Should More Video Games Punish Players For Dying?

“You know what they should do in Alien Isolation?”

Chris Jager, a Lifehacker Journalist. Perhaps most famous on the internet for the time he created, then ate, a placenta pizza using his daughter’s actual placenta.

Chris Jager likes video games. He’s also a bit unhinged. Every so often he’ll say something crazy about video games. This is about to be one of those times.

“Everytime you die they should ban you from playing Alien: Isolation for a day.”

Oh Chris. LOL Chris. Chris being Chris.

“Nah seriously. Think about it. They have all that tension to play with, but as soon as the Alien kills you a couple of times it’ll be gone. Then the game will be ruined.”

What a ridiculous idea I thought. I turned my back in feigned disgust and went back to bashing keyboards for a living.

But then I asked myself a question: what if he’s right?

The idea offended me to begin with. I associate delayed play with the very worst type of free-to-play excess — I’m reminded of Real Racing 3 and how it stopped me from playing. Real Racing 3 with its begging bowl, demanding I pay to not wait for whatever specified time Firemonkeys deemed necessary to syphon dollars and cents from my digital wallet.

I didn’t stop to think of the benefits.

I didn’t stop to ask myself – how would it actually feel if Alien Isolation did that to me. Killed me. Then refused to let me restart again as though nothing had happened? How would it feel as I hid tucked in a corner, in the darkness with an Alien stalking me, knowing that my potential death would have real consequences? That I would be punished, harshly, if I died. How would I feel when I did die?

There’s a difference between pretending a game has consequences – literally pretending – and actually pulling back the curtain with the strange truth: death in video games, for the most part, has no consequences.

Take the 2008 version of Prince of Persia, for example. A game that I loved. A game in which secondary character Elika would rescue players after a false move. Her hand, outstretched, would grab the player, rescuing him from the brink, plonking him back on solid ground, ready to adventure all over again.

People complained about that. People got angry. People then went straight back to every other game on the planet with checkpoint systems that essentially did the precise same thing. People weren’t angry with Prince of Persia because it was too easy — they were angry because Prince of Persia didn’t play along with the pretence of death. Prince of Persia didn’t partake in the ritual of video game death, it didn’t pretend that death meant something.

Rayman Legends is another. A platformer that doesn’t have a lives system? Huh? In Rayman Legends death simply takes you back to an earlier point in the level. Cool! I can’t remember this happening in any other platform game ever made. I didn’t even properly notice until someone pointed it out. I’ve been taking the whole ‘lives’ thing for granted since Super Mario World – but what are lives in Mario exactly? What do they mean to the player? Or to anyone for that matter? Nothing but a moving green mushroom we chase once in a while. A rewarding series of chimes when our bodies finally collide with them. An extra life. For what exactly? Nothing bad happens when you die. Nothing bad happens when you run out of lives.

There it is again: the pretence. We are pretending that death in video games is meaningful.

What happens when video game death has a consequence?

I remembered the shock, the actual bewilderment I felt when I died in Dark Souls and realised that the items I had used before dying would not be returned to me. I almost howled at the moon.

‘Don’t they know the rules? I’m going back to a checkpoint for christ’s sake!’

The permanency of Dark Souls. The permanency of death. No pretending. Your death fits a very unique set of rules that we all must adhere to. There will be consequences. If you suck, you will be punished.

I think I enjoy being punished.

In old arcade games death meant the loss of actual money. If you wanted to continue playing you needed to spend actual currency. The money I needed to sustain myself had been lost. Literally, I spent my lunch money playing Golden Axe. Literally I went without lunch to play Golden Axe, so the stakes were fucking high when Death Adder started swinging that blunt weapon of his in my general direction.

Even in older games played at home, my lunch money safe from harm, the tension of death was meaningful. Death might mean starting from scratch, death might mean losing hours of progress. When the stakes are high your body reacts, your internal organs throb. Your heart beats faster and your pupils dilate. Your breath shortens and you experience something that feels real. You become awake and empowered, terrified at the same time but above all you become engaged.

