You know the old saying: you can’t win ‘em all? Gamers tend to take that one pretty hard. Our pride is based around overcoming and achieving so in a way, we measure our worth based on winning. This is a big part of why so many of us are so damn aggressive. You never accomplish anything in a game by sitting around or letting others have their way and this translates somewhat to our worldview.
Video games have taught us some hard lessons over the years. While some may hold our hands with constant auto-saves and instant respawns, most of them take a psychological toll when you fail, for better or worse. Nobody likes to be in respawn time-out or see hours of progress erased, but inevitably if you persevere it will make you a better gamer and that’s what we all should want at the end of the day in games and in life: to get better. These are five of the approaches that games have taken over the years to kick our asses and force us to learn how to win instead of lose.
A lot of games have taken to auto-saving after every battle or free respawns so you can die and die again without losing anything. This makes for maximum fat-paced fun and encourages experimentation, but others refuse to reward your lack of focus and take it out of your ass.
In a lot of MMORPG’s the cost of a respawn is financial or worse: they take it right out of your character, banishing your hard-earned experience into the void as if it never happened. Bioshock Infinite augmented the free respawning for babies feature from the first game by liquidating a portion of your currency when you died, quickly draining your hard-won resources and leaving you with almost nothing when you hit a rough patch. It drove me insane.
There are few things nastier than taking what a player has earned and scattering it to the winds. In the MMO-based anime Log Horizon they translated the XP penalty as literal memory loss. Life is literally made of experiences and when you lose them, you lose a piece of yourself. In video games this holds true to an extent. It can take hours to build up money or XP, and it can be lost in seconds like you never earned it at all in a title where every little bit counts hurts.
Harshness Rating: Screw You
This is most common punishment in JRPG’s and it’s a classic. Save points. Limiting the player’s ability to save their progress is probably the most fair way of encouraging gamers to think before they act, but it’s still horrible at times. The dungeons of classic Final Fantasy or modern Persona games were often unforgiving places that required supplies and preparation and once you were inside it was all about risk and reward. Back then, fleeing a battle or even the entire dungeon was often the only way to keep your earnings and make progress.
When you only get a save point every hour or so the stakes are a lot higher in everything you do. It combines the massive unpleasantness of losing all of your earned gold, loot, and XP with the added aggravation of erasing that entire stretch of gameplay as if it never happened. Now it’s really hitting you where it hurts. You’ve not only lost assets in-game (including any rare drops that are hard to replicate) but you’ve lost the time in real life it took you to make that progress. As the kids say: shit just got real.
One of the nastiest series of all is Dark Souls where you literally cannot progress your character unless you improve every time you run at an area. You lose all of your XP and currency when you die and if you want to get it back, you have to make it to the spot where you died and collect it, otherwise it vanishes and you’re back at your last save point with nothing to show for your struggles. It’s like that line from The Simpsons: “Your game shows reward knowledge. Here, we punish ignorance.“
Harshness Rating: NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!
So Long, Old Friend
This one has been gaining some momentum over the last couple of gens: the looming shadow of permadeath. When a character dies, they stay dead and there’s nothing you can do about it. As characters have become more lifelike, this has become increasingly distressing, and it adds a massive shot of tension into any game where it’s possible for a character to permanently die.
Tactical RPG’s use it as a way to discourage sacrificial tactics and make you really earn your victories since the stakes are higher. Is victory even worth it if you lose a beloved character in the process? Story-based horror games are making use of this concept as well with Until Dawn and Heavy Rain threatening permanent death for any character should you make the wrong decisions or slip up at the wrong time.
We are becoming more and more attached to video game characters by the year and as we do the penalty of permadeath becomes harsher. Whether it’s losing them as a commodity, all of the time and experience points you spent building them up, or simply facing the prospect of playing the rest of the game without their presence, we feel the loss.
The Mass Effect series is arguably the gold standard here, as it’s possible to lose almost anyone and with each character having a deeply involved story, losing them means not only one less party option, but losing a chunk of the story along with them. Make good decisions. The lives of your friends may depend on it.
