There’s a convention in video games that you wont find in any other form of media at all. I’m talking, of course, about the Game Over screen. When you’re reading a book and a character dies the book continues, when a movie character fails at something the movie continues, but in video game characters that fail or die bring the game to a premature halt and the game stops before the logical conclusion of the story. While this isn’t really a problem with puzzle games, in third person action adventure games this takes players out of the game and breaks their suspension of disbelief meaning the story essentially holds less emotion for those players. Why have video game designers relied so often on a tool that makes their carefully crafted stories have less impact on the players? The fact is that the Game Over screen has been around for so long that it’s become part of the mindset of people playing games.
A History Of Game Over
The Game Over screen is an ancient trick used by even the earliest video games. As these games were pay-per-play arcade cabinets, the developers limited the amount of lives the player had to use in the game and sent them to the Game Over screen when all lives had run out. This meant that players couldn’t just keep playing and would have to pump more coins into the arcade cabinet. Clever eh?
Eventually, as games became more complex, more power was given to the player with the introduction of health bars before the Game Over screen and being able to continue from your last checkpoint by inserting another coin, but the Game Over screen remained unchanged. As games moved from the arcade to home computers and consoles a large majority were arcade game ports or the same sort of genre as popular arcade games so the Game Over screen came with them. The feature had become cemented in people’s minds as an essential part of gaming and, even now when most games are specifically developed for consoles, it’s rare to find a game that doesn’t have a Game Over screen. The problem with this feature is that it pulls players out of the story and reminds them they’re playing a game.
So, here we are so many years after video gaming started and we’re still mostly tied to an archaic mechanic that was originally designed to get people to spend more money on games. Doesn’t that seem a little odd to you?
There have been attempts to remove the Game Over screen from gaming in the past either partly or in whole. One such attempt was the introduction of checkpoints. Put simply, when your character dies in a game with a checkpoint system you don’t see a Game Over screen. Instead your character is taken back to the last predefined checkpoint that they passed. Enemies you’ve beaten since then spring miraculously back to life, treasures you’ve found climb out of your pockets to return to where they were found, and bullets pull themselves out of enemies and put themselves back in your gun. The checkpoint system is the equivalent of God rewinding time and giving you another chance to get past what originally killed you, and it has the exact same problem that the Game Over screen has – it completely shatters the player’s suspension of disbelief and pulls them out of the game. So where do we go from here and how do we combat this problem? We need to come up with a death system that keeps you in the game world so that you aren’t dragged out to the real world and yet also makes sense within the confines of the game world.
New Ways To Die
The first thing we’ll do is have a look at how other games have innovated by building death systems into their worlds and where these games succeed compared with where they fail in their systems. There are a few big name games that are famous for their redesigned death systems amongst other things, and we’ll take a look at those to start with and see if we can draw any conclusions.
Grand Theft Auto
The Grand Theft Auto series came up with an innovative way to remove Game Overs. When the protagonist is killed in the game they’re taken to the nearest hospital in the city. A percentage of the player’s money is removed for medical charges and they lose weaponry. Another way to “die” in the game is to get arrested. When this happens the player is transported to the nearest police station in the city, their weapons are confiscated and they lose a percentage of their money as a bribe. It’s a nice system that keeps failure and death as a natural part of the game world, and adds a consequence to failing in the game, but it’s not without its flaws. If the player is on a mission their progress is completely lost and the mission is treated as if it was never started. This makes the GTA system merely an extension of the checkpoint system at the moment.
Prince Of Persia
The latest game in the Prince Of Persia series completely eradicated death in the game and built a system to explain it by having the player accompanied everywhere by a magical companion. During the game you can die in one of two ways – falling from a platform or in combat. If you fall from a platform a small cutscene plays of your companion grabbing you by the hand and then you’re replaced on the last solid ground you were standing on. As the routes in the game can be quite complex, the last solid ground can easily be twenty wall runs and death defying leaps back. The same sort of thing applies when you fall in combat. In this case your companion is so stressed by your death that she cries out and releases a massive blast of magical energy. This blast slightly rewinds time so that you’re brought back fully healed, but it also heals your opponent a little too. The strengths of this system are that it’s built directly into the story and gameworld, as well as the fact that there’s still a consequence for death. The problem is that you don’t really lose anything except a little progress in the game meaning that failure isn’t as big a problem as it should be and any sense of danger is lost.
