, even if there are no lemmings left. He will stand there, ready to block anyone who comes, for eternity. Worse, you cannot end the level until all lemmings are off-screen in one way or another. To progress, you have to order your brave blockers to self-destruct.

They kill themselves so that the other lemmings may live.

When I played this game twenty years ago (dear god, did I just type that?), I admit I didn’t think much about it. Pretty quickly, I realized that the lemmings were a limited resource: every time I used a blocker or similar special lemming who couldn’t keep walking, I was using up the same resource that I needed to win. It’s actually an interesting game design, and the more elaborate the level, the more resources you need. And soon you’re making these decisions at lightning speed, as the lemmings move faster and faster as the difficulty increases. It was only many years later that I realized the underlining message that the mechanic was telling me: you have to sacrifice some so that other may live. Granted, Lemmings is not the first game to enshrine the measuring of lives into their game mechanics, but it was the first game that made me really think about the decisions the gameplay was creating.

Since then, I’ve had a number of people tell me that they can’t play Lemmings for long stretches, because the game is “too dark.” Sending those cute little guys to kill themselves time and again to save their brothers gets to be too heart-breaking, and they have to stop. Even today Russell told me at work how Lemmings wasn’t a cute story about puzzles, but rather a game about the terrible costs of war (or at least, the cost of escape). And I think that the main reason why some people are having this powerful reaction to the game is because of the place that death has in the game mechanics.

Can you think of any other examples where the role of death in the game sent a different message than perhaps the rest of the game intended?

Die to Win


Several months ago, I picked up the Space Quest Collection on Steam. I’ve always been a fan of the old-school adventure games, but I had no recollection of playing these classics. Granted, after I started playing, I remembered many of the introductions to these games, but not much more.

The reason I remember the beginning is because these games are fucking hard. Not in a “oh, maybe I should get the walkthrough” kind of hard,  but in a “how in the hell did anyone have the patience to put up with this bullshit” kind of hard. I died. I died a lot. I mean, many, many, many deaths. There are probably planets littered with space janitor corpses now due to my ineptitude.

Playing these games revealed to me something about myself that I didn’t really know. You see, when I was a kid I kind of spouted into my geekdom all at once. I got my copy of the Basic Set of Dungeons & Dragons when I was eight, started playing computer games on the Atari 2600 when I was nine, and had my first story published when I was ten. Since my experience with roleplaying came at about the same time as my experience with computer games, I was wired to think that dying was bad. I mean, dying is bad regardless, but for me it was a meaningful loss, and more specifically it is a failure on my part if my character died.

I didn’t realize how much this was engrained into me until I started playing Space Quest. I was getting more and more frustrated, and at some point I realized that my repeated deaths weren’t a failure on my part. Since I could die as many times as I wanted, it wasn’t a limited resource that indicated failure, but in reality it was a learning tool – each death taught me a little more about the game. My brain switched from “each death is a failure on the part of the player” to “each death is a resource to teach you more about the game.”

Granted, not every game is designed this way, but once I made this connection, I started seeing it everywhere. Adventure games, obviously, but also more action-oriented games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. World of Warcraft is a notorious example of allowing people to come back after death. Certain board games like Talisman allow players whose characters die start right up with a new one. Even role-playing games like Paranoia offer an opportunity for faster replay after a character dies. But interestingly, not all of the games are particularly hard or impart information on the player of the recently deceased. More and more, it seems that an infinite supply of lives is just a design that people expect, instead of for a particular design reason.

There are a few different things you can lose when you die:

  • Loss of progress. Death can cause anything from a complete loss of progress (most roleplaying games, Fester’s Quest) to almost no loss at all (Braid and Sands of Time). Note that by “progress,” I mean narrative progress.
  • Loss of ability. Many computer and paper-and-dice roleplaying games cause the loss of all or much capability on death. This usually takes the form of starting over with a new character, but also losing weapon upgrades when you lose a life (1943: The Battle of Midway, as well as many other shmups). Also, many roleplaying games use a house rule where a new character can have a similar amount of ability as the deceased character did (making them as the same level, with a certain number of experience points, etc.) which minimized this loss.
  • Loss of resources. Some games charge a resource cost for resurrection. This can be in money (Torchlight), items (most Final Fantasy games) or a mechanics-specific resource like spell slots (Dungeons & Dragons) or a finite resource of “lives” (most coin-operated video games, as well as Paranoia).

Also, how often and easily a character dies has an impact on the feel of the game. A character who dies from a single touch (Pac-Man) offers a very different experience than a character who can take a barrage of abuse before dying (God of War). Also, games with a “half-death” state where the character doesn’t actually die but feels the impact of death (torpor in Vampire: The Masquerade, the loss of Super Mario’s abilities in many of the Super Mario games, and rewinding of time in games like Braid).

Finally, some games actually provide a radically different experience upon death. Echo Bazaar is a good example of this, where death unlocks different content. One could make the case that roleplaying games like Wraith are similar, but in reality the game doesn’t even begin until death, so the “first death” is really just as setup for the game – there is no content without that death in the first place.

So, death doesn’t mean the end of your game, but many times it does mean something. What does it mean in your game?

I am a Media Omnivore

I am a media omnivore.

When I read, I will read anything from trashy pulp novels to works of great literature with equal enjoyment. When I watch movies, I’m just as likely to watch mindless entertainment like “Jackass” as I will watch something intellectually engaging like “Inception.” Television ranges from historical drama to zany sitcoms, while my phone has everything from pop music to hardcore rap on it. A lot of times, people will introduce me to new stuff, which is awesome even if I’m not a fan of it.

Once in a while, someone will tell me that they’re surprised that I don’t like something or that I do like something. I’m never sure how to respond to that. Some of it is, I’m sure, the fallacy that “I like you and I like/hate this thing, ergo you should like/hate this thing.” Sometimes it seems to be more personal, as if me liking or not liking something is a personal insult to someone. Usually, though, I try to deflect it with some variation of “everyone has their own tastes,” and try to change the conversation.

But lately I’ve been thinking about this as many of my coworkers and friends have been recommending stuff to me, and some people have been pointing me to cool things as a result of my Tour de Holmes. I don’t have a single bucket of things I like and another one of things I don’t. There are things that I really like but will never watch or read again. There are things that I’m not sure I enjoy but I’ll watch or read over and over again. There are things that I enjoy because it deals with some parts of my brain, and not others. Things that I really, really enjoy engage me in multiple ways, but that doesn’t invalidate or diminish other things I like. I think this is why I get frustrated with the five-star system of ratings. On the surface, something I rate as three stars would appear to be inferior to something I rate as five stars.1 But I might go to the three-star book over the five-star one if I’m in a particular mood, because it more fully scratches a particular itch.

Maybe it’s because I don’t buy into the idea of “guilty” pleasures – I like what I like, and I don’t feel the need to be ashamed by them. Maybe I’m wired differently, and look for connections between disparate media. Or maybe I just have no taste, and don’t have enough sense to hide the fact that I think “Jackass” is funny while writing a critical analysis of Victorian literature.

But odds are pretty good that I like something you do, even if I don’t like something else you love.

  1. There’s another problem of two or three stars having hardly any meaning, but that’s a separate thing.