Tuesday, February 15

On Meaningful Death

Player death can be many things.  It can be the end of an extremely cathartic murder spree in Grand Theft Auto, it can be a temporary inconvenience in a 99-Stock match of Super Smash Brothers, or it can be the last thing that happens before a controller shatters into a million irreparable fragments on a wall.  Death can be quite funny (Monkey Island), a plot development (Demon’s Souls, Infinity Blade), and a major, infuriating setback (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night).
I said at the beginning of this blog (waaaaaaaay back in January), I want to talk about not just videogames, but tabletop dice and board games like Dungeons & Dragons, or even Candyland if I find something really amazing about it (I totally could, too).  At time of writing, I’m the Dungeon Master for three Dungeons & Dragon games, one in 4th Edition, two in 3.5.  I’ve played many others, so I like to think that I’ve got a good handle on what I want from a tabletop role-playing experience.
Specifically, I want to talk about a character of mine, and how he died.  I was far more angry than I could’ve suspected I would have been, and after an hour or so of cooling down, I had to figure out why.  Why had this death bugged me so much?
I think it happened something like this.
Well, here’s the scenario:  Our group had just managed to kill a fairly powerful enemy, mostly thanks to my character’s planning ability and firepower (I’m not trying to say I’m awesome, this is statistically true), and after the fight, an argument came up between another player and I which resulted in me threatening to blast him with a lightning bolt.  I was then informed that I’d been sneak attacked by a supposedly friendly NPC and taken 69 points of damage to my (Max) 50 hit points.  Those of you who know D&D 3.5 and D20 Modern know this means instant death.
So I died, and I was angry, extremely angry, why?
It made everything I did pointless.  Not pointless to the party, but pointless to me.  To have such a massive victory and then die against something I truly had no way to see coming and no way to defend against indicated that I didn’t matter, and my contribution was ultimately meaningless.  This has led me to a very important note:

Character death should always be meaningful.

You can argue all you wish about how poignant my death may have been to the overall message of the game, but I’ll save space and assure you, it wasn’t.  There’s no time I’ve played with a DM capable of making a strong artistic message in a game, though I’d honestly love to.  What I mean by “meaningful” is not that it must always advance the story, but that the player comes away as satisfied as possible.  When a character dies, they should feel that the death was as awesome as anything they did in life, or depending on the style of game, extremely funny.

Despite what many artists will be more than happy to tell you, games need to be engaging.  Engaging in this instance means that the game makes them want to keep playing and reach the end.  The fastest way to turn a person off a game, is to make their playtime pointless.  Spending even a half hour on a dungeon in Dragon Age: Origins only to die to one chain lightning spell is not how to keep people engaged.
Now, in videogames, you can always make a death meaningful in the same way.  The key, then, is how much you set your player back.  If you’re not using autosaves in your game, put a prompt asking the player if they’d like to save prior to a difficult section, or leave minor check points along every level.  If you are using an autosave feature, keep it separate from the player’s own hard saves like in Fallout 3, and make sure you space them fairly close together.  And for the love of Schaefer, try not to make the reload after death a penalty itself.
For the record, this is the best
purchase I've made this year.
The reason I brought up Castlevania earlier should be apparent to anyone who’s played it, or has seen James Rolfe's Castlevania retrospective (which you should).  It takes an abhorrent amount of time from death to getting back in the game.  Cut the load times.  I don’t care what has to be done to the game, but after I die, don’t make it load longer than the level took to load in the first place.  Dragon Age, I’m looking at you.
Something else to think about is how to penalize death.  Gamers themselves are quite split on this issue.  Bioware recently announced that in their upcoming MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic death would take a little from the player, but not too much.  Unsurprisingly, they immediately began to receive flak from both sides, those who didn’t want penalties, and those who wanted steep penalties.
In the setting of an MMO, no penalty for death means no risk for players.  One could argue that having to travel all the way back to where you died is a penalty, but in the grand scheme of MMO playtime, it’s far to paltry to have any real impact.  The slight experience loss common to many MMOs ensures that the player feels the sting, but again, invalidates much of the work they’ve just done.
So what’s an MMO designer to do?  Well, I think they’ve so far done the best they can.  A loss of experience, something easily regained by the player, something made to keep them playing, and it keeps lower level players confined to the areas safe for them, making them level up not only to be able to complete the next big quest, but to get to the next big area.  It’s a psychological game, and they’re playing it quite well.
That said, here’s something to contemplate: Why must we fence a player in with obvious game mechanics?  MMOs are not above having a story, and game designers (some) are masters of some serious psychological warfare.  There are ways to keep player where you want them to be.  The Legend of Zelda keeps you where it wants you by just plain old not giving you the tool you need to advance.  While this isn’t necessarily the best method, it certainly works better than killing you if you step out of bounds, and actually facilitates exploration within the area you have.
Overall, death (or failure, however that may manifest) is a crucial part of making a game have weight and meaning, whether tabletop or video.  The key, as with all things, is to treat it right.  You can say artistic things with a player’s death, but the moment it stops being engaging is the moment it stops having meaning.

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