Death in adventure games
First posted on 01 January 2009. Last updated on 23 May 2010.
There is much debate as to what makes for the best sort of experience in adventure games. It is hard to pin down just what makes certain games fun and others frustrating. What makes a puzzle too simple or too complex? When does the story or dialog amount to be too much or too little? Sometimes, it is best to look at individual facets of the genre and examine what some games do well and others do…
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Feeling nostalgic, I looked up this old article of mine and was amused to find a whole mess of nitpicks in the comments section. Obviously everyone has their own way of looking at things. Actually I rather like the discussion this seems to have created. Allow me to respond in kind.
"You doubt incorrectly. Who the hell plays an adventure game (or, well, any game with a save feature) for a good, long time without saving?"
Well, me for one. Many people I talked about games with for others. And yes, some of them rued not saving word documents as well. Perhaps it was wrong to say that EVERYONE has done it, but it wasn't an uncommon occurrence. In my circle, at least.
"There are TWO holes, not exactly many. And they're clearly visible and easy to avoid. Yes, they shouldn't be there in the first place, but saying death from falling into one is impossible to predict is ridiculous."
Two huge holes in the floor of a place people actively live in is quite a lot in my opinion. If we're talking about some other things then, yes, the number two wouldn't classify in my mind as "many". This is kind of a semantic argument, though. We clearly have different expectations of what is to be expected in a game, though. I could imagine Graham tripping a little and maybe getting hurt, but falling to his doom? Where did he fall, exactly? The house doesn't have any indication of having a basement. Did these people build their house over a huge pit? Why?
"It's not unreasonable to suppose wandering into traffic might result in your death. In The Dagger of Amon Ra, you're even told to look both ways before crossing the street."
And if there was a way to make Laura Bow look both ways I would have done so. I agree that it's not unreasonable to suppose that wandering into traffic could kill someone. I also think it's not unreasonable to suppose the character I'm controlling can do something as simple as crossing a street without dying. I'm not asking them to jump over a pit of fire or do some heroic task. I myself have crossed many a busy street, and I sit here alive today.
"A fair point except that there actually IS an important location across the street in The Dagger of Amon Ra."
There is? It's been a little while since I've played the game, but the only city locations I remember were only accessible by cab. I could be wrong, though. What was across the street?
"The cat is easy to spot and avoid. Since you have an adversarial relation with the cat, it's not unreasonable to suppose you shouldn't get too close to it when going downstairs."
This is another example of differing expectations. I don't feel it's much to ask of my character that they not be killed by an ordinary cat. The cat doesn't even seem to do anything but just sit there hoping your character trips over it. Yes, the cat hates you. But it's also just a freaking cat.
"Well, I actually can't argue with anything you bring up in this paragraph. King's Quest V is exceptionally bad in this regard."
Oh good! We agree on something!
"Death abounds in Leisure Suit Larry, a game series where danger lurks around every corner"
"This is quite an exaggeration."
If we were talking about a game where a knight is questing in a dangerous fantasy world, or where a policeman is hunting a killer, or where a young woman is at an old mansion with a serial killer, then I would fully agree that the number of deaths in LSL would possibly not qualify the phrase "death abounds". But we're talking about a normal guy just trying to get laid and there's at least fourteen ways to die along the way. That feels like a lot in a relatively normal world.
This was fun. Thanks for reading the article!
OK, I'm going to go out on a limb and disagree with the other commenters here.
"I doubt there is a single adventure game veteran out there playing a Sierra adventure game who is unfamiliar with the crushing feeling of realizing that the game has not been saved for a good, long time as the infamous 'Reload, Restart, Quit' screen pops up."
You doubt incorrectly. Who the hell plays an adventure game (or, well, any game with a save feature) for a good, long time without saving? Even if you're playing a Lucas-style game, you should save every so often in case of a power outage. That's why you save a Word document every so often for instance as anyone who's had a computer for that long knows.
"Having to play the exact same game segments over again because of a little bit of carelessness is rarely a fun experience. It may be argued that it is the player's own fault by not following the Sierra mantra, but this is not always a fair accusation."
Perhaps not ALWAYS, but you should still save your game every so often no matter what for the reason I mentioned earlier if nothing else.
