On Wednesday the 18th of March I was a guest at PP3 in Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s national radio, to talk about death in games. It wasn’t a very long guest appearance, but it did get me thinking. In particular about death and death in games.

“Tänk på döden” – think about death; the words adorn the entrance of a graveyard in Gothenburg. I spent about a year passing by it when going to work. The idea of thinking about death came into vogue during the Middle Ages, when a reminder of death was intended for people to consider the transient nature of our earthly existence. We don’t really consider death in games. There is no reflection over our transient nature, or the transient nature of the life of our player characters.

Instead we, as game developers, consider save systems, basically what we get to keep “after death”, and what punishment death should bring with it. We take the mechanical perspective on death. We think of death as a risk in a risk-reward system, where death is not the end, but an inconvenience, something to be discouraged because dying will cause you to lose stuff, progression in the game and maybe health.

In most games, death is not the end, merely a minor setback.* The game I talked about in PP3 was however somewhat more special.

It’s called Upsilon Circuit and features not only permadeath, but perma-permadeath. If the game uses perma-permadeath, you only get one shot at playing. To me this is interesting in several ways. If I only get one chance, how will this affect my play style? And how will it influence difficulty? Is there any mechanic to support a new player that hasn’t had the time to learn the controls? And how will the player handle it? Go all in and put heart and soul into playing, or just think of it as something ephemeral? Not invested in? Something fun but ultimately unimportant? And how does the game handle pause? Time-zones? There are so many questions related to this game that it’s hard to formulate anything coherent. But I still want to talk about the “death-questions”.

If i only get one chance, how will it affect my play style?
First off, we have different play styles depending on session length. In Counter-Strike, the really old one, out play style depends on two conditions (apart from personal preferences). 1. The team success is more important than individual success. 2. The sessions are short, and you get to spectate, should you die (no instant respawn). This leads to the fact that it matters if you die, but you may also find it strategic to sacrifice yourself for the team. Compared to non-team based games like Quake, players of Counter-Strike will be more careful. The team not only takes a hit when you die, but there’s one less player to disarm or arm the bomb.

In Quake, the only thing that suffers from repeated death is your frag rate. Respawn is instant. You’ll lose some pickups but that’s about all.

I was never a great Counter-Strike player, except when it came to disarming and arming bombs. That was my forte. Oh, and sniping. I never had high kill rates, but I did manage to disarm quite a few bombs in my day.

My point is that a game will dictate how we behave based on how often we save and how often we die, and what the punishment is for not saving or having died.

If I play a game like Diablo, which has permadeath as an option, playing with permadeath enabled will make me more careful of my character the longer I play. Risks will have a much higher potential stake than if I can use saves and continue from where I died.

Every time I engage an enemy, I’ll run the risk of losing not only accumulated skills and experience points, but also all the items I’ve gathered during my play time. Not to mention hours and hours of time invested in the game.

In a game like Diablo, the risk-reward mechanic is very obvious. The longer I play, the more I risk by engaging new enemies.

I think it’s also important to note that time is a pretty big factor. In games, time is an investment. It also happens that the more time we spend on something, the better we think it is. Because why would we spend so much time on it otherwise? This is especially interesting in a game like Upsilon Circuit, where the time played most likely will have an emotional impact on the player’s reaction to having the playsession end. The longer we play, the more we like it.

If you have permadeath in a game, how will it affect difficulty?
Well, from a mechanical point of view? Well, in a game like Diablo (where you spend some time learning the game) it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The skill increase and the difficulty levels are fairly linear regardless of player skill. The impact of the game’s difficulty lies outside the player. There are some things you have to learn as a Diablo-player, but it’s pretty much point and click. Not that much strategy. In a game like StarCraft, however, difficulty increases as player skill increases. The game relies on the player to get better or the player will die. The same goes for Counter-Strike. Get better at shooting or die trying.

In a game like Upsilon Circuit it poses some interesting questions. What if you come in to the game at a late stage? How will lack of skill be balanced against a high difficulty? Even in Diablo you need to learn where to click, which takes some time. Since not that much is known of the game (to me at least) it’s a hard question to answer.

What if the difficulty increases as the game progresses and the player lands in the middle of it? With players in the team that are experienced? This will cause a significant drain on their skills to keep their team member alive.

Death is underrated
One of the things I do know when it comes to death in games is that it is underrated. We developers use it as a cliché. We kill off families without giving the player enough time to form an emotional attachment, and then we use the excuse of “the (insert orc, crime syndicate, mobster etc here) killed my family and now I want revenge” as an “emotional” motivation for the player. But it’s not really emotional. It’s just a ruse to make the player feel good about themselves when going forth in the world to slaughter said orcs, crime syndicates or mobsters.

To care about death, we have to lose something when death occurs. We have to care about the one dying. If it is our own character, we can care about loss of items, about someone we’ve invested a lot of time in. When it comes to non-player characters in a game, we need the same motivators, or at least similare ones. We need to know the characters to care about them. I’m going to spoil Planetfall and Mass Effect 3 a bit now, so if you don’t want that, please stop reading.

In Planetfall, as a player, you spend a long time getting to know Floyd. Floyd is a robot with a sort of charming and childish personality. Floyd will help you out, say things now and then, and generally behave like someone with an attachment to the player. Floyd will also sacrifice himself for the player. This has emotional impact because the player has spent so much time getting to know Floyd and relating to Floyd. As far as I know, this is one of the games where people reported that they actually cried, because Floyd dies and Floyd mattered to the player.

Another game that uses the mechanism of “getting to know the NPC” is the Mass Effect series. In Mass Effect you can lose NPCs at specific points in the game, and it is almost always as a direct result of your actions and your choices. In Planetfall, the story was linear. No matter what you did, Floyd would die. In Mass Effect, the story is branching, and it will allow you to either save someone, or lose them.

What I find most intriguing about Mass Effect 3 is how the game uses these choices to show the player the consequences of their actions, and how the choices will affect the game, later on. Do you save the entire Krogan race, or do you let Mordin live? The choices return to bite you in the ass and it is in some cases very painful. Mordin, a salarian scientist, goes willingly to his death. I goaded him in Mass Effect 2. I told him that he was complicit in mass extinction because of his work with the genophage, and he died curing it. You’re damned right the tears were running down my face when he went.

The death that hit me hardest was Thane. Thane is an assassin my Cmdr Shepard met in Mass Effect 2. Thane is dying, there is no question about it. Shepard and Thane ended up in a relationship, where Thane cursed his disease, because now he finally had something to live for. That hit me pretty hard. In Mass Effect 3, he dies, but not because of the disease, although that is a factor. He dies because he sacrifices himself for Shepard to reach her goals. And he dies praying for Shepard. That’s pretty grim, but it also shows how much a game can impact emotionally, if the player gets to know the people in the game. I can sincerely say that killing Kai Leng, the assassin that in effect killed Thane, is deeply satisfying.

I can’t say the same for all the families, sons, wives etc that I’ve had to avenge after barely getting to know them first.

Death should be a loss, not a save state. If death is not a loss, then why keep implementing it in games?

* I’m not talking about creepy zombies or ghosts. You just pick up where you last saved, no real harm done. It’s like a massive hiccup that transports you minutes back in time.

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