2D: Death’s sweet embrace

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.

24 thoughts on “2D: Death’s sweet embrace

  1. That Herc’s Adventure thing reminds me of Soul Reaver, where dying would put you into an alternate universe version of the regular world. I liked that game until I got to the part were my all-powerful zombie vampire was made to push crates while being besieged by endlessly re-spawning spiders.

  2. Left 4 Dead (and more notably, its sequel) are interesting because death is only permanent if all four players die simultaneously – as long as one survives, there’s almost always at least a chance to revive the others.

    Looking at it from the other direction, Fable II doesn’t really have death – your character is knocked out, takes his lumps, and then picks himself up. That seems to be coming from the “remove player frustration” design standpoint, rather than the “do something interesting with death” stand point, and I’d argue it weakens the experience a bit, but…yeah.

    I guess what I’m saying is that it seems like we’re reaching a point where more and more developers are taking another look at death as a mechanic, rather than having random one-offs like Herc’s Adventures that no one notices.

  3. Wow, never heard of Herc’s Adventures, but it sounds great. I love Greek mythology, and the way it handles death makes a lot of sense within that context.

    Let me guess… the gameplay totally sucks, though, right?

  4. Planescape: Torment is the gold standard for games that use death in an interesting way, in terms of both gameplay and storyline.

  5. “Let me guess… the gameplay totally sucks, though, right?”

    Dude, it’s the spiritual sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

  6. When I play a game where a character dies because I hit a certain point, I don’t get worked up about it. In Valkria Chronicles there is a completely random character death in a cutscene, and my reaction was essentially “Not my fault.” But in games where characters are able to live or die based on my actions I feel an immense responsibility to see as many of the characters make it through. After I completed Devil Survivor without losing anyone, or even the aforementioned Valkria Chronicles with my entire squad(minus the one)intact, I just feel good.

  7. First impression: There’s a THIRD ZAMN game? (Also Jeremy: Ghoul Patrol is terrible, so another ZAMN spin off doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’. I’ll take your word on this one though, especially with this neat death mechanic)

    Second, I hope you keep talking about this. I’ve been interested in the idea of death as a gameplay mechanic for a while and have wanted to do something with it, and all this talk about it has been hugely inspirational. I’m probably going to have to go indy with it, but hopefully I’ll actually make some headway instead of it just fizzling out and dying like most of my grander ideas.

  8. I haven’t played this (yet), but Breath of Fire 5: Dragon Quarter is believably supposed to be the gold standard for this creative-use-of-death quality you are seeking.

  9. Yeah, we’ve talked up Dragon Quarter and its “sequel” Dead Rising quite a bit on the podcasts. I appreciate the responses, though! I’d forgotten about Soul Reaver, and I still need to play the copy of Torment I bought ages ago.

  10. Wow, Herc’s Adventures looks even prettier than I remember. I had a good time playing it on a rental several years ago.

  11. What about Planescape: Torment? I’ve never seen a game use death as well as that one, where a huge puzzle is predicated on you dying over and over and death is otherwise shrugged off (and, unlike most games, it’s completely significant to the plot)

  12. Everyone seems to have beaten me to the Planescape death thing, but they couldn’t be more spot-on. It made me rethink what games have to be back in the day.

    Another interesting thing to think about: the original Monkey Island. Death was impossible, except for one case where it was a sort of Easter Egg for hardcore fans searching for something extra.

  13. I’ve been thinking for years about the question of, what do the concepts of “death” and “time” mean in videogames, which is one of the things that made Majora’s Mask so interesting to me: that it was as though the game were designed specifically to address those questions. And I’ve been playing Shiren lately, and I think you can see some of Shiren in Majora’s Mask. Sending powerful items back to the start of the game means pushing them to the left on the world map, but in terms of the game’s structure, they’re moving through time, too. And like in a roguelike, in MM you embark on the same quest again and again; the game somehow ends and you start again. In fact I think a lot of the frustration people experienced playing MM is the frustration they get from roguelikes — that being the case, I think they could’ve taken the opportunity to really ramp up MM’s difficulty action-wise, but even conceptually, maybe it’s tough for people to deal with the idea of “starting again”.

    Also let me add, I don’t think it’s just a matter of modern audiences not being able to deal with really difficult games and game makers pandering to them. I think primarily it’s that modern games have these gigantic, expansive worlds that take a lot of money and work to create, and what’s the point of doing all that work if your game is so hard that most players aren’t gonna get the chance to see any of it but the first two stages or whatever?