"The fact is that many of the deaths in these games are impossible to predict. In King's Quest: Quest for the Crown, there is a peasant cottage with very friendly people inside—not the sort of place that you feel the instinctive urge to save the game out of a sense of danger, no? Yet, take a single misstep in that house (as I have done so many years ago) and you may step into any of the many holes in the dilapidated floor."
There are TWO holes, not exactly many. And they're clearly visible and easy to avoid. Yes, they shouldn't be there in the first place, but saying death from falling into one is impossible to predict is ridiculous.
"Similar deaths abound in many other Sierra games. Try to explore the city streets in either Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards or The Dagger of Amon Ra: A Laura Bow Mystery and your character will be hit and instantly killed by a speeding automobile."
It's not unreasonable to suppose wandering into traffic might result in your death. In The Dagger of Amon Ra, you're even told to look both ways before crossing the street.
"From the player's perspective, there may just be an important location across the street. Rather than simply telling you that there is not, the game brutally kills you and makes you feel like you have lost for simply being the inquisitive gamer you have been trained to be."
A fair point except that there actually IS an important location across the street in The Dagger of Amon Ra.
"In King's Quest III: To Heir is Human, the game will occasionally put a malicious cat on a long stairway. Even if you happen to notice the cat, your avatar, Gwydion, will not and will trip over it if you descend and kills himself off immediately."
The cat is easy to spot and avoid. Since you have an adversarial relation with the cat, it's not unreasonable to suppose you shouldn't get too close to it when going downstairs.
"In King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!..."
Well, I actually can't argue with anything you bring up in this paragraph. King's Quest V is exceptionally bad in this regard.
"Death abounds in Leisure Suit Larry, a game series where danger lurks around every corner"
This is quite an exaggeration.
"As much as I find myself inclined more towards LucaAarts non-aggression policy towards its games' protagonists, there are times it can be argued that this is taken a bit too far. This is because what frequently makes tense situations exciting and exciting scenes tense is the threat of real danger."
I agree with you there. One thing I noticed from playing Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle is that the latter didn't quite capture the thrill of danger the former did.
"Is a compromise possible?"
Definitely. Although I don't think death is that excessive in most Sierra games, something like what Mark Newheiser mentioned would probably be agreeable to (nearly) everyone. Obviously, death without warning is unacceptable as is requiring the player to die to learn something. I don't think anyone would object to an "undo" feature or to death is such a feature existed.
Is Death Necessary? If only it weren't! But that's in life. This is adventure gaming. I prefer the LucasArts ban on dying to the Sierra "dying is fun" approach, but the real "drama" in any adventure is whether you can solve it, not whether you have to backtrack however many times or however far. Myst was the very first adventure I played and I was genuinely upset when I guessed wrong in the end and got trapped in that linking book -- a fate actually worse than death and more akin to hell. But by the time I'd gotten to Myst: Exile, I didn't mind "dying" (even being clubbed over the head) a half dozen times before I finally stumbled my way to game's end. What mattered to me was finishing the game. Without challenging puzzles there is no drama in an adventure game. Dying in a game only annoys you or slows you down. Getting hopelessly stuck on a puzzle is the real "game over." Unless you consult a walkthrough, in which case you will have "surrendered" to the game and will never be able to claim to have won it. In fact, the only way to "lose" any adventure game is to cheat your way to the finish.
I was a Sierra-style defender for a long, long time. It's not easy. Everyone these days has fond memories of Lucasarts games, but most Sierra games are thought of as punch lines. Sierra's best are hardly even remembered, eclipsed by random deaths and cat mustaches.
That said, in a recent replay of QfG3 I found that my ability to defend them utterly failed. I love the QfG games. As a gamer for over 20 years, they're without a doubt my all-time favorite series. But it's possible to miss something in the first half hour of the game which will force a loss in the last five minutes.
That's some crappy design, folks. No matter what you think of death as a motivating factor.
I think he happy medium is found in a game called Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist. In it death could happen randomly and unexpectedly but every time you had a rewind button that literally rewound the game so you could see the (usually humorous) death in reverse. The player was encouraged to try anything and everything, even if it might kill them, just so they saw all the animations that the game makers created.
