Random Ruminations

It seems to be part of my nature to reflect on all my experiences--even the hobby experiences many people consider trivial. And I reflect best when I'm typing. So, here are some of my thoughts on games and gaming. Enjoy them if you can, comment if you like.
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Thoughts on Permadeath

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"‘Well, at any rate, the Dormouse said—’ the Hatter went on, looking anxiously round to see if he would deny it too: but the Dormouse denied nothing, being fast asleep. ‘After that,’ continued the Hatter, ‘I cut some more bread-and-butter—’"
"‘But what did the Dormouse say?’ one of the jury asked. ‘That I can’t remember,’ said the Hatter."
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Throughout the history of video games, multiple lives have been a thing. It's not so clear in the real world, where some 51 percent of people worldwide (and about 38 percent in the US) believe in reincarnation. But in games, apparently the word "death" isn't enough to mean "game over"; for that they've come up with "permadeath."

In roguelike games, permadeath is a pretty standard feature. When your character is dead, s/he's dead, and you start all over. But of course you, as a player, have gained some experience. So when you start over, you're probably a little better at the game.

Some people hate roguelikes because of all that starting over. It can be frustrating to get a character up to a high level, all decked out with cool equipment, only to see it suddenly end in YASD (yet another senseless death). It seems you can never win; you just make progress and then die, having fallen short of your goal.

Come to terms with that, though, and roguelikes can be fun. Yeah, you die, but you can always play again. You can even have several games running at once; and if one character dies, you switch to another character in a separate game. Someday you may actually make it all the way through to the end. Meanwhile, it's all good experience, and you're learning and enjoying the play.

What actually bothers me more than permadeath is save-scumming--saving a game before taking a risk so that you can just reload it and make a different choice if things go wrong. That's a standard practice in cRPGs. They're so long and involved that hardly anyone would have the patience to start all over when a character dies. So if you die, you just pretend it didn't happen, and you try again. Unfortunately those little "rewinds" always feel like cheating to me.

It's not really cheating, I guess, even though the pejorative term "save-scumming" suggests it is. I'm not even sure cheating is possible in a single-player game, since it would mean doing something illegal that gives you an unfair advantage over other players. Without other players, you're just doing whatever the game allows, learning as you go along. And unless you're superhuman, you'll make mistakes in the process. Some games are punishing and make you start all over after making a big mistake (or getting unlucky); other games are forgiving and allow you to reload a saved file or just get a new life and continue on.

Still, in an RPG I find that dying breaks up the story too much. Something big happened, but now we're going to pretend it didn't happen--rewind a bit and play part of the game over. From an emotional and imaginative viewpoint, it's disconcerting. First I feel bad and imagine it's all over, but half a minute later I'm feeling bold and pushing on ahead, expecting the story to continue. Only I still remember the feeling of having just died too, and it leaves me thinking, Something's wrong here.

Lately I've been playing Tales of Maj'Eyal: Age of Ascendancy, and it has a couple features I like. Basically it's a roguelike game, and you can play it in full roguelike mode (just one life). But you also have "adventure" and "exploration" options, so you can get more than one life or even infinite lives. There are also some warning markers: the game will tell you the vault you're about to walk into is dangerous and ask if you really want to do it. The enemies you face are also labeled "elite" or "boss" or whatever, giving you an idea what you're up against.

Well-designed RPGs likewise have locked doors and blocked passages and other warning signs to keep you from rushing in where you don't belong. Still, you can get careless or unlucky or overwhelmed and end up dead, whereupon you have to load a saved game and try again.

All of which makes me wonder if a different kind of game could be designed: one where your character is watched over all the time and protected from utter failure. It'd be partly like "friend mode" in the Fritz computer chess game, which sets you up against a well-matched opponent (one you should be able to beat) every time. The stronger you get, the stronger your opponents get; and if you get weaker, your opponents do too.

In addition, the game I'm imagining would have a fail-safe mechanism, where you may come close to dying but instead wake up beaten and robbed. Or, thanks to some deus ex machina, you're magically transported away from fatal danger. You suffer setbacks, but you can't lose; you can only win if you're persistent enough. And the story is continuous; there are no take-backs or "rewinds."

