Learned Behavior

Subtitle: Crime Death and Punishment.

Hmm. Unfortunately, the strike through font doesn’t work on the title line. Oh well.

While there are many impediments to advancing through a video game, a relative mainstay is character death. And while mind-boggling puzzles and physics-bending platform sequences may cause more frustration, death tends to be a bit more of a setback. Or more permanent.

Or is it?

Let’s step back for a little perspective. In my youth, most games limited you to a finite – and paltry – number of lives. A single death would generally force you to return to a checkpoint, if not restart the level entirely. Once you used up all of your lives, game over. Time to restart… this time from the beginning of the game.

Time progressed, games grew more sophisticated, and death penalties evolved. Some games would accept passwords, others would simply save your progress. The saved game has become a staple of most every modern game, no longer limited to RPG’s and their ilk.

Suddenly, death couldn’t possibly force you to restart a game from the very beginning.

Let’s fast forward a bit. Most modern games use a system involving either the ability to save your game at any time, specialized save points, checkpoints, or a combination thereof. MMO’s, however, are a bit different.

The earliest MMO’s penalized your character heavily for death. Modeled after MUD’s, upon dying, your character would lose experience based on level, possibly even losing enough experience to drop a single level, or more(!). Clearly, this type of penalty could cause epic levels of frustration.

Thus, when World of Warcraft released with its death penalty as a mere loss of experience on top of a corpse run, it was something of an admittedly very small, very contained revolution. Death had become an inconvenience, as opposed to an all out disaster.

Now, Star Wars: The Old Republic has taken WoW’s approach and run with it… then sprinted a few miles more. As of now, every class – EVERY CLASS – can resurrect fallen comrades. Which actually, as it turns out, isn’t much of a big deal, because you can simply choose to resurrect yourself once you’re out of combat… which is pretty much immediately during solo play. Oh, and, in case it wasn’t clear, you resurrect precisely at your death location, so there’s not even a corpse run.

Oh, you’re invisible for a few seconds upon resurrection, so you can escape to a less hostile region.

I feel completely comfortable in stating that there is absolutely no reason to fear death in SWTOR. None at all.

SWTOR is an extreme example, and I hope it remains so for the foreseeable future. A game without penalties is no game at all. It’s just an interactive, and lengthy, film. But you’ll get to the end, never fear. How could you not?

I’m not going to bemoan the lack of challenge in today’s games. Frankly, I’ve already done that before, but more importantly, games provide challenges differently these days, through achievements, hard modes, or other completionist type activities. However, when a designer consciously removes one of the most tried and true penalties from a game, well, that’s an issue.

Especially considering just how much you can do with character death currently. I hesitate to bring it up, as the game currently stands as the flagship of the Look at Me, I’m Difficult fleet, but take Demon’s Souls: yes, the game uses a checkpoint system, but it also implements flesh and blood form and  spirit form gameplay. I understand that Dark Souls utilizes a similar system, as well.

Or, if memory serves, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. Again, death sends you to a spirit realm, from where you must escape in order to advance through the game.

Video game character death penalties (extra careful phrasing, eh?) neither need to be nor should be overly punitive. However, the penalty should exist; otherwise, what are we even playing for? So let’s get creative, and implement some penalties that are both fair and, possibly, maybe, hopefully, entertaining.



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