Friday, January 13, 2012

Death and rebirth in video games

In most games, death of the player character (or player-controlled adventuring party) means failure at the game. I've done a lot of thinking about what I want to happen when the player dies in the game I'm building.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a flagship entry of my chosen genre
Many games simply announce that the game is over, forcing the player to restart either from a recent saved game, or even restart the entire game from the beginning if the game doesn't allow saving. It's very easy to program this type of scenario, and it requires very little thinking for the designer, which probably explains why this mechanic continues to be prevalent. I personally feel that this is very harsh, and it's caused me to completely put down games where it meant that I'd lost a good chunk of progress.

I'm curious about the implications of treating death as simply taking control away from the player, and seeing what happens if that isn't the case. There's a general consensus among game designers that if the player is going to lose the ability to interact with the game, it better be for a really good reason; stories are often told in cut-scenes which I'll save for another topic. Thinking about this got my gears spinning and I came up with an idea for how death might play out in the game I've been working on.

What if, when your character dies, he becomes a ghost. He must return to the previous save point (they could be explained as altars to add immersion) as a ghost, but gameplay would be greatly simplified during this time. There would be no more concern about height, or failing at platform puzzles, because the player's ghost could simply float through the air as he pleases, and be invulnerable to attack. Upon reaching the save point, he becomes reincarnated into his human body, and the player resumes adventuring from this point. The ghost would need to be disallowed from forward progress, since his ability to travel greatly dwarfs the physical body of the player's character, which can be handled with some careful programming.

At a glance, this looks to be close to the above method where the player must simply restart from a recent save point, but I think that it's not. It's important to note that the player will still be in control of the game the entire time, and that it's another style of gameplay, almost a "bonus" mode where the player can move freely around his already-explored map. The other thing that sets it apart is that the player would not lose any items found or any of the benefits of exploring areas and defeating monsters such as money or experience points. This means that while the player loses some progress in the form of needing to retrace his steps to get back to where he had died in the first place, he won't feel the harsh loss of all progress made.

A suggestion made by a friend of mine was that instead of turning the player into a ghost, control could be given to a friendly companion or npc, like a monkey that carries the player back to the save point. Again, to make navigation easier, the monkey could climb walls or something. In this method, again, the player is still participating in the game, which I feel is one of the most important things possible when designing games. I worry that when developing this method, the monkey could be vulnerable to causing another death for the player, which could compound frustration instead of relieving it.

Death is handled quite differently in this game...
Something that I recently got turned on to was the death mechanic in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The game was played as if it was the manifestation of the imagination of someone having a story told to them, and when the player died, the storyteller announced that "you misunderstood, that wasn't the way the story goes" and the player's progress is reset to a nearby checkpoint so that he can retry the mission from there. It's enough to make the player think, while simultaneously reprimanding him for failing.

However death is handled in a game, an effort should be made to reduce the player's frustration in direct proportion to his expectations for the game. If a game advertises itself as being incredibly difficult, then death should have a severe sting, but for most games, the player should be able to stay in the action as much as possible. At the end of the day, making games is about providing a fun experience for the player, so frustration should be the last thing you'd want them to feel.

No comments:

Post a Comment