So many gaming experiences nowadays leave me feeling disengaged.

Back to Chris Jager. Back to Alien Isolation. Should a game like Alien Isolation withhold us from playing for a set period when we die?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. If it did, the motivations would have to be honest. Paying to negate the wait, obviously, shouldn’t be allowed. The period of time – that’s a tricky one, and there’s the whole issue of video games actually being entertainment. It would be commercial suicide, most likely, to properly stop people from playing your video game unless it was to force people to pay to continue playing, like an arcade machine or Real Racing 3.

So the answer is no. The answer is probably no. A game like Alien Isolation should not withhold us from playing when we die, but it should punish us. Alien Isolation should punish us in a fairly harsh manner if it wants to retain any kind of meaningful tension.

And a game like Alien Isolation really requires meaningful tension.


    They already punish me for dying. The most precious and limited resource I have is spare time, and when I die, I lose the time I invested into the game since the last checkpoint or whatever.

      I agree with this. The lost time investment on the first attempt is punishment enough, otherwise I rage-quit. Entertainment value is primary, surely. I get that for some people something like this may add visceral tension, but I have a pretty low threshold for these sorts of things (I can only play scary games in a well lit room or with people around) so no thanks, I'll stick with my auto-rinse-repeat.

      I sort of agree with this. I tend to be time poor, but I always end up enjoying the games that punish me more. So I'm torn.

        I sank a lot of time into Dark Souls but I never felt like I was being punished for dying in that game. You generally haven't even lost time in a failed attempt, because you feel like you've gained experience and so on by playing it. Very much not a fan of the idea of dying penalizing you by making the game even more difficult though, which seemed to be the way Dark Souls II went.

        The absolute worst thing is when you die in a game, lose a whole lot of progress and it wasn't even your fault - the game pulled some bullshit instant-kill move out of nowhere or you did the wrong thing or didn't play exactly as you were expected to, or even worse the game glitched or some other player came in in a multiplayer game and killed you while you were trying to do something else. And as a result of that, you lose time or progress. That's terrible.

        And for that reason I think in this particular case, Chris Jager is an absolute lunatic. As I understand it, the Alien in isolation moves around. He's never in the same place in each playthrough. You can and probably will encounter multiple cases where you go around a corner and it's right there infront of you and bites your head off before you have a chance to run and it's back to the last checkpoint. You've got no way of knowing. It'll add to the tension significantly, but if the game was like "welp, you're dead. Fuck off and maybe I'll let you play tomorrow" then that just becomes irritating. Actually, that sounds like a Free to Play monetization scheme. "You've run out of your lives for today, you'll get another one in 24 hours. Get back into the action immediately for $4.99!"

          He explicitly stated that you shouldn't be able to pay to negate the wait time. Can you imagine how much more terrifying the game would be though, knowing that at any given time you could pop around a corner, have your face ripped off, and then that was it?

          I can see the reasons why it shouldn't be done. We don't all have free time all the time, so maybe the punishment would have to be in another form. Some kind of difficult minigame? Or maybe you got to restart, but without the heartbeat sensor or flashlight for a set period of time?

            I like the idea of being made to wait, I remember from the actual review that the Alien would actually just spawn right in front of you, rather than moving around. I'd hate to be punished like @NegativeZero suggested such as 1-hit kill scenario that you had no reasonable control over. It would be cruel to die like that I suppose.

            I don't see the harm in a new game or franchise having a go at something like this to see what it is like.

            As long as the game gives you adequate warning that you're going to make a game-ending mistake and equips you with the capability to avoid it, sure.

          Yeah, I don't really get the idea that Dark Souls punished anyone for death. If anything, you would pretty much always come back either stronger or neutral in game terms and definitely more experienced.

