Design Illuminated : The Powers and Pitfalls of “Instadeath”

This is the first of a new series I’m starting called Design Illuminated, where I plan to explore and challenge what really makes certain games great (or not!) The point of this series is to provide deeper insight into games but to do it in a concise, understandable manner that isn’t bogged down with technical jargon. I hope you enjoy this (first) entry!


 

Within the context of gameplay mechanics themselves, difficulty is one of modern day gaming’s most divisive subjects. Should a game with a hardcore focus have an easy mode? How many difficulty modifiers should a game have anyway? Can the player even make the right choices about difficulty without ever having played the game? And so on and so forth.

Instadeath (instant death) has been a part of those conversations. For some, instadeath is just a convention of the hardcore experience; for others, instadeath is an abomination that should remain a relic of the past. Is instadeath a nasty by-product of early video game design, or does it have a place in modern gaming?

Spikes: the bane of plaformer players everywhere

A Quick Primer

Instadeath is where a player character is “killed” by an object without regard to current health. Having 5% of your health versus 100% of it makes no difference; the outcome is the same. Instadeath’s trademark isn’t necessarily the ability to kill you–as any object capable of damage can kill you given enough opportunity–but rather that it can do it by ignoring one of the player’s core defenses (health.)

Fundamentally, instadeath is really just a “maximum damage” hazard, but the actual effects it has on a game are more profound than that. Instadeath hazards are often perceived to sit in a category all their own, because most other enemies and hazards in a game don’t even come close to dealing as much damage. You may not notice a huge difference between taking 3 and 5 damage from different enemies, but its almost impossible to miss when a spike hazard depletes 50 HP from your half-full health gauge. At a casual glance, the usage of “instadeath-grade” damage is often perceived as–and arguably is–a qualitative property.

Of course, context matters. If a game and its player character are designed with only a single hitpoint in mind, then instadeath is the norm instead of the exception. However, simply making instadeath the standard does not render a game immune to its pitfalls.

Pitfalls: The Art of the Cheap Shot

A lot of the issues around instadeath have to do with a player’s return on value. When instadeath is misused or misplaced, it drains the potential value and enjoyment a player gets out of playing a game.

The first dimension of this issue has to do with the disparity it creates. When playing a game, the player is often striving towards success while a combination of forces is working to make the player fail. When traditional health pools are involved, it creates a tug-of-war where the player and his enemies can trade punches until one side ultimately fulfills their goals. This interplay between game mechanics is often a huge factor in making an action sequence or boss fight interesting and engaging. When instadeath is injected, it can force an “all-or-nothing” gamble that largely removes this interplay. If the player has been conditioned to believe that mistakes can be recovered from, a sudden jolt of instadeath can be very jarring to the player’s experience.

The problem is further exasperated when hard-earned progress is on the line, and this is where a lot of the gamer-rage perpetuates from. Instadeath is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care if you’re one room or ten rooms into a difficult gauntlet; if instadeath gets you, then you’re screwed. It also doesn’t care about whether or not your health pool is 100, 500 or even a bulky 1000 that you’ve upgraded throughout the game. Instadeath is instadeath. By the way, games that are exclusively “one-hit kill” are not immune to this phenomenon either. As with any progress-based system, you can still get 90% of the way through a level and have to restart it all because of one late level mistake.

Its this indiscriminate nature of instadeath that can make it so rage-inducing. Imagine if you were taking a math test and, after every problem, it was checked. If you failed any problem at any point during the test, you would have to start the entire test over from the beginning. Not only would this be insane, but you’d probably be prone to frustration and impatience, possibly even screwing up math problems you got right before. This is the heart of the issue: its not about “get good” or whether or not players don’t want to suck it up, but the fact that players felt robbed of value that instadeath had no business taking away from them. If I got problems on my math test wrong, I can accept that, but at least let me get credit for what I got right. If I’ve cleared a particularly tough and long-winded section, give me a checkpoint before introducing a new challenge with prominent instadeath.

This all comes full circle. A player may be good at one section but bad at another. If the health pool is meant to be a buffer against repeated mistakes, then let that mechanic do its job. Let the interplay between player and level see itself to a natural conclusion. Let the tension of getting down to your last piece of health stir the player. If too many mistakes are made over a series of challenges, then the player will rightfully be reset. Inserting instadeath where it doesn’t belong means puts undue weight on certain mistakes.

