Gamers are good at making design choices seem like the end of the world. Very rarely is it, really. Though in one instance over these last six months, one game has brought to the market (though not the video game market) a design choice that is the end of a world as we know it. Over and over again.
I speak, of course, about Risk Legacy, the latest in a long string of Risk variants that Hasbro’s put out over the years. Most of these variants have been licensing affairs with a different map and some special rules to fit the property: Lord of the Rings Risk, Halo Risk, and so on. Legacy is not. Legacy is a game in which every game played will have lasting effects on every future game played with that Legacy set. It’s a board game with some unmistakable borrowings from video games, where persistent progress is pretty normal, but also some really ambitious – some would even say audacious – features that mean that the game is going to change. Whether you like it or not.
Risk Legacy is controversial because it has consequences.
What Risk Legacy does is such a paradigm shift, in many ways, for board games that it’s easy to forget that what it does – the essence of it – has relevance for other kinds of games, too. Not in nearly the same way, to be sure: after all, saving a map’s status is child’s play for video games, and some games have done that kind of thing. Heck, that’s what Minecraft‘s all about.
To be sure, I don’t think it’s the benefits that can carry across multiple games of Risk Legacy that have some gamers up in arms. It’s the penalties. It’s the fact that particularly battered territories could become forever more difficult to hold or take. It’s the fact that some cards have multiple possible effects, but what effect will be in play ever again must be chosen the first time. Apparently, the game occasionally tells you to tear up a card and throw it away. Which is just…it hurts a little, inside.
It occurred to me that in some ways Risk Legacy is like permadeath. I mean, that’s the most comparable thing I can think of in the video game world. I’d wager that most gamers – the majority – dislike the prospect of permadeath. I know there are some that like the idea, and for good reason: I’m (probably) one of them. Such a thing makes decisions really matter. I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that the normal mode of game playing results in a sort of “cheap bravery”, a mad bravado that exists solely because there are few, if any, consequences for what might happen.
I mean, it’s totally fair to say that that’s what you want in your games. Sometimes that’s definitely what I want in my games. I wouldn’t want every board game I played to be Risk Legacy, and I wouldn’t want every video game to have permadeath. But especially as a pretty heavy hobby gamer here, across most media, sometimes the decisions I have to make, the things that should be the core of the entertainment, just…aren’t.
At this point I can practically hear some of you screaming, “But permadeath exists! [Game] has it!” Which is true. Permadeath does exist. ARPGs like Diablo II or Sacred (or, I’m told, Diablo 3) have it in hardcore modes. Some MMOs have dabbled. I’ve heard that Star Wars Galaxies implemented permadeath for Jedi for a brief time, though I never played Galaxies even a little and apparently that was one of many things about Jedi that they caved on pretty quickly.
Others might point out Mass Effect and its sequels as games with permadeath, since, yes, it exists, though it’s sort of…I don’t know, I suppose it functions for what it is – a dramatic point – but it’s pretty weak sauce I think when it comes to being a compelling choice in a lot of ways. Mass Effect‘s legendary moment of truth had the issue that most players knew it was coming by the time they got to it, and they knew there was nothing they could do to stop it. That choice was a Kobayashi Maru, one that no amount of luck or logic could change. This was not a consequence of any real player agency but of the plot: the player has to choose a character to die. The player cannot avoid making that choice.
Mass Effect 2‘s suicide mission sequence perhaps took this fact to heart, and admittedly I know less about all the factors that determine whether or not a character can/will survive the mission. There’s the whole Loyalty Mission thing, which I sort of assumed (though I’ve no evidence for this) would essentially make a character immune to death. Then there’s all the different times that the player has to decide which characters will take certain duties, and I wonder about how much that matters, too. I’m sure it matters some; but can your orders, then, trump the fact that a character is Loyal? I don’t know. Nobody who died on my suicide mission was loyal to me, nor was she on a particularly dangerous task, truth told.
Permadeath certainly isn’t the only thing that comes to mind with video games. Environments that could really be changed in a considerable way would be awesome. All those FPS games out there with destructible terrain in the levels? How cool would it be to sometimes – maybe not always, but sometimes – find the leftovers of a previous match on that map: damage, bodies, even weapons and ammo? Doesn’t matter if you were involved or not, though I suppose it could give you a big leg up if you were.
If we want games to feel like our choices matter – whatever kind of game it is – the choices need to be dangerous ones. They need to have some sense of consequence, but probably also be a consequence in themselves.
