Death is the most serious consequence we face, and it’s no surprise that it plays a prominent role in our entertainment. It also happens to be the subject of this second part of this series on consequences. Let’s look at a few of the approaches that have been taken with death, the effect created by these designs, and my hopes for what we’ll see in the future.
In games where the player controls a character of some sort in the first or third-person, there is often the possibility (or even the inevitability) of death. In the real world death is the most final and heaviest of all consequences. Many of the first video games fully embraced this reality, and featured very, very heavy consequences for dying… okay, let’s just be honest and call them downright brutal.
Failure in early arcade titles like Asteroids resulted in “permadeath” – the immediate, permanent and irrevocable termination of the current play session. This has remained the heaviest of possible consequences up to the present day. However, I hold out hope we’ll see a game raise the stakes still further and incorporate permanent game death – where losing means you can never play the game ever again. I have a feeling I might be waiting a while, but I refuse to let the dream die as long as Peter Molyneux is still around!
Along with being the harshest of all consequences, permadeath is likely also the most polarizing feature in all of gaming. Most of today’s broad gaming community can’t stand it, but a strong contingency exists that absolutely swears by it. In fact, the entire roguelike genre wouldn’t exist without permadeath. There has been a general trend over the past couple decades towards lighter and lighter consequences – but recently a small number of games have eschewed this pattern. The success of titles like Tarn Adams’s Dwarf Fortress and Subset Games’s FTL shows that an audience eager for super-heavy consequences is still very much alive.
While it’s too risky for big-budget AAA games to fully embrace a feature like permadeath, many have taken bold steps in this direction by enabling it through options such as ironman. It has been announced that Irrational Games’s much-anticipated title Bioshock Infinite includes a special feature called “1999 Mode.” The name is mildly tongue-in-cheek, but it highlights the perception that games have become easier and lighter in recent years, and the promise of a return to the good ol’ days back when men were manly and games made you cry has certainly resonated with a sizable audience.
We’ve talked about permadeath’s place in gaming history… but what does it actually do?
The biggest role it plays is to push both ends of emotion to the extreme. The highs are higher and the lows are lower. Frustration is common, as players can repeatedly bash their heads against particularly difficult challenges tens or even hundreds of times. However, the reward for this struggle is an incredibly-satisfying victory – one that is often fleeting.
Skill, precision and caution are rewarded, spontaneity and risk-taking punished. A good example is Derek Yu’s Spelunky. A single trap can easily kill the player, and jumping around without complete knowledge of the area is incredibly dangerous. A game that didn’t feature permadeath might instead try to encourage players to recklessly fling their character around, just to see what happens. Permadeath makes “casual discovery” of this sort completely unfeasible.
In both cases exploration is rewarded, but permadeath frames the experience in terms of “can I find out what’s over there?” whereas games with lighter consequences instead pose the question of “do I want to find out what’s over there?” Version A is all about overcoming challenges. Version B concentrates on providing the player the freedom to fulfill his or her desires, whatever they might be.
There are times when no amount of forward-thinking can save the player, and permadeath is completely arbitrary The arrow traps in Spelunky can shoot the player’s character from more than a screen distance away – you might just be unlucky and descend from a ledge only to get shot and killed by a hidden trap. Bam… an hour-long game ends just like that.
This arbitrary nature characterizes the goal of permadeath at a conceptual level – when designers create these types of games they want players to revisit the experience many times. You don’t simply play once and “finish” the game. You will die and you will try again. Permadeath is about overcoming the ultimate challenge – and failing in nearly every attempt to do so. Players will either accept and embrace this philosophy, or very quickly put the box back on the shelf (or in the trash).
Death in RPGs
As noted above, even with this small resurgence of games where death results in the heaviest of possible consequences, in general this practice has become increasingly rare in recent years. Nearly every game in the role-playing genre – even many of the ‘old-school’ variety – tend to skew more to the lighter side.
In group-based RPGs, a full party ‘wipe’ where every character falls in battle nearly always results in Game Over quickly followed by a loading screen, but when it comes to the death of individual group members a variety of approaches have been taken.
Bethesda’s Skyrim actually breaks the mold when compared with most party-based RPGs and leans on the heavy side, as the death of a companion is permanent. This can be a heavy consequence that sticks with players forever. In a twist of irony, a strategy game (XCOM) actually best demonstrates the potential here – I’ll have more to say about that game in the third article in this series.