Now, Fable II is one of my favourite games but its death system has divided the gaming populace like nothing before it. The idea is simple enough: Add a system where being beaten in combat is part of the experience and allows players to keep playing the game. In order to do this they made it so losing all your health in the game knocked you down but not out. You’d be falling to the ground in slow motion and the music would become more dramatic. You’d lie there for a second or two then, emulating so many films, you’d get an adrenaline burst and get back up ready to fight again. All the experience you’d gained in the fight so far would be lost (disasterous in an RPG) and you’d gain a scar. That scar would stay with you throughout the rest of the game and people in towns would comment on it, supposedly injuring the pride of the player. Of course, even if you don’t play video games I’m sure you can see some of the problems with a system like this.
- You effectively can’t die in combat meaning you enter it knowing that, no matter how many times you’re knocked down, you’ll eventually win.
- You lose some experience due to losing a battle, but you can always gain more.
- A lot of people just don’t care if their character is scarred or not, so they feel no real consequence for falling in battle.
Personally I play vain characters in that game so every scar is a nightmare to me and I find that the system helps to expand on the story, even if it can get repetitive. Luckily the game is quite easy so it’s very rare that a player will lose a battle, but that just adds more ammunition to those who believe it should have a Game Over screen instead of the storytelling system it currently has.
Build A Better Death System
So, here we get to the point of this article. I believe that the sort of video games that tell stories need to move beyond the Game Over screen into new territory. Failure needs to become as much a feature of the story as success is, and it’s up to designers to come up with new systems that fulfill that. As you can see from the examples I gave above, certain game designers are trying to do this but they haven’t succeeded in making a death system that fits organically into the world yet. And that’s where I come in. What follows is a set of systems that can be implemented in video games to give a more cinematic experience to failure as well as retaining the fact that failure has to have consequences or the player will feel unchallenged by the game. The examples I use to illustrate these systems are based on fantasy RPGs, and the Fable series in particular as it has a much broader scope than most other games, but the systems can work equally well for most story-telling games.
The Good Samaritan
This is pretty basic and shouldn’t be used too often. Basically when the hero loses all health they pass out and wake up in the nearest village a week or two later. A villager or guard will be nearby and explain how they found you and nursed you back to health. This can get more interesting if the character that saved you has a random chance of attacking you if you don’t offer them a reward. It’s a very basic system but, as you’ll soon see, it isn’t designed to be used every single time you die in the game.
Enemies Have Motivations Too
This one is probably the most complicated feature to design, but it can also be one of the most rewarding. Rather than having the hero be magically saved or get back up once they’ve been taken down by an enemy, the game continues along a different path depending on which enemy finished the protagonist off. Each person and creature in the world has their own motivations and these motivations are then built into missions that only start once the hero “dies”.
As an example let’s say the hero is beaten by bandits. The screen fades to black and the hero wakes up to find that they’ve been robbed of some of the items they were carrying. Now the hero has a choice between chalking it up to bad luck and going on with their lives or raiding the bandit camp to get their lost items back (some of which may very well be unique and irreplacable). A wild animal’s motivation for attacking the hero would probably be food and the beaten hero might wake up in a lair and have to fight their way out to safety, or have lost some food they were carrying. Guards will be looking to arrest you so being beaten by them would probably land you in prison, giving you a choice of spending time in jail or escaping. Attacking spirits such as banshees, ghosts and shadows may be looking for a body to possess and being beaten by one of those might mean the screen fades to black and you wake up surrounded by dead bodies (possibly including your family) and with a bounty on your head. Slavers might capture you and lead to you having to break out of their slaver camp. The list can go on and on, but the point is the same each time. By exploring the motivations behind why each enemy in the world is attacking the protagonist, a new mission type can be created and integrated into the world as both a new challenge to overcome and a way to add to the story being told without the character’s “death” interfering with the flow of that story.
