Jon, Dirk and David discuss the role of death in games. What is it for? How does it interact with narrative? What games has it been represented well and poorly in? And how can it be improved?
Okay, okay, #58 has actually been up for a while now – apologies for the delay in putting up this post. I’ve added a bit more meat compared to this podcast announcement, so hopefully all is forgiven. Christmas day is perfect for catching up on things!
This has been a topic rattling around inside my head for quite a while, but it came back with a vengeance while playing Chucklefish’s Starbound. There are several elements of the game that I really like (and even more in Re-Logic’s spiritual prequel Terraria - which I’ll be talking about at length soon), but what stood out to me the most was how unhappy I was with their representation of death.
When you die in Starbound you get zapped back up to your spaceship, and in many cases this is actually helpful. You don’t lose any equipment, and if there’s a monetary cost I certainly didn’t notice it. By contrast, Terraria offers three interesting options for the player to choose from. Upon death you either:
- Drop (but not lose) half your money and respawn at home (“Softcore”)
- Drop all of your equipment and items (“Mediumcore”)
In Terraria money is useful but not the end-all be-all so losing just about any amount isn’t a big deal. Additionally, you can (and probably will) return to the location of your death and recollect your cash, which remains sitting there politely waiting for you until the end of time. (Edit: Just FYI, @Tegiminis on Twitter pointed out to me that items actually do disappear eventually.) And of course, if you stuff your loot under your mattress at home before venturing off there’s no chance of losing it, so the penalty for dying in Softcore is basically just a slap on the wrist.
Mediumcore raises the stakes quite a bit, as losing not just your items but also the equipment you wear all the time in a particularly hazardous or far-from-home place is a really big deal. Not only do you always want to head back to reclaim your stuff, but it’ll also be a much weaker version of you making the journey. And if a particular item was required to even get there? Well, death basically means losing all of your items for good. Needless to say, this is something you’ll work very hard to avoid.
I really like this three-pronged approach, and in doing some research about Terraria I discovered that it only came about through iteration – originally there was no Softcore mode, then the penalty was removed completely before the developers settled on the current setup. I love permadeath but it’s obviously not for everyone. The other two options are particularly brilliant from a game design perspective as they not only dangle the omnipresent sword of Damocles over players, but dying actually provides new goals.
Oh, you died? Well, you don’t just appear back at the starting line, but you’re going to be racing along a slightly different track now.
This approach isn’t ‘perfect’ in my book as it still doesn’t feel like death, but even so, it’s far more interesting than 99.9% of what’s out there, and is exactly the kind of creative design I hope to see more of in the future.
Allowing players to die, respawn and try again a hundred times with no penalty, disincentive or new gameplay attached is not just a missed opportunity but a ‘feature’ that cheapens the rest of your game. Player actions are only meaningful when they have consequences – both good and bad. I understand why many developers feel the need to take a light-handed approach, but as both a designer and a player I relish seeing all of the new ideas popping up in the smaller and/or indie games that don’t need five million sales to break even.