          You take pretty much anyone's first run through the game and then give a brand new level 1 character to someone who's finished it a few times and the difference is night and day.

        Also, on the PoP 2008 no-fail platforming, I guarantee you that if they had done what IIRC Batman: Arkham Asylum did with that just afterward and made it require you to press a button to have her rescue your uncoordinated ass, no one would have even mentioned it as a problem. It was the fact it happened all the time, every time, without you doing anything (taking away your control while it rescued you) that was irritating people, not the fact you couldn't fail.

      And that's exactly why it shouldn't stop me from playing. If I'm playing the game, it means I have the time to be playing it RIGHT NOW. If it makes me wait until tomorrow... well, I might not have the spare time then that I have now.

      Maybe instead they should make us use some kind of peripheral that gives us painful electric shocks every time we die in the game. Kind of like that scene near the start of Ghostbusters where Bill Murray is testing those two volunteers for psychic powers.

      I’m also in the same boat. Then again if I die I guess I can take that as a reminder that I should probably put the controller down and go do important things, like iron my underwear.

      What an absolute load of garbage, if you want pick up and play - Go play Angry birds! This is the attitude that really annoys me. Everyone wants an easy game these days, like it or not you're taking the easy way out.

      The thing that grabbed gamers for years is the embrace of the challenge, the involvement and immersion that the concentration provided. Games now are almost too easy, it's not engaging, not difficult and definitely not to the same standard of enrapture when you actually accomplish something.

      Just because people lack the time to play the games, well. Imo the phrase "Too bad, so sad" comes to mind. Babying the players is not the way to go to make compelling games.

        OR, you could accept that games have transcended their roots and now dabble in interactive narrative, which has absolutely nothing to do with the challenge of traditional gamification and everything to do with a kind of storytelling that hasn't been covered by books or movies.

          This isn't about narrative games though, its about how games that are meant seen and played for the the game experience are too forgiving. There is definitely satisfaction from following a good story, but video games largely are about the satisfaction of actually being able to complete something that was challenging, which is now hard to find these days.

    Make it an option, easy. The equivalent of Xcom's ironman mode. If you're a badass or arrogant bastard you can try it and if you fuck it up, you're kicked back to the start screen with an hour timeout for example (or simply kill you permanently, maybe 3 options, checkpoint, timeout and permadeath) and if you want to play again right away, you have to start a new save slot.

      Almost reminds me of Dead Space 2, ironman mode - You get 2 saves for the whole 10 hour game.

        I like the concept of that but it doesn't really cater for needing to go to bed or similar "Okay, I have to stop playing now" situations. I'd prefer a system where you can save as many times as you like but there's a timeout so you had to wait say 6 hours before you could save again. Stops you save spamming and doesn't mean you have to leave the game on pause for hours or even days just to not waste one of your only saves

          True, but when your game time is limited (parents know what I mean), then you will not put up with features that lock you of your game. You will want to play the little game time you have and not redo the same section for the n-th time because a "feature" tells you to. You will want to save, play, reload, enjoy.
          Me being a parent too, before I had my son, I used to binge play too - start at 7:30 in the morning and turn the PC off at midnight with 30 minutes break time, split into 3 minute chunks for bathroom and food. If I had to spend an extra hour or two replaying the same section over and over again, it didn't bother me, I had the time. Nowadays, I am happy if I get 2 - 3 hours of me-time a day.

            True but then you'd not be able to play the dead space 2 hardcore mode either since you'd have to turn the game off at some point to deal with boring old reality and babies that were (presumably) not sprouting tentacles and trying to tear your face off. Some sort of time limited save thing (even if 1 hour) might have been harder and still let you try it

            Oooh BAM! Just solved it!

            Save as many times as you like, save to your hearts content so you can save if you need to go to the loo, save if you want to go to bed, save if you want to actually save near a possible hard fight. The difficulty comes from what happens next. You can't LOAD as many times as you like. Effectively bring back the lives system only instead of it being an obvious icon on screen, every time you load the game after dying, an invisible counter ticks down until it hits zero whereupon it's permadeath.

