This is one of those things that varies a lot from player to player. For me at least, suffering major consequences for dying in a game sucks a hugemassive cock.
Dying in itself isn’t a problem, because without fail potential, a game has no challenge. If you were to fall down a pit in Mario, and the game then spawned you on the other side of the pit, there’d be no gratification in conquering the pit to begin with. However, when I fall down a pit and the game sends me back to the start of the level, I have to question why. And if I fall down the pit three consecutive times, then the game sends me to a further-back location, I really start to wonder what’s going on here.
Going by the trends I see in games journalism, it probably sounds like I’m supporting the modern, tripple-A, “easy games with regenerating health and instant respawns” cliche, but that’s not the case, because I don’t play those games. I mostly play stuff that’s either aging or indie, so this is about those games.
Moreover, the examples that I will cite of games that handle dying correctly and incorrectly come from all eras of gaming.
The desire to write this post springs to mind every time I suffer a particularly frustrating death in a game, and since that just happened in Metroid Prime, I’m going to start with the Metroid series.
Each Metroid game features an open world, with occasional save points strewn about. The sparsity of save points does a lot to enhance the drama and fear that the games evoke. The player finds themself constantly wondering how much farther they can make it—how much longer till they can breathe a sigh of relief. But while this intensity is valuable, it doesn’t change the fact that dying fifteen minutes from the last save point means having to repeat those fifteen minutes of playtime.
Metroid games require you to run back and forth across their worlds enough times as it is, without having to retread areas you just played. In Metroid Prime especially, I’ve had parts where I go back through areas I just played twenty minutes ago on a regular basis. So if I spend fifteen minutes moving forward, only to die and experience those same fifteen minutes again—then twenty minutes later have to go through the same area (this time in five minutes because of power-ups), it gets pretty fucking old.
Most of the time, Metroid games aren’t just about passing the challenges of a single room/enemy. They’re about surviving long enough to make it to the next area, with emphasis on conserving energy and items. (I guess it’s a survival horror series in essence.) Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense for the games to respawn you in the middle of a level with full health, nor allow you to save wherever you please. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t do more to help the player avoid walking through the same parts again and again.
They could give the player the option to replay each room after dying, with the same amount of energy that they had on their last attempt. This would be great for shit like what happened to me with the spider boss in Metroid Fusion. In that situation, I would walk two minutes to the boss each time, and right before the boss room, it would fully heal me. I’d then get killed by the boss and have to walk all the way back. The walk itself poses no challenge in this situation because I can fully heal before the boss, so why the fuck is it there? If not putting a save point right before the boss, why not let me retry it immediately instead of sending me back?
In Metroid Prime, I had been playing for almost twenty minutes, when I reached a mini-boss. I was already incredibly low on energy, but I figured out what to do and beat him. However, a couple of enemies spawned immediately afterward, and I died. Even though I had so little energy, now that I knew what to do, I might’ve been able to beat the boss and the other enemies and make it to the next save point. I would’ve felt better about trying that three times over, than I would about running all the way back, with the chance that I could actually have less energy the second time around.
A game series which does an even poorer job in this regard is The Legend of Zelda, which is especially strange because the game almost does it right.
If you die in a Zelda dungeon, you respawn with whatever items you picked up; one-time puzzles still solved; and one-time enemies still dead. However, you’ll be sent to the start of the dungeon, and all of the regular enemies will be back. This sounds like a less-frustrating version of what happens in Metroid; however, the kicker is that in Zelda, you spawn with only three hearts.
For the record, a lot of dungeons have pots with hearts in them at the entrance—but not all of them, and often too few to fill your heart gauge. Moreover, if you’ve used fairies and other healing items, then those are still gone.
Say I make it to a dungeon boss with full hearts and a healing potion. I use the potion during the fight, but I still end up getting killed. I respawn at the start of the dungeon with three hearts and no potion. Not only am I exponentially less-equipped to take on the boss, I’m actually less-equipped to even make it to the boss. This is a huge load of shit, and if Zelda games weren’t so easy, it’s something a lot more people would be bitching about. It’s about as bad as dying in Demon’s Souls—which is worse than dying in Dark Souls.
In fact, the Souls series is great for looking at how to die right and wrong, side by side. In both games, dying costs you all of your Souls, which you need to level up and buy shit. You can reclaim them by making it back to the place where you died, without dying again. However, in Demon’s Souls, this is exponentially harder than it is in Dark Souls.
In Demon’s Souls, if you die as a human, then the level literally becomes more difficult. You probably won’t play as a human until you’re confident in your skills because of this, but it adds to the game becoming more difficult after dying. In both games, your weapons and armor have limited durability, so if you die over and over again without getting enough souls to repair your shit, you can eventually fuck yourself into needing to grind. But there’s one thing above all else which separates dying in these games.
In Demon’s Souls, you pick up perishable healing items. In Dark Souls, you have a set number of heals which are replenished each time you spawn or rest at a campfire (which respawns all of the non-boss enemies).
If you use up all of your healing items in a level of Demon’s Souls before managing to open a shortcut, you’re fucked. You have even less of a chance of making it as far as you did the first time, plus you have no souls, and your weapons are breaking. The only things which can help you are the possibility that you’re better at facing the challenges the second time around, and the possibility that you’ve picked up some better items along the way. Otherwise, you’re going to have to grind for healing items and souls in hopes of powering up before you take on the challenge again.
