Do Respawns Breed Bad Gamers?

Posted on May 14, 2010

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Every gamer has felt that tragic moment. The hero’s shield is depleted. Hoards of villains–or one bad mofo boss–close in and reduce the hero to a bag of bones crumpled on the ground like a neglected marionette doll. Cue the worst moment in gaming: the dreaded “Game Over” screen that swoops over the television set like a vulture and shames the player. 

After that slap on the wrist, nowadays gamers load the nearest checkpoint, resurrect their hero, and give it another go. Die and replay. It’s a part of life for gamers–and so are the phoenix-like heroes that are revived unscathed. The question is, does the repetition of die, resurrect, replay instill the wrong lessons in gaming communities?

Who is more likely to learn from their mistakes: a child who gets a five-minute timeout, or a child who fetches a switch for his own flogging?

Many games try to teach mechanics that allow players to master a game and maximize the gaming experience. But, when gamers have the luxury of retrying the same scenario over and over, what’s stopping them from relying on the same old techniques and forgoing proper game mechanics?

It’s an extreme example, but what about young gamers abusing respawns? Are they learning problem solving skills? Are they learning that life is as flexible as a video game? I certainly hope not.

The Hack Gamer
With enough respawns, poor techniques eventually win out. It’s not pretty, but it works–and many gamers stick with that method over understanding mechanics and learning. Rather than searching for a doorway, these gamers are going to keep running their heads into a metaphorical wall until either the head or the wall cracks. That’s not worth the $60 charge for a game or the frustration family members go through enduring gamer meltdowns.

For these hard-headed gamers, unfortunately, wasted time is the only real punishment. And if a checkpoint is close enough and the load times are fast enough, then time is hardly a punishment at all. There’s a huge difference in a gaming experience where players have to adapt versus players jamming their style into a game. For the latter, the experience becomes redundant, monotonous, and even worse, gamers aren’t analyzing games and thinking anymore.

Games in the end are all puzzles. Discovering the mechanics, weapons, and strategies needed for a each board results in fluid gameplay, domination, and fun. So, who is more likely to fist-pump after beating a game: a gamer who learned nothing and spent hours dying and respawning, or the player who learned, adapted, and overcame? 

Kickin’ It Old School
When it comes to “Game Overs,” it’s hard to miss the old school games from first- and second-generation consoles like NES, SNES, Genesis, and the other various consoles of the 80s and early 90s. These games  had far more dire consequences. After players depleted all the extra lives, gamers couldn’t forge on. Back to Level 1 and better luck next time. It was a cruel system that deprived many gamers (myself included) from beating games. The benefit to this dog-eat-dog gaming experience, though, was learning the value of precious extra lives and the practice required to beat a game. 

Consequences = Fun?
Despite all the lifelike character models and meticulously realistic level designs, when it comes to life and death, video games are at best the evil doppelganger of real life. Some may argue that games are special because they dip into fantasy, extremism, and the impossible. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, are game developers short-changing players by relying on Game Overs?

In other words, Game Over is a tool that is roughly 30 years old at this point. Graphics have evolved. Gameplay has gone through several paradigm shifts. Stories have grown to Hollywood proportions. Can we handle injuries and deaths a little better than using the same Game Over screen that Super Mario Bros. and Pitfall used?

Fallout 3, for example, implemented an interesting damage system where the hero’s limbs and head could be crippled.  This opened the gates for crippled aiming, impaired sight, and limping. Purists may feel that injuries hamstring gameplay. But the fact is these injuries added drama to every firefight and evolved the game beyond a normal shooter. Every battle has the potential to be original. These injuries could be alleviated with a quick injection of a stimpak (health) to those limbs, but limb damage gave Fallout’s hero a whole new dimension. Players still need to load checkpoints after dying, but hey, it’s a start.

Herc’s Adventures was a classic action game for PSOne, and that game took an original spin on deaths. After death, the hero is cast into the Underworld where he could fight his or her way out. Even better, in co-op games, partners could plunge into the underworld and help pull comrades out of Hell. Isn’t that more exciting than watching a load screen?

Imagine a world that takes Fallout’s damage system one step further. Heroes that have to live with mistakes after a respawn. Imagine heroes having to undergo surgery, traction, rehabilitation, prosthetics, and even the afterlife. Imagine a hero that had to learn how to fight with one lung, one eye, a biotic limb, etc. The possibilities are endless. 

This new direction would demand respect from gamers. Closely studying encounters would have a whole new meaning because failure has consequences. Heroes would be more dynamic and personal to the player. Gameplay would ebb and flow with the scarring and bruising of the hero. Replay value would skyrocket. And beating a game would truly feel triumphant and victorious.

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Posted in: Op-Ed