A Referendum On Bottomless Pits

A question yesterday about the comparative merits of being saved from a plummet into a bottomless pit by a beautiful woman or one's own grappling hook is occasion enough to determine: How do we feel about bottomless pits in 2009?

In my preview of Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack In Time yesterday I lamented the series continued use of the bottomless pit as a character-killer. Falling into one forces a restart at the game's last checkpoint. That is a friendlier system than that of Super Mario Bros. which, more than two decades ago, forced plummeting players to re-start the level. At least Super Mario World offered mid-level checkpoints.

As I noted in the Ratchet preview, other games have been grappling with the bottomless pit issue by offering players immediate recovery—quick escapes that return them to the last part of the game level on which their character had planted his two feet.

In last year's Prince of Persia, the prince's female companion, Elika, extended her hand to automatically rescue a prince who jumped poorly. That design element had its detractors. Wired's Chris Kohler wrote of the game's designers and their Elika no-death mechanic: "They have eliminated the lows, but also the highs. It is free of frustration, but it is also free of joy."

In this year's Batman: Arkham Asylum a player can recover from any bad fall by pressing a controller shoulder button to fire Batman's grappling hook and see the great detective conveniently climb to safety.

In Batman you can die from a fall and do have to press a button to prevent that. In Prince of Persia, salvation is automatic. But neither game exacts the harsh penalties of Super Mario Bros. nor even the milder consequences of a Ratchet and Clank.

Via Twitter, I threw the question to the public yesterday, comparing the more negative reaction I'd seen online to the Prince of Persia approach to the indifferent reaction I'd seen to Batman: "In 08, people hated Elika for saving the Prince of Persia from platforming death. Do those folks hate Batman's similar safety nets in Arkham?"

Some responses:

1) "people who hated elika's saves are stupid. Lives are a thing of the past and interrupt narrative gameplay."

2) Just like the Prince's version worked in his story, Batman's works in his. I have no problem with it if its more fun.

3) PoP felt like a platformer (where falls should matter). AA doesn't even have a jump button, so falls shouldn't hurt you.

4) (disclaimer, I <3ed POP) I think the difference is Batman's is tied to player agency (ie pressing the button) and POP wasn't.

5) I doubt it. In Batman, you feel like you're saving yourself. In PoP, someone is saving you. You maintain badassery in Batman.

What do you think?

[PIC - via Flickr]


    I agree with response #1. 'Lives' and insta-death are relics of the past, and the whole concept should be scrapped from modern games. I'm fine with it being in "oldschool" games (eg the Megaman ones), but it's completely counter-intuitive to the immersion a lot of modern games aim for. Nothing ruins the feeling of the game's atmosphere like seeing a "game over restart y/n" screen.

    For those who say "but that makes the game too easy", well I play games to have fun, not to stress myself. If I wanted that I'd play said oldschool games.

    Being saved every time automattically in a game where platforming makes up a big portion of the game like POP is a stupid idea.

    Have you ever played metal slug with infinite lives on? There is no sense of defeat when you get shot or whatever because you never really die but there is no sense of victory either because it's impossible to lose.


      Well, yeah, it makes zero sense in your platformer. But in, say... Halo. Or Call of Duty. Or Gears. Jumping is not a primary game mechanic. It is, in fact, a fairly rarely used one. The game is about shooting, and throwing grenades, and driving vehicles, and chopping people down with chainsaws. If they'd put puts all over the place, would those games have been improved? 'course not.

      In Prince of Persia, the main mechanic was the platforming, with a hefty secondary mechanic which was the combat. So it does make sense for pits to be a failure mechanic. I preferred the Sands of Time mechanic - you had as many 'lives' as you did Sand, which let you go back to where you just were. It's like Mario giving you 3 lives, but they're better because they don't make you do the whole level again.

      In my opinion, it's about taking away instant-fail methods. Where puzzles are designed EXPLICITLY to be punishing, then sure, have your instagib pit, or doom ray, whatever. But most of the time, I don't want my games to be me on the verge of ultimate death which erases my savefile. That can be in there - just make sure it's appropriate, and not over-used.

    Did you just say that jumping is a big part of Halo? I press that jump button more than any other damn button just because... Not to mention the key to getting places is the crouch-jump.

    But yeah, PoP overall wasn't that great of a game but dying would have made it that much more annoying. There was an achievement that prevented you from falling down more than 20 times in the whole game which was incentive enough for me to not fall down more than 10. What would have been more fun? falling down and getting straight back up or dying and waiting for everything to reload?

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