leave me slowly dying ~ On Death Penalties

This is Late Morning Sunday Design.

A question asked by many, all over the world: “What happens after you die?”
It is during dark times like these when games must step in and pick up the slack:

—> Wait 15 seconds and then you come back.
—> Pay a small toll (if you can!) and then come back.
—> Go back in time and try again until you’ve corrected your mistakes.

… Okay, maybe not.

Some months ago, I wrote up a post about those games that don’t have death penalties (in that death is simply death, a thing from which you cannot return; unfortunately, such games do not usually consider an afterlife). These games aren’t what we’re talking about, though, or I’d have called this week’s LMSD “On Death Penalties and Why I Like Games Without Them” (it’s true).


When a game revolves around progress through it, the penalty is often a loss of progress. For example, in a single-player FPS, death, almost without exception, forces you back to the last place you saved — or to the last checkpoint, if it’s that kind of game.

In other cases when a game revolves around a progression of story or character in a more open world, death may instead demand a toll. Such is the case in Diablo II, and also in pretty much every MMORPG.

Do other death penalties exist? Yes!
There is a game called Queens
(play it now before I ruin it for you! it’s a tiny flash game; you have nothing to lose)
that, while having a relatively simple “you died, try the level again” death ‘penalty’, it also has the penalty of a little dose of guilt. Every death is the true death of a different Queen. Yes, sure, you have no real connection to any one of them, but it was a ludum dare game without much time. Here we get a glimpse at an interesting death penalty.

In general, a Death Penalty comes in two parts:

Part one is the Death. A game may be based on many things, but death is the ultimate failure. Some games (such as this one called IWBTG that I would not personally propose you play) kill the player without warning. Other games ensure the player is always at fault (see… lots of other games? in general, games where everything is out in the open and no random chance can kill you). Then other games kind of float around in the middle.

Death is a pretty weighty thing in real life, but let’s see how games handle them.

Part two is the Penalty, and in general how much the player is at fault should correspond to the weight of said penalty. If you play a game that kills you at a whim, it should not set you back severely when you die (see IWBTG). Other games where the player generally has control of everything, regardless of the amount of skill required, can set the player back severely without seeming too unfair (like… uh, let’s see… this SHMUP, Hydorah, which only lets you save your game three times, I think! In it, however, everything acts reliably — the same way every game and never randomly as far as I can tell).

Those things aside, don’t really worry about what I’ve said here.

If there’s one thing I would like everyone to know about Death Penalties, it is that they are not to be taken lightly! Whether it’s something that is going to happen frequently or just a few times, pay attention! And maybe you could do something special.

(My mind wandered to a roguelike where you have ‘two lives’, turning into a ghost after dying and then being able to die or escape as a ghost (or something!). You wouldn’t be able to revive yourself ever though. It reminds me of what I know about Demon’s Souls)

Maybe one day I will be able to make a coherent post about some topic.



About Droqen

Droqen is a game designer/developer/creator/etc. from Toronto, Ontario. View all posts by Droqen

2 responses to “leave me slowly dying ~ On Death Penalties

  • offal

    interesting topic. =)

    soul reaver and demons souls come to mind, regarding afterlife mostly.

    here’s a really great discussion of the topic from selectbutton.

    exploring game-death is something jesse venbrux has done a lot. deaths is a cool (more obscure) example.

  • Maxim

    I suppose WOW is an interesting example as it lets you search for your corpse when you die in order for you to revive :3

    But it is indeed an interesting topic and it should be thought about well during game design as it is of great influence on the games balance and even on it’s feel. For instance (Super) Meat Boy has you die a lot but it has short levels and rebirth is almost as immediate as the death itself. This makes it feel like a really fast game and doesn’t get you frustrated about waiting till you’ve revived to continue playing.


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