For a long time, people have been blaming violent behaviour on video games. I’m always amused when someone tells me computer games made Jack the Ripper the killer he was. People have been killing each other for much longer than we’ve had computer games, and we’ll keep doing it long after computer games have become a thing of the past.
I think the reason we so easily blame computer games is that there are no real-world consequences associated with them. You can log in to battle.net and murder a bunch of sheep, collect all sorts of gold and other items, and then when you’ve had your fill you simply say “Okay, that’s it for me,” and return to the real world, relatively unscathed.
In fact, you return in pretty much the same shape as you entered the game in the first place. No actual sheep were harmed in the making of your entertainment, you’re not actually any more wealthy, and any deaths you suffered were relatively painless. That, I think, is the crux of the perceived problem with computer games: death is meaningless.
Picture yourself playing Quake. You have this guy you control, and he’s all manly. He runs around collecting a surprisingly large amount of ammunition and weapons, and shoots things. Then you find yourself running down a long corridor, when suddenly at the other end you get shot in the head. Your health lessens, so naturally your abilities in-game remain constant. Then you take another shot in the head because your reflexes suck, and you fall down dead. What happens now?
Naturally, you respawn in a different place, presumably safer than where you last were, and get to start over again; no penalty, except for the loss of a small nation’s firepower. This is the problem; due to the nature of computer games, dying cannot have a permanent consequence… though it would be very amusing to us designers if it did.
In one way or another, death in a computer game cannot simulate a permanent event of any kind. We make our money on people buying our games, and if dying once means you can no longer play then you’re not exactly having a good time. In fact, you’re suddenly less likely to purchase our next game, because we made death count for something.
When designing a computer game that involves death, you need to decide how those deaths will be handled. There are some pretty good ways to do this, and there are also some really, really bad ways. Let me dig something up from the anals of my own company for you… it doesn’t matter who suggested this, but I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out anyway.
When you die, your soul leaves your body and travels to the astral plane. The astral plane is just like the normal plane, except it’s entirely gray-scale, everyone is a point of light, and you can’t interact with anything. While in the astral plane, you cannot do anything but wander around, which you must do in real-time to manually return to your personal spawn point. This might take as long as two weeks in real time.
See why I called it the anals? I can honestly say this might be the single worst idea I’ve ever seen put to paper. Honestly, how could forcing the player to wander aimlessly for a week and a half possibly be a bad thing? Now, let’s look at some death-handling ideas that don’t suck quite so badly. Rather than go brainstorming ways to handle death, why don’t we use direct examples from games I’m sure we’ve all had experience with by now…
The first game I ever played that involved death was King’s Quest, by Sierra On-Line (you can download a VGA remake of it for free here). That game had manual save points, and when you died you could either restore to one of those, restart the game, or leave your computer to go find a bowl of warm water to put your sleeping friend’s hand in. That game taught me from an early age (I was 4) the importance of saving your progress along the way.
All the other classic Sierra “Quest” games work in exactly the same way; when you die, what you can do depends on how well you preserved your progress using the savegames. The next game I played that involved death was Wolfenstein 3D; the seed from which all First Person Shooters sprung. To give you an idea just how cool this game was, at the time it was released nobody had ever gotten so much out of a graphics card, anywhere; we programmers were absolutely amazed at the mileage the game got from the primitive 2d cards.
In Wolfenstein, when you took enough bullets to kill you, you fell over dead and had to restart the level with only a simple pistol (with unlimited ammo). All other weapons and ammunition you’d acquired were history (they probably respawned on the levels you got them from). This was actually a pretty severe punishment, as it sometimes made the level unbeatable… or maybe that was just me and my 12 year old reflexes. The point is, death meant something.
Next came Warcraft… the first one, in 1995. You control various dudes who do different things, and they can all die. When someone dies in this game, they are gone forever; the only exceptions to this are the summoned creatures, but they’re magical anyway so you don’t really have to mourn them… they don’t even leave corpses. You manage your army, and when they’re gone, they’re gone for good. When your Town Hall burns down… and it will… you have to start the level over again.
Then Diablo hit the shelves, and everyone went nuts for it. It sold something like twenty million copies in the first day. The real charm of this game was being able to play multiplayer, and another new way to handle death arose. When you died, you lost everything. You showed up back in town, but all your equipment was left on the ground for anyone to wander off with. Dying was something to be feared… more or less.
I’m not really sure when the first Quake came out, but multiplayer Quake featured the death system I was talking about at the beginning of this column. Death was pretty meaningless, since it was practically trivial to reclaim your former glory. This, of course, made it very appealing to the player.
Diablo 2, which I’m sure at least a couple of my readers are familiar with, features a very slick death system: your lifeless corpse hangs around where you died, complete with your stuff, and you return to town in your skivies, only to charge back out and try to get your body back. In the end, unless you’re very silly, you lose nothing more than experience. Again, this is very appealing to the player.
…Unless you play Hardcore, like I do. Then, death is the end of everything. If you’re in a single-player game on battle.net and you die, you’re gone forever. I wrote a guest article about that once.
“So what’s your point?” I hear you ask. There are all sorts of ways to deal with death in your game, and if you’re making a game of any sort of scope then it’s something you’re going to have to deal with. What will happen to your character when he dies? Does he respawn at home? Does he have to go somewhere before he can do that? Does he get to restore to a previous state? Maybe he simply restarts the room he’s in, as in many puzzle games, like Deadly Rooms of Death (I can’t plug that game enough, really, you should go play it).
Death is just another part of the game that has to be examined. Your players’ characters are going to die, and you need to decide what will happen to them when that occurs. Currently, the most common ways to deal with in-game death are to respawn immediately, or to restart the level. Why not be innovative?
Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.