As long as games have existed there has been the looming potential for loss. Whether it’s letting one too many pixels slip by, tripping on a wayward koopa shell, playing against a button spamming Raiden, or taking a few too many bullets to the sponge – you die, you fail, you lose, game over. Most games don’t really address losing or dying – you simply reset, respawn, and move on; this I feel is a missed opportunity and designers could find ways to embrace loss in their games.
Once upon a time we were fortunate to have 8-bits moving about on a screen, and more so to have a goal to accomplish. Designers were focused on what the player could achieve and how they could succeed, which makes perfect sense. What we accomplish in life should be highlighted and appreciated so why not focus on what a player is achieving while their character is alive and well. Now fast forwarding a few decades and we have games that have broken that mold – and rightfully so. Games in general have quickly become another medium of entertainment, art and expression – an interactive story that has the potential to cover almost any topic imaginable for an impressively diverse audience. So why not embrace the idea of failure as what it is, an opportunity to learn and grow?
With a number of dungeon crawlers, survival games, and RPGs offering a “hardcore mode” where you lose everything if you die such a thing is more of a challenge mode rather than a truly unique treatment of death or losing in game. Losing along the way can become integral to a story, or it can impact future decisions made in play. The idea of addressing loss in a way other than the classic “game over” screen and resetting the player opens up the potential for adding story elements, game mechanics, and valuable lessons or experience for the player. There are already some titles that are doing this with varied approaches, as some more recent examples;
Battlefield 1: In its first prologue mission, Storm of Steel, each death you suffer doesn’t result in a simple respawn – you see the name and lifespan for the soldier you were just controlling before being transitioned to another on the lines already fighting. This serves to highlight the grim darkness of WWI and to be a chilling reminder to the player of the sacrifices made by those that served and gave everything. Using character death in this way to amplify the importance of the rest of the story can be a powerful tool, especially when addressing topics like war and conflict. Many players admit being caught off guard by the strength of the impact this simple addition made when playing this story for the first time. So while it’s not quite a fully integrated mechanic of it’s own, it was integral to setting the thematic undertones of the overall story.
Next Up Hero: Operating just like any other dungeon crawler on the surface – die, respawn, rinse, repeat – it really shines specifically with its unique death mechanic leaving the spirit or echo of the fallen hero behind for another player to raise in another session as an ally. It may still be a dungeon crawler, but as you play and see the fallen echoes of previous heroes you can gauge your progress, knowing you made it just a little further than the last guy. Or you may fail in your quest temporarily, but in your death you will eventually aid another player somewhere with your essence – and with that, others too will aid in yours. Not as grim or serious as the previous example but it does serve as a mechanic that adds to the gameplay experience through previous loss.
Sea of Thieves: Approaches dying in its own unique style by sending your ghostly figure to the Ferry of the Damned, Sea of Thieves provides a separate shared social space where you can interact with the other unfortunate souls who’ve died while on their adventure. The inclusion of a place where strangers, friends, and foes alike must wait together for the Ferryman to release them is the sort of gameplay tool that allows players to continue their experience after they’ve walked the plank one too many times . Even if the time spent here is temporary it has an underlying significance to the world itself while still being a fun mechanic to accommodate respawning. The feature is even important enough that developers have recently released an event focused on dying in different ways to complete challenges and pay homage to the Ferryman.
Of course there are more titles that could be added to this list, though some risk pretty big spoilers (I’m looking at you, Chapter 6) it’s important to recognize that not all genres or game styles can effectively produce a means of reflecting loss in the world or character, nor should they all try. Though there are some that have a great potential to do so and really should consider how it could enhance the story, player experience, and game as a whole. Creatively using the idea of the player failing, losing, or dying in a game to introduce a new element or tell part of a story is something we don’t see often enough and really offers to help elevate those titles that utilize it. I for one would like to see more games tackle this concept, how about you?
What are some games that you have played that you feel treat losing, failing, or death in unique ways?