Designing for Mastery – The Case for Annoying Checkpoints

Dark Souls has one of the most annoying checkpoint patterns in any popular videogame. Even the developers seem to agree, as later games in the series have changed the pattern noticeably. The “soulsborn” or “soul-like” genre is just coming into its own, as games imitating the formula that started years ago are finally hitting digital stores in droves, which is always an exciting time. When a game becomes a genre, everyone gets a chance to contribute to the discussion. Which parts of the original experience are core? Which parts should be scrapped or improved?

So let’s talk about those checkpoints.

A checkpoint is a location in the game your progress is saved. If you die, you go back to the nearest checkpoint and start again. Dark Souls famously places its checkpoints, called Bonfires, a notable distance from the nearest Boss. As Dark Souls is a famously difficult game, you will usually die many times while facing bosses… Meaning you need to trek all the way back through a section of difficult enemies each time. Dark Souls’ combat also tends to punish aggression, so impatient players are often punished on the trek back to the boss. Taking damage along the way means expending valuable health potions, which you will often need to survive the boss battle itself.

Players, even hardcore fans of the series’ difficulty, have often complained endlessly about this structure. Why not place a bonfire right outside the boss battle? We’re going to die lots of times against the boss while we learn its patterns, why add a few minutes of challenging gameplay against normal enemies and environments first?

Dark Souls 3 scrapped this system. It tended to put bonfires right in front of bosses. A good number of indie titles in the growing “soulsborn” genre have made the same decision. Many fans rejoiced.

I despaired.

Dark Souls, despite its many flaws, remains one of the best titles ever at creating a feeling of “fiero”, triumphant, exultant victory over a challenge that at first seemed impossible. This is one of the most powerful human experiences, and many gamers fell in love with the title warts and all because it delivered that ultimate high. Its checkpoint system, keeping bonfires far away from bosses, is key to delivering that experience.

A good formula for creating the kind of satisfaction that leads to Fiero in a player is simple to sum up: the player moves from a negative state to a positive state via a mastery loop. They start out overwhelmed, confused, afraid, and eventually master the area through repeated trial. The area becomes familiar to them. They discover shortcuts, optimal strategies, and eventually can reliably get through the area with ease.

However, unless your game requires backtracking, most players will not master an area the first time they pass through it. Here’s a visual example of the checkpoint pre-boss structure and the checkpoint post-boss structure.

Pre Boss: Checkpoint———–Checkpoint–Boss

Post Boss (Dark Souls): Checkpoint————–Boss–Checkpoint

In the first level structure, if the game is difficult, the player will die a few times along the way from the first checkpoint before they manage to reach the second. This means that the first time they reach the second checkpoint, which is right before the boss, they will probably be very close to dead. They will likely be low on health potions, maybe out of them entirely, and maybe with just a bit of health remaining.

This makes sense. Players tend to improve their performance gradually. They start by dying 40% of the way through a level, than 50%, then 65%. They’ll eventually start dying about 95% of the way through, then barely survive the last 5% to make it to the next checkpoint. At this point, unless your game requires playing this section again, they will never be required to go through this section again. They have not mastered this section. They have barely survived this section. The player never learns to feel comfortable and confident in this level.

Now let’s look at the second structure. The Dark Souls structure. Here there is no checkpoint before the Boss. What does this mean? Think about it. I’ve dropped a lot of hints.

Still thinking?

Okay. You probably saw the clear difference… The player barely survives their way to the boss the first time. They’re at low health. They’re low on health potions. What happens when they fight a boss that’s probably hard to beat when you have ALL your potions? You get flattened! You die almost instantly.

This is great. It’s annoying, but it’s great. Suddenly the boss killed you in its first attack or two, which is wonderful for building up its menace. The Soulsborn genre relies on a certain degree of trickery. It tries to trick you into thinking this obstacle, often a boss, is going to be overwhelming and impossible… Then you learn to beat it pretty quickly. This helps with that magic show.

However, the most valuable thing this does is also the most annoying thing: It forces you to repeat the level leading up to the boss. We call it the “boss run”.  You need to learn how to beat the level quickly and efficiently. Every time you take damage, that means fewer health potions to fight the boss. That area you barely survived the first time, you now have to master.

Additionally, the enemies leading up to the boss fight are naturally easier than the boss itself. This means that after getting destroyed by an enemy they haven’t mastered yet, the player is returned to face easier enemies that they’ve mastered already. This is a strong contrast, the player gets to feel powerful again right after they felt powerless. Excellent stuff.

However, it matters which type of Soulsborn game you’re making. I’ve recently been having a lot of fun with Hollow Knight. This game is atmospheric, inventive, and very stingy with its checkpoints. I should like that, but in Hollow Knight I’m not as much of a fan. The early areas of Hollow Knight are trivial to bypass. There is no real challenge to master leading up to the boss fight, and any health you lose can quickly be replenished. Mistakes are hard to make and easy to recover from, removing the need for mastery on your boss run as surely as a checkpoint would. All it creates is genuine tedium.

However, as I’ve progressed further into the game I’ve run across some boss runs that do include genuinely difficult sections and make it difficult to recover health after. These runs, FAR more annoying you might think, restore the fun to the game. It’s the difference between adding 30-60 seconds of mindless jumping and 30-60 seconds of engaging gameplay that you feel good about yourself for pulling off flawlessly.

The more annoying (difficult) boss runs are the fun ones. If it’s easy to bypass the first time, you might as well have a pre-boss checkpoint.


2 thoughts on “Designing for Mastery – The Case for Annoying Checkpoints

  1. This forced repetition structure to me also
    1. Acts like a forced time out before trying the boss again which encourages thinking about what to change from last time.
    2. Naturally increases intentful focus each time since there is a cost to each try.
    3. Allows you to become more immersed in the game’s aesthetics by repeating an area. You begin to appreciate nuances of the art style, animation feel, etc that may have had alot of detail put in that may otherwise be overlooked.
    4. Designers may be able to increase the difficulty of similar creature archetypes later on if you’ve mastered earlier ones, adding to the heightened feeling of “emergent expertize” that is fulfilling. Similar to rogue-like games in this respect.

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