I wonder if the proliferation of free-to-play MMOs will, perhaps, lead to one or two popping up that end up implementing permadeath. I understand it’s a pretty hazardous proposition to have permadeath in a game that players have to pay $15 a month to play, or even one they’ve forked over some amount in the first place, but if there’s no cost to them (no compulsory cost, anyway) then maybe they take what they can get, right? I would. I’m one of those who frequently follows up gripes about an F2P game with, “Eh, but it is free.” And heck, I’m sure someone could make a killing on real-money resurrection talismans in an F2P game. No pun intended.
Okay, actually, that last sentence was a lie. That was totally on purpose.
Nice Dix. I see they have blank spaces in the rulebook for custom rules, and I approve of this idea.
I used to play British Rails with some Uni friends. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2689/british-rails
The game requires a bit of mental calculation and thought and a pretty common thing that would happen is that a person would pull into a city with their train with some moves remaining, spend five minutes calculating permutations and strategy, and then forget how many moves were remaining in their turn. Our solution to this was to allow a person to finish moving his/her train completely, and to figure out what happened in the town (in retro) after his/her turn had ended. Our thinking was, you’re a rational person, if you had all the time in the world you would have done the best possible move anyway. This included selling (or not) loads in the town and even choosing different tracks to have travelled based on what had been sold or loaded (since that was random).
This was very freeing since everyone could almost play at the same time and our rule changes extended to making the game a framework for barter, as people could haul loads and dump them on the side of the rail for a fee, and other people could pick them up and haul them to the ocean to dump them (for a bigger fee) to keep the original intended client from cashing in on a big contract.
From the summary:
“What makes this game unique is that when powers are chosen, players must choose one of their faction’s two powers, affix that power’s sticker to their faction card, then destroy the card that has the other rule on it – and by destroy, the rules mean what they say: “If a card is DESTROYED, it is removed from the game permanently. Rip it up. Throw it in the trash.” This key concept permeates through the game. Some things you do in a game will affect it temporarily, while others will affect it permanently. These changes may include boosting the resources of a country (for recruiting troops in lieu of the older “match three symbols” style of recruiting), adding bonuses or penalties to defending die rolls to countries, or adding permanent continent troop bonuses that may affect all players.”
I’m in favour of them trying to do something with the somewhat stagnant ideas in Risk, I’ve always thought it would be go together well with some negotiation from the wickedly friend-circle-destroying Diplomacy (especially since the dice offer a nice alternative to the Diplomacy’s tactically stalematish combat), but I’m not so sure permanently tearing up the set is the way to go. I would feel a little bit sad about that too.
Referring to the permadeath MMO’s, Realm of the Mad God (http://www.realmofthemadgod.com/) is this way. Every time one of your characters dies, it’s dead for good.
Obviously Risk is a tremendously house-ruled game since the basic game, as written, gets old quick, but there’s lots of obvious ways to make things more interesting. Many specialty versions of Risk (and I don’t think Legacy’s any different) is largely made of rules changes that are essentially common house rules.
As to destroying components…I think maybe part of the idea of Legacy is to sort of acclimate players VERY BLUNTLY to this idea of the game, as a physical object, not being sacred. Obviously Hasbro doesn’t send representatives out to make sure that everyone is FOLLOWING THE RULES, so I suppose you can actually destroy things (or not) as you see fit. Whatever.
There’s a very interesting interview from late last year, around Legacy’s release, with the designer on it, Rob Daviau, on the Three Moves Ahead podcast here: http://flashofsteel.com/index.php/2011/11/24/three-moves-ahead-episode-144-risky-business-with-rob-daviau/
I do recommend giving it a listen as he does have some interesting stuff to say about games and the thinking that went into Risk Legacy, and of course he’s very realistic about what it asks players to do. Very cool listen.
@Eric – welcome! Also, yeah, I know of that one (its existence is about the extent of my knowledge, however), and as I allude to there are games that have that, but the list is very short. Even if you count games that used to have it but don’t anymore, or games that are basically dead now, the number isn’t more than like two dozen.
The idea behind Risk: Legacy is SO very cool. But I admit I’ve never been able to get in to Risk, Vanilla.
I’ve always had a pretty substantial dislike for Risk in general, because I find it far too reliant on luck, and even some of the hobby editions that rebalanced that only reinvigorated the game briefly for me. At least made it palatable. One thing that most all of them do that helps a lot is put a cap on how long the game goes – Legacy goes until a player earns a certain number of victory points, rather than until someone CONQUERS THE WORLD. (Though I suppose you would win if you did that.)
I have a hunch – unsubstantiated as yet – that the level of complete crazy not-quite-like-anything-elseness that repeated games of Legacy would bring probably makes it a gaming experience worth having at least a little bit.
