It’s tense frustration, really; at best, anxiety. The feeling is familiar to most people who have played a single-player computer RPG recently. Leading your party down a dark and mysterious cavern, your finger is poised over F2 or F5 or whatever button quicksaves. Every so often, you tap the button, watch a progress bar move, the action pauses for a moment, and then you get back to the tunnel. Suddenly, a spike thrusts up from the floor. Your wizard is dead. So it’s F3 or F7, a longer pause – “LOADING” emblazoned on the screen – a hang in the music, and then the wizard’s alive again, a few feet farther back. Perhaps you’re wondering how your versions of the indomitable Conan, Gandalf and Robin of Locksley started dying faster than Dirk the Daring. More likely, though, you’re just muttering about why developers can’t find a way to speed up quickloading. It’s supposed to be quick, after all.
Consider the following pieces of sage advice. IGN.com warns Oblivion players: “You’ll want to save a lot … since things can quickly go wrong. The game occasionally autosaves, but you’ll need to stay conscious to save as often as possible.” UHS’s fourth general hint for Baldur’s Gate II cries, “SAVE OFTEN! You’ll probably die quite a bit.” The definitive BGII walkthrough on GameFAQs elaborates that there are three times the player should save: when you win a battle, when you rest and “everywhere else.” After all, “you never know when you will go to a new area, have your best warrior charmed, and have half your party killed.” To be safe, use 10 save slots! The same warnings abound for Fallout 1 and 2, or for any other contemporary Western cRPG .
This “hardcore” aspect of Western RPGs is often treated as a badge of honor, as though the frequency of death is equated with challenge. Games with low death rates coddle the player; they invite “newbies” and “idiots” and “crybabies” whose presence in the target demographic will surely lead to a dumbing down of the game’s story and gameplay. Killing the player ensures consequences for failure; it adds tension; it ensures that combat does not become the sort of mindless grind endemic to Japanese RPGs and MMOGs. Or so the theory goes.
In fact, this theory doesn’t hold water. When the only consequence of failure is death, and death is instantly undone by loading a saved game, failure becomes nothing more than a minor, meaningless inconvenience.
“Death is Different”
Outside of computer games, it is usually taken for granted that death is the ultimate sanction. In the beginning, RPGs took this lesson to heart: For pen and paper (P&P) games, death was rare and seldom “true” (raising or resurrection was usually just around the corner), and penalties more often took the form of attribute reductions, broken items, curses and the like. This is still true for P&P games today; the 3.5 Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons DM Manual describes the death of the entire party as “rare” and notes that it should be used to create new gameplay opportunities, such as having a band of NPCs revive the party and place the heroes in their debt, or letting the players roll temporary characters to retrieve their principal team’s bodies for resurrection. Only in the extremely rare case should the PCs’ adventure end for good.
A good DM would usually find a way to penalize a player for his failure without killing him; after all, killing too many characters often left a DM without anyone to play with. So, when Eric the Brave failed at his roll to jump across a chasm, usually he would end up with broken legs (how will we get him out?) or trapped in a scorpion den (can he fend them off until rescued?) or something of the sort.
This fit with the pulp adventure stories that RPGs were trying to replicate. Heroes almost never die in fantasy stories, especially not in mundane circumstances. Failure and setbacks are common, but they lead to exciting new situations, not the story’s end. Indiana Jones doesn’t die when he misses a jump; he scrambles against the pit’s edge and pulls himself up by a vine, in a movie-defining scene.
This perspective of death as a storytelling tool did not make it into early videogames. Story was irrelevant to Pong and Space Invaders; lives were tokens, and running out of them set the player back to the start and reset his score. It is no surprise that the earliest cRPGs – games like dnd and dungeon – derived their gameplay from arcade contemporaries even while taking their names and settings from their P&P forebears. These games were about finishing levels or racking up a high score; it only made sense, then, that the player should die often, as he did in other electronic games, and that he should start over when that happened.
As cRPGs moved from obstacle-filled mazes to, well, more complicated obstacle-filled mazes, players began to become as interested in what came next as what was happening now. Ultima IV and Wasteland tried to bring a world to life and introduced a range of setbacks for players, such as losing virtue, acquiring an STD or having a party member die. Since both games limited how saves worked (both in where you could save and in how many saves you could keep), players were expected to play through such losses, and they usually did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in Ultima IV, which pushed story especially to the fore, death was transitory: The player was immediately revived (back at the start of the game, reflecting the lingering “restart at death” model), though he lost reagents and gold. The designers realized that the more the player cared about his characters, the less justifiable killing them would be. Nevertheless, most RPGs (AD&D “Goldbox” games, Might & Magic, Wizardry, etc.) continued to use death as the primary penalty.
As stories became more complex, it became increasingly difficult to kill off party members (who were now characters, not merely faceless soldiers) or to justify automatic resurrection. At the same time, players became less tolerant of replaying the same areas over and over again, especially when those areas were mazes they had already solved filled with obstacles they had already overcome. Suddenly, none of the classic approaches to death and resurrection were viable.
Designers were faced with a twofold challenge. First, they had to fit player failure into increasingly complex, fixed stories. The solution was to make failure independent of the story – you could die as often as you liked. The second problem was figuring out how to penalize failure without requiring the player to replay substantial areas. Around the same time, LucasArts, faced with a similar conundrum in the adventure game genre, removed death entirely. But RPG designers could not give up killing the player, in part because cheating death is such an integral part of fantasy stories. Instead, they relied on saving. If the player saved his game regularly, death would not force him to replay much. And if death ended the game, failure didn’t cause any story problems because restoring a saved game “undid” the death and reset the story.