The possibility of companion permadeath has similar effects to the risk of the player’s primary character suffering a similar fate – decisions must be planned out more carefully. The biggest difference is of course that the game doesn’t end, and the player is able to continue forward with a diminished party. This can lead to game-defining moments – or simply the opportunity to reload. Which of these two directions the player is pushed in depends on how crippling the loss of a character is. If losing a companion results in a 50% loss of combat strength then it’s nearly inevitable that the player will reload. We’ll cover this too in more detail in part three.
Party-based RPGs which occupy the rung on the consequences ladder beneath Skyrim don’t permanently kill anyone (at least outside of the story), and will instead simply knock a ‘killed’ character out of commission until he or she can be revived. This could be done with a special item or spell, or in a game with heavier consequences it might only be possible at special locations. The lightest consequence for death that I’ve seen is used in some games that have a separate tactical combat mode,where ‘death’ only lasts as long as a single battle, and fallen characters are revived with a small amount of HP upon returning to the world map.
Most JRPGs utilize one of the approaches we’ve just examined. These penalties are typically fairly mild (a quick spell or item and dead characters pop right back up), and are often used in games where the player is tasked with engaging in frequent battles. These games usually require different tactics during boss fights, which are the only times when there’s any serious risk of one’s entire party being defeated.
These consequences can lead a game into some dubious design territory though. A game which asks players to fight a large number of battles with almost no risk can quickly become uninteresting for many players. They often must instead lean on the psychological dependency of “the grind” to keep people from quitting. My own preference is for games where the risk of death or heavy consequences of some form are present in every battle, and defeat requires more than spending a virtually unlimited healing resource.
A good example of a game that incorporates heavy consequences but leaves permadeath on the sidelines (that I’ve actually worked on) is Stardock’s Fallen Enchantress. In FE, a champion’s death results in a major injury of some sort that can be healed, but only with a rare and expensive potion. This not only strongly motivates players to protect their heroes, but avoids alienating the those who would be turned off by a consequence as heavy as permadeath. This middle ground will appeal to many players (myself included), but certainly not everyone.
When the player’s entire party dies in an RPG the consequence is nearly always returning to a recent checkpoint, either automatically or through a more roundabout “please load your last savegame” screen. How heavy or light this penalty is varies based on how far back the checkpoint was, and what progress must be remade. Regardless of how heavy the consequence is, this is a very primitive approach and while it works alright (perhaps just because everyone is so used to it), there is definitely room for improvement.
The Future of Death in Games
I have a great deal of respect for titles which break the mold and weave death into the mechanics somehow, making it more than a “Game Over” screen followed up by loading your most recent save file.
The first-person shooter Prey is one example – upon dying, players enter a special area where they are tasked with killing a number of enemies within a certain amount of time. A more fleshed-out mechanic might be found in a game where players control characters made up of energy or magic from another plane. Upon ‘dying’ they return to this plane, which happens to be a fully-realized world with characters, quests, etc. Rejoining the ‘main’ universe, where most of the game takes place, could require performing a variety of actions that differ each time. There are basically zero games which have taken an approach this grandiose – and for good reason.
Rare is the setting which can handle a character’s death and subsequent revival in a believable manner. Even if lore poses no obstacle, there is still the risk of the gameplay required by resurrection being tedious or unfun – if you die 20 times and have to complete the exact same boring quest every time, is that really better than just having to load 20 times? The death system in Prey was unique and interesting, but quickly became repetitive and ultimately the value it added is debatable.
However, this is basically no different from any other design challenge a developer might face. Game design is tough, and nearly always builds on the work done by others. With no one picking up the baton from games like Prey it’s no surprise very little progress has been made here.
I suspect the main reason why we don’t see more attempts at interesting death-and-revival mechanics is because it’s not made a priority by the decision-makers in game development. In fact, many games now actually try to make death completely avoidable, even for unskilled players. This isn’t a bad approach by any means, but more and more this is all we see. There is a great deal of untapped potential here, and my hope is that this will be an area of innovation in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll take a crack at it one of these days!
Continue to part 3, where to close things out we’ll be discussing consequences unrelated to death, the fascinating role consequences play in strategy games and MMOs, and the player’s relationship with consequences and how we can use that information to make our games better.