In the ancient Before Times (so, you know, two years ago), I wrote a column all about the different mechanics that hit you when you die. Today, though, I want to take a different tactic and ask a more philosophical question: Why do you get hit with penalties when your character’s lifeless body slumps to the ground or your spaceship detonates into a cold, uncaring vacuum?
Obviously, we don’t really think about this much because in some ways it’s almost a tautology. Why do you get hit with a penalty when you die? Because you died. Dying is supposed to not be super great and should be something that you avoid. But there’s a value in examining these things in more detail beyond the obvious elements, and while it’s obvious something should happen when your health hits zero, the exact penalties reflect a philosophy of design. So let’s take a look not at the what but the why of these penalties.
1. To create risk
While I’ve said before that part of me liked Star Trek Online’s complete lack of a death penalty at launch, well… it did sort of remove any sense of peril from any mission, you know? You died or lived, but it didn’t really matter. Adding in a penalty from dying means that you are actually at risk, that things will get harder or worse if you die. That is pretty important when you’re playing a game.
2. To bleed out resources
Gear durability is a popular death mechanic for several games. You die, your gear takes extra damage and you have to repair it. Why? Because that helps take currency out of your pocket. You don’t really need to have a big durability hit in Final Fantasy XIV, but that’s also one of the ways that the game bleeds gil out of you slowly over the long term, and since most games have a steady and unlimited source of income without also having a steady and unlimited form of required payments, it’s necessary to actually take some resources out of circulation somehow.
That having been said, most of these bits of resource bleed don’t actually work very well; when was the last time you were actually worried about repair costs? I’m guessing it has been a while.
3. To slow down the game
Dying in Final Fantasy XI meant one of two things. Either you went back to your home point and spent the time needed getting back to where you died, which could often take quite a while, or you got someone to raise you… at which point you spent ten minutes weakened and unable to do much of anything. If you had bound close enough, sometimes it was much faster to just run back than bother with waiting through resurrection sickness.
This served a natural function of slowing the game down, forcing you to take more time. And, as mentioned before, slowing the game down isn’t the same as having more content… but it does lengthen the content that’s already there.
4. To punish bad play
Keep standing in the bad? Now you’re dead and you’re not doing anything at all. Next time, get out of the bad. It’s a pretty simple reward loop, but in games with few combat raising options it can mean spending an entire fight doing nothing. Heck, in some fights in FFXIV the player who keeps dropping to every mechanic is just left dead instead of getting MP wasted on raising them. It’s saving everyone time.
5. To discourage behaviors
Did you just run straight into a pack of enemies in World of Warcraft in a dungeon without the tank? Well, don’t do that. Now you’re dead. Death serves as a moment to reflect and realize that perhaps you shouldn’t have done something because you know what happens and it’s not pleasant.
6. To mandate other behaviors
If you notice that you’re quite likely going to die every time you try to solo something of reasonable level in EverQuest, you’re going to need to form a party. It encourages you to find other people and form a group to take on this challenge. Heck, the odds are that if you’re dying repeatedly in a quest in WoW, you should be doing something other than just “going to fight the target guy.” What exactly you should be doing is variable, but the point is that the killing you encourages you to do something else.
7. To add danger
This one is a bit more vague because it’s primarily about giving you a sense that you do need to be paying attention to the game and failing to do so might result in a penalty. It makes you cognizant of the texture of your decisions in a wider sense. Rather than the immediate sense of risk of losing something, this is the larger sense that a zone can be made more dangerous or less by how harsh your penalties will be when you die and how readily death awaits you.
8. To enhance verisimilitude
Again, I hate to pick on STO, but the fact of the matter is that “blowing up the ship” is a major element in every single story when it happens. It’s kind of weird that you can really brute-force some tasks by just flying forward and dying repeatedly but whittling down the enemies you’re facing each time. The appearance and imitation of being real! It matters, at least insofar as no one really feels great about winning by repeated doom runs.
9. To create blocks
A high-level area that you can’t get through alive is going to create a block. It’s going to force you to either find away around that area or force you to wait until you’re higher level in order to pass through it. In this way, death (or the fear of death) creates a steady hand guiding you in a direction and forcing you to do certain things to avoid death.
It doesn’t even have to be high-level enemies, either. Imagine, for a moment, that you need to get to an objective in WoW Classic. But the objective in question is far below you. Jumping down will kill you. Thus, even if you have the option to jump down, you need to hold back and consider the situation and find an actual path, forcing you to actually fight things… or if you can slow your falling speed, you’ll still have to find a path back up in order to succeed.
10. To explore ludonarrative
You notice how a lot of these examples create either explicit or implicit stories in them? That’s for good reason. If you have to do things to avoid death, that means you’re developing a ludonarrative during your play. If you do die and it sets you into an unusual situation, that’s another ludonarrative to explore, sometimes creating a whole new adventure as you work to compensate for what you lost just a few moments ago.
Of course, that ludonarrative may not actually be worth the cost to the play experience. The amount of weird lengths I went to in FFXI to avoid death were interesting at the time, but I’d much prefer to play games wherein I can just play instead of having to shape a lot of unpleasant time anxiously avoiding doom. But hey, the point was reasons, not agreement.