Game Over: Press X to Continue?

“You’ve been playing the same lava stage for over an hour,” noted my wife as I failed one aggravating, cheap and controlling-throwing-difficulty level within Sound Shapes again and again. Impossible! There is no way I would put myself through this torture for over 120 attempts (yes, I suck and need to git gud).

But it was true. I let myself be trapped into a vicious cycle of hope and dismay; as I attempted to collect 18 notes within 28 seconds on a level where they generated randomly and could be spaced out approximately 2 seconds apart, only to have my dreams shattered at the last second as the final collectable was too far away. Not that I dwelled on the mechanics of the scenario…

Just one more try...

Just one more try…

The real question to ask isn’t my possible lack of skill or perceived unfair game design. What I was left wondering was why. Why had I metaphorically bashed my head against the wall for an egregious amount of time and diminishing rate of returns on enjoyment? Even when I did finally beat the challenge I merely shrugged and said on to the next.

The answer is accessibility and duration.

Whenever I failed, either due to death or time running out, the screen would pop-up and ask if I wanted to go again. I’d grit my teeth, decide through sheer force of will that this would be my time and press the X button with renewed hope in my heart. It was crushed within 28 seconds or less. But I would hit X again and immediately the challenge would be available.

Not all games have this luxury. Triple-A experiences need to generate an entire world (or universe!) for the player to explore. When you reach the Game Over screen it is completely wiped from the system’s memory and all the NPCs, particle effects, dynamic wardrobes and immersive experiences which make the game a masterpiece need to be recreated and loaded again, one pixel at a time.

This loading time is dead time. It’s an opportunity for the player to re-evaluate what they are currently doing. Is this side mission worth the effort? Do I have anything else to do today? It’s already what time? Am I having fun anymore?

The break in the gameplay loop is an opportunity for the player to take a break. Which despite the Wii encouraging you to go outside, isn’t typically what a developer wants the player to think about.

No loading times and easily accessible replays mean you don’t think about staying in that virtual world.

Cool story bro...except the 8th time I had to sit here waiting for the actual game to load.

Cool story bro…except the 8th time I had to sit here waiting for the actual game to load.

The second feature which kept me engaged with the sometimes frustrating content was the duration of the mission. Whether I won or lost, it would all be over in 28 seconds. Whenever I failed, which was obviously often, I would have no problem committing another 28 seconds because I made a marginal improvement and thought the next time would be my chance.

I was a victim of sunk cost. I had to win to justify the time I already spent with the game. If you told me from the onset that I would play and fail the same level for 30 minutes, I wouldn’t have committed myself to the task – time is the most valuable resource. Instead, I unconsciously did that exact thing for over an hour without hesitation.

Larger missions with multi-tiered structures can’t hide the fact that failure is going to cost the player time. If I’m completing a  Grant Theft Auto sequence and fail in the last section during a gun battle it feels like punishment to have to steal a car, drive around town and pick up random objectives for ten plus minutes before reaching the point I failed again. Smart checkpoint systems avoid this type of backtracking and offer the player a chance to fix their mistakes, not prove competency over and over again on the same portion of an objective.

When a mission asks players to interact with the same 10+ minute sequence multiple times, it starts to feel less like a game and more like a rerun of an outdated sitcom.

Sound Shapes managed to capture my attention even though I was frustrated by remaining easily accessible and a small time commitment. This isn’t the only game to implement these principles but it does highlight their importance to keeping the player engaged – which is the true testament to great game design.


Have you ever continued to play a game even though it frustrated you? Are there examples where you walked away because the loading time or mission was too long? Would you rather replay a longer sequence than a shorter?

Level Up, Friends!