Death. Huh. (Yeah.)

Death. On the short list of inevitable things, right above taxes. And it’s a real nuisance, too. So why do so many games feature death heavily as a failure condition, even a punishment?

As pictured above, I’ve recently been playing Spelunky, a game where my playtime is better described as how many times I’ve died (340!), rather than how many times I’ve completed the game (0). This is because Spelunky, like a classic roguelike, takes death to its (gaming) extreme. Once you run out of health points (or discover one of numerous ways to be impaled or crushed), you die, and you stay dead. No additional heroes behind the curtain able to continue your quest where you fell, like Mario’s considerable supply of identical twins. No power to rewind time itself and try for a more favourable outcome, as saved games allow even the least princely of heroes. The game is over.

Dying is an obvious method of terminating a game based on failure, since the player can see that his means of interacting with the game world – his avatar, whether it be an intrepid explorer or a military commander in a giant mech – is no longer operable. Being told that your input is no longer valued because you failed to fetch a toothpick for the quest-lady within the allotted time really stings. Reputation damaged as it may be, a future still exists for your character, so ending the game there is separating you from your game incarnation, and ultimately the game itself. (Unless failing a fetch quest is punishable by death, of course.)

In addition, death is something humans are programmed to fear. It’s easier to get players to see death as an unfavourable outcome than it is to explain that failing to reunite the Holy Roman Empire in 20 turns is an unfavourable outcome. (It helps that life is almost always a simple, binary state, free of ambiguity.) Plus, having the death of the protagonist as a condition for failure makes the death of the antagonists (and survival of the protagonist) an obvious condition for success, which appeals to many gamers’ inner combatant (or, failing that, desire for contests of power with binary results).

So death is a great solution for games in need of a game over mechanic, adding a clear defeat condition – required for building tension and maintaining player immersion, and helpful for establishing a victory condition too. So why do so many games dilute death by letting you ignore and reverse it?

The ‘save game’ has become a common trope of most games in many genres. One benefit is obvious, and almost without exception a good thing – you can stop playing, quit the game, and resume play later. The more dubious benefit is that it serves as a backup that shields you from even your most fundamental mistakes.

You have fought your way through a skyscraper full of hired goons, with your varied arsenal of weapons and time-slowing powers, and reach the roof in time to see your nemesis escaping via a helicopter, with bulletproof glass making direct fire ineffective. You only have time for a few tactical shots; you need to think fast. The -whole game- has escalated to this point. The tension should be palpable.

You don’t see the trick and they get away, leaving you presumably for dead, more goons inevitably to end you. But after reloading your save game from when you had just reached the roof, you get it on your second try, destroying the helicopter with conveniently collapsable building supports. No missed opportunity, no lost hope. Little tension. Less feeling of achievement.

The moment we use save games in this way, death is reduced to nothing more than a speedbump. There is no cost to causing your own demise other than the time taken to restore your saved game, and the jarring transition into a past incarnation. Even worse, it can function as a punishment for players who have failed to see beyond the game – who do not tap their immersion away with judicious use of the ‘quick save’ key, bound to their keyboard by developers who understand that anything less would be harsh, even unfair.

I think developers should do better. Death is a powerful mechanic that can give players something to really value, but should be used carefully, even sparingly. If sending players back to the start of the game is unacceptable, then perhaps death is not the right defeat condition to use, since you reap few of its benefits whilst wasting players’ time. If the nature of the game makes death the only likely demise for the player’s avatar, the story for one character ending due to death doesn’t have to result in the loss of all progress; having new protagonists who are not what their deceased predecessors are and do not inherit all their defining features can make losses genuine but not game-breaking. If having players lose progress is such a bad thing since they would have to repeat a part of the game that was not fun to play, perhaps you can find a less repetitive way for players to get back what they have lost – or perhaps you should be concerned that parts of your game aren’t fun to play!

I’ve been enjoying Spelunky despite a lack of a save game facility. Admittedly the game does not require long to complete, so the desire to leave the game half-completed and resume later is reduced. But saving between levels is something the game could incorporate relatively easily. The lack of save games, though, is a blessing; the game would be easy to complete and discard if death was no obstacle, but that it is, and it is one that will defeat you regularly and for a time consistently, keeps each attempt at completion tense, each minor success more potent, and each crashing failure just leaving you begging for more. The game is confident enough that it’s fun to play again and again, and impressively, it really is.

Those 340 dead Spelunkers each mattered. I cared about (some of) them. They are gone, and nothing directly succeeds them, but that’s okay. We can have our fun without having pressed a key and saved it.

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~ by devenger on February 22, 2010.

2 Responses to “Death. Huh. (Yeah.)”

  1. I often think that completing a game without dying would be the sort of thing Achievements should reward. As you righly point out though, enforcing permadeath is only really feasible for games that are either short, or have new content every game.

    One game I’m really looking forward to is Heavy Rain, though. Broadly speaking, it’s an adventure game with the story told from the point of view of four different characters. The twist being, anyone can die without finishing their section, and that changes the rest of the story in turn. It’s going to be interesting to see a game where Death isn’t a failure condition at all.

  2. Having played a significant quantity of MMORPGs, where death is often no obstacle, I think I agree with you, that it could be used as something more powerful. For instance, one MMORPG I played released a server, on which character death is permanent, and when your character dies, you must restart from level 1 or create a new character! When you die, all of your items and money are given to the monsters that killed you, to be picked up by some lucky adventurer (or your friend, if they’re fast enough…). But the effect this had on gameplay was awesome. People were very careful, and some even made it to the maximum level (200) despite the obvious danger of death, which (I think) goes to show that even in an MMORPG, death can be used as an awesome failure mechanic.

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