Game Over: Death as a Gameplay Mechanic in Video Games

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Death as a Gameplay Mechanic

The purpose and joy of playing a video game is to win. But without possibility to lose the game also loses any kind of entertainment. The player won’t feel happiness because he was better than the AI or other players. The player won’t be entertained from the process of making the right decision, so there is no reason to play again. This leads game developers to the necessity to design the game over screen and defeat mechanics. In other words, defeat or death in video game is a real [gameplay mechanic] that can change the player’s emotions.

In this article we want to talk about different approaches to design a “game over” mechanic that affects the gameplay. If you never thought about it, you’ll discover that particular death mechanic in video games may create unique game genres and player experience.

you died darks souls gif

Different outcomes of video game death

We can divide video games into two categories: those where the player can save and load the progress manually and those where he can’t.

For example, in Witcher 3, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Cyberpunk 2077 the player can save a game whenever he wants. In case of bad outcome like death, wrong dialogue choice or quest fail the gamer can reload the game state. Roughly speaking, he can erase any consequences of his actions and try different choices in any situation.

skyrim quicksave meme

Also, manual save/load can help the player to pass difficult challenges. For example, in Disco Elysium the player could pass the attribute check by abusing save mechanics. And in old FPS games it was possible to save the progress after every dangerous enemy killed in order to not restart the whole fight or level.

In this case death means nothing, because the player can retry every step. At the same time he gains knowledge about what waits him around the corner and loses nothing. Hardcore gamers call this process “save/load abuse” and sometimes consider it as cheating.

save load abuse

Modern third-person games use checkpoint system and do not allow the players to create separate save files. This prevents the gamer from correcting past mistakes and makes him to think about consequences. Also, the checkpoints are usually rare. By using the checkpoints the game designer forces the player to learn how to play and improve knowledge of the gameplay mechanics.

For example, in the beginning of the God of War there was a scripted scene where Kratos and Atreus falling from bridge to the pit with frozen enemies. Because the game started literally one hour ago, the player wasn’t really familiar with the fighting system, hasn’t upgraded skills and equipment and, probably, has selected wrong gameplay difficulty. That scene has to be beat in single try, which caused many players to dozen retries, broken controllers and difficulty change.

checkpoint mechanics

What the player lose in case of defeat

Let’s say the player got to “Game over” screen. What will happen with his progress if he taps “Try again” button? There are two popular outcomes:

  • the game will restart from the last checkpoint, but the player will lose any achieved progress;
  • the game will restart from the last checkpoint and the player will save some progress;

approachs of game over mechanics

First case is the most common and can be applied to games with both manual and autosave. For example, a typical FPS game will send the player to the last checkpoint with full health and the same amount of ammo he had when reached it. This works for strategies, arcade games, sport simulators, etc. Also, that kind of death mechanics do not affect the actual gameplay. In terms of story, the player goes from start to finish without single death.

The second case is much more interesting. The game saves the player’s progress, and he doesn’t need to repeat some things he did before. But he also can’t redo these things and his previous decisions.

Dark Souls series, horror games, some rogue likes and most of the action adventure games use this kind of death mechanics to make the player think about his actions. For example, in the beginning of Dark Souls 2 the player can interact with the Company of Champions covenant and make the game even harder. Later he will find that he can’t summon other players and NPCs to help with bosses, while the bosses gained 50% bonus HP and 20% armor. And the player can’t leave the CoC. The only way to make the game easier is to create a new character.

How death in video games may be an important element of gameplay

There is no person who will never lose while playing a new game. That means that you need to plan what will happen in case of the player’s death and how to make the player understand that “Game over” screen isn’t that bad and unwanted.

The first thing to come in mind is to not show the “Game over”. In Bioshock the main character just respawns in the nearest Vita Chamber, in Bioshock Infinite Elizabeth saves Booker with injection, and in Prince of Persia 2008 Elika heals the Prince or saves him from deadly fall. The trick is hidden in smooth transition between the player’s fail and new try.

bioshock vita chamber

To make this “no actual death mechanic” work, you’ll need to explain why the main character is immortal. Bioshock tells us that Vita Chambers grow a character’s clone. And Elika is an enchantress, so she can do whatever she wants.

The second thing you can do with the death mechanic is to throw the player back to the checkpoint, reset all enemies and traps, but save all collected items. Dark Souls series uses this approach: in case of death the player loses all money, aka souls, but saves other collected items. Of course, the magical resurrection at the bonfire is explained in the main story.

This approach is also used in most of the rogue like games where you can upgrade the main character. For example, in Immortal Redneck the player collects gold, which he can later invest in abilities and bonuses for the next run. In Devil May Cry the player loses all progress, but not the orbs and items he found.

