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 poorly. To that end, I am going to examine the concept of mortality in the adventure genre, in order to determine how appropriate and how useful it is in creating a fun and challenging adventure game.
Is death necessary?
The first big question regarding death in adventure gaming is whether or not it is even necessary. Death has been a constant presence from almost the very beginning. With early and popular series like King's Quest and Zork, the possibility of getting the dreaded "game over" at any time has found an early home in the genre. However, does this mean that death is necessary or even appropriate for every single game? At first glance, it almost seems like it does. Games almost always have a chance of "losing" involved. It is also what makes "winning" a satisfying accomplishment. Where is the joy in winning a game if it cannot really be lost? What is the point of Pacman or Frogger, or even Half-Life or Halo, without the possibility of dying? Yet, at the same time, it can be said that there is a constant duality in adventure games: they are a game, but they are also a puzzle, or precisely, a series of puzzles stringing together a story that rewards the player with more plot content as the puzzles are solved. Simple jigsaw puzzles do not, after all, have a "game over". The satisfaction comes from diligently proceeding through the challenge until it is complete, and the only way of "losing" is to give up on the puzzle altogether. Looking at the adventure game genre from this perspective, it becomes clear that dying is not, in fact, a necessity to make a fun and satisfying game. Indeed, as many popular and beloved adventure game titles offer the central character no deaths at all, it seems clear that "game over" in adventure games is a purely optional element.
Sierra versus LucasArts
So, does having the chance to die in an adventure game enhance the fun of playing? This is a far trickier question to answer. Sierra and LucasArts, arguably the most prolific developers of adventure games over the past decades, seem at opposite ends of this debate at the height of the genre's mainstream popularity. Sierra has set an early precedent with all of its "Quest" series that death is an element lurking around nearly every corner. "Save Early, Save Often" is a mantra that the instruction manuals in many Sierra games warn players to listen to and obey—and rightly so, too. On the very first screen of the original King's Quest, King's Quest: Quest for the Crown, all it takes is a careless step off the bridge and you will find yourself in a moat filled with alligators. Fortunately, even if you are so careless right off the bat, you do not have far to retrace your steps by starting the game over again. This is not always the case, however. 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.
Death by Sierra
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. 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. Surprisingly, these same peasants have built their house above what must be a thirty foot pit laden with spikes because your avatar, Graham, falls to his death! The death is almost amusing in its sheer ludicrousness, but it can hardly be said to be fair. 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. While it is true that both characters have a clear sign for "Taxi" that they are expected to use instead, it is an adventure gamer's instinct to explore every corner of the game world. 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. 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. In King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, simply entering a certain inn will cause Graham to overhear some thugs plotting some nefarious scheme and they will capture him, ending the game immediately unless you can solve a completely separate puzzle first. Close to this very inn, there is a desert which is impossible to avoid death without either a little bit of cheating or a lot of luck. There is no map for the area, and the area is comprised of 77 screens of desert. Too many steps in the wrong direction without stumbling across an oasis will result in yet another death for Graham. In this same desert, Graham finds an old and tarnished brass bottle in a cave taken straight from The Arabian Nights. Any gamer who knows their fairy tales will click the hand icon on the bottle, freeing the genie inside. This genie will then trap them inside that selfsame bottle for centuries ending the game instantly. The sole function of the bottle is to get rid of whoever opens it. It is necessary to know this in order to use the bottle to progress through the game, but the only way to discover the bottle's use without cheating is to open the bottle and kill yourself in the process! It may seem a minor price to pay, but it is still clumsy design that a puzzle requires you to kill yourself at least once in order to get the information you need in order to solve it.
At the same time, the multiple deaths in its adventure games have become a trademark of Sierra. Many diehard Sierra fans will undoubtedly remember some of the most outlandish. Death abounds in Leisure Suit Larry, a game series where danger lurks around every corner does not even make thematic sense! Yet, in Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, there is even an unforgettable sequence after a death where Larry's body is disposed of and replaced for when the "Restore" button is pressed. Some fans have even made video compilations compiling death scenes from many different Sierra games that are hilarious to watch. So, as frustrating as these deaths may be, it seems clear that at least a few fans enjoy the dangers.