Yet, if I think it through, that might not make much difference. The game Darkest Dungeon is like that in a sense: characters do die permanently, but they're all expendable. A TPK (total party kill) is not the end of the world; it's just another setback on the road to eventual victory. The character you're really playing is the manager of all the parties sent into the dungeon, and that character is invulnerable.

But in a standard roguelike, that same role is assumed by you, the player. You're invulnerable because you're safely outside the game you're playing. So if your one and only character dies, it's really only a setback. Maybe it's a setback all the way to square one, but you can start fresh and try again.

The main difference is that, in a game like Darkest Dungeon, cleared portions of the dungeon remain clear, and you get to keep whatever treasure is brought back. So maybe you feel you're constantly making progress. But in a standard roguelike, you're also making progress--simply by learning how to play better. Over the course of many games, you see more and more familiar patterns; you become more adept at dealing with various situations.

So, I used to think the roguelite concept (like Darkest Dungeon) was clever. Now I'm not so sure. It may just be a lure for players who get too frustrated with pure roguelikes--a way to soften permadeath and leave a player feeling rewarded instead of crushed.

Thus, one kind of game is as good as another to me anymore--except that it still bugs me when a character's death irremediably disrupts a story.

For example, I started playing Geneforge again, and I ventured into an area where there were too many enemies and I got killed. I had a saved game to fall back on, so I did. And then I went back to the area, a little better prepared, and I killed a few creatures and then ran away. By doing that repeatedly--and probably also dying a few times in the process--I should be able to eventually clear the area. But first off, it's a drag having to clear an area like that bit by bit, retreating between forays. And secondly, it's disconcerting that I have to "save-scum" every time something goes terribly wrong.

Worse yet is that I get used to all that. I play more sloppily than I should, just because I know the worst-case scenario is reloading a saved game file. My lack of caution results in more deaths, but by then I'm too lazy to care; I just keep slogging ahead, dying and pretending it didn't happen. The story is ruined for me, but I shrug and figure that's the best the game design can do.

Of course, I could play in "ironman" mode--just refuse to reload a game after dying. That'd make it roguelike. It'd also make it frustrating, because the story would be truncated most of the time. I might play all my life and never reach the end.

There's something satisfying about arriving at a happy ending to a story, or about winning a game--or both. It's a feeling of accomplishment. Die early, or lose, and it feels like the happy ending is forever out of reach.

So, in RPGs, I sigh through all the save-scumming and just go for the final boss battle and the end of the story. I don't feel I earned it, but in a way it's nice to have arrived at the finish line anyway. Now everybody can live happily ever after.

And are strategy games any different? I guess not. I play one game, Dominions, that disallows save-scumming; there's only one save file for each game, so you can put it away and come back to it, but you can't "rewind" due to a lost battle or a big mistake or a change of mind. So it's "roguelike" in that sense; you don't take any risks you're unwilling to live with.

And I feel better about playing that game, usually, than something like Age of Wonders, where I can save-scum all I want. There I sometimes hedge my bets--save the game and take a big chance because I know there could be a huge payoff if I win. Then, if I do win, I feel like a brilliant strategist, even though I actually just made an imprudent move. And if I lose, I have to resort to "cheating" by loading that saved game. All in all, I'm just being sloppy.

Often I feel I'm justified in being sloppy, because after all it's just play time. It's only recreation or entertainment. So why not do as I please?

Well, if I choose to play a game for recreation, I'm taking on a challenge. And if I don't own up to the challenge and live with the consequences, why did I choose that form of recreation at all? I could have just read a book, watched a movie, gone for a walk, or done something else.

I like to imagine I'm so smart I can easily win any game. So when I lose, and I'm still clinging to that fantasy, it comes as a personal affront. Such things should never happen to me! I catch myself thinking. Then I feel it's only right to pretend the disaster never happened, and to just reload a saved game and replay the event until it turns out right.

But in all honesty, that's unsatisfying. Gaming is best when I'm on full alert and paying close attention to everything I'm doing. And when I own up to my mistakes and fully accept whatever happens.

With that attitude, maybe the game design doesn't matter. Whether there's permadeath or extra lives, one save file or many, an attentive approach makes for a good game. A lazy approach tends to spoil a game.

Then again, some games do seem to be more demanding and potentially frustrating than others. What's your take on it? Do you object to games with permadeath? In other games, do you save-scum and play casually, or do you pay cloee attention and take an "ironman" approach?
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