The third way to make the defeat taste better is to unlock something new. For example, in Children of Morta the player needs to lose a few times to unlock new characters, quests and passive abilities. In Dead Cells the player can unlock a starter kit, which gives him random weapons he found previously. And in Devil May Cry 3 Dante’s death is the only way to unlock the easy mode. Even in Dark Souls 3 there are benefits in death: Yoel will give you 5 free level ups.

unlock by death game mechanic

Also, in rogue like death means that the player will start a completely new run with random items and secrets hidden in freshly generated level. It makes the “Game over” screen to look like “Try again, maybe you’ll be lucky” instead of “Git Gud”.

Player’s death as an element of the story and atmosphere

Most games are simple: you died, hit “Load last checkpoint” button. But good game designer can turn it into [a narrative element]. There is no need to make a secret ending, but rather to show the player that his fail is significant to the main storyline.

The first game to use death as narration was Call of Duty 1. It showed famous quotes about war, honor and stuff on “Game over” screen, which inspired the players to continue fighting. Batman Arkham games showed the villains bragging about poor knocked out Batman. And in Cyberpunk 2077 CD Project Red simply wrote “Flatlined”, a 2070-s equivalent to “Dead”. The reason of this trick is to make the player slightly mad about rout and give him the emotional reason to try again.

cyberpunk flatlined

The next way to spice the main character’s death is to show it in details to give the player motivation to avoid losing. The best example is Dead Space: the necromorphs literally shred Isaac to pieces. After watching such a scene most players really started to play more carefully. The same thing goes with the new Tomb Raider series, where the players spectates Lara’s last moments. And there is a masterpiece — the God of War 4. When Kratos takes the final hit, he falls to the ground, Atreus shouts and run to him in slow motion. The player may command him to use ressurection stone or to watch Kratos die. This approach also affects the player emotionally, but in the other way than “inspiring” one.

dead space death animation gif

And the third way of managing death is to simply declare the defeat and show the classic game over screen. This comes in handy with arcades, puzzles, casual and other games where the story isn’t as important as gameplay. There’s no need to overcomplicate things that work just well.

How to design a “Game over” screen in your game

At first, you need to define the defeat and restart conditions. They are always based on the gameplay and goals. For example, if the goal is to beat the level in time, the player will lose if no time has left.

Next, you need to imagine something that will motivate the player to try again. In case of the timer, it may be an explanation why the player have lost. For example, “You don’t get points by hitting the obstacles” or “Too slow!” if you want to cause a little anger.

If your game has [a storyline], and it’s important, try to use it in the game over screen or animation. For example, in Resident Evil 4 there are parts where Leon must protect Ashley from zombies. If they kill her, Leon will drop on his knees and shout. If there are no relevant parts of the story to use, go with something simple like the character dropping dead or falling off-screen.

When you’ve decided how the game over will look, it’s time to think how it will affect the story. It’s depends on story and setting. If there are magic or hi-tech, you may just resurrect the character. If there isn’t any, make the defeat look less fatal and reversible, or simply ask the player to restart from the checkpoint.

Now you need to come up with the death mechanic: what will happen in the game when the player fails. There are two outcomes: the player may save something he achieved in the last try or not. The second case is the simplest. If there’s nothing to collect, there’s nothing to save.

The fate of collected items depends on how and when the player will have the possibility to spend them. For example, in Dark Souls and Devil May Cry the player has to get to the special place where he can save progress and buy upgrades. In some rogue likes the player resurrects near the shop and saves all the coins. But if the shops and save points are separated, or there is no manual save feature, you have no reasons to let the player save the collected goods.

In general these mechanics give the player additional motivation to try again and do not fear the game over screen:

  • all collected items are saved lead to “I grow stronger with every try!”;
  • all collected items are lost lead to “I will be stronger in next try!”.

game over outcomes

Intermediate variations are possible. For example, the player may save skins, characters and rarest items which can be also bought with microtransaction. But at the same time he loses money, ammo and other expandable which he may easily find in the game.

Is it really that important to design a game over?

Yes, it is. Take Dark Souls as an example: the core gameplay had nothing new except the death mechanics with loss of collected souls. Call of Duty had nothing new except the quotes on the death screen. Dead Space is a common horror game which shows the character’s end in the raw.

It is not so hard to make the player try your game. But it is much harder to make him retry after he failed. In game design terms, good “Game over” screen greatly affects the retention rate.

bad and good game design

If you aren’t sure that your game motivates the player to keep trying, you may ask as to assist. We’ll help you find what’s wrong with your death mechanics and how to improve it. Just fill the brief below.

We in Kreonit game outsourcing studio work with game art, code and gameplay mechanics. We like to study great games to understand what makes the player to love them, and then use what we found in our projects.


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