            That lets you save and resume for real life interruptions and still keep the game hard as all hell and make death a meaningful thing to avoid, give the players no 1up icons to collect or score to beat to earn a free continue and the tension would be there without the unrealistic assumption that you'd dedicate several uninterrupted hours in a single session to complete it. If they want to be clever and try to stop players gaming the system, they could assume that any time an enemy was in the room, the player was programically dead and they only reclaimed their life once they were out of danger (going a bit jem'hadar there, victory is life!), that'd stop players ALT+F4ing to try and preserve the save if they were about to die because the only way to preserve the save is to win or escape.

            Last edited 25/06/14 5:27 pm

    I'd happily accept such a premise. If I died I'd just go play another game until tomorrow. I typically use dying as a way to stop playing anyway. Like after I've had a good run with ftl or minecraft hardcore and die I call it for the day. Most people wouldn't like this I imagine though.

    No, I find it hard enough to find the time to finish games. Loading screens are punishment enough!

    I've often thought about this and have to say that you need to strike an in-between balance (too little consequence, too much consequence).
    I remember a rather drunken night with a friend where we discussed this, and a solution we thought was good came up:
    Die, and go back to the start of the previous level.
    (Obviously this only works on level/short mission based games).

    So you get jettisoned back to the previous level - you don't lose anything, including items. You end up getting really good at level A, while you continue to beat level B. Then - glory be - you've finished level B! Congrats! You die in level C.

    Back to Level B - but what's this? You know enough about that damn level that it becomes easier, and easier, and your skills are getting better, and better, and better...until eventually death is an annoyance of a handful of minutes, rather than anything else and look at you! You're doing so well mastering that set of skills that Level C is becoming easier and easier until you pass it!

    You die in Level D.

    Back to C...

      So Roguelikes without the procedural generation?

    Game needs a huge sim style controller and deleted your save file if you forgot to eject when your tank dies.

      That is freaking hardcore ! Even looking at the controller and it's 40 buttons and three pedals.
      It is not a game for the casual gamer or the time poor..

    The problem is whether or not you want to encourage or discourage the people from getting better at and enjoying your game. I appreciate the concept of making dying in a video game more meaningful by having death have some sort of repercussion beyond just losing a life or restarting from a checkpoint, but there's a point where you're making the game less enjoyable by trying to be unique. Dark Souls does it the best. It forces you to be way more cautious then you would in most games by having your experience points AND currency be potentially lost for good. However not only does the game give you a chance to rectify this, it's actually incentivising you to do better next time. I don't like the idea of being forced to not play a game i've spent $70-$80 (AUD of course) on for a day just because the dev wants to punish me for not being very good at it, especially if i'm enjoying the damn thing!. A mechanic like that might work for a free-to-play digital game where you don't feel financially cheated if it happens to you, but not a full-priced retail release. There's being clever and then there's just being a dick. I think this idea falls into the category of the latter.

    Eh, I guess. There is a problem with games where they're either too easy or the death becomes just a minor inconvenience and annoys me because it's just stretching playtime. With something like Dark Souls death can be a MAJOR inconvenience, but that just kills my motivation to play at ALL because like NegativeZero said, my spare time is a precious resource. I don't have the patience to suffer major setbacks.

    I either play a game for the story, in which case I want to be tested but not punished, or I play games for the challenge - this applies exclusively to modern roguelikes like FTL, Spelunky, Binding of Isaac, etc, in which case go ahead and kick me in the balls, that's what I'm here for. People can choose to play Xcom on Ironman mode or Minecraft on hardcore/permadeath mode, if they want. I choose not to, but the option is there.

    What kind of game is Isolation going to be? If I'm playing it for the story, don't punish me too hard, and certainly don't lock me out of it for a day. That's how you guarantee that EB has a huge pile of returns. Sure, the "thrill" of being hunted might wear off after I die a few times and determine it's NBD, but at least that's a game we can play.

