Assigning Weight to Death in Games, Pt. 2: Learning From Death

If you missed the first article, be sure to read Assigning Weight to Death in Games, Pt. 1: The Problem and Challenges.

I want to start off this week’s article by presenting a question: Why is death used almost universally as the manifestation of player failure in games? Though I hadn’t given it much thought before starting the series, there are certainly games which avoid using death in this fashion. Pokemon, the most profitable media franchise in history, merely has the Pokemon faint in its games. While this might have something to do with potential issues surrounding selling a game about making magical creatures murder one another to children, it does at least prove that death isn’t a necessary aspect for a game to have. Despite this, we overwhelmingly see death utilized. The answer as to why isn’t all that complicated: we use death almost universally because it’s feared almost universally.

Despite the relative simplicity of the answer, I think it leads to some subsequent questions that are rather useful to consider. If games use death because we fear it universally, then there should be an attempt to have death in the game mirror some of those aspects which make us fear death in real life, no? Well, I say yes. To this end, what are some of the things that we find scary when we sit down and think about death? How do games reflect those? How could they do this better? These are the questions I’ll be trying to answer today.

Mystery

One major thing that spooks people about death is the mystery of it all. What happens when you die? Where do you go? Do you go anywhere? It’s such a common aspect of the fear of death that many religions offer a detailed explanation of what happens when you die. Now, I understand that in the age of the internet and mass social media, keeping anything about a big title game shrouded in mystery is going to be just shy of impossible. However, for smaller indie games, I think it’s entirely possible. That’s kind of thing that can really set a little title apart from the competition.

A clock with the words "Time is in perpetual flux but the contract held strong" below it.
The backward ticking pocket watch form Shrouded in Sanity along with a typically cryptic message

In fact, the game which inspired me to write this whole series was a little game called Shrouded in Sanity and it did this rather well. The game actually made me care about dying (something that shouldn’t ideally stand out, but does). The main reason it was able to do that was that the long term effects of me dying were clearly present but never explicitly stated. You see, in that game, you don’t just respawn at a save or checkpoint when you die as if the events you just played through never happened. Instead, your character is resurrected at a central location. Each time you’re resurrected you see the minute hand on a pocket watch tick back alongside a cryptic message. Each 10, 15, or so minutes (I don’t remember exactly) you can see actual changes to the world you are traversing (for instance, new creatures and locations). What was ultimately going to happen when that hand went back a full hour was unclear at the time. It also wasn’t immediately apparent if it ever ticked back forward. By leaving things so uncertain the game made me think about what the consequences of death MIGHT BE, and many of the things I came up with were actually more frightening and impactful than the reality of what happens. Despite the hollow nature of my fears, they did make me legitimately nervous about death in that game. The lesson to take away is that if a game can show a player that dying matters and affects the game, but leave what ultimately happens mysterious, it can exploit the gremlins and demons of the player’s mind to make dying in game a lot more interesting and carry a lot more weight.

Permanence

A second thing people fear about death is its permanent nature. Once you die, you don’t come back. Once again, we find it to be such a universal aspect of the fear that many belief systems include some sort of life after death. So then, how can one make a game reflect the permanence of death when the player can always restart the game from scratch? Well, first it’s of overwhelming utility to simply restrict that permanence to be within the context of a single playthrough*. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is to make dying the permanent end of that particular playthrough: permadeath. Permadeath (which I will cover in greater length in a later installment) is undoubtedly a powerful method by which to assign some weight to death in games. However, it does have its flaws. More or less, the issue is that the stakes are so high with traditional permadeath (that is to say the kind where your one character dies, and you have to start the whole game over) that it often can tip the scales from making death frightening to making it so frustrating to even consider that many players won’t bother starting the game.

The main character from Shrouded in Sanity walking through a hallway.
Both the pixelated nightmare fuel on the left and the orb surrounded by fire on the left are examples of creatures which only appear as your insanity increases.