Location Location Location
You’re fighting an enemy at the top of a cliff overlooking a raging river and they get the upper hand. Rather than having the generic death system take effect or even the enemy specific system this location has been set up with it’s own death system. Your health hits zero and the camera angle changes, showing you a scene of that enemy knocking you off the cliff with it’s final blow. The camera zooms in on you as you fall until you hit the river below and the screen fades to black. You wake up washed up on the bank of the river close to the entrance to the area and must make your way back through the region with some of the enemies respawned. The same idea can be used sparingly in several other dramatic locations. You might get knocked overboard while fighting on the deck of a ship and wake up on a desert island, having to find food while building a signal fire to alert passing ships for a rescue. A fight in a castle may see you knocked into position on a trapdoor that drops you down into the sewers or a dungeon.
A dramatic location specific “death” can be anything and anywhere as long as it makes sense to the location. This sort of defeat can, like the motivated enemies entry, lead to further adventures for the character and that is always a good thing.
There Are Winners And There Are Losers
This part of the system would come into effect when the hero dies while on a mission. Rather than rewinding time so the player can try the mission over again the game would just continue and the logical results of their failure in the mission would play out. For some missions this wouldn’t be needed as the other systems would take logically fill in what happens, but others would need their own epilogue to that particular story. If your mission was to protect a village from a bandit attack you might wake up in the village to find that most people are dead and the village is in ruins. A mission to capture a criminal might see the criminal escaping and you missing out on the reward. If that criminal has information crucial to the story you may well have to track him down again or even run into him by accident in a bandit camp. As long as the end of the mission can’t be handled logically by the other systems, a unique failure option built into some missions can provide even more ways for the player to experience their own unique story filled with triumphs and failures.
Write Your Own Epilogue
This final system is a little different as it’s not built around the idea of traditional game deaths, but more about providing a premature ending to the game. Remember when I said that slavers might capture you if they beat you? Well you can escape from them if you wish to, but what if you decide not to? What if you give up? That should be an official ending to the game as far as I’m concerned, complete with an ending cutscene and the credits rolling. Want to make a new life on the island you’ve washed up on instead of get rescued? Want to serve your fifty year jail time instead of escaping? A game ending cutscene follows your decision, that character is retired and the credits roll.
Now obviously this sort of option seems strange – why on earth would anyone want to end their game that way? Granted, it’s not something that suits every game type. However, more and more often in RPGs we find ourselves given an open world to play with and, once the story is over, we’re allowed to keep on playing. While this has it’s strengths in allowing you to pick up the controller and continue with your character at any point, it also leaves so many characters stranded in Limbo. I’ve lost track of how many of these types of games I’ve left with the hero just wandering the landscape. This system is suggested as a way to provide a retirement for your hero, a natural ending to their adventures.
Ah, you say, but what if I want to continue playing that character after I’ve retired him? What if some brilliant new expansion is unexpectedly released and I want my retired hero to start adventuring again? Well, here’s where you would play a redemption quest. Set X amount of months after your decision you’d play a quest to come back into the world. If you’ve been enslaved you may have to buy your freedom. Imprisoned in a dungeon? Time to escape then. On a desert island? Time to work on those raft-building skills. Even if your hero has died you could run a quest through the underworld in an attempt to regain your life. These “redemption” quests would immediately become active when you reload a retired hero and would start with a little scene looking back at the hero’s previous adventures and how they’d been retired in the first place. Then when the hero’s redemption has been won they can carry on adventuring, with their retirement and new lease on life becoming part of the story like all other defeat options mentioned here.
Of course there are plenty of other ways that games can invigorate their death systems with a little imagination. A survival horror may see you making deals with dark forces to stay alive, deals that you’ll have to repay later in the game. A spy drama may see you captured by enemy agents and having to survive a torture scene before making a daring escape. A legendary warrior may actually play as their own soul fighting their way through the underworld for a chance to be back in their own body. The options are as endless as the stories in video games, and would usually only take a little extra effort to put into the game. One thing’s for sure though, Game Over has had it’s time, and then some, so we need someone to take that next step into truly cinematic story-telling.