Interesting! This would make a great companion piece to Amanda’s The Incredible Threat of Failure and, to some extent, your It’s Not All About You. As I mentioned in the comments section of Amanda’s article, I started writing something a year or so ago about death and failure in games and how, for the most part, they don’t carry much weight. I like permadeath for the reasons you state (it makes your decisions matter) but I can see how it wouldn’t work in something like, say, Uncharted. Since my confused and unfinished draft I’ve pretty much concluded that if you have a linear story that focuses on one character, permadeath is a no-go (unless you like the idea of starting tens of hours again because you missed a jump, the game glitched or you hit the wrong button during a QTE). Heavy Rain is proof that you can have permadeath provided you have other characters to fall back on so that the game can keep moving. It was so refreshing (and terrifying) to play a game where if a key playable (and fleshed out) character was killed there was no Game Over or Try Again. They’re dead. Move along. Nothing more to see here.
From a design standpoint, it seems to me like a lot of games are still operating with a sort of arcade mentality in that they are built to be very, very difficult to succeed at indefinitely, without having to retry sections (which is fine). A permadeath game would either, like Heavy Rain, provide fallbacks or other things that meant that death wasn’t the end of the game, or would need to make death hard to achieve.
The obvious permadeath-having game genre is the tabletop RPG, and though that’s obviously the subject of house rules and however your GM happens to run things, it does indeed exist. I’ve lost characters because I’ve been unwise, but seldom have I because I’ve just been tremendously unlucky (and then only in D&D games where it’s really been very hack-and-slash and the characters have been little else but numbers; I find that groups that play with character story too tend to be more hesitant to kill characters unless it’s the right time). I think in many ways some of the things RPGs do could be adapted to MMOs, because part of the reason death doesn’t come in droves is that you have party members to back you up, heal you, and possibly drag your near-lifeless body clear of danger (not to mention cast a resurrection spell or something if the setting allows for it).
There’s also Paranoia, in which each character is one of six clones, and death means that the next one is activated and there’s a few penalties. Players literally have extra lives, and their existence is built directly into the setting of the game.
I think it would be a really interesting design challenge to work out how a game could introduce permadeath without being either hardcore or unfair. Hmm.
“I think it would be a really interesting design challenge to work out how a game could introduce permadeath without being either hardcore or unfair. Hmm.”
In video games, I’m not sure, but lots of storygames do this in the tabletop RPG realm, and it really works quite well.
Take, for example, Mouseguard, which I had the pleasure of playing at Origins. Its conflict resolution system allows the loser to choose the outcome, to some degree, though the victor sets the stakes. For example, in our game, an evil character had a goal to kill a character, and then succeeded at that goal… but there was a compromise situation where people could clarify what success really meant. It takes a little while to get used to, but essentially though a player-character can die, and die forever, they have a say in how that happens and it seems more fair.
I love Mouse Guard so hard (both the game and the comic upon which it is based), that’s definitely one example I had on my mind in my last comment. Even tabletop RPGs that are more traditionally structured try to make it hard to die – in standard D&D you have to hit pretty huge negative HP. Same with Shadowrun. The Savage Worlds system, which runs dozens of settings at this point, requires players to roll their Vigor (same as D&D’s Constitution), which will always be a roll of 1d6 & one other die at least, and that die can be as high as a d12. In this case, characters ONLY die if the roll is a pair of ones; the odds against this get close to astronomical in some cases. They keep things significant by having a lot of mediocre rolls on that result in things like serious lasting injury, and sometimes I’ve seen players retire characters in that system because they’re just too battered to be terribly good at what they do, but that’s their choice.
So my musing on the design challenge was…well, more particular for video games because it isn’t done, whereas with tabletops it is, though new ways of approaching it do crop up from time to time.
It’s really thought-provoking. In video games, we have this failure state – death – which is in some ways the most important failure state for a character. But you rarely see intermediate meaningful failure states like the Savage Worlds states you mention. In a videogame, though, I could see something like stat damage leading either to a slippery slope, or a lot of save-scumming. I know there are games that have tried it (like the Scars in Fable 2) but not in a super deep way. Usually games combine non-perma death with a semi-perma downgrade (you died, and lost gold/weapon degraded etc).
I’ve always liked that approach, especially in tabletop RPGs where characters build up this story and such not just with you, but your friends. I’ve had GMs as well that essentially use things like that as an alternative to death when, by the rules, a character would be dead but they didn’t want to kill off the character because of what else was going on.
It would be a tricky proposition in video games, but I think that’s partially a matter of player attitude. Which probably makes it harder.
I think permadeath is a very tricky thing in video games. I don’t think it’s that hard if you include the death of NPC’s, like in the Mass Effect examples above or like in Deus Ex: HR, where it is possible to lose your kick-ass helicopter pilot for a large portion of the game (she’s sweet that pilot. Much better than that drip of a girlfriend. In my vision, after I f*cked sh*t all up at the end, me and the helicopter pilot flew off and lived happily ever after). But if you’re talking about permadeath for the player, that’s a different story.