With that in mind, it’s useful to look for other methods of making death have permanent effects on a player’s experience. The key thing here is that players will fear the consequences of dying more if they know that they can’t reverse them later on. It forces them to play more cautiously and take decisions more seriously. For a good example, I find myself once again referencing Shrouded in Sanity, though this time for its insanity system. *SPOILER WARNING* You see, it turned out that each time I (the player) was resurrected, my insanity increased. That backward ticking pocket watch I mentioned was more or less an insanity meter. As the player becomes more insane in that game, they can experience more enemies and parts of the world as well as experience certain events differently than if they were less insane. This allows the player to experience more content and more of the story, but the trade-off for this is that the game becomes more difficult as you become more insane, and it’s not possible to reduce your insanity. *END OF SPOILERS*

One issue you might perceive with the “permanent” effects of death in many games (including Shrouded in Sanity) is that the player can often get around them by merely loading from an earlier point before they died. I would argue, however, that this is a good counterbalance to keep death from becoming too frustrating. In my estimation, it goes particularly well with situations where saving is either rare or the full consequences of death are mysterious and not obvious until the death(s) which caused (or contributed) to the permanent change were a considerable period of time ago (like in Shrouded in Sanity. Did I mention that I think this game handled death pretty well?). As a result, the player has a choice between losing a significant chunk of progress (which ties into the next reason for fear I have listed) or dealing with the “permanent” affects of their death(s).

Futility

Another fear people seem to have surrounding death is the perception that it disregards and nullifies their actions in life. It doesn’t matter how far they’ve made it or what they’ve achieved, ultimately they still die. More or less, we fear the idea that our efforts will be futile in the end. Once again we find that many major religions address this through ideas that what you do in this life affects the next. Ironically, while this is possibly the darkest and most complex reason for fear of death that this article covers, it’s the one most commonly and easily mimicked by death in games. While pretty much no death in a game can truly be permanent, and it’s more or less impossible to keep anything wholely mysterious to a player willing to do a little google-fu, it’s not at all difficult or uncommon for a game to simply throw some of the player’s effort and achievement right out the window. All the games which follow the “simply respawn” method that I complained about in the last installment are mirroring this by making you replay part of the game. It doesn’t matter how much or how well you’ve done since that last point; if you die it was all for naught. Full permadeath is reflective of this fear to an even greater extent: if you die then NOTHING you’ve achieved so far matters. Almost every game has a touch of this aspect of death in its death mechanics, and often it forms the foundation for more complex or gimmick-filled mechanics.

Black and white image of a character with a sword.
My experience with on top of the God Box from Nier: Automata often made my efforts to get up there feel futile

A great example of this aspect of death being reflected in my gaming experience was the “God Box” tower from Nier: Automata. I can’t tell you how many times I, generally playing on hard, fought my way up the levels to get the top of the tower only to have all of that effort squandered in the final fight. While it was often incredibly frustrating to have all that work simply wiped away, those fights on the top of that tower were always exhilarating because I was legitimately on the edge of my seat worrying about dying. Each time I died it was right back to having just walked through the front door with all the floors between me and the top. It was a situation where death had some weight and didn’t take anything to complicated to achieve beyond well paced saving.

Inescapable

There’s a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This inescapable nature is undeniable. Everybody dies, and everybody knows it. Unlike the other frightening aspects of death listed here, however, this is one that I would argue generally shouldn’t be reflected in games. Sure, there are scripted and inescapable deaths (like at the beginning of Nier: Automata) but these fall on the side of story/narrative death and thus outside the purview of this series. When it comes to death as a manifestation of player failure, I don’t see how or why you would want to force that. Like I said in the first installment of this series, it’s the ability to defy death as we progress through a game that contributes to a game being fun. There are, without a doubt, many more reasons that we feel frightened when we think about death. However, many of them, like its inescapable nature, are not easy or appropriate to reflect in the kind of death this series is about. I have therefore limited the list to those I felt were most important. If you feel that I have missed one or more which would be relevant to discuss, feel free to leave a comment letting me know.

Wrap Up

Thanks for reading through this somewhat dark installment of Assigning Weight to Death. To recap what we’ve covered this week: by reviewing what scares us about death in reality, you can observe several things which can contribute to a well weighted death in games. The first of these is that games can add weight to death by having permanent consequences on the player’s game experience when they die. The second is that having the full scope of consequences be somewhat mysterious and vague can allow a game to use the player’s imagination against them. The third is that having the player’s death result in the loss of some level of achievement and progress provides a flexible and common base for assigning weight to death. Next week I plan to discuss ways to classify mechanics (or methods) of assigning weight to death as well as the strengths, weaknesses, and attributes of these classes. If that sounds interesting, then be sure to stick around, and the article should be arriving next Wednesday (January 30, 2019).

*I am aware that “playthrough” is often thought of as one time playing the game from beginning to end, but in this context I more mean one string of progression through based on a single start, regardless of whether you finish.

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