  14. Ahh, awesome game, I’m so glad to see it acknowledged. Open-ended ZAMN, what more could you ask for? Well, maybe the zombie scheme again, but Herc’s Adventures was gorgeous and provided a lot of nice moments. “I’m looking for a cow?”

  15. Nah, zombies are boring and hackneyed. Ancient Greece is a lot more fun, or at least it was until Sony Santa Monica decided to make it all angry death metal and wrist-slashing.

  16. Nightshade for the NES had similar death mechanic. If you ran out of health the bad guy would stick you in a deathtrap. If you manage to escape you can continue. Each time you run out of health you get put in a more difficult trap until the fifth time when the trap is inescapable.

  17. Hmmm. Must try harder. Shadow of Destiny (and to a lesser extent Valkyrie Profile 1) take an unconventional approach to death, but that’s mainly plot related and probably much like what Planetscape: Torment already covers.

    To go with a different angle, I nominate the Space Quest games (you can broaden this to pretty much any Sierra Quest game, though I prefer to narrow it to my favorite, Space Quest 4). Death doesn’t play a role in the gameplay department, but the angle is that it provides what these games were primarily designed for: humor. I think most Sierra fans, if pressed, would admit the deaths are the funniest parts of the games. At any rate, the game actively rewards you with humor for finding as many and as ridiculous ways to die as possible.

  18. Man, Zombies weren’t hackeneyed when ZAMN came out, or even Herc’s Adventure, really. LucasArts were progressive, that’s what they were.

  19. This isn’t exactly on topic, as I think you’re addressing more death as a game mechanic, but I always appreciate it when a game takes care to address death in a way that doesn’t break the story. A “game over” or “restore from last save?” is the game saying to you “hey, you screwed up playing a videogame, let’s try that again,” which is certainly an understandable approach, but it breaks the immersion. A game like Too Human where your “death” causes a Valkyrie to come bring you back to life, or Modern Warfare where your player is deliberately killed as part of the story both present interesting versions of this. But a kind of amusingly shitty approach that I will always remember was used in Tex Murphy: Overseer. The game was set as a flashback–it began with Tex going somewhere on a date or something, and as he told the story of a past event in his life, you took over gameplay of that story. In a move that was bizarrely dedicated to maintaining the 4th wall intact, if you died, it would cut out of the game world to a cinematic of Tex having a conversation with his date that went something like–Tex: “…and then I died?” Tex’s date: “What? That doesn’t make any sense.” Tex: “You’re right, I was confused. Let me try that again…” On the one hand I appreciate their effort to make the game have a constant narrative, insisting that nothing that you did was not a part of the story…but on the other hand, the idea that Tex got confused and just told a story where he died so he’s going to have to think about that again is a pretty silly way to handle this (especially if you die multiple times on the same segment).

  20. Basically everyone here should play Karoshi 2.0. The Karoshi series is all about figuring out how exactly to get yourself killed. While the first game is your basic puzzle game, the sequel is just…well it’s just mind blowing. Not only does it handle death in an interesting way (death is your preferred state) but the game play is just…insane. Some of the puzzles are just neat as hell.

  21. The Tex Murphy example is very similar to how death was handled in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The one difference was that you’d hear the prince say “No, that’s not right.”

    It doesn’t really make sense, but I’ve always been able to overlook it for the mere fact that they try so hard to keep the narrative intact.

  22. I was glad to see this game pop up here – I remember one of my friends having it when I was a kid, and even then the idea of having to fight your way out of Hades was interesting to me.

    As for other games that handle death differently, Left 4 Dead apparently came up before in the comments, which is probably closer to the Boot-In-Your-Ass school of ally resurrection that seems fairly prevailent in team- or co-op-focused shooters like Gears of War. If I recall correctly, Kane & Lynch used a semirealistic variation of this in that your allies have to resurrect you (and vice versa) with an adrenaline shot before you pass out, but too many adrenaline injections can cause you to overdose and get a game over.

    There was also a game based on Chicken Run on the Playstation that had an interesting approach to ‘death’: The goal of the game was to gather all sorts of items around the farm to build into machines to aid the chickens in their escape, so if you got caught by any of the human characters, you’d lose a random item from your inventory. It’s not quite ‘death’ in the strictest sense, but it still makes you redo a chunk of the mission in some way or another.

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