We Should Let Them Die

Fujibayashi is a stone cold killer.

In this, I’ll be talking about this interview with the Breath of the Wild devs from The Verge. It is good and pretty and you should read it.

That interview has helped crystallize a thought in me about how death mechanics are often treated as burdensome in the play of a game, or even tacked-on. A game like Uncharted features death as a speedbump, because death gets in the way of the story, interrups the character arc. Most deaths in games are a version of “but that didn’t really happen…” that serve mostly a perfunctory role at this point.

When a game chooses to bear some teeth with swift death, they are often characterized as “hard.” Dark Souls comes to mind, as it always does, but anyone familiar with the Zelda franchise is happy to note how easy it is to die in Breath of the Wild in comparison to most of the games.

I think part of what these games are exhibiting – and what a generation of gamers is re-learning after the days of “Nintendo Hard,” – is that these deaths are a way to reinforce the rules of the game you’re playing. “They fall, they learn,” as Takizawa puts it.

Deaths are not learning experiences in a game like Uncharted because it’s systems are simple and there’s not much to really learn. You move, you shoot, you press X at the right time. These aren’t especially complicated interactions. Do what the game tells you to, or die. You just learn to do the thing.

But in a game that takes death seriously as an opportunity to communicate with the player, it can be a fiercely effective method of communication.

As par for the course, tabletop games have been wrestling with this particular dichotomy for a while, and most right now are rather squarely in the same place that a lot of videogames are: death is to be avoided, because it interrupts the story. Resurrection makes death cheap, the argument goes, because if characters don’t really die, then there’s no consequence!

As I launch into my next design project, I’m keeping in mind what fail-states look like and how to make them say something, and not just serve to make the player occasionally press some buttons.