Die to Win


Several months ago, I picked up the Space Quest Collection on Steam. I’ve always been a fan of the old-school adventure games, but I had no recollection of playing these classics. Granted, after I started playing, I remembered many of the introductions to these games, but not much more.

The reason I remember the beginning is because these games are fucking hard. Not in a “oh, maybe I should get the walkthrough” kind of hard,  but in a “how in the hell did anyone have the patience to put up with this bullshit” kind of hard. I died. I died a lot. I mean, many, many, many deaths. There are probably planets littered with space janitor corpses now due to my ineptitude.

Playing these games revealed to me something about myself that I didn’t really know. You see, when I was a kid I kind of spouted into my geekdom all at once. I got my copy of the Basic Set of Dungeons & Dragons when I was eight, started playing computer games on the Atari 2600 when I was nine, and had my first story published when I was ten. Since my experience with roleplaying came at about the same time as my experience with computer games, I was wired to think that dying was bad. I mean, dying is bad regardless, but for me it was a meaningful loss, and more specifically it is a failure on my part if my character died.

I didn’t realize how much this was engrained into me until I started playing Space Quest. I was getting more and more frustrated, and at some point I realized that my repeated deaths weren’t a failure on my part. Since I could die as many times as I wanted, it wasn’t a limited resource that indicated failure, but in reality it was a learning tool – each death taught me a little more about the game. My brain switched from “each death is a failure on the part of the player” to “each death is a resource to teach you more about the game.”

Granted, not every game is designed this way, but once I made this connection, I started seeing it everywhere. Adventure games, obviously, but also more action-oriented games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. World of Warcraft is a notorious example of allowing people to come back after death. Certain board games like Talisman allow players whose characters die start right up with a new one. Even role-playing games like Paranoia offer an opportunity for faster replay after a character dies. But interestingly, not all of the games are particularly hard or impart information on the player of the recently deceased. More and more, it seems that an infinite supply of lives is just a design that people expect, instead of for a particular design reason.

There are a few different things you can lose when you die:

  • Loss of progress. Death can cause anything from a complete loss of progress (most roleplaying games, Fester’s Quest) to almost no loss at all (Braid and Sands of Time). Note that by “progress,” I mean narrative progress.
  • Loss of ability. Many computer and paper-and-dice roleplaying games cause the loss of all or much capability on death. This usually takes the form of starting over with a new character, but also losing weapon upgrades when you lose a life (1943: The Battle of Midway, as well as many other shmups). Also, many roleplaying games use a house rule where a new character can have a similar amount of ability as the deceased character did (making them as the same level, with a certain number of experience points, etc.) which minimized this loss.
  • Loss of resources. Some games charge a resource cost for resurrection. This can be in money (Torchlight), items (most Final Fantasy games) or a mechanics-specific resource like spell slots (Dungeons & Dragons) or a finite resource of “lives” (most coin-operated video games, as well as Paranoia).

Also, how often and easily a character dies has an impact on the feel of the game. A character who dies from a single touch (Pac-Man) offers a very different experience than a character who can take a barrage of abuse before dying (God of War). Also, games with a “half-death” state where the character doesn’t actually die but feels the impact of death (torpor in Vampire: The Masquerade, the loss of Super Mario’s abilities in many of the Super Mario games, and rewinding of time in games like Braid).

Finally, some games actually provide a radically different experience upon death. Echo Bazaar is a good example of this, where death unlocks different content. One could make the case that roleplaying games like Wraith are similar, but in reality the game doesn’t even begin until death, so the “first death” is really just as setup for the game – there is no content without that death in the first place.

So, death doesn’t mean the end of your game, but many times it does mean something. What does it mean in your game?

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