      Playing for the story is a good point.
      The list of RPGs I've given up on because they were story driven but forced me to grind too much & forget the plot is long.

    Or maybe when you die your disc self destructs like the mission tapes in Mission Impossible.

    WHHHYYYYY is there a link to a placenta eating article?!?!!!!?!!?!?! *throws up lunch*

      why did you click on it? (In all transparency, I clicked on it too and have achieved infinite shuddering)

    I agree there needs to be some inconvenience to dies in a game that is based around tension. I think I'd honestly prefer this to the alternative, which is having to replay a section of the game.

    "In Rayman Legends death simply takes you back to an earlier point in the level. Cool! I can’t remember this happening in any other platform game ever made."

    The Oddworld games on Playstation used to do this. I always thought it was cool to do away with the whole "lives" thing. Can remember a story of one of my brother's mates who left their Playstation on constatly until they were able to finish the game cause they didn't have a memory card, LoL.

    Personally I think losing time and having to redo part of a level over is already annoying enough (this is especially true nowadays, but I still felt like this when I was younger and had more time). especially if you get up to a boss and have to watch DRAMATIC CUTSCENE! over and over until you finish it. Even with frequent checkpoints it can feel a bit like a punishment to die over and over because jeez I've already mastered almost all of this bit and I need to continually redo it until it is perfect.

    As for that Prince of Persia game mechanic, I found it just made the game a relaxing game to play. It was a bit lackluster after playing some of the other PoP games, but it didn't take too long to get used to and then I just considered it a game to cruise through. It was fine being an easier game ImO cause I don't think every game has to be a challenge of your Skillz, and it was nice not having to wait for a damn load screen to reset my character several steps back from where they fell off a ledge or something. Load screens already feel like punishment when you're having trouble passing a section of a game.

    I'm all for roguelike-and-beyond difficulty levels in games (have you played Zafehouse?), but over the years I've become a big fan of games where dying (or failing) is fun.

    Examples in recent times: Dead Space 1 and Rogue Legacy, though the latter went a step further by integrating dying into the design. Giving RL's popularity, it's a decision that paid off.

    Heck, I remember jumping to my death constantly in UT2004 just to watch the ragdoll physics.

    As for straight-out punishment to the degree of preventing someone from playing again (or designing death so that you'd rather *never* play again), there's definitely a market for that, otherwise games such as One Single Life, Darkfall and EVE Online would have bombed.

    And if you're looking for games that stop you from playing for a period of time? Take your pick of any of the thousands of F2P games on the iOS and Android app stores. :)

      "Heck, I remember jumping to my death constantly in UT2004 just to watch the ragdoll physics"

      Oh man that was awesome. I remember doing this constantly when the demo first came out :P

      Isn't there a growing community of people who play the Far Cry series and commit to having just one life? If you die, that's it, start again. Apparently it changes the expereince completely.

    In the Anniversary edition for Halo 1, there's a skull you can turn on that removes a random HUD element everytime you die.

    Yes, Punish us. If there is no risk to dying then they might as well just make the character invincible. For the people against dying due to lack of time or hate dying in general, go watch a damn movie, you might as well not play a game.

      Yes, let's tell the people who genuinely enjoy games, but also have real world responsibilities like children or, oh, a fucking job to "just go watch a damn movie."

    "Oh Chris. LOL Chris. Chris being Chris."

    Made my day xD

    Why should there be consequences to dying? Assuming the whole afterlife thingy is false, no one ever experiences any consequences from dying...

    Anyway, These are games. They are artificial. But the idea that the absence of "real world" consequences means that there is no consequence is false. I perform action, the action fails to satisfy the games requirements, my character "dies." That is a consequence. I then do P instead of Q. Games requirement is satified, I advance. That is also a consequence.

