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Death is often little more than a fail state in games.
It's a Game Over. A message from the developer to do it over again, but better.
Nathan Meunier, developer of Twine-based text adventure This Book is a Dungeon (TBIAD), sought to do something more than ask his players to try again. "Many choices lead to horrible, vivid death sequences," he says. "This stems from a theme I settled on early in the project: to kill players in horrible, awful, icky ways, but to make those death sequences as memorable as possible."
In his game, death isn't a failure, but another aspect of your story.
This is not the kind of game where someone can get to the end in one go. "I made it a point to try to teach players very early on that they're not safe. There are a lot of ways to die, and they're all pretty horrific and unusual." says Meunier. The simplest decision, from choosing between going right or left at a fork in the road or whether you pick up a rock or not, can get the player killed.
The world he's created is a dark, horrifying place fueled by death, fear, and despair. In that aspect of the design, the game's world has to be a dangerous, brutal place. For the player to be immersed in fear of death in TBIAD, they have to learn that every possible move can result in death.
"Weaving death into the narrative and personality of this place meant making it into more than a Game Over."
Weaving death into the narrative and personality of this place meant making it into more than a Game Over, though. Death had to be a part of your character's story. Instead of telling you that you have failed in the task the developer puts in front of you, Meunier has removed the fail state and replaced it with an elaborate rundown of what killed you. This isn't a failure in the traditional game sense, but rather the final page of that particular character's tale.
This was accomplished by giving death the same attention that the story received. "In one sense, I was hoping that the bizarre and gruesome nature of the death sequences might be a bit of an awful reward for making the wrong choices." says Meunier. "Maybe that's not so rewarding to some players, but I put a lot of time (probably an unhealthy amount) in making those doom sequences feel especially icky."
When you die, the circumstances of your end are described in graphic detail. Pages of in-game text are dedicated to going over your demise. These aren't throwaway notes asking you to try again - they're ends to a story. In this run, that character died in a horrible fashion. There's likely to be hundreds of other stories just like it in a dungeon filled with monsters and traps. Instead of living the life of the one person who escaped, fixing every mistake until you've completed a perfect run, you live through the lives of the hundreds or thousands of people who didn't make it.
With the Game Over or fail state, there is a sense that you have played the game improperly or unskillfully. You were not supposed to do things the way you did them. In a way, this hinders the interactivity that makes games so special. You are in control, but you must control your character in the way the developer intended. With TBIAD, there is no wrong way to play. Death isn't a failure, but an end to a story. The player is granted the freedom to act, and the story evolves naturally from what you choose. Yes, many of these paths end in death, and this can be frustrating for someone wanting to 'win', but it adds more to the joy of interactivity and discovery that games open to the player.
If TBIAD had been more simplistic with its death descriptions or failed the player outright for making a wrong move, this would result in a frustrating game. Instead, Meunier gives the player another detailed part of the story - one they would not have seen had they not made this 'wrong' move.
"You haven't truly seen or experienced Meunier's world until you have suffered in it."
For the curious player, death has become something you look for. Anyone who wishes to know the entire story of this place has to seek out death, finding it in the simple and complex places it hides. How many different, vivid ways can this monstrous bird kill me in? What small change in behavior will result in doom later on? "The game is pretty short, maybe an hour or two for most folks, but what players don't see if they just go through it start to finish in a single run, is all the work I put into creating alternative paths and giving them choices." says Meunier. You haven't truly seen or experienced Meunier's world until you have suffered in it.
Seeking death can be a strange thing, but it was another important aspect of what Meunier was trying to achieve. "I think, above all, I wanted to create a world that was grim and intriguing enough to make players want to push deeper into it, despite how unsettling, horrifying, and uncomfortable aspects of it might make them feel." says Meunier. "That juxtaposition between being uncomfortable and being fascinated is a core aspect of the game's design."
On the surface, TBIAD is a story about navigating a dangerous dungeon. You want to escape, but will end up mired in your own viscera the majority of the time. When you die, while the frustration at the 'loss' may be there, there is also an odd fascination at the prospect of the new death you have stumbled across. At least you'll be dying in an interesting way. Meunier wanted to create that small sense of joy at the prospect of your death, a hint of the joy of discovery mixing with disgusting, vivid death.
This also works in general play. When going through the game world, you find bloody pools, strange monsters, and books filled with frightening words. In our regular lives, these things would sicken and frighten many of us, but in the constraints of the game world, they're exciting. They're interesting new developments and discoveries that draw us into the game. Even when repulsed, we still want to (or need to) interact with these things.
"I guess the whole foundation of this game is entrenched in this weird push and pull. It's like...'Ah look here! Here's this strange, weird, interesting thing...that might totally kill you in some horrible way. Or not. Let me make it very pretty and alluring in its oddness.'" As players, we want to get closer to these things as they may help us win. We're excited at the prospect of finding the tools we need to succeed. But Meunier has worked to teach the player that new things are extremely dangerous, mingling revulsion and need. We want to shy away, but we also want to live. And we're also, on some level, excited at the prospect of a new story of this world, one built upon our own death.
"I kept coming back to the concept of wanting to give players that feeling of being repulsed, horrified, and uneasy, but still wanted to keep exploring." says Meunier. "How successful I was will really depend on an individual player's taste, for sure. Throughout the game, I poured a lot of focus into finding subtle and not-so-subtle ways to make players feel uncomfortable. At the same time, I also tried to use the writing, the narrative, and the characters and situations to draw them into this dark fantasy world."
Meunier has optimized the experience of TBIAD to make it better suit those who only want to win, as well. He's not sadistic. "I also implemented a few ways for players to skip past some of the early sections of the game if they've already played them and find themselves dying beyond that point. I'm likely going to update that further based on player feedback, to give players an opportunity to fast track their way through a few particular sections that can be tedious if you've played them a bunch and failed." says Meunier.
Meunier hasn't really changed how failure works in games, but he has looked at it from a different angle, shaping the Game Over in such a way that it is an important choice and direction of the narrative. By treating 'failure' with the same care and attention to detail as the rest of his story, he's turned it into another direction for his tale, one that created the revulsion/attraction effect he was looking for within the player. He has made the player crave death, seeking it out to complete the story while also making each failed escape attempt appealing in its own way.
"I designed TBIAD to be played numerous times, and a big part of the project hinged on encouraging players to experiment to see what happens, regardless of the (often grisly) result. I mean, it's a horror game. What's the fun if you get to the end and it's been all flowers, and puppies, and gumdrops?"