Robert Hornbek

Game Development & Exploration

Life Without death

Posted by rHornbek on November 5, 2009

Recently I have been toying around with the idea of how to make an engaging game where the main character cannot die.  The closest thing that comes to what I am talking about is in racing games, where no matter how far behind or damaged the vehicle is the user can still complete the race.  But instead of a racing game I want to focus on something with a narrative.  Of course one could observe games that allow users to continue from check points as an example of an undying character.  Ultimately my objective is to have a character that does not need check points or extra lives because they cannot die.

No Death

Can you believe this was drawn by hand?!

Without the risk of defeat, challenges in the game could be quickly resolved by fearless trial and error.   The length of the game itself could become shortened by the lack of challenge altogether.  With that said, challenges must come from elsewhere rather than from the threat of death alone.

I began exploring existing characters with similar environments to see if their challenges could be utilized in this concept.  One such character is Lobo who’s from a race of beings with an incredible rate of tissue regeneration.  Like X-Men’s Wolverines, apparently the inspiration for Lobo, they can restore their entire bodies from just a few living cells and survive nearly any possible deformity.  In one instance Lobo was officially killed and sent to hell.  There he caused so much trouble including fighting with the Devil himself that Lobo was returned to life.


Lobo in all his glory.

Aside from Lobo’s trip to Hell, they both experience the challenge of losing limbs and being overall slowed down from immense damage that their regeneration can barely keep up with.  Of course there has been the challenge where they must protect others who are not as durable as they are, but I would like to avoid the escort missions.

There is also the case of the xenomorph from Aliens or even the T-1000 from Terminator 2.  Both were seemingly invincible, mostly because no one had the means to kill them until the unique climactic circumstance.  In Alien, Ripley had to eventually coerce the xenomorph toward an airlock that she opened blasting it into space.  In Terminator 2, the T-1000 was virtually indestructible until Arnie blasted him into the molten metal.  Blasting is apparently the answer to everything, but I digress.


"T-1000, he is liquid metal!"

The main character could be impossible to kill simply because his foes do not have the means to do so.  Still the xenomorph and the T-1000 experienced difficulties such as being broken to pieces while frozen, or locked off in the ventilation shafts and frequently being shot at.

Allow me to jump ahead a little of the research and describe some ideas.  The first thought I had was of a zombie main character that could not die, but could still lose his limbs.  Without death the challenge came with the loss of the limbs, slowing his movement speed and reducing the amount of damage he could deal.  In addition to this, without his arms he could not toggle switches, open some doors and climb.  Without legs he would have to pull himself along the floor with reduced movement speed and without arms could only scoot.  At his weakest point the zombie could be no more than a head that rolls across the floor.  To keep things interesting, losing limbs could open other features of the game.  As a rolling head the zombie could enter air vents and drop down onto his enemies etc.


Zombie art that deserves its own game.

Attacking and eating his enemies would restore parts of his body but ultimately he would be faced with the challenge of losing them.  Gameplay and progression could be based on what limbs he has available.  For example, parts of a level could be inaccessible without arms so the zombie would have to make sure he has them to proceed.

Taking a page from Lobo’s journey to Hell, the defeated main character could simply become relocated expanding the experience instead of restarting it.  In the first person shooter Prey, after the main character would die he would have to fight a slew of deadly spirits before he could return to life.  I could imagine a similar gauntlet where the character’s death would have him fighting his way out of Hell before returning.  The character could find himself in new or more challenging portion of Hell each time he dies or as he progresses through the game.  You could even have the character end up in Heaven with additional challenges.


Prey's main character in the Deathwalk state.

I will need to identify other goals for the concept before I can clearly define how the undying gameplay will work.  With the perspective and narrative concept more defined the gameplay should start to take form.  I will continue to contemplate this concept and report on my results in the future.  There may even be a few games out there that do this in some way that I could use as inspiration.  I look forward to hearing what other think about all this.


4 Responses to “Life Without death”

  1. sajust said

    I love zombie games but you always have to play as a human trying to fight or survive the zombies. It would be so much fun to actually play as a zombie. I really like the idea of losing limbs and being attacked by humans as the challenges of completing the game. The whole head rolling down vents would be really fun. Although what kind of perspective would this game have. Would it be first person or third person? Or would you have the option of changing perspectives through out the game depending on the situation. I could imagine that it would be difficult to navigate a vent in third person. Plus the perspective of a first person rolling head would be interesting.

  2. r. steve warren said

    I believe you’ve forgotten the Soul Reaver series, in which dying just meant going back to the spirit world to collect enough life to reanimate your corpse. fairly similar to prey, but i believe in prey you can die in the spirit world. in soul reaver dying in the spirit realm caused your soul to be recalled to the beginning of the game, which just required you to fight your way back to where you were(though at least you kept all abilities you’d collected, making early game 1.easy & 2.a fairly good place to let off the steam of dying). the spirits were more difficult depending on the location in the game as apposed to how many times you died, and I thought that set up was pretty far all around.

    • rhornbek said

      I have not played Soul Reaver, but that is an interesting approach. It still feels a lot like extra lives simply without a limit. I can appreciate that the game makes the effort to elaborate and incorporate death into the game.

      Thanks for bring it to my attention!

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