If you listen to this week’s episode of Retronauts — now available on an Internet near you! — you’ll find a significant portion of the show is dedicated to death in games. Not just death, but interesting applications of death as a mechanic with a function beyond simply forcing you to try again. Early on, we delineate our belief that while “death” and “failure” are almost always conflated in games, they’re not absolutely the same thing. You can fail in a game without your character dying; and, in very rare cases, death in games isn’t strictly failure. A setback, perhaps, but not necessarily the end of the road.
This topic, not surprisingly, grew out of my recent flirtation with roguelike games. It’s a genre with arguably steeper penalties than any other kind of game, except in a few rare instances like Nethack (with its persistent bones files) and the original Shiren (with its world that slowly evolves as you affect changes throughout the course of your efforts to reach the top of Table Mountain). As I’ve lamented before, gamers have grown increasingly risk-averse in recent years, or perhaps gaming has simply grown to encompass a wider audience of people who don’t see the appeal in applying determination and risking frustration in a medium that’s ostensibly designed for entertainment. I’ve been happy to see that the concept of character death has been integrated into a key component of two of the biggest releases so far this year, Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain. Both games present situations in which it’s possible for characters to suffer permanent, plot-based deaths based on the player’s actions, yet in neither title are those deaths strictly considered “failure.”
Naturally, though — me being the nostalgia-addled navel-gazer that I am — all this dwelling on death has sent my mind spinning backward to think about older games that incorporated death in interesting ways. I’m sure there are plenty, but for some reason none of them are springing immediately to mind. None but Herc’s Adventures, a mostly forgotten Saturn/PlayStation title by LucasArts. Effectively the sequel to Ghoul Patrol and Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Herc’s Adventures was an odd little hiccup of a release: It boasted really nice hand-drawn animation and featured a rather open-ended world in a time when the former was on its way out and the latter hadn’t yet caught on. Its close proximity to the release of Disney’s Hercules didn’t help matters much, either.
But the most interesting thing about this forgotten gem is the way it handled death. Herc (or Jason or Atalanta) could die, but that death wasn’t strictly permanent. Instead of slapping you with a Game Over screen, Herc’s Adventures cast your character into Hades and gave you the opportunity to fight your way out. Kind of like Doom, I guess, but a bit more cartoonish. The creatures of Hades’ realm could hurt you as your battled through to the overworld, and if you died while in Hades that was a Game Over. But it wasn’t too tough to slug your way to freedom.
And then, eventually, you would die again and be cast back into Hades. This time, though, you were deeper in the underworld, facing tougher foes, dealing with steeper odds of escaping safely. And your third death would send you even further into Hades. And after that… you ended up with Hades himself, and it was Game Over.
This unusual death penalty created an interesting and unique sort of tension. When you died, you had to ask yourself: Should I try battling my way to freedom, or would I be better off just resetting and accepting the loss of progress since my last save? If I accept my trip to Hades this time, am I dooming myself at a later point in the adventure when I’ll face tougher odds and be more likely to die multiple times?
I really love when games stop and question conventions and do something new and unique with elements that everyone normally takes for granted. And I promise, when I finally get around to designing Jetpack Goonies, I will try to make death more interesting than a Game Over screen. After all, Goonies never say die.