The Role of Death in Games

It used to be very easy to die in an Adventure Game. One wrong move and it’s game over, restore or restart. Use an oil can on a suit of armor and an axe came down and lopped off your head. Try to walk out of a convenience store with a Grotesque Gulp without paying for it and you get shot full of holes. Try to cross a huge desert and die of thirst. Restore and try again. And Again.

Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame – and much more) was the first person I know of to question the role of death in games. After all, when you are playing a game, you are immersed in the game’s world and the game experience. You are having fun. Then suddenly, Game Over.

A Slap in the Face

Dealing with Death

Death removes you from the situation. It breaks the illusion that you are part of the game. It’s just not FUN to die.

(Unless, of course, you are playing Leisure Suit Larry. Then, the game is all about finding different ways Larry can die. After all, the poor schmuck clearly deserves what he gets.)

Most of the deaths in the Golden Age of Adventure Games were not made because the designers were all a bunch of sadistic misanthropes who wanted the players to suffer. No, most deaths were there for the very practical reason that due to budget and time constraints, games were very linear in story. You can only afford to create as much game as tells the story. Any deviation from the main plotline met in death because death is the easiest way to put the player back on the track.

Some of these “Dead Ends” are just sloppy game design. Death is a rather drastic way to tell the player that she’s making a mistake when she walks into a dark room without a light.

How fun is that?

We agreed with Ron’s assessment – arbitrary death in computer games sucks for the player.

Quest for Glory Funerals

Then again, we designed death into our games. If you drank the Dragon’s Breath – you burned up. If you walked into a dark alley at night – you met your maker. If you faced a Super Saurus at the beginning of the game with only a dagger, you probably wound up as the Saurus’s supper.

All the deaths in Quest for Glory had one thing in common – they were avoidable. Play smart, act the part, and you stay alive.

Death by Antwerp

Death by Antwerp

But if death in games isn’t fun for the player, why have death in the games? Isn’t the purpose of games to be entertaining to the player?

Games need to be fun. However, fun involves more than just solving puzzles. Otherwise, we’d all be whizzes at crosswords. Some of the pleasure from games comes from the tension caused by the risk of making a mistake and suffering the consequences.

Yes, we actually enjoy stress when we play games.

If there is no consequence in making a mistake, there’s no excitement. Solving the problem is only a matter of trial and error. We get enough of that in real life.

However, in a game, if you guess wrong – bzap! The possibility of death makes you play very carefully. There’s nothing quite as exciting as knowing that one wrong step and you could fall to your doom – as long as you have a clue which step is wrong and which is the right one. When you succeed in a particularly dangerous quest, you get the thrill of success and the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Flunking Out of Hero-U

Wraith of Death

From the beginning of the Hero-U game design, we decided that there would be no death in the game. If the player got the main character, Shawn, into too much serious danger, Shawn was not going to just stand there and let himself get killed. He was going to do the intelligent thing – stop fighting monsters and run away.

After all, Shawn has a mind of his own and he does not want to die.

On the other hand… Who is playing this game – Shawn or the Player?

This is not some television show where you passively watch Shawn explore the university and try to get laid… er… make friends and influence people. What Shawn does is up to you. If you tell Shawn to throw a dagger at a huge gnormous starving Sea Serpent, do you really want Shawn to look you sternly in the eye and give you the finger because he thinks that’s a really bad idea?

Probably not (although maybe you should listen to him sometimes!).

And if Shawn is sneaking around some stranger’s house in the middle of the night and doesn’t dare get caught, is he really going to sit down at the stranger’s piano and play Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’? Not if he can help it.

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption is all about making choices. That means, we need to let the player have choices, both good and bad ones. But choices are meaningless without consequences.

Death is the ultimate consequence of a bad decision.

Besides, where’s the fun of sneaking around a darkened castle in the middle of the night if you aren’t trying to avoid the notorious Mr. Terk? If he catches Shawn – you know that Shawn will be expelled. Worse, you’ll see Mr. Terk’s smirking face as he lectures Shawn. That’s a fate worse than death, at least in this game.

Dead End

We had a lot of really good ideas for this game when we started out. However, just as our art style has evolved as we work on Hero-U, so too has our design. There will be turned-based combat in this game. It will be more puzzle-solving and outthinking your opponent rather than pressing a key very quickly and hoping that you are faster than the monster is.

But there are times in the game when you have to make a choice – do you risk death to possibly finish off a monster, or do you tell Shawn to run away? Shawn won’t lecture you, but he might subtly suggest that he has a really good pair of running shoes.

What happens when Shawn dies or gets arrested for ‘Breaking and Entering’?

Alas, it’s our old enemy, the Death Screen. You’ll have to restore or restart the game.

Fortunately, the game thoughtfully saved itself when you first entered the dungeon so you won’t discover that you last saved the game, er… never.

You also get to see a very nifty Death Screen painting and a happy rhyming epitaph to take the sting away. Not everyone will get to see that special treat.

But why should you be rewarded only for making a mistake? In Hero-U, you don’t just get a special screen when you lose. You also get a special screen when you win. After all, either way, you made a decision and took a chance.

That’s the fun of it.

Shawn 1, Giant Proach 0

Shawn 1, Giant Proach 0