Ever stop to wonder why racing games have this checkpoint system? I mean, the game is usually about racing; there’s already a well-understood way to win (come in first) and way to fail (come in forth or worse). Even more perplexing is that the checkpoints in a racing game very quickly become irrelevant; as soon as the player gets good enough to hit checkpoints consistently, he can accumulate enough seconds on the clock that there’s very little chance he’ll run out of time. Real car races don’t feature checkpoints or time limits, so where did the idea for checkpoints come from and why are they so prevalent?
A historian will probably tell you that the checkpoint mechanic is a hold-over from arcade game design, which was often focused around getting the player to lose so that they would insert more quarters into the machine. And while that may be true, I think there’s a better reason that checkpoints in racing games have survived this long: they provide a short-term goal mechanism.
Consider an absolute beginner who plays a racer for the first time. He doesn’t know how to drift yet, so the turns are too hard. He keeps running into the walls or driving off the track. Anybody who has played pretty much any racing game has had this experience; at first the mechanics are unwieldy and it takes several races to begin to get into the groove. For this kind of player, coming in first is initially impossible. Unless the AI really significantly cheat to help the player, one crash into a wall is probably enough to ensure that the player is going to finish last in the race. But it’s going to take an hour or two for the player to get better, and finishing last over and over again can really be a blow to a new player’s ego. So instead, the racer gives the newbie player a short-term goal: don’t worry about finishing the race, just try to get to the next checkpoint before time runs out. This mechanism has several benefits: it makes the other cars on the track irrelevant, and pits the player against a fixed and predictable challenge. It also provides a way for the game to end early if the player is really sucking; prolonging failure is never a good idea, and if the player has no chance of winning it’s best just to end the game early. Finally, it gives the designers more control over the difficulty of a single track. Once the player can hit checkpoints consistently, he then has to deal with the other cars; checkpoints are a prerequisite to actually participating in the race. That means you can get a lot of play value out of a single track, even if the other cars always drive the same way.
The genius of the checkpoint system in racing games is that it is self-deprecating. I don’t mean that it makes jokes about how fat it is, I mean that it’s a mechanic that automatically becomes irrelevant with time. As the player gets better and is able to hit each checkpoint consistently, he accumulates time so that future checkpoints are easier. Eventually the checkpoints themselves have no effect on the game; the player hits every one of them, and they cease to be an important game mechanic. But by that point, they’ve already done their job: they’ve taught the player how to play well enough that he doesn’t need them any more.
So what’s the lesson here? The lesson is that games have to provide a level of difficulty that is appropriate to a wide range of player skills. The racing approach accommodates both newbie players and veterans by providing two separate challenges within the same game space. Players who know what they are doing can jump right in, but players who are new to the game still have a way to get enjoyment out of it.
So if you’ve read this whole thing and have been patiently waiting for me to tie this back in to horror games, this paragraph is for you. Horror games often (but not always) produce a similar effect by combining game play challenge with interesting content. The story, art, and characters in horror games are often the reason that the newbie player is willing to die over and over again without giving up on the game; instead of providing a type of challenge that is specifically geared towards inexperienced players, horror games seek to avoid frustration by being thematically interesting. Sometimes this works; Resident Evil has a very steep difficulty curve and obtuse controls, and yet the game is loved by all sorts of gamers because the story succeeds in hooking the player long enough for them to get good at the game mechanics. And that’s the ultimate goal: to keep the player from giving up on the game before he’s had a chance to really understand how to play.