Failure to fail – Is the new trend of removing the “Game Over” screen killing challenge?

Posted on 26/01/2009


There used to be a distinct amount of time we spent in our gaming lives, devoted to looking at a set of screens, that would come up with a practiced choreography. First, the Game Over screen. Then a screen where you can choose if you want to try again. Then the Loading Screen. A little ballet reminding us, the players of our failure, 10-30 seconds, over and over again. Until some designers thought, it would be a great idea to remove this little dance, and replace it with something else.

Game Over, Game Over Screen?

Game Over, Game Over Screen?

There is a variety of titles out today, which no longer feature “Game Over” Screens. The Game of these games is, in fact, only over when the player saves and calls it a day, or actually finishes the campaign mode. The way it’s done varies wildly. One of the earlier examples would be the long awaited ‘Prey’, which instead of a game over / loading screen featured a sort of elaborate minigame, where the player could shoot some “ghosts” and then respawn with a healthbar replenished relative to the ghost kill / evade ratio from the minigame. Thereby the player was kept in game all the time without having to go through any flow-breaking reloading procedures. In more recent gaming, Irrational / 2K Boston’s “Bioshock” saw use of a method similar in outcome, that saw the player respawning at a specific spawn point with a little health and even a little plasmid ammo for your superpowers. But the Vita Chambers only served as spawn points, throwing the player immediatly back into the game proper, without any minigame in between. So here, the flow of gameplay was even less broken.

Realtime World’s superpowered crimehunter GTA clone “Crackdown” featured something very close to that. When the player character got killed, the player was immediatly respawned at the nearest (unlockable) checkpoint. In both these examples, the actual game flow is broken only very briefly, sending the player right back into the action. The only form of punishment is in this case, the player being pulled away from the location he died, putting him in need of traveling back to where he last got killed – or where ever the next objective might be. Prey respawned the player very close to the location of his last “death”, the penalty being the ghost shooting minigame.

The lastest fashion seems to go even further. Lionhead’s / Peter Molineux’ Fable II implements a respawn mechanic, that eleminates even locational penalties, having the player being “knocked out” when his health bar reaches zero, and see him then get up again instantly. Gameplay flows steadily. The penalty here is one that attributes to the game being an RPG: The player gets knocked out, the character looses any not-collected experience point bubbles still floating in the air. The other, very recent example is probably the least compromising when it comes to steady flow of gameplay: Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia won’t let you even die. The player falls off a cliff, and is instantly rescued mid air by his princess guardian / companion / love interest / etc. Even in battle she won’t let you die. Or fail. When an enemy strikes you down, she’ll jump in between, and blast whatever it is away from the player, so that the character can recover. The penalty in this case applies only to either long winding acrobatic challenges, which see the player set back to the last patch of solid ground – meaning any space in the level the character can take actual steps on – or to fight sequences, in which failure means the current enemy recieving a boost in health. Through all this, the flow of gameplay goes on and on, without even the slightest break. It’s possible to play Prince of Persia without a single loading screen, without a single non-gameplay related break after the initial boot of a game session.

This now leads to several trains of thought. First, is the “death” of the player character only viable, when it is followed by a game over and a loading screen? A game over and loading screen – and the subsequent load times – are times we’re not allowed playing. We, the players, are forced to do something that is not entertaining. Spend time looking at loading screens. No matter how well designed a loading screen might be, it is less entertaining or exiting than actually playing a game. So the flow of gameplay is broken. We can take a short step back, before we dive back in. But we are reminded that we’re playing a game. And that for a moment we’re not allowed to play. But that’s not all. Most games that feature checkpoints throw the player back to the last checkpoint, having him repeat everything in the game between the checkpoint and the place / event he died at.

So what does all of this come down to? The death of a player character, a failure of the player is penalized by forcing the player waiting and repeating. That means ultimately the player pays with time. At least in the more traditional games. I’ve read critique for Bioshock, stating that it fails being a horror game, due to the player being unable to die, that without the possibility of fictional ultimate death, there can be no tension. I’ve read critique for Prince of Persia stating that the impossibility of failure removes any real challenge from the game. Do we as players need the possibility to fail in order to feel challenged? In Prince of Persia it is possible to fail, even if it is not possible for the main protagonist to die. And pretty much in the same way more traditional games practice it, the player is simply put back to the latest checkpoint in order to try again.

Only that the checkpoint in this example isn’t called by it’s name, being effectively masked, a gameplay mechanic hidden in narrative. Plus, there are very many checkpoints, as every piece of solid ground effectively serves as one. But if the player fails executing one part of a longer series of acrobatics, he will be set back to the last checkpoint, being forced to repeat the series of acrobatics until completion. So a part of the challenge is still there, as the player still has to spend time until he manages at least a good execution of a part of the game. The game is still not playing itself. The mechanics employed in Bioshock and Crackdown both penalize in a similar way, because the player is displaced inside the game and has to work his way back to where he was. Here the penalty is having the player spend time with a part of the game he has already been through. And in both examples the employed technique isn’t any different from a normal checkpoint based system, only that in both cases the gameplay mechanic is again rooted inside the game’s narrative.

Other games do pretty much the exact same things, setting the player back after he dies, after showing him a “game over” and a “loading” screen. So basically the difference here is implementation of meta-game mechanics (if you can call loading screens and game overs such), and overall execution. The worst things about Dead Space are not it’s horribly deformed enemy designs, but the sometimes very long load times. Would Dead Space be any LESS terrifying, if the load times were shorter? Is the Xbox360 version of a horror game worse at being horrific because the console’s faster loading times reduce penalty on the player? It’s possible that some might percieve it that way. When our character in a game gets killed, the worst that happens to us, is that we, the players, loose precious time, staring at the loading screen. It’s when WE are actually penalized, and if we manage to effectively avoid this penalty, we feel good about it.

So the question to ask is, what is death in gaming? And how much impact should failure have on overall gameplay? If failure or success are ultimately meaningless, what redeeming qualities does a game need to still be threatening and offering a challenge? Forcing the player to re-play parts of the game is actually a good approach, as the flow of the game remains unbroken – if we can agree on that this is actually important – and the player is at the same time “paying” with his own time as he re-plays parts of the game he’s already been through.

But then again there are other ways to penalize a player for playing badly. Some games hand out extra points for playing with style. In the Devil May Cry series, it’s vital that the player character doesn’t just survive the waves of scythe wielding fiends, but that he kills them all with style. If the player offers a boring game, he’ll have a harder time later on, since the points awarded for style can be used to buy much needed weapons upgrade in the game. Devil May Cry is actually a very good anti-example for the aforementioned games: It’s hard, unforgiving, and punishes the player not just for not surviving, and features very sparsely placed checkpoints, and lets the player WORK for continues. So it’s probably understandable that people who play and excel at Devil May Cry find Prince of Persia lacking challenge.

Me I’d be most interested in seing a mixture of these things. A game that encourages playing with style by handing out rewards that make the game easier, but a game that ultimately doesn’t force me to pay a lot of time watching loading screens. It would still be possible to include scenes of the gruesome slaughtering of the player character before re-spawning him by some story wise explained mcguffin like the vitachamber. Though I don’t think we need an ultimately mortal player character for horror. Lastly, unless a game features NO checkpoints and “save game” functionalities, every player character is immortal.

Posted in: gaming