Gameology 16 - Case Study: Shovel Knight

Show Notes

Mathew and Attila discuss Shovel Knight, it's penalty for death, and whether instant-deaths make sense in a game where you have a health-bar. Games discussed in the show:

Shovel Knight

Extended Thoughts

Shovel Knight was a wonderful 8-bit romp through a colorful and imaginative world, but it brought with it classical game tropes like the "instant death spike" and Bottomless Pits on either side of a narrow platform with an enemy waiting to stun-lock-knock me back into them.

Thankfully, one of the earlier items you get in the game, the Phase Locket, makes you invulnerable to all damage, allowing you to walk harmlessly over spikes, and prevent you from said knock-back-dealing enemies. Of course, there were plenty of times were you needed a different item equipped and died to these hazards all the same. If I could have permanently assigned the Phase Locket to another button on my controller, I would have done so. Seeing as how you can pause the game at any time and switch your equipped item, it's not even like the developers wanted to prevent this quick switch use of relics.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the "art of the instant kill" and where best to apply it in games. An instant death hazard shouldn't be slapped into a game without thought, nor should you exclude the possibility from your game without consideration.

The way the check-points are laid out in Shovel Knight means the instant-kills are used rather strictly for increasing difficulty.

In the case of Shovel Knight, the Instant-Death sticks out like a sore thumb because you have a health bar. If it's the Enchantress casting deadly magic on you or getting stomped by a Yeti mini-boss, nothing else kills you in one hit except for these spikes and pits. They are an exception to the otherwise consistent rule that against everything else, you can have another chance. If you're going to break a consistent rule, it has to be for a very good reason, ideally one which actually benefits your players. Think about a game with a big open world with a huge gorge the player is tasked with jumping over. The game may well have the bottom of the gorge detailed and used, but if the player lands here and survives the fall, then they are faced with a huge hurdle of climbing back out of the gorge before attempting to jump it again. It is far preferable to the player to be plunged into darkness and respawn at the edge. Think of it as a mercy killing, as a way to set the player back to a safe point to try the challenge over again without the tedium of resetting themselves.

Now, the more classical approach to instant death is the removal of a life bar, then, it is simply consistent for everything to kill the player in one hit. One-hit death games are famous for being unforgiving, and that's exactly what they are. When you give players multiple hit points, you are effectively dictating how many mistakes they are allowed to make before they need to tackle the whole challenge all over again. Since you are demanding perfection, you must keep in mind how many obstacles you place between the player and the next check point, and the challenge level of those obstacles.

Dark Souls made famous the idea of loosing important currency when you die, and Shovel Knight has a very similar mechanic. However, the key difference between the games is that in Dark Souls, it is the player that chooses to press on. The player has the choice of how much they want to press their luck, how far they are willing to travel before they retreat back to the safety of a Bonfire so they can spend their Souls. In Shovel Knight, you have no such choice. If you hit a difficult point in a level, you have no choice but to risk loosing all your hard earned currency time and again until you finally make it through all the way until the end of a level.

All of this simply underscores something which I come across very often when designing my own games; just because a mechanic is interesting in another game, doesn't mean you can insert it into your own game without thinking through all the design implications. The whole reason the Souls mechanic was interesting in Dark Souls was because of the risk-reward mechanic that it created; permeating the experience with tension as you try to survive long enough to spend your precious Souls. This is lost in Shovel Knight, replaced only with a sense of unfairness at an incredibly steep penalty for what often is an instant-death.