I'm afraid to die in games


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How you handle failure is an important part of your makeup and chance for future success.Using the school test analogy I knew kids who were crushed by a bad test, and would begin to question their ability. I on the other hand would quickly blow it off and use that test to see where I need to improve. I like to think this is a strong suit of my personality that I developed, but like most things I believe it comes more from your parents and your culture. I was allowed to fail. My mother did not harp on grades, but did harp on effort. When I failed I felt I only let myself down, and that was easy to fix. I could work harder. Other kids had a crushing feeling they were letting others down. I went to a high school that had a large Asian enrollment,and a lot of these kids were driven not to excel, but rather not to fail. That was a lot of pressure.
My point being that if you are a parent, please think about how you react to failure in your children. It matters greatly how you react. Notice that when the letter came home, the author mentioned his father’s reaction, not his own. I always let my son see my failures and how I handled them. Kids need to know adults fail too, and it is not the end of the world.


I never really considered this until recently but was prompted to do so by playing Life is Strange. It is a game in which your character can rewind time, changing recent decisions and experiencing the immediate aftermath of a variety of options before finally settling upon one.

When I was first introduced to the concept I was worried that it would trivialize the decisions I made. Quite the contrary, I agonized over pretty much every decisions, often wishing I could go back and change them. The revelation that my decisions had consequence and depth was enough to have me still wonder (after chapter 2) about whether I made the decisions I wanted in chapter 1. The idea that I would probably be safe from death and that no decision I made was impossible to undo (at least in the short term) was eclipsed by the nuances of the story and how my decisions altered them. The ability to use my character’s power to cheat death or injury was a novelty that helped establish it is something fundamental, important and even critical to the character. But now the crucial points were how that character made decisions and the effect that now had on her life.

As a result of playing a game like this I’m now inclined to see a failure=death equation in games as a lazy shorthand. This is, of course, entirely appropriate for a whole host of games. I don’t expect the average FPS to seriously amaze me with rich storytelling or carefully-crafted character development (and would only see it as desirable if it didn’t get in the way of the kill-fest). However, for many games it’s a trope and a clumsy, lazy one at that.


Wonder if I should try Super Time Force again.

I hate dying in games. Which makes the worst save-scummer/autosaver ever.

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Games should probably explore a diversity of fail states. One of the hilarious/poingiant thinks about Katamari Damacy is that you don’t risk death, you risk the ire of a father with impossible expectations. Which might be more relevant to players than “death”, which is always an impersonal result, by definition.

But games have taught me the importance of iteration, of the vital resilience built up by failing and trying again. Death in a game is never permanent, it’s just a way to try again, practice, practice, practice, and get better. That’s been a pretty vital life lesson for me.


[quote=“boingboing, post:1, topic:55811”]
I have a childhood memory: in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Link is ascending a staircase.
[/quote]Oh god this was 2002… This also made me think of BEN Drowned from a few years ago.


One Christmas, my older brother got a Sega Master System from Santa. I remember sitting beside him, watching him play Space Harrier. I saw the manual nearby, so I picked it up and started looking at it. And I can still recall the unease I felt when I learned that the pixelated man could (and would, many times over)…die.

And I can recall wondering: what happens when he dies? What about his family? Does he have an older brother like me? The degree of innocence required to earnestly wonder about these things is completely foreign to me now, but I hold onto that memory to remind myself of the raw, emotional world that is the mind of a very young child.

The author asserts that “it’s dangerous that games pair the evocative imagery of death with the concept of failure.” Dangerous? Really? I mean, with non-combative platformers like Super Mario and Sonic, I can understand the contention that it’s unimaginative, but dangerous? Between this assertion and the author’s protest that Bloodborne’s failure screen is somehow a judgement of her friend Matt’s time here on Earth, I’m getting a distinct whiff of death anxiety in this piece.

I’m also disappointed that she didn’t go further by proposing alternative failure states. How about a first-person shooter wherein psychoactives are used as ammunition instead of hollow-point bullet? Do you know how insanely fun that would be? The mission could be a heist, a stealth infiltration, whatever, doesn’t matter— played successfully, your enemies would be tripping balls, running around, sitting catatonically in corners, talking to the furniture, etc. Passageways and puzzles would occasionally require a third eye, forcing you to endure a certain amount of unfriendly fire (but not too much!) in order to complete the level. The more you’re shot, the more reality unravels, until finally you lose all sense of time and space and, ultimately, go insane.

Stuff like that.


I hear ya. It would be a special kind of hell to be forced to watch me play Doom/Quake/Half-Life/Bio-Shock games with all the saving and re-loading I do.

