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Bring Me to Life: Let's Hear it for Respawn Systems

Andrew Testerman | 23 Nov 2012 09:00
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Pick up any game, from the biggest triple-A blockbuster to the smallest indie project, and chances are they all share one thing in common: a respawn system. One of the most overlooked, underpraised mechanics in gaming, a game's respawn system can dramatically affect how it plays. Because nearly every game features some sort of respawn system, the mechanic never quite gets its due, but a good respawn system is like a good rock and roll bass line: almost invisible when everything is firing on all cylinders, but leaving the game feeling threadbare if done badly or absent entirely.

An easy, quick respawn system, for instance, can help ease the pain of difficult gameplay. Rayman Origins features tremendously tricky bouts of platforming, especially during later levels when jumps and character-placement require even more precise timing. The penalty for dying is minimal; respawning takes all of three seconds and happens as many times as needed to finish the level, making even the most taxing gameplay situations feel doable with enough rote memorization and elbow grease.

The unforgiving respawn system works hand-in-hand with Dark Souls' other design decisions like its foreboding art direction and lack of mini-map, making it feel more dangerous - and adventurous - than other fantasy games.

Rayman Origins' forgiving respawn system, along with its art direction and soundtrack, also adds to the game's carefree, cheerful atmosphere. Every vividly-animated character and brightly-painted background helps the game feel like a gleeful romp, and infinite respawns take away much of the pressure to perform "properly," letting players relax and enjoy their time with Rayman Origins' beautiful hand-drawn aesthetic. Rayman starts the game chilling out and having a good time, and the respawn system, along with its feel-good presentation, help keep that sensation going through all of Rayman Origins.

Now, imagine if Rayman Origins used a respawn system similar to the Super Mario Bros. series. Rayman would start over from death at the beginning of the level, or perhaps a mid-mission checkpoint, with one less life than he started with. If he runs out of lives, it's Game Over and he starts again from the menu screen. With a finite number of retries, Rayman Origins' gameplay shifts away from experimentation to life-management. Rayman Origins' overclocked difficulty would seem less fair than when players can retry easily and indefinitely - the treasure chest chases in particular, with their split-second jumps and collapsing corridors, would be downright stupid if punishment for failing too many times meant a Game Over screen. Rayman Origins' high level of play is only possible because it lets players retry ad infinitum and never punishes them too harshly for trying their best.

Conversely, a deliberately tough, but fair respawn system can also positively enhance a game's difficulty. Dark Souls, a poster child for "tough but fair" games, features such a system. Dark Souls' design already leans towards punishing. Combat is slow, meticulous, and very deadly - even regular enemies can kill if the player isn't cautious; environmental deathtraps litter certain areas, making careful trepidation and memorization necessary to progress; and boss encounters hopelessly outmatch players with damaging attacks and huge banks of health, presenting a challenge even after discovering a strategy on how to defeat them. Death comes frequently and freely in Dark Souls, and the difficulty is magnified by the game's high cost for kicking the bucket. After dying, players respawn without any experience collected during the course of play, potentially leaving them without any way to get stronger or improve their characters if they're in the middle of a tricky part. Checkpoints in Dark Souls are sometimes spaced out by fifteen or twenty minutes of gameplay, and death means slogging through familiar levels and enemies in order to regain progress.

The severe repercussions for dying take Dark Souls' already-challenging design and make it even more difficult, giving the player an overwhelming sense of mortality. Death can come quickly when it's least expected, forcing players to use caution when exploring unknown areas, else they end up skewered on the tusks of an unseen armored boar and are forced to backtrack fifteen minutes through legions of undead skeletons and booby traps. The unforgiving respawn system works hand-in-hand with Dark Souls' other design decisions like its foreboding art direction and lack of mini-map, making it feel more dangerous - and adventurous - than other fantasy games. In Dark Souls, players are weak, and its respawn system only weakens them further, enhancing the sense of dread it fosters in players.

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