Resolving Character Death in Video Games

A countless number of video games use character death to challenge the player. In a game like ‘Resident Evil’ the threat of dying urges the player to think carefully about when he or she uses healing herbs. Platformers typically follow the mold of classic predecessors such as ‘Super Mario Bros. 3’ where the player must navigate levels without falling into an underground abyss of death, being burnt to death by rotating streams of fire, or gently nudging up against slow-moving turtle; all of the events are fatal and rob the player of a ‘life’, and when the player runs out of lives then he loses the game and must restart from a previous place. The most extreme example of character death comes in the form of roguelikes, such as my favorite: Angband. This genre favors permanent death—often just called ‘permadeath’—where dying results in the complete erasure of the player character. In other words, the moment you die in Angband the game deletes your character.

Like I said, the roguelike genre offers the most severe consequences regarding death. But what about taking the opposite approach? What if it is impossible to lose game just because your character dies? Today I will explain how that works and how the idea affects the game my friends and I are making.

Note: We did finally settle on a company name after over a year of development, but I’ll announce that when we actually own the domain and setup our site.

Active Death

I use the phrase active death as a label for games where dying does not stop or slow down the story. Quantic Dream’s 2010 game ‘Heavy Rain’ is a perfect example of active death. The gameplay is nothing but quick-time events (in the future I will explain why that was an amazing design choice). In the game you alternate between control of four different characters and you get to see and manipulate how their paths cross.

All four characters in Heavy Rain can die if you fail badly on certain quick-time events. But that does not stop the game whatsoever. Death in most video games creates inertia against progress. Heavy Rain distances itself from its peers by treating all character deaths as player choices. That means the game will continue without pause if you screw up and it results in the death of a character. Allowing any of those deaths—accidentally or intentionally—significantly affects the direction of the story.

But the most important aspect of Heavy Rain in this context is that character death never stops the game. There is no Game Over screen. There are no fixed number of lives. You get one chance at every quick-time event and that is it; success and failure molds the shape and outcome of the game without ever stopping or even slowing down. Heavy Rain allows character death but introduces no inertia as a result. And it is for that reason that I use the phrase active death to describe this design concept.

Impossible Death

Last year thatgamecompany released the game ‘Journey’. Your goal is to make a long trek through a desert, an underground area, and then up a snowing, wind-ravaged mountain to reach the peak where a beam of light constantly reaches up into the sky. You have a scarf that lets you hover in the air for a certain amount of time, and throughout the game you can gradually increase its length (although it’s not actually necessary to beat the game). You use this hovering ability to make leaps across structures high above the ground, over dark pits, and to help avoid large, worm-like creatures that fly around searching for you, attacking on sight.

However, you simply cannot die in Journey. Period.

There is always a safety net in place for players who really mess up badly. Some of you may think that makes the game boring—where is the challenge if you can’t ever die? Puzzle-solving is the obstacle you face in Journey, both in terms of level-design and finding answers to the mystery about what really happened—there is absolutely zero dialog, narration, or text in the game, and so the burden is on you as the player to unravel that mystery via exploration.

Journey’s name is apt, because that is exactly the one and only goal: journey to the summit of that mountain. The impossible death design allows you to focus your attention on the puzzles, the lush mystery of the setting, and the simply gorgeous visuals of this fascinating world. If you had to run from enemies and stress over fatally mistimed jumps it would distract you from what the game strives the most to present: the evocative mood and the experience of exploration for the sake of curiosity, if nothing else.

The Challenge We Face

At its core our game is a shmup. We buck the common trend of one-hit deaths in favor of giving the player a bar of health, which can even be refilled during parts of certain stages. We are absolutely not the first to take such an approach, but in my experience one-hit deaths are a lot more common.

We run into a problem with death though. Since there is only one main character we cannot adopt Heavy Rain’s system of active deaths; there are no other characters intended for player control. And we cannot take Journey’s approach of making death impossible because that just sounds ludicrous for a shmup.

But what we can do is restart the player at the beginning of the stage where he died, or thereabout. This happens in some shmups, although it is more common that you would lose a life as you reappear exactly where you died. Resetting the character back to the start of the level affords us an in-universe plot reason to explain that behavior.

In the future I will explain that reason in detail, once we completely iron out all of the small details. But I can say that while we have not created a unique system for handling health and death in a shmup, we have fabricated a plausible plot and setting that explains what would otherwise come across as arbitrary game mechanics instead of being directly tied to the universe of the game itself.

It’s difficult coming up with plot explanations for shmup behavior that gamers take for granted as commonplace. But it’s also rewarding and a satisfying challenge. So I look forward to explaining more details in the future.

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