It’s not so much that I fear death, per se, but the penalties associated with it. Diminished health, running out of ammo/rockets, etc, etc. I fear progressing to encounter a difficult boss without enough punch to kill it. Nothing frustrates me quite like having to start over from an savefile 10 saves ago because I botched something. I blame an early traumatic experience with a Cyberdemon.

Perfectionist, ya. Also, a bit completionist, but only for narrative things like side-quests and exploration, not compelled to find every scavenger-hunt achievement like those damn riddler statues.


What a lovely article. Here is a book you would like.

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That’s like the time I didn’t bother investigating that dodgy guy in the base in Deus Ex and several missions later that bomb went off. Good job I kept that save game.

Also, things like this:

At least I haven’t been killed in BSD2 yet.


A bomb?

I find this profoundly confusing. What is the parallel here? In real life, you usually don’t have anyone tell you how to become better either. It often takes incredible dedication and uncommon luck (not to mention talent) to achieve your goals. Failure can feel irreversible and all-consuming. Even worse, you can actually fail so badly that it is unfixable.

On the contrary, video game failure is not even remotely as daunting - not even when it’s presented as death. At best, it’s a pale imitation. You can always restart. Progress is significantly more linear. There are tons of guides that will specifically explain to you what to do (try finding a walkthrough for life).

Why is failure being equated with death “dangerous” in video games, where the mechanics make it impermanent? Wouldn’t experimenting with overcoming failure in a safer (virtual) environment build confidence?


Fun fact: Tajiri Satoshi made Pokemon “faint” rather than “die” because he felt that it was unhealthy to associate death with losing at a game. I think this post does a fine job articulating why.


Problem is, how to make a clear fail state.

Death is a clear one for games. You died, so you cant continue with this play. You need to retry (I think the original article is a bit weak by ignoring that meaning and going for some personal interpretation. No, dying in a game is just “put next quarter/reload”)

But games that dont have that clear marker … well, there is a different frustrating end state in which you can still play a game that is irrelevant. You will never win, you will never pass, but you are still “playing”. In RTS, for example, I quit long ahead of actual death (defined here as base lost) because I can see is useless. And, admitelly rare but possible, you can get into a stalemate.

Of course that doesnt mean “dont try anything different” or that it is the only answer, but you have to recognize it has a simplicity and clarity that is useful. Dead == cant make any other moves, end game.

There couldn’t have been a better article written to explain why we die in games, and why meaningful failure in games is important.

It’s a critical life skill to learn - how to fail, how to learn from those failures, pick oneself up, and carry on. How to fail early and often. How to take risks. How to evaluate risk and reward and trade them off.

Whether it’s the permadeath of a roguelike or the quicksaved alive-again-in-an-instant of a FPS, a life-or-death battle is more meaningful, more rewarding when mastered, and more memorable, than a tasty-or-burned-pancakes battle.


I mean, not that big of a problem. Games have been doing clear fail states that aren’t character death since before they were on a screen, and continue to do that now that they’re on the screen.

You can get to “retry” without shuffling off the mortal coil, though.

I think you’re unnecessarily limiting the condition of “can’t make any more moves” to the fictional state of protagonist death. There’s plenty of other states that could result in that condition.

Example: one of my favorite non-fatal failure mechanics comes from Call of Cthulu, and its use of Sanity. This strongly defines the game: to win is to stay sane, to lose is to go mad. It’s not a game of action, so loss isn’t about how you die violently, it’s about how you lost your mind in plumbing secrets humanity was not meant to know.

It isn’t ambiguous or open-ended, it’s just not death, and the game is much stronger for it.

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Died so many times in a game that it doesn’t bother me.

One stand-out thing which did bother me, and still creeps me out a bit:

In the old Infocom game Trinity, you have to perform a magic ritual to prevent an atomic bomb from going off. (An orbiting atomic bomb, and you’re in a giant frozen soap bubble . . .it’s complex.) The ritual includes killing a little lizard. Squeezing it’s little neck.

My characters have done in thousands of orcs and ogres and such, but having to kill that little harmless gecko just haunts me.


The Orgasmorator


[quote=“boingboing, post:1, topic:55811”]
Every failure brings me no lessons – just shame and humiliation.
[/quote]For me, this was the most interesting part of this piece. Shame and humiliation in a game you are playing at home alone can only exist when you let them. When I miss a jump in Dishonored or have things go awry in GTA, I have only myself as an audience and I can’t humiliate myself, I know what happened and therefore can control who has access to it.

Shame, well, that’s where you need to realize that failing is part of life. Most of life, really. And so if you’re still here in the first place to learn from those mistakes, good on you! You’re doing just as well at life as anyone else still alive.

Take it away Garfunkel and Oates:

You’re a loser, good for you. Trying is hard, that’s why people don’t do it.