What is a good death?
I'm referring to these new-fangled videogames, of course, and specifically challenge-based games with failure conditions which force a reset of state - usually dying, hence the title.
That's the topic of this article, then, but I'm just going to arrogantly declare the answer below. Stick with me and I'll explain myself afterwards.
A good death is one which costs the player no more than they expected and which the player believes to be their fault.
Or, in short, a good death has acceptable losses and is fair.
Those are the two key elements to a good death, a term I have yet to define. For the purpose of this article, a good death is the kind which makes the player want to try again, to persist, as opposed to making them snap the controller and attempt to forcefully insert it somewhere the developer would prefer remained untouched.
This should be an important topic to game designers if only for the sake of personal comfort, is my point. If players can die in your game, they will. If it's something you can be sure every player will meet, it should receive significant attention in the design.
In order to discuss these elements, then, we must first discuss what they resolve. Specifically, we need to discuss the negative, frustrating aspects of failure, the reasons why we hate to die. There are two: Perceived unfairness and relative loss.
...is the belief that the player could not have avoided their death, that they had no input in their untimely demise. It is easily recognised by the phrase "Oh, come on, that was bullshit."
Unfair is the floor dropping away to spikes without warning. Unfair is the boss using his screen-filling ultimate attack five times in a row out of sheer randomness. Unfair is enemies spawning behind you in an area you'd thoroughly cleared. Unfair is really annoying.
The 'perceived' part is equally key, although less obviously so. Players don't play the game as it exists in the development notes, they play the game in their heads. The big signpost marked "Warning: Spikes" counts for naught if the player never bothers to read signs.
Everyone can probably think of a few examples here, games which fail you like a PE teacher in an English class - without rhyme or reason.
Of course, there's always been games which do this entirely intentionally, starting with the old arcade machines of yore in which any absurdity able to force even a skilled player to cough up a few more coins was considered fair game. In the modern era this has persisted in the form of games designed to be viciously lethal until assuaged by the calming touch of in-app purchases.
Please don't do this.
The other significant example are games which have the knowledge barrier problem. This is particularly common in RTS and MOBA titles, and occurs when a significant understanding of the game is necessary not just for players to win but to understand what happened when they lose.
At this point the 'perceived' element of perceived unfairness becomes the problem, causing many new players to reject the game before they achieve the mastery necessary to understand it. Until you build up an incredible amount of knowledge, the game seems equally incredibly unfair as players are unable to perceive the mistakes they made which led to their defeat.
Some things you need to know for League of Legends (to pick an example) to have a snowball's chance: Every ability your champion has, every ability all of their champions have, the power of turrets, the value of minions, which stats you need for your build, which items you need for those stats, which items you need to make those items, laning, group fighting, solo fighting, jungling...
Until you know all of these, League of Legends is easily perceived as unfair - and that's said to be one of the simpler titles in the genre. It doesn't matter what the numbers say about the balance, it's the game in the player's head which matters. The knowledge barrier translates into perceived unfairness until that barrier is overcome. This isn't to say that no games should have high knowledge costs - that's clearly ridiculous. The problem can certainly be resolved, but that's not the topic of this article.
...is the difference between what the player lost and what they expected to lose. It is easily recognised by the phrase "Wait, when did I last save?"
Loss is something that seems pretty simple; it's the time they spent, items they gained, experience they harvested, etc. etc. between where they died and where they start up again. The negative aspect relative loss isn't quite that simple, though. It can't just be that the more they lose, the worse it is - if that were true, no-one would ever play roguelikes at all.
It's actually to do with checkpoints.
Not the autosaving checkpoints beloved of modern games, of course. The checkpoints in our heads, the ones we don't even realise we're making. All the time, as we play, we're checkpointing subconsciously. A game's style and design affects exactly where and when, but we do. Every time we finish a battle, talk to a character, solve a puzzle, defeat a boss, open a door, every time we do anything we think is important. Checkpoint.
Then we die, and instinctively we expect to find ourselves back at our checkpoint, back at the start of "this bit". Except we're not, because the last autosave was before that long cutscene, because the last time we saved was at that village six hours ago, because we forgot to save since how far back? Jesus. Never mind then.
All of these common gaming frustrations are due to that disconnect between what we expect to lose (the minute we spent fighting the boss) and what we actually lost (the minute fighting the boss, five minutes in the pre-battle cutscene and ten minutes clearing out his easily-beaten mooks). That cost is much more than just the fifteen minutes.
Although autosaves are the most common cause of complaint here, it's worth mentioning fixed save points separately. Something of a JRPG entry in particular, the issue with these restricted save areas tends to be when these points are so far apart the player needs to unlock the obligatory airship to move between them. This highlights a notable point - the player can be actively, consciously aware of where they'll reload and still be checkpointing in their heads, still actively hurt when they lose more than they "should".
So those are the two negative aspects of death. Frustration at death comes from being unable to avoid it and losing more than we expect from it. Player frustration at any death in challenge-based gaming can be described using just these two terms, the axes of frustration.
Now we understand why death is frustrating, in the next part we can solve these problems with the aspects of a good death: Fairness and acceptable loss.