While cool in concept, the raising of stakes and all, the idea that you could be about 16 hours into a 20 hour or so game and then die – for whatever reason – and have to start all the way back over at the beginning with a new character really isn’t all that appealing. The idea of being able to shift to a different character – like in Heavy Rain – is a good idea, but it has to be something that’s been established from the beginning, like in Heavy Rain. A game like that also means that you’d really be playing some other character as opposed to “your” own character.
You see this kind of tension in many table top games. Well, at least I have seen this kind of tension. You’re in a campaign with a bunch of characters. If the campaign is about those characters then it’s very hard to kill them off and keep your story together. Sometimes campaigns don’t start that way, but over time become that way and then the idea that the GM would perma-kill one of the core group can really mess up the entire campaign, not just for the player’s character who was killed, but for the rest of the group. You have to deal with how you introduce a new character into the game, how the old group will react to that new character, etc, etc. It can really take the wind out of the sails of a strong campaign.
On the flipside, however, if you, as a player, feel like there is no real risk of your character dying then the combat just kind of becomes boring. You end up taking stupid risks and you lose something. It’s sort of like the reasoning Joss Whedon always falls back on when he talks about killing poor Wash in “Serenity.” Without that, it all just becomes a bunch of noise and mayhem without any real risk or tension.
So, GM’s have to strike a careful balance there. It’s a tough road to walk for a living, breathing GM. It takes on a whole different dimension when you’re talking about playing a character in a video game. A video game can’t really react on the fly like that and change things around if the main character of the game suddenly dies.
I am not sure if I find the idea of permadeath in a video game all that appealing if it meant having to start back over. I hate having to do things over again, which is why I am a serial saver. I save games constantly. I still really enjoy them and often feel the rush of combat and dangers involved even though I know if things go really bad, I can just quite and re-load it.
Well, though permadeath is the obvious example here, I think there’s any number of other (less harsh) things that could be done to make the decisions in a game feel more weighty. Also, I think that I wouldn’t want to see it in a game where it can be nearly so easy to die as in your average video game, where death is simply a fall state that you reload from. Death is designed to be a frequent and inconsequential thing because that’s how it fits into the game: oh well, that sucked, try again.
A game that implemented anything like permadeath would need to structure itself differently. You wouldn’t want to do it for, say, a highly story-driven game (at least not one with a particular set story) because then failure means you have to start over and play through the story again. That’s extremely irritating at best. I think it’d have to be used in games that worked on a wholly different paradigm, like the Heavy Rain “the game keeps going anyway” one, or one that’s a bit more like a Roguelike, where I understand permadeath hung around for ages. Or something different still.
It’s not a feature that could simply be added to a game. The game would have to be designed to accommodate and make it an advantage, not a disadvantage.
Permadeath of the “only” “main” character, the one the player plays, is definitely a risky proposition. Depending on the type of game it can work (Day Z has a sort of permadeath), but overall I tend to agree with the above – that you need to be really careful about implementing it, and that a lot of video game design is still a throwback to the days when the objective was to get as many quarters or 100-Yen pieces as possible out of the players.
Death in general in games is an iffy situation. Since death and killing are both used as proxies for progress, and since much of the writing in games isn’t strong enough to make you care about the characters, killing some lead doesn’t often have the same oomph it can in a movie or something. There are exceptions to this; I can certainly remember the first time a main character died and stayed that way during my gaming childhood (Phantasy Star II). Mass Effect is a lot more hamhanded about it than it needs to be, and actually introduces a second problem: while I loathed many of the characters in the games, there were some whose death would mean an automatic reload, further diminishing the impact of the death. I ain’t gonna lose Garrus or Tali just because I made the wrong move!
***** MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILER ALERT ******
While Mass Effect can certiainly a lot more hamhanded about the death of characters than it needs to be, Mordin’s death in “Mass Effect 3” (at least his death in my game) was as powerful and well done a death in a video game that I have ever seen. I wasn’t sure if there was a way to save him, but after how it all went down it was just so perfect that I never even considered re-starting. Gaming at its best right there.
I also liked Thane’s death as well. Not nearly as dramatic, but well done.
***** END OF MASS EFFECT 3 SPOILERS ******
As for Deux Ex: HR. I initially thought that the helicopter pilot couldn’t be saved. That her death was scripted. Shortly after she died, I found out yout could save her if you acted quickly enough. Since I liked her so much, I just re-loaded and successfully defended her. A fun part of the game.