In Dark Souls, if you rest at a campfire and get five Estus Flasks, then use them all and die, you’ll respawn at the same campfire, with the same amount of drinks. You still have the Demon’s Souls benefits of being better at the game and possibly having better equipment on your next try, but you’re far less likely to need to grind. Because of this, trying again and again in Dark Souls is less frustrating than in Demon’s Souls.
With what I just described, the Dark Souls system is ostensibly similar to that of Metroid. You still get sent back to the last checkpoint and told to do it again, but the key difference is that in Dark Souls, you have still made some form of progress. There’s a sense of hope that can come from dying, because you know that if you can make it to where you died, you can reclaim the souls you dropped. If you do so, you’ll actually wind up with more souls than you had before, because you’ll have collected them all over again in getting to where you died. Even if you die before you make it there, you’ll still have collected souls on the way, which you will now be again trying to reclaim (possibly with a great deal of shame if you lost a huge number of souls beforehand).
I don’t mean to say that dying is less frustrating in Dark Souls; it can be console-breakingly infuriating. I only mean to say that dying is more meaningful in Dark Souls, because Dark Souls is a game about permanent consequences. The game auto-saves constantly, making sure that every failure and success has weight in the game. Dying in a Metroid or Zelda game has no weight; it just means you playing through the same shit again.
Getting off-topic for a bit, what the flying fuck is up with quitting game in those two franchises? In Metroid games, you’re forced to make sure you get to a checkpoint to save, or else forget about turning off the game. I can see no reason not to feature a quick-save, which would let you stop the game, but resume exactly where you left off, deleting the save. It’s a feature used in other games that feature save points for challenge, like Fire Emblem or Summon Night, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t work in Metroid.
In Zelda, I don’t get why you can’t save everywhere and pick up right where you left off. The last time I played Ocarina of Time, I was at the entrance to the Forest Temple with full hearts, and I got killed by the stupid charging bulls. I respawned at the start of the room with only three hearts, became angry, and “quit game.” A few days later, I started up the game, and I was spawned in the MOTHERFUCKING TEMPLE OF TIME. I was honestly so mad that I just switched the game back off, and I haven’t managed to play it again since.
Back to the subject of dying, let’s turn towards RPGs. I think the Pokemon games handle dying as perfectly as can be done an RPG. You can save at absolutely any point outside of battle, and if you die, you get sent to a Pokemon center with all of your Pokemon healed, but with a huge cut to your money. If I save right before a boss, then die, I’ve got two options. If I think I could’ve beaten the boss had I known what they were going to do, then I can reload my save and try again. If I think I wasn’t prepared enough for the battle, then I can let the game send me back, and I can be better prepared next time.
This eliminates the burden of keeping multiple save files, which is a necessity in many games that reset you from the last save point. I ruined my Final Fantasy 9 save this way back in 2005. I got to the part where Kuja makes you to select two of your characters to bring to a dungeon. I wasn’t paying attention when he mentioned that magic doesn’t work in this dungeon, so I brought Vivi, and I saved upon my arrival. Vivi was useless and Zidane was underleveled, so I literally couldn’t proceed through the dungeon, and the game wouldn’t let me leave. I had no other files, so I was completely fucked. This is one of the worst things that can happen in a game.
Now, let’s talk platformers. A couple of months ago, my fourteen year-old brother decided to try Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island after seeing JonTron talk about it in one of his videos. He ended up stuck on the first castle level for like twenty minutes, and when I tried to do it for him, I didn’t fare any better. Before long, we both were too frustrated to keep trying, because of the game’s checkpoint system.
Yoshi’s Island has checkpoints often placed about halfway through the level. However, if you lose all of your lives, you get a game over. You have to look at a long game over screen, and then are forced to start the level from the beginning again. I have no idea what purpose this serves outside of the arcade, and it’s patently fucking infuriating. Yahtzee went into detail about this in his dual-review of Super Mario 3D Land and Rayman Origins.
I would chalk up the obtuse nature of dying in Mario and Mega Man games to their being from another era, but that actually has nothing to do with it. Not only do new games in the Mario series continue to use this ridiculous lives system, but even back in the day, there were games which didn’t use them.
Playing old games, I’m often shocked by good ideas which have been around forever, but aren’t always used. I was really surprised when I played Soul Blazer, which features the permanent death of monsters (even if you die!) because there have been so few games which feature it, and it’s something I greatly appreciate. I was also shocked that older RPGs more often feature the ability to save whenever you want than their newer counterparts do. Even going old platformer, Pitfall always started you on the screen where you died, and Pitfall II had infinite lives.
I’m happy for all of the games which have taken a note from their ancestors and handled dying correctly. Most indie platformers, for instance, while featuring brutally difficult challenges, will continually spawn you right at the start of the challenge. In Super Meat Boy, you play through many short levels, which spawn you instantaneously at the start upon dying. More open-ended platformers, such as VVVVVV, Knytt Stories, Don’t Look Back, and You Have to Win the Game, feature hyper-frequent checkpoints (often one or two per screen), so that you never get sent too far back when you die. (You Have to Win the Game even subverts this by having one of the most challenging rooms in the game be escapable only by either death, or by conquering the challenge; so if you save inside the room, you are trapped and have to do the challenge again.)
I think that the way in which you die in video games isn’t talked about enough. People will call a game hard or easy depending on how often they die, but they don’t often mention what about dying makes a game fun or frustrating. I have over 3000 deaths in Super Meat Boy, but I was very rarely frustrated with the game, and even when I was, I very very rarely was frustrated with its design. Meanwhile, I’ve only died three times in Metroid Prime, and they’ve been miserable experiences.