For me personally, I consider Mighty No. 9’s Mine level to be a terrible offender of bad instadeath. Now to be fair, the level makes it apparent pretty quickly that you will be dealing with instadeath; that being said, it doesn’t justify the abysmal shock-and-awe tactics it frequently uses. Things are either one-hit kills or pushing you into said kill zones, and by the time you realize what’s happening, death is practically breathing down your neck. Combined with a limited lives system (again with the loss of progress,) you have a level that just doesn’t feel great to play.

Mighty No 9 Mines
“So I heard you like DEATH.”

Its simple: instadeath should not be treated as a quantitative difficulty hike. One instadeath trap does not necessarily equal ten basic traps. Treating this construct as a mathematical difficulty modifier is, ultimately, what gets games in trouble… or at least that’s my opinion!

Powers: In Pursuit of Perfection

But instadeath can absolutely fit into a game’s structure. Even though its notorious for being the anti-thesis of efficiency (causes crazy difficulty spikes, makes you repeat sequences, etc.,) I contend that that is exactly what instadeath is supposed to promote: a rigorous, refined efficiency within games.

Instadeath’s most obvious application is that it can prevent cheesing, specifically pertaining to that of predictable AI. A particularly hard enemy may be a pain to deal with directly, so why not “facetank” a couple hits to run right past it and avoid the confrontation? It sounds counter-intuitive, but the idea is that a less-skilled player will take less damage from “cheesing” the obstacle then if they had faced it head on. By strategically using instadeath, the option to cheese a particular segment or challenge is reduced or even removed altogether.

Is cheesing really something we should worry about though? Shouldn’t it be up to the player to decide what sacrifices they make? This is true to an extent, and it goes back to the “interplay” concept we talked about before. But if cheesing becomes excessive, the growth of the player may stunt dramatically. If a player fails to learn and adapt to their surroundings, they may be ill-prepared to deal with later threats and become overwhelmed by an ever-increasing difficulty bump. But if you give them the occasional slap on the wrist and make them try again, it may just make them stronger in the long run. That “slap” need not always be instadeath–sometimes simple damage balancing and knockback mechanics will suffice–but under the right circumstances it is absolutely a valid choice.

Instadeath should not be a way to artificially increase punishment; it should be a way to reinforce learning. Whereas bad instadeath pops in at the end to rob you of progress, good instadeath is there from the start to make sure you’ve got your ducks in a row upfront. Your mistakes are easily repeatable, your time is treated more preciously and the return on value–even if its strictly from a skill standpoint–is almost immediately tangible. Its about cutting out the fluff and having consistency. Instadeath can force you to get right down to business which, sometimes, can be a whole lot better than getting slowly ground to powder by “grunts.” Maybe instadeath has taken too much of the flak; maybe the real problems are the kiddie pool challenges cutting in front of it!

Of course, this still assumes a certain kind of game and player. Instadeath is almost always a “high-stakes” mechanic, and some people just don’t like playing with those odds. That’s fine! People have different tastes in difficulty, even among those who collectively accept instadeath. For the game itself, some semblance of speed should be present, so that mistakes can be repeated quickly for fast learning. Liberal use of checkpoints or save points is not immediately a requirement, but a close eye should still be kept on the risk-reward balance over the course of a long action sequence.

To draw from my recent experiences, I’d say one of the best examples of instadeath done right is an indie title called Rex Rocket. This game is crawling with instadeath from top to bottom, but the game seems to understand the demands it puts on its players. Checkpoints are frequent and death is swift, but you’re back at it just as quickly. It took a little while for this game to grow on me; the game doesn’t force usage of the “kitchen sink,” but it certainly left me wanting more when I tried to play too vanilla. When I gave in to its siren call to change and adapt, Rex Rocket became one of the biggest, most enjoyable surprises I’d had in a long while. Conquering a tough segment or boss became glorious moments I wouldn’t have had if the game hadn’t been insistent on kicking my teeth in… strategically. Strategically kicking my teeth in, of course.

Conclusion

I’ll summarize things with the following analogy:

Bad instadeath is a like a thief. It waits until you’ve amassed a significant amount of value and then jumps you in a backhanded attempt to steal it. Good instadeath, on the other hand, is like a teacher. It’s focused, knows what and how much it wants to teach you and will not reward you until you’ve put in the appropriate effort. It tends to measure value less in distance and more in technique.

So let’s stop defending instadeath when it clearly doesn’t belong. It is more than an arbitrary difficulty spike, and saying “get good” can completely disregard the disparity its prone to create. Its true potential is delicate and even then it can be a pretty harsh taskmaster, but in its prime it has a sweetening effect that can be hard to match.

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