I have a really important question to ask everyone here who plays action, adventure, and roleplaying games that use hit points to represent “health” and “life” — why is it important to punish the player for running out of hit points with “death” and “starting over?” I want you to ask yourself this question, and I want you to really think about your answer. I used to agree, but now I don’t because it’s stupid.

You know the most common answer I get? “So the players understand there’s a punishment for failure.” If that’s your answer, I want you to look up the definition of the term “double jeopardy.” Do it right now, I’ll wait for you to finish. Too lazy? Fine, I’ll give it to you here so you don’t have to leave the page:

double jeopardy: the subjecting of a person to a second trial or punishment for the same offense for which the person has already been tried or punished.

Now, I want you to look up the definition of failure:

failure: an act or instance proving unsuccessful; lack of success

Please look at me, and with all of your soul, tell me that failure is not, in and of itself, a form of punishment. And don’t you dare lie to me. When you fail at something, you don’t get what you want, right? Isn’t failing to attain your goal punishment? Now, let’s get back to gaming — why on earth do you want someone to suffer for failure twice? (Or, if you dock the player experience and gold upon death… three or more times.)

I want you to think about this really hard now. Your game is made of stupid.

No, really. Death, and starting the level over again because you ran out of hit points is an artifact of the era of quarter-guzzling Arcade games. The trope has been justified to hell and back and it’s still really, really incredibly stupid. You don’t enjoy the health/return-to-start mechanic because it’s fun, you enjoy it because it’s familiar. It’s one of the oldest mechanics in the book, it doesn’t make sense, and it’s used poorly.

I would like to put forth an example of a game that attempts to avert this problem, from the Legacy of Kain series. In the Soul Reaver titles, when the character Raziel runs out of hit points, he shifts into the gloomy Spectral Realm against his will. Now, this isn’t exactly a punishment, since the Spectral Realm is often utilized to solve puzzles.

While in the Spectral Realm, Raziel can be “destroyed,” which amounts to your standard “game over,” but most of what you lose for being forced into the Spectral Realm is time. It takes longer to accomplish a task because most of the gameplay takes place in the Material Realm. You have to hunt lost souls until you’ve restored your hit points and can manifest in the Material Realm again.

Now that, to me, is an effective workaround to a death penalty. It encourages players to hone their skills so they aren’t forced to spend time harvesting energy in the Spectral Realm, excepting that the Spectral Realm is also incorporated as a normal aspect of gameplay. Sometimes you travel to the Spectral Realm to solve puzzles. It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than we usually get.