Lucasarts' free ride
Game designers at Lucasarts are not among this group of fans, however. Even as early as The Secret of Monkey Island, Sierra's rival has established a policy of safe conduct through its adventure games. Many of the instruction manuals in LucasArts games proudly declare this, saying that these games are played in order to have fun, not to get hit over the head whenever a mistake is made. So while it seems like there may be just as much danger in the pirate infested world of Guybrush Threepwood as there is in the fairy tale world of King Graham, Guybrush has a significantly safer journey.
If you do not mind the absence of a way of "losing" the game, this approach makes a lot of sense. It certainly cannot be said that LucasArts games are not challenging, nor can it be said that beating them carries no sense of satisfaction. Clearly, this is the way the game designers at LucasArts themselves have seen it as they continue to mock Sierra's death policy even in mid game. In a scene from The Curse of Monkey Island, Guybrush is believed to be dead by the characters around him. When someone comments to the fact that, "Funny, I didn't think you could die in LucasArts adventure game", another responds, "well maybe they're trying something different." Even the game's credits mockingly roll as Guybrush repeatedly calls out that he is not, in fact, dead.
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. Day of the Tentacle and the Monkey Island series are mostly comedy, and so the lack of death does not seem out of place. In more serious games, such as Full Throttle, a well placed death risk may actually enhance the tension. The game's protagonist, Ben, seems to live a charmed life. He can escape from a security guard in a major corporation's head office as many times as it takes for you to solve the puzzle and the guard will never be the wiser. He can run around in a protective suit on fire forever and the suit never fails. Being hit repeatedly with a chainsaw while on a moving motorcycle will cause no more than a few bumps and scrapes and a momentary moment of irritation. I am not arguing that each of these scenes necessarily needed a "Reload" screen to pop up, but it definitely takes me out of the illusion of danger I am supposed to feel in the game. The most illusion shattering moment for me is when Ben is being tortured by a rival biker gang with ropes tied to his limbs and then pulled in different directions by motorcycles. It is a dialog puzzle, and for each wrong answer Ben gives he gets hurt. However, the fact of the matter is that Ben can give as many wrong answers as the player likes and he will still be just fine. It is a scene that is supposed to be fraught with a feeling of real peril for the game's hero, but the absolute knowledge you have that he is in complete safety makes the scene lack real power and believability. To be fair, Full Throttle actually reneges LucasArts' own death policy during the climax. In the final scene, Ben has to complete a sequence of puzzles, each of which has a time limit or the game is over. The sequence is an ideal example of how risk can enhance a dynamic scene. The time limit the puzzles have is fair, but brief, and gives the player a feel of working against the clock to save Ben and his friends. If the worst happens, you do not have to worry about whether you have saved the game, as it wisely gives you another chance starting at the beginning of the puzzle you have just lost while solving.
Is a compromise possible?
The solution for gamers like myself who are bothered by both the excessive death in Sierra and the free ride in Lucasarts provides seems to be a compromise between these extremes. Both developers have created games that satisfy this: Sierra's Gabriel Knight, Sins of the Fathers and LucasArts' Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis are examples. In both of these games, there are several opportunities to die, but they come up rarely and there is almost always sufficient warning that the player is heading into real danger so to remember to save the game. If the player playing Indy does not save the game before trying to beat up that huge Nazi named Arnold and then dies, is not the player at fault? On the other hand, when Indy is exploring his college and Gabriel is walking around Jackson Square, is the player right to expect not to have any chance of them suddenly making a wrong move and meeting an untimely death? These are both safe places with no feeling of tension, where a random death will feel completely out of place. Likewise, when Indy is boarding a Nazi submarine and Gabriel is infiltrating a voodoo crime family's inner sanctum, there is no feeling of safety or security in the knowledge that these characters are protected by the gaming philosophy of the designers. The scenes are given real tension, which adds to the experience.
I am not wishing that LucasArts or Sierra would have made their games differently. I am too nostalgic a person to want these games to be any different from how they are. However, I feel that, for those who design adventure games today, it is important to look back on past examples to recognize which elements have enhanced the experience and which have detracted it. The risk of death is an important question any developer designing a game needs to take into account. For some, excessive deaths can add to the entertainment value of the whole experience. For others, they simply get in the way of the puzzle solving. Regardless of which extreme you prefer, there is a lot to be learned by replaying the classics and remembering just how you feel when the game asks if you want to load, quit, or just up and start the whole game all over again!