Column: Player Death is a Game Design Failure

Maximum PC Staff

Dying to Live

Player death is not a gameplay element. It’s a design failure. I know this is heresy among gamers with fond memories of Rogue and similar games, and for modern gamers who soiled themselves with glee over Dark Souls , but it’s the truth.

This mechanic may work in some puzzle games, such as Limbo , which incorporated character death into a puzzle format and narrative structure that made sense. But that’s an exception. The problem is this: With an adventure, role-playing, or action game, the gamer becomes the character. He identifies with it. He’s developed it. And that’s the point of the game: Take one person, see him through various trials, gather what needs to be gathered (experience, weapons, objects), and then use that accumulated knowledge to win.

Need we see this screen?

Character death is a betrayal of that format. It means that this character—the player’s game-world surrogate—has died. He’s not pining for the fjords. He’s passed on. He’s joined the choir invisible. He is an ex-character.

Designers need to keep in mind that they’re dealing with a narrative format, and character death is the end of that character’s story, unless we’re dealing with zombies, in which case Rick Grimes will amble along shortly, and, with a pained but determined expression, shoot ’em in the brain.

Limbo: One of the few games that gets death right.

I’ve now had the second game in as many months with this serious design flaw. Dishonored is the latest. It is a game with many things to recommend it. I started the game by just cutting my way through the enemies, and after the first level I learned that the ideal way to play it (according to the designers) is as a stealth game in which nobody dies.

The way the game is designed, however, this is not possible without repeated reloads and restarts. Other stealth games (Splinter Cell, Thief) give you enough tools and clues to do this. Dishonored does not. It requires trial and error, and that’s a problem when the result of error is death. There are no reloads in life.

Note: This column was featured in the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine .

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