I definitely think you should be able to die in adventure games, if only because the lack of death tends to make things ridiculous during the more "tense" sequences. You end up with situations where the game designer has to think up more and more convoluted reasons why the bad guy won't actually kill you. The solution as i see it is to allow death, and allow it often, but have an undo feature to let you get right back to before you made the decision. No-one wants to do the same puzzle twice.
My own thoughts on death in adventure games can be summed up in a couple principles that even apply across genres: Firstly, you shouldn't have to die to be able to solve a puzzle, and you should have some fair warning before you're killed. Any time you die it should be your own fault, a perfect player ought to never die. And secondly, the only time you should need to save your game is when you quit at the end of the day, after dying you should be brought back to a convenient autosave or simply given the option to retry a sequence.
The first point was originally made by Ron Gilbert in his classic essay on why adventure games suck, and echoed by Scott Miller in his blog, game matters. Choose Your Own Adventure books and Adventure Games frequently violate this principle by having death occur almost at random as part of the gameplay, but I think the general principle is still a solid one. And at the very least, the second point still holds true (also brought up by both game designers), forcing the player to make save games all the time to prepare for the unexpected just isn't fun. A game should be a challenge in and of itself, not because you're forced to backtrack and repeat the same section over and over again.
You can kill the player if you want to, but it needs to feel fair, and it shouldn't force you to repeat hours of gameplay.
I think he has a point. I've been playing these games for a while, and I admit that I do relish the idea when I start a game that I don't have to be tense the whole time thinking something is going to come up behind me and cut my head off because I choose to step to the left rather than to the right. However, I think it's reasonable not to throw out death all together.
I think the first comment's point though, is irrelevant to the gaming industry. True, it was easier and nicer back in the day to make various deaths such that a variety could form and the game would cease to be boring, however, we DON'T use floppy disks anymore, and we tend to pride ourselves today on how much memory is on our computers to run more complex tasks. By saying that providing various deaths is a way to be more interesting, you're also implying that writers should take the simple and easy way out by making small death sequences for the same puzzle, instead of trying to create more interesting puzzles with the new-found memory we seem to suddenly possess. We should never fall to the theory of whatever is less creative and quicker. The whole point of games is to be new, exciting and exceptionally creative; that's what makes a good adventure game.
The best solution to the dying problem is actually the one that shows up in Full Throttle. Let the player die, then restart them just before they made the fatal mistake. You get all the humor and pathos of death without the eye-popping frustration of realizing just how long ago you saved.
I feel probably the best use of death in an adventure game would be the original Broken Sword. It's always made very obvious when you're getting yourself into something dangerous, the game almost always gives you a sporting amount of warning, usually building up tension via dialogue and musical cues so you're kept alert and less likely to blunder into a trap, and (perhaps deliberately) the death puzzles are just a little easier than all the other puzzles in the game, so anyone who's got far enough to face them is probably well enough into the right deductive mindset, for the game's particular style of puzzle design, to stand a very good chance of surviving first time, so the old save-restore cycle is usually avoided by all but the least alert players. It's also always obvious and understandable what the danger was should one actually fail and need to do it again, rather than Sierra-style, utterly unpredictable "gotchas," and anyone who does get killed will usually quite forgive the game for having been sportsmanlike and beaten them fairly, rather than get annoyed at being sucker-punched. Also unlike Sierra games, Broken Sword is very sparing in its use of death scenes, using them only when appropriate to raise the tension of the plot and always treating them as significant, cinematically gripping, dramatic events, rather than a mere off-the-cuff dismissal back to the load screen.
It should be said, however, that games from the really old days (pre-CDROM, roughly, for reasons that will become obvious) that made extremely liberal use of deathtraps did have one compelling reason to do so: it was a good way of extending gameplay while adding minimal additional content, thus minimising the already obscene number of floppies the user would usually have to juggle to play the damn thing. I would venture to suggest that humorous (or even just surprising) deaths are better than, though perhaps not quite as efficient as the other traditional method of extending play without squandering additional memory: identical-room mazes, which have almost always been despised. At least the addition of many varied ways to get killed, which could easily increase the time spent playing any given area with any given objects by an order of magnitude, provided some action and variety, whereas mazes usually offered sheer boring repetition and monotony.