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Real permadeath - a thought experiment
MrBehemoth Offline
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Real permadeath - a thought experiment

The concept of player death in narrative led games has been discussed elsewhere on this forum, but I kind of see a problem with it, which got me and Mrs Behemoth talking yesterday about an idea which I thought I'd share and see what people's opinions are.

First, the problem (only a minor problem, which I'm happy to live with) is this: in a narrative led game, you're telling a story. If the player dies, the story ends. If you then load up a save and carry on, it's a different version of the story. Like the film Run, Lola, Run, where every time the plot reaches a disaster, Lola would rewind to the start and do things slightly differently. Or, remember Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? The story of that game was framed as if the Prince himself was verbally narrating the story. Every time you died, he would say, "No, no, that's not how it happened," because, obviously, he didn't die or he wouldn't be able to tell the story. It was a noble attempt to solve the death issue, but it just felt dumb. In a way, that's what all games are like, at least all games where the protagonist can die.

The Chinese Room almost tried to tackle this in AMFP. They were planning to have it so that if you got caught by a pigman, rather than dying, you woke up in a different part of the map, with a puzzle to solve before you could resume. They removed that feature, probably because they (correctly) felt that it would remove all sense of threat. I tried to do a similar thing in The Trapdoor by implying that Burke had not been killed but merely blacked out and woken up somewhere else, after having returned to Boney in a fugue. I think it was a bit too subtle, or not different enough from the normal Amnesia mechanic, and people still saw it as a death-and-reload situation, but I didn't want to remove that mechanic altogether, because there needs to be a fail state to avoid, in order to create drama, tension and agency.

At the other end of the spectrum there's permadeath. It works in roguelikes, but roguelikes are a niche for people who prefer mastering difficulty curves over narrative. What about Justine? It worked because the game was fairly easy and, as DLC, most people who played it had already mastered Amnesia. As a stand alone game, costing £15 or more, people would have been less receptive. Permadeath removes some of the narrative inconsistency but not all of it, because you can always start a new game.

So, here is a possible solution, or hypothetical new game genre. It's just an idea, so tell me what you think.
  • Imagine a short, narrative led game (for example something like Justine in terms of length and pacing) where the difficulty curve is gentle, but the threat is real.

  • It's cheap. Say, £2 or less.

  • It could be an episode in a longer story, and you have to play them in order.

  • Somehow, the game would have to know whether you'd played it before. Now, that would be difficult to implement, but this is just an idea.

  • The catch: the game has permadeath. Real permadeath, as in, once your player character has died, that's it. Story over. Finito. There's no new game button. You get one shot, just like real life.

But anyway, now there's no narrative inconsistency. There's no "that's not how it happened". The drama and tension are higher, because you've got more to lose. Agency is increased, because your choices can have permanent, world-changing outcomes.

Or maybe another way would be that you can play again, but you have to buy another shot, like an arcade game, for say, 50p.

What do people think of this idea? Would it just be frustrating? Or would it make the experience more engaging, and ultimately more rewarding if you make it to the end?

10-10-2014, 08:22 PM

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Real permadeath - a thought experiment - by MrBehemoth - 10-10-2014, 08:22 PM

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