“Spoon Deep – On LSD” would make for a much more interesting read, is the first thought I had typing this title. That’d be sure to get us a few views, but at what cost? Well, knowing us…actual death. So, we’re gonna pass on the hard drugs for today and instead focus on a death much less punishing (and much less permanent). Games generally take the same stance regarding death: it’s bad. Whether you’re playing an MMO, RPG, FPS, RTS, or even Madden, death is a goal no one strives to achieve on any sort of regular basis.
(On a marginally-related note, what if sports games like Madden or NBA 2K did feature death? What if you could get hit so hard on the field or made a dumb enough off-court decision to result in the actual death of your player? Food for thought.)
Given this general conception of death in nearly all video games, it’s surprising that so many choose to handle death in so many different ways.
In some games, death is permanent: if you die, you’re done, game over.
In others, death is merely a setback: you die, suffer some penalty (gear/time), but eventually re-spawn, maybe with a short-duration debuff.
In others still, death means almost nothing: you die, suffer no penalty, and re-spawn, immediately ready to jump back in the action.
Which death system do we like best? Which games implement utter defeat in our favorite ways? Oh, please, read further.
Well, right off the bat, not perma-death. I’m perma-anxious enough as it is, I don’t need that shit looming over me while I play. I play games exclusively for fun and for friends. If I’m not having fun or I’m not playing with my friends, I’m not playing at all. I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised to know how many people trudge their way through boring hour after hour just for the sake of completion or who knows what. It’s a bit like life, really…
That said, perma-death is not a friend of mine. I’m not ballsy enough to risk a fully upgraded 100+ hour character just for the cheap thrill of losing it all. I like to take my risks, but that’s just it: I like to take my risks. Without perma-death, I can actually take them. You won’t find me playing Diablo III hardcore or CoD’s Search and Destroy, it’s just not my thing.
So, what do I like? Well, I find myself right in the middle here. I don’t want my virtual death to be permanent, but I do want my deaths to be punished somehow. I enjoy all FPS games for this reason: if I die, they get points. Simple.
In MMO’s, I take a similar approach. I want dying to degrade my gear, set back my position, or even just effectively waste my time. For an in-game reward or challenge to be truly worth the risk, I believe it must employ the possibility not just for failure, but for punishment for that failure. Otherwise, what’s the point? No knight wants to kill the rabbit (unless you’re from Monty Python. If you’re a knight of the round table, and you see a rabbit, you run). No, the knight wants to kill the dragon. The dragon is the biggest possible reward, and challenging it includes the biggest possibility for failure. It’s this failure that makes rewards rewarding and worth going for. There is no happy without sad.
On a final note, your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.
I must admit that I often think about the mortality of video game characters. I even wrote a philosophy paper for an intro course in college on this very subject. I got a 4.0! Nowadays, I view death in video games as the ultimate feedback cycle. The game is clearly telling you that you did something wrong and not to do it again. You are supposed to learn from death in video games in a way that you can not learn from death in real life.
Think about any of the Mario games. Mario stands on ledge with a moving platform hovering over a bottomless pit that separates you from your goal. Clearly Mario can not long jump over the pit without using the moving platform, but you try anyway. Death. Next you wait for the moving platform to get close enough to walk on, then jump. You barely miss it and plummet even further down into the bottomless pit. Death. Finally you wait for the platform and then continue to wait until it gets to the other side. Life! The game taught you how to play without actually giving you a tutorial, you just played the game!
Now imagine that same scenario, but this time, you fall down the bottomless pit and survive. Secret Area! The game taught you one thing but is now trying to change the way you think because some bottomless pits might just have a bottom and with extra rewards.
I do not recommend this same kind of experimentation in real life, you might not get a second chance. However, video games offer players a unique experience because of the way death works. Almost every game invokes death in some way, even the Pokemon faint when they take too much damage. Brian loves the idea of punishment for death, but isn’t death in itself a punishment? I play games to have fun, and dying is an intrical part of learning how to play better, understand the way the game world works, and then have more fun in the end.
It all comes down to game design. Are you designing a game where each death makes you start over completely, as is the case in Diablo III Hardcore? Or are you designing a game where you can respawn in the same place that you died with few penalties, as is the case when doing patrols in Destiny?
Clearly there are many decisions to make, but ultimately, whether you die in Diablo’s Hardcore mode or in Destiny’s Tower, you will learn something.
I don’t exactly know where I stand on death in games. I think that it really depends on the game for me and the circumstances surrounding the death. Like Brian said, I would never play Diablo’s hard mode because it is a lengthy game, and if I died somewhere far along in it, I would be pissed.
However, that being said, I love game types like search and destroy. I think that it makes it feel a bit more real, and if you read my article on virtual reality, you know that I am all about making games feel more realistic. Overall, I think I’m going to ride the fence on this one and say that I like a game that gives some punishments but aren’t overly extreme with those punishments.
I recently played Shadows of Mordor, and I think that it has one of the coolest ways of dealing with death, and it is such a simple idea. Basically if you are killed by an orc, that orc then gets promoted and can become a captain by killing another captain. Your death also sets in motion a series of other battles/provings that other orc captains undertake to increase their strength and move up in rank. When you are finished watching what you failure has wrought, you get placed back in the world and can continue playing.
Okay, so I know you’re thinking that it isn’t that great of a punishment, but as these captains gain ranks they also become more resistant to your attacks and gather more followers making them harder to kill when you have to. It’s a flexible system that rewards you for staying alive by making it easier to kill things and punishes you by making it harder to complete the game. It was refreshing to have a death system where it wasn’t just, “Oh you died, that sucks, go back to this checkpoint and try again”, which is basically every other console game with a campaign.
If you have played any games with cool death systems let me know in the comments so I can give those games a try because I like a good change of pace from the norm!