A good way to die

"Be good at our game or we'll make it less fun for you" should not be a design mantra. That's why I dislike the harsh death penalty in the latest Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds, that ultimately sees you having to re-tread vast portions of the game to re-try what it was that beat you in the first place. Ultimately the penalty for death is time - fail and you lose 20 minutes. This is harsh indeed, not to mention tedious. This poses an interesting design question though - how do you create a meaningfully harsh death mechanic that doesn't take away from player enjoyment?

Many indie games have harsher death mechanics, but quick restarts and shallow gameplay mean you are dropped back into the game doing exactly what you were doing before you died. Super Hexagon or Hotline Miami for example. The other archetype is the game that challenges you to get to its end. FTL or Hoplite both do this - death is harsh, you have to restart the game, but games don't last long, so again, this is not so punishing, in fact it's a formula that has existed since the advent of the arcade cabinet. As long as the game is consistently fun, then the repetition is not tedious and death is not too punishing. The real trick is implementing a good death mechanic in a longer, story-based game.

So here's a proposal - one possible answer lies in your absence from the world. When you die, the world keeps running rather than resetting and the penalty comes from not being there to help. This would work well if, for example, you have squadmates who die permanently, or in multiplayer - We don't specifically punish you by docking your score or character progression, or by making you repeat a section, in fact you're technically getting a second try, but things escalate more while you're away so it's a scramble to get back into the action, and if done right this should be fun rather than a chore. The penalty is not what happens to you, but what happens to everything else while you're gone, and if you design the game right this all just happens naturally and in an emergent way. All you have to do is create systems that fight each other or tick over without you.

I recently managed to add this concept to a game relatively late in its development - although it's not always possible to make changes to the core game later in the process, we compensated by placing elements in the world that the enemy tries to attack. When they're destroyed they're gone for good - die and you're re-spotted away from them leaving them vulnerable until you return. This is an imperfect solution, but it did add a nice meta-game for the more advanced players - can you complete the game with all of these elements in-tact? It had a nice knock-on effect of letting better players choose a more challenging game.


I wrote this before he died. I was going to re-phrase this, but I think I’ll just leave it as it is. It’s unfinished, and there’s a bit of a mess towards the end, but perhaps that’s rather apt. 


Iain M Banks is dying. This actually hit me in a more profound way than I thought it would. I’m not the kind of person who gets upset about the deaths of people I don’t know. I was surprised by my own reaction to the news, but then I started to realise that he has been one of, if not the biggest source of creative inspiration in my life since I was a child. 

I was always drawing robots when I was little, and making things out of pieces of cut up cardboard. I’d watched StarTrek before, and Star Wars, and I knew I liked these things in some way but I never considered them as part of a genre. When I first started to read his science fiction books I was amazed at the seriousness of them, the sexiness. They are written like adult novels, there are no ray-guns or spandex-clad barbarellas. I began to think about these things more and more. I watched Ghost in the Shell, I looked at the concept artwork for Metal Gear Solid. There is a style here that I want to be part of, I want to contribute to. Good stories told about incredible things, or just stories told in interesting worlds. Often this is a genre that allows a great deal of philosophical reflection as it can be so rich in metaphors. Science fiction releases you of so many restrictions imposed upon you by other genres, especially in Games, which I now make for a living. 

So much of my imagination is plagiarised from the ideas in his books. Actually so much of so many things are plagiarised from his books. The ‘halo’ from Halo for example…

When I was younger, before I went to film school, one of my often daydreamed ambitions was to make one of his books into a film. There are so few good sci-fi films. I always imagined the letter I would write to try and convince him to let me do this, and to justify why I would do the material justice like no-one else could. 

As I’ve got older I’ve grown my own worlds inside my head, and I no longer want to simply tell the stories of others in a different form. But still, these worlds wouldn’t exist without his writing and I still wanted to ask him for his permission to include some homage in my work. It’s an odd, very selfish feeling to realise that I will never achieve this; one of my earliest ambitions. 

If you read one thing from his volume of sci-fi work, read the short story ‘The State of the Art’ from the book of the same name. 

I read it once on a family holiday in Turkey, and then again lying next to my friend in central park in NYC, with him too hungover to move. It’s about our world as seen through the eyes of others, but there are no UFO’s or aliens in the traditional sense. You follow a woman as she walks around European cities, contemplating humanity. 

rewrite - 
traditional science fiction ideas with genuine people and a more realistic view of the future that satirically criticises current western culture. moulding the spiralling, inky-abstract grasps for something more lucid that began to form in my head when I was young. 
his ideas - 
Stories that begin and end at opposite times and meet in the middle.
ships within ships, endlessly and intricately tattooing each other, recursing into… something


I never knew him, but it makes me sad.

Failing the Bechdel test

The Bechdel Test:

  1. [The film / game] has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

It’s amazing how few films and games pass this simple test, even things that you think would, like most Wes Anderson films for example, usually fail on point 2. There are definitely occasions where this isn’t a sign of anything, plenty of trashy films starring female characters would pass, but could barely be described as woman-friendly story telling. 

Games have always been a chief culprit of negative gender stereotypes, but we already knew that, and much as I would claim to be a feminist I don’t actually care about this at all. If people want to play through a teenage power fantasy full of half-naked girls, fine. I won’t play it, but I don’t care that it exists either.

What bothers me is the lack of women and female-centric story in media that we perceive to be mature. How often have you watched a scene, especially in a game, where two women talk to each other in a room? Just that. Honestly I struggle to think of a mainstream example where this happens. 

We seem to have a short-circuit that just stops us from creating female characters unless there’s a specific reason to. take a film like Ratatouille. How many chefs are there in the restaurant where the film takes place? Quite a few. And how many are female? One, the love interest. Many of the characters in these films or games could be female, there is absolutely no need for them all to be men. If they are, they are the exceptions. Lara croft is a woman in a world of men, Colette from Ratatouille is, again, in a man’s world. Yes in Monsters Inc the only women are a simpering receptionist, a little girl in need of protection and a woman who, for all intents and purposes, works in HR. But this seemingly more extreme gender-stereotyping is more obvious and more easily addressed. It is the subtler and far deeper problem that bothers me the most, one that I wasn’t even aware of until I really started thinking about point number 2 on the Bechdel Test.

It’s not a question of making more women-oriented stories, or getting rid of adolescent sex objects, it’s far simpler - why aren’t more of our characters women?