Harshness Rating: Buckets of Tears
It’s Game Over, Man
Ah, the old school standard. You’ve got a long stretch of challenges laid out before you and a limited amount of lives at best to get it done. When you run out of lives and/or continues, you start all over again. It’s the brutal tried and true method that defined video games for the first two decades when arcades dominated the industry landscape. Consoles followed suit and delivered enduring challenges like Mega Man, Battletoads, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Back then this was simply how it was so it’s only in hindsight that we realize how goddamn maddening it is to have to start back at square one. It made a lot of sense for an industry dominated by coin-op machines to be unforgiving because more challenge = more quarters = more profit. And with save files not really becoming standard operating procedure until the 90’s it made sense that console games utilized a similar “better luck next time” do-or-die structure for most of their formative years.
Now that we’re all spoiled with checkpoints and anytime saves it’s almost unheard of to wipe out a player’s progress upon dying with the dreaded “Game Over” screen. At worst you repeat a level from the beginning or go back to your last save point. And we’re still pissed about it. Even extremely challenging retro-styles games like Hotline Miami let you take as many runs at a level as you need. There’s just no real market for those kinds of games anymore, but there is at least one holdout that comes to mind.
The Way of the Samurai series drops you into feudal Japan with but one life to live and many possibilities to make your mark on the world, but as the ancient quote says “the way of the samurai is found in death”. If you die, your save file is wiped and you have to start another game from the beginning. And if that’s still not hardcore enough for you, there’s an option to eliminate health bars and make every strike a deathblow. The prospect of a true Game Over is what made gaming so intense in its formative years and I hope at least some piece of that can be carried forward to infuriate future generations.
Harshness Rating: So Many Broken Controllers
Player, You Have Failed This Game
This is possibly the most dreaded consequence in all of gamedom: the prospect of failing at your appointed task and not finding out until it’s too late, having poured hours into a game and its story. Normally, it’s fairly easy to avoid if you’re a veteran gamer, but having it happen can literally ruin an otherwise glorious experience or at least give a great game a horribly underwhelming finish.
The first game I remember utilizing this was the original Prince of Persia in 1989, where you were tasked with rescuing a princess and given a short time to do it. A literal clock was ticking and if you weren’t fast enough to beat the baddies, avoid the traps, and navigate the levels that was it. The game was hard enough as it was, but the time limit made it seem murderous to somebody like me who routinely gets lost exploring. Doing everything right but still failing and having to start all over was just a bad feeling, but it would get worse in later years as games got longer and the stories more involved.
Games like Ogre Battle set the standard for failing while succeeding in the 90’s with the introduction of multiple endings. In that amazing tactical RPG you not only had to overcome insane military challenges in no-save battles that often lasted for hours each, but you had to abide by extremely strict restrictions (for example, no attacking lower level units) or lose your reputation. If you beat this monumental challenge with a low reputation, you received terrible endings as a reward for your countless hours and wars of attrition. Wing Commander punished failure to complete mission objectives by putting the results of war effort as a whole on your shoulders. If you coasted through the game or just couldn’t get it done, you had a crap ending awaiting you.
In later years, games like Shenmue and Persona 4 would punish you with lame endings if you didn’t meet their occasionally hazy standards. In most games with multiple endings, you almost have to deliberately be a tool to get the bad ending. In Persona 4 you’re almost always under threat of a game over if you don’t take care of business in a timely manner, but when it comes down to the end game, it was extremely easy to get an unsatisfying ending to what was otherwise an incredible story. Heavy Rain sets the gold standard by leaving the murder of a child as punishment for failing to get it together hanging over your head, making the stakes of the story very personal while making it clear that it will carry through with the threat. It’s fair, but still extremely nasty.
We’ve learned over the years to keep as many saves as possible as a safeguard against exactly this sort of thing, but it’s a lesson a lot of us learned the hard way. If you’ve ever poured dozens of hours into a game and gotten tricked into a shit ending with the only option to rectify it being going through the whole thing again it not only sucks, it will literally change the way you approach video games from there on out. Once it happens to you, you will always prepare for the worst with that experience in mind and even seek spoilers online to stop it from happening ever again.
Harsh as they are, game overs are expected in certain kinds of games and character deaths add gravitas to the proceedings while lost progress and earnings are necessary for the sake of challenging the player to do better. But having you miserably fail the game after playing through the entire thing? The only punishment more hardcore would be a game that bricks your whole system. Oh God, I hope I didn’t just give them an idea…
Harshness Rating: Antidepressant Prescription Incoming