The trend in games over the last couple of years is clear. Dark Souls, Super Hexagon, FTL - death is in fashion. Or, more precisely: frequent, almost inevitable player death. So why are us game devs climbing over each other to teabag the player? How can embracing the possibilities of death serve the game design?
Let's start with the most famous recent advocate of frequent player death: Dark Souls. This is a game (whose tag line, remember, is “Prepare to Die”) which positively revels in killing the player. Yet both Dark Souls and its precursor Demon’s Souls have become big hits. Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon is even more difficult. Lasting more than 30 seconds may sound like a given in most video games, but achieving this in Super Hexagon will take some practice. Super Crate Box takes a similar approach, readily handing out sudden death, with the added cruelty of making it entirely your fault in the case of disc gun misuse. Super Meat Boy delights in sudden player evisceration, gleefully depicting your character explode into bloody chunks. Keeping your ship together long enough to augment its defences enough to survive even a moderate attack in FTL is difficult. Day Z takes all of this, and adds adds a dollop of PvP and an object lesson in the dark side of human nature into the mix.
The list goes on. Yet despite sharing an almost unhealthy love for flashing up the Game Over screen, it’s these titles that we keep coming back to. So what’s happening here? What exactly does frequent player death bring to the gameplay design table?
Death comes quickly in FTL - Faster Than Light
A sense of danger
The most obvious effect is introducing a sense of danger to the game. If it is easy to stay alive, there is no tension in the game. Knowing that death could be just around the corner is a powerful way to engage the player. You have to keep on your toes, exercise caution, pay attention to every visual and audio cue. Watching TV in the background is not an option. Total concentration is demanded.
In recent years, we have become accustomed to games holding our hands, tutorialising, making sure that if we make mistakes, nothing bad will happen. The player is surrounded by an inpenetrable layer of bubble wrap, unable to fail. However, just as raising a child in this way may leave the child unable to deal with adult life, so this approach will ultimately fail the player. A world without repercussions is a world in which you don’t learn life’s lessons.
A great way to see the effect that real repercussions bring is to play Minecraft on survival mode. In normal mode, death means a respawn back at base camp. In survival mode, there is no respawn. If you die, your character dies, and more importantly, your entire world dies. All of the places you explored, all the items you found and crafted, and all the houses you built are lost forever. Gone. Deleted. And so it will go for a couple of games. And then you will adapt, and change your play style. You check carefully in the morning for creepers before opening the front door. You don’t go anywhere without armour. You carry a bucket of water with you in case of unforeseen lava. You *never* dig beneath your own feet. If you’re becoming overly familiar with normal mode in Minecraft, give survival mode a go. Most likely, it will reinvigorate your interest in the game. True survival horror.
Abstract polygonal death in Super Hexagon
A perhaps unexpected effect of frequent player death is an amplified sense of freedom. Knowing that death will likely come quickly frees the player to experiment, to test the boundaries of the game. If you know you are going to die soon, why not try out this new tactic? Why not try out that piece of equipment which you normally wouldn’t use? You’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, so why not learn to play the piano? Dark Souls and FTL in particular make good use of this effect.
It’s important to note that freedom only comes with the promise of resurrection. In flash game One Chance, you have six days to save the world. Quite a mundane, expected scenario for a video game. Except in this case, you can only play the game once. There are no retries, no extra credits. The game tracks your system and makes sure you only play once. This turns the dynamic of death on its head completely. Freedom to experiment goes out the window, and real survival instincts kick in.
Embracing player death can serve the feeling of realism within a game. It can place you more viscerally within its scenario. In Day Z, the experience strives to ask the question, what if a zombie apocalypse really did break out? And not just in the comic book brush strokes of Resident Evil or Dead Rising, but for real? So now you have to scavenge for food and equipment whilst skulking around in bushes, playing with the risk and reward of going into a town knowing that you might find a new weapon. Player death can make a game experience more real, more relatable, more powerful.
With all this death and player punishment, what brings the player coming back for more? In all of these games (except for One Chance), there is a sense of progression between death and respawn. In Dark Souls, you keep any equipment you had from the previous life, as well as any levels you have attained. In FTL, although you lose your ship, crew, and equipment, you unlock new ships that will get you further next time around. Super Crate Box unlocks weapons as you earn points. There is always the sense that even though you just died, your next life will be better. This is powerful fuel for the “just one more go” imperative.
Even those games without explicit game mechanics for progression between lives provide it through player learning. Super Hexagon is all about this. Promoting the feeling that the player is continually improving their score and getting better at the game is a good way to keep them interested.
Not the end
Embracing player death in your game design is a powerful thing to do, in the right circumstances. As always, it is necessary to judge your audience and design accordingly. Making a casual game really hard will likely alienate your audience. But if your audience skews more towards the core gamer, exploring the many advantages of frequent player death can be an interesting tool in the game designer’s toolbox.