The problem is, this approach made a shambles of a game’s narrative, as the flow was routinely interrupted with loading and saving screens, and the hero went from Indiana Jones gumption to Pitfall Harry fragility. Even worse was what saving did to game difficulty.
The more often the game killed the player, the more often a savvy player would save. If a dungeon had deathtraps in every hall, the player would save at every corner. If a critical hit from an average foe could kill the hero, the player would save before every battle – after every round, if the game let him! While console games rely on “save points,” these are indefensibly restrictive on computers, especially when a player wants to quit and end his session.
Saving and killing form a vicious cycle. The more the player saves, the more reasonable it seems to kill him. Small wonder that RPGs introduced a “quicksave” button to minimize the player’s hassle. Smaller wonder still that the games have added the suggestion “Quicksave often – you could die at any time!” Can you imagine a sports game warning, “Quicksave often – the opponent might score!” or a strategy game suggesting, “Save before and after every battle to make sure your army never suffers defeat!”
Death, which began as the ultimate, game-ending penalty, is now nothing more than a hassle that lasts only as long as a game’s loading time. Meanwhile, because players keep a book of dozens of saves for even a single dungeon, lesser penalties – such as injuries or broken items – are quickloaded away just as deaths are. The save-load mentality dictates that punishments are transitory, not lasting. As a result, few RPGs today would ever dream of permanently lowering a character’s strength or taking two levels from him, as older games often did. Why bother, anyway, when it will be quickloaded away?
It’s no longer possible to play “hardcore” – without frequent saving and loading – even if you wanted to. Because designers build their games around the “average” player, they will include random deathtraps or high critical hits or overpowered charm spells with the expectation that the player will save to avoid them. Likewise, later encounters will be structured with the expectation of successfully overcoming earlier ones, because players will replay until they emerge unscathed. The cascade effect from not reloading early on can therefore be crippling down the line. This is especially true of NPC interactions, where it is often critically important to pick the “best” route to unlock quests later in the game or obtain status increases necessary for subsequent battles. Ultimately, even a “hardcore” player can swiftly become habituated to quicksaving.
Perversely, then, the higher the likelihood of death, the lower the tension, because the player will increase his save frequency to compensate for more deaths and will thus have less at stake when his player is in harm’s way. Once you’re in the coils of the save-kill cycle, there is a total absence of dramatic or even situational tension. In its place is rather unpleasant anxiety. Absent, too, are consequences for the character, who never suffers anything that is not immediately undone. What remains is merely the fear of loading delays, under which only the player suffers.
Breaking the Cycle
Lamentably, the only escape designers seem to see is imitation of console RPG sensibility: namely, sharply reducing the difficulty of combat except against “bosses.” This “solution” solves nothing; doing away with non-consequential failure by removing failure itself is like cutting off your nose to get rid of a pimple. Removing failure not only takes most of the fun out of success, it takes out the fun of failure itself. As researchers like Niklas Rajava explained in a paper
two years ago, players can enjoy losing almost as much as they enjoy winning, under the right circumstances. Rajava found that interactive failure (where failure led to continued gameplay) was pleasurable, while passive failure (where failure was outside player control or ended his play) was unpleasant.
The better solution, then, is to return death to its rightful place as an infrequent punishment and to reintroduce the host of other sanctions once familiar to roleplayers. Indeed, the unglamorous Rogue-like subgenre of cRPGs, although featuring frequent deaths, includes a wide array of non-lethal punishments, ranging from destroyed items to mutations. The fun of Rogue-likes is recovering from these setbacks and – as the D&D manual suggests – finding the gameplay opportunities within them.
Promising independent RPGs, such as Mount & Blade and Age of Decadence, are making significant steps in this direction. Losing in battle means being robbed or perhaps taken captive, but does not end the game.
Here are five basic principles to help fix the save-load dilemma:
1. The player should never be expected to save except when ending his play session.
2. The player should receive significant long-lasting penalties much more frequently than he should die. Small permanent penalties should be frequent and essentially unavoidable (but seldom imposed due to pure chance), to accustom the player to weathering setbacks rather than undoing them.
3. The player should never die (or receive another substantial penalty) for anything other than an elected risk. That means it should be possible for a player to see when he is getting in over his head, there should almost always be a way to get out of a potentially deadly situation, and random chance should have little influence in dying.
4. Accordingly, it should be possible for combat to end some way other than every enemy or every party member dying. Retreat should be reintroduced as a viable strategic option with more upside than reloading. Furthermore, the player (and the enemy) should be able to negotiate or surrender when doing so is plausible.
5. Failure should create possibilities rather than merely foreclose them.
Implementing these suggestions is, of course, vastly more difficult than merely declaring them. After all, it has taken Rogue-like games decades to achieve their present complexity. But as sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto and The Sims thrive, and mainstream RPGs like Bioware’s promise increasingly responsive environments, rethinking the save-kill paradigm not only makes sense in terms of story and gameplay, it also serves the bottom line. For perhaps the first time ever, RPGs have the technology, budgets and experienced designers capable of capturing the thrill, adventure, setbacks and reversals of classic fantasy stories. That is the fun of fantasy. Carpe diem. After all, no one ever dreamed of quicksaving.
Marty O’Hale has written stories for a number of computer and videogames, primarily roleplaying and strategy games. He has also published a number of works of fiction. Currently, Marty’s career is in the law.