    I am not entirely convinced that an enforced wait is really a "meaningful" consequence, but if it adds meaning for you it doesn't need to be programmed. You can do it yourself. When you play Alien Isolation make yor own rule. If you die you set a timer. When the timer elapses you can play again.

    There a plenty of ways to add different challenges to games - nothing stops you from adding rules that the game logic supports.

    Me, I played Dark Souls for about 10 minutes. Like NegativeZero up first, I have limited time to play. I don't play games for a masochistic challenge. I play them for a bit of fun and a brief respite from a world chock full of meaningful consequences.

    But is it more damaging to stop the player from playing and force them to leave the game to do something else? Either they'd have to start again from scratch every time, or each checkpoint would need to be padded as a re-entry point. It's a bit like stopping a song. I mean that still applies with or without this sort of death, but I think it really amplifies the problem of pacing and atmosphere building when you start forcing people to stop for extended periods on top of their normal breaks.

    I mean punishing the player seems atmosphere appropriate but it's a super fragile balance. I think if you break it down into gameplay alone you want something more like Resident Evil or old platformers where death itself isn't the punishment. They can achieve a similar goal by not killing the player. They allow the player to continue/succeed and instead they drop power ups, remove ammo, etc based on your performance. Punishment over execution. Of course that sort of transparent stuff can be hard to mesh in with an atmosphere driven game.

    I think we should go further, Ultimate mode, if you lose, your disc is ejected at a high speed and shatters against a wall.

    Last edited 25/06/14 2:08 pm

      Possibly decapitating a loved one as it shoots out. You will then know true loss.

      I think we should go further, Ultimate mode, if you lose, your disc is ejected at a high speed and shatters against a you.


      or cuts off your head. either way.

        Throw a Rift on that and you've got pretty much every half-baked 'this time the game is real!' script from the 90's. =P

    Goddamn I loved that 2008 Prince of Persia. Please make a sequel Ubi!

    Not in MMOs-- that shit bugs me: ie, War Z's 'early respawn' fee or other ones like the World of (insert fighting vehicle here) with their 'repair time'. I don't have the time to kill waiting or grinding in a game where I can potentially be killed within 30 seconds of joining. In non-MMOs, particularly FPS games, that you're not particularly punished in multipler does kind of bug the shit out of me. It's one of the things that has put me off most FPS games, save for something more sim-oriented like GRAW2 or ARMA III. I always hated that players would run screaming head first into gunfire, hopping around, dolphin diving, etc, die, respawn and do the same. But I guess that's more an issue of me being suckered into the visual style of the game and not recognising that it's more a sport than a battle to take a stronghold, blow a bridge or take an airfield.

    I like State of Decay's system where, should one of your crew die, bam, they're dead permenantly for the entirety of that game. So if you like your characters, or survivors have unique skillsets and you have no backup personnel, it requires you to take some level of planning or risk management into consideration before you take action. There was a HL mod called firearms that imposed a limited number of lives on each team in multiplayer which I thought was a nice touch. FPS players who had an understanding that they had something to lose, play much differently from games where they don't. Much less running and gunning and more use of cover and teamwork. Personally, I'd like to play things where they is a more tangible sensation of something to lose, other than the minor point penalties in multiplayer FPS or slightly increased respawn penalties.

    Maybe if you let the style of death dictate the punishment.
    Alien bites you face off = 24 hour respawn
    Fall off a ladder = 30mins

    I grew up in arcades, playing games with the limited stack of 20 cent pieces I could afford each week. Death cost money. And games were all about punishment. You die, you pay. Or worse still, you die, you start all over again. Obviously this model is not valid for the 15-20 hour games we are now used to, but it should probably be used more in the 30 minute - 2 hour games of today.

    As a casual gamer who only ever plays on easy / normal difficulty settings, if i were to be punished even more for dying i think that would push me over the edge and i would just stop playing games all together.
    Im a story gamer not a challenge gamer

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