Dying in a videogame is rarely productive. Usually when it happens, my first thought is a small panic, something like “oh god, how long ago did I save? How much of this stuff am I going to have to just repeat?” These frustrating periods of repetitive, uninspiring play usually seem to function as a punishment for not playing well enough, not making the right choices. In fact, when I started playing Planescape, I didn’t even give myself a chance to die. Out of fear of waking up with none of my cash or equipment, I just reloaded my most recent save the first few times I got myself into a lethal pickle.
For a game that is so unforgiving, where one wrong move like killing a seemingly troublesome NPC or misplacing or selling a fairly nondescript item can completely eliminate the possibility of completing a quest, I was surprised when, the first time I actually gave myself a chance to “die,” that all of my items, money and experience remained intact. Well of course, since the protagonist of Planescape carries the nickname “The Deathless One,” there are few situations that result in you truly losing progress throughout the entire game. Usually you just wake up next to one of the many characters capable of sewing you back up after a particularly bad scrape.
In hindsight, this revelation was overwhelmingly logical, but it was so at odds with how most strategy or RPG games regulate play and progression that it surprised me. I started playing more experimentally after that point, exploring further, taking risks. And likewise, I started progressing through the storyline and sidequests faster, even though I would get “killed” fairly regularly. Of course, these not-quite-deaths are reiterations of the main character’s core problem, and they represent failure in a much different way than game death usually does. Try as he might, he can’t die, and is looking for the answer to how he can end his torturous immortality.
“Permadeath,” where character death or some other form of failure makes the current game unplayable or completely wipes all progress made under the character currently in play, has experienced a revival in both experimental games and re-treads of the roguelike genre. Of course, the earliest arcade games also offered a sort of permadeath in that death came quickly and easily to all but the most skilled players to take in the maximum number of quarters, and encourage fast-paced, performative and competitive play. As games moved more towards being things that we engaged with for long periods, usually by ourselves, on our own home consoles or PCs, the way game overs were typically handled changed to a penalty to score or progress, but not a complete wiping of the slate.
While I’ve enjoyed some games with permadeath, like SanctuaryRPG, I don’t think it’s particularly interesting as a return to more “hardcore” styles of play (a concept which is much more tied into the social interactions surrounding games than what any of these games actually do) nor is necessarily an interesting way for games to reflect on or handle the concept of death more “realistically.” When it comes down to it, a game like Planescape has far more meaningful things to say about the nature of death when you aren’t dying, rather than something like Passage which merely reiterates its inevitability and irreversibility (trust me, I know) or a roguelike simply using permanent death to change the rhythm of play and strategies involved.
Two games have recently had me thinking more about what death means in games, and how to use it in more interesting ways. Survive! Mola Mola is a free (albeit ad-ridden) mobile game where you play as an infinite series of hopelessly delicate ocean sunfish, for whom peril lurks behind each rock, every jellyfish, and yes, even bubbles. In Long Live the Queen you are tasked with helping an equally unlucky princess survive the political intrigue and everyday dangers leading up to her coronation in a year’s time. In both, death comes rapid-fire, and unpredictably. However, neither fits the model of “revival with penalty” vs “permadeath” that most games can be sorted into.
Survive! Mola Mola fits unashamedly in to the mobile game genre of “touch a thing and numbers pleasingly go up.” You start as a just-hatched Sugar Ball and can ascend to the heights of weight classes like Young Man, Non-Celebrity, and Aquarium King by going on adventures and tapping food. However, unlike most of these number-raising games, there’s an overwhelming multitude of ways for your growth to be cut short. Fortunately, the slate isn’t wiped blank. For each new death you discover, you accrue points for unlocking new foods and adventures (which are also new ways to die) and a percentage bonus to how fast you gain weight. The effect is cumulative. While the first few times you dodge death seem like a blessing, I eventually found myself frustrated that I wasn’t dying more so that I could progress faster. It ends up creating the effect of thousands of imperfect mola mola sacrificing themselves so that an eventual path can be cleared for one to grow majestically large.
Long Live the Queen is another raising sim that offers a branching storyline based on what stats (from a very, very long list) you grow and which you neglect. Each statistic represents a form of knowledge the princess Elodie needs to rule the kingdom effectively or get out of potential scrapes. The game also has a function that allows you to see every point in the narrative where you pass or fail a “test,” which can be as simple as not seeming clueless in a conversation or as dire as curing yourself of an attempted poisoning. While most failures don’t lead to an instant death, several successive ones, or failing at an important junction can lead you down that path.
It quickly becomes clear that there is no perfect way to manage Elodie’s education. There are so many stats that any attempt to balance them all will result in her being too much of a generalist to survive any of the more difficult situations, and focusing on one set of skills, such as military affairs, will inevitably lead to Elodie looking like a dunce in social situations, and vice versa. Observing and learning from failure, learning which failures are tolerable and which aren’t through bungling situations and dying over and over is how you eventually succeed in Long Live the Queen. You may be a royal embarrassment, but at least you’re alive… this time.
Both of these games use death as more than just a setback or an excuse to wipe the slate clean. In Survive! Mola Mola and Long Live the Queen, death and failure end up representing a certain type of progress. By confounding the expected function of death in games, they also confound ideas of playing a game skilfully or perfectly. Whereas many games offer an achievement or hidden cutscene for players that execute a playthrough with no game overs, in these games you must die to progress, and in some cases access all parts of the story. What makes a “perfect” playthrough of Survive! Mola Mola, or Long Live the Queen? Rather than feeling like an achievement or reward, a long period of play in either of these games without dying can feel stifling and incomplete. While neither meditate on any big questions about what it means to die in the way Planescape does, their unconventional use of death as a mechanic offer alternatives to permadeath as the be all end all way to make death recursive or interesting in gaming.