The Importance of Death and Failure

Well it’s been an exciting two months here. Lots of new readers who apparently all agree that Dragon Age Inquisition is perhaps the most disappointing Game of the Year in history. I’ve had my first, hopefully of many, backer on Patreon (Big thanks to Eric!) and am playing through Planescape Torment now to review the story. I’ve been playing it for about two weeks now and it’s become clear that it’s going to take a while to write a proper review of the game. The narrative is deep, the characters believable, and there are important facets of the game’s multilayer, in media res, checkovian, greek-tragedy style storyline that must be analyzed and meticulously um…analyzed to um… provide maximum reviewyness.

You’re… you’re not buying it are you?

Okay I’ll admit…

I suck at the combat!

Awaiting death should have been my character's name.
Awaiting death should have been my character’s name.

I remember classic RPGs from the 90s being hard, but after years of playing games that go out of their way to help me win, they’re almost impossible. The part of my brain that used to see games as a challenge has completely atrophied. I’ve woken up on that lonely slab so many times I consider it a close personal friend. Not to worry though, I’m sure I will eventually get the hang of playing a game that doesn’t hold my hand.


In the meantime, I want to talk about how refreshing it is to play a game that’s actually difficult and why difficulty is important to a game. I touched on this in my review of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the inability for the character to fail in anyway cheapened the story and completely undermined the stakes. Now I’m not going to sit here and say how much better games were back in my day…

Now that's a game!
Now that’s a game!

Games are definitely far more fun and accessible now than they were when I first started playing them in the early 90s as a kid. UI’s have been streamlined and made more intuitive, improved graphics have made it easier to actually tell what the hell your shooting at, and on the whole, writing has been greatly improved. Still, in the effort to make games appeal to wider and wider audiences, the difficulty of games has gone down dramatically.

For instance a few weeks back I played Dying Light, which is actually a pretty good game at the beginning. You’re so pitifully weak and out of shape that trying to take on more than two or three zombies at a time will either send you running for your life or screaming as they feast on your flesh. And because I felt so weak during the day, Night was an absolute nightmare. Nighttime is when the freaks come out, they’re fast, strong and utterly merciless. When you first encounter them, you have to run through the pitch black streets and try and make it home again while dozens of these monsters are tearing after you. As a complete and utter coward even in video game settings, my heart was pounding in my chest as I ran through the streets while hearing their grunting and screeching cries just behind me.

And then they caught me.

In my panic I’d run into a dead end, and I couldn’t parkour myself up the walls fast enough to escape.

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Wait! Stop! Do over! DO OVER!

So I splashed some cold water on my face, psyched myself up and hit the continue button. This time I’d remain calm, avoid that alley, and try to stick to the rooftops.

And then suddenly I was back at the Tower, a safe zone.

And like that, all tension in the game evaporated. Your death in game has absolutely no penalty aside from the loss of XP if you die in the day time, but at night there’s no penalty at all to dying. Without that, the game loses any sense of threat or challenge because you know, no matter what you screw up or how hopeless your situation seems, you’ll wake up back in a safe location. Now I wasn’t expecting an Ironman mode where dying would result in a complete reset, that would just be annoying, but I was at least expecting the game to put me back at the beginning of the chase scene.

Death is one of the most basic and effective means to establishing the stakes of a story and creating challenging gameplay. When you take that away you better have a damn good mechanic in place to replace it, Dying Light didn’t and after that the game just didn’t have any thrill to it. Beating zombies to death with a baseball bat isn’t nearly as intimidating when you know that losing just means waking up in complete safety with ammo and health available for purchase at the nearest store. In fact sometimes when the game made me run off to remote locations to complete a quest, I’d jump off a cliff or something just so I could use the Magic Teleporter of Death to warp back into the city.

And the game only gets worse from their as you unlock abilities and weapons that allow you to take down hundreds of zombies at a time.

You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.
You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.

Allow me to compare Dying Light to the only game I feel did zombies correctly: State of Decay. Now in State of Decay you could gain experience points from killing zombies, but these didn’t unlock special abilities so much as it simply represented a character becoming more familiar with his weapons. If your character takes a baseball bat to zombies, he’ll naturally progress in melee skill. A character who runs at the mere sight of a zombie will become more athletic and able to run faster and farther. But even when all your stats are maxed out, more than a handful of zombies will ruin your day unless you have a gun with a suppressor.

More importantly, if your character dies… he dies. Though you can recover his equipment if your fast enough, death in State of Decay is permanent. And when your first character dies screaming in terror because you stupidly thought you could take on a dozen zombies, it really reinforces the stakes of the game. And when you see a character taken down by a feral and literally torn in half, through no fault of your own but bad luck, it makes the game world feel dangerous and unpredictable.

Now Dying Light has some great things going for it, it’s one of the few games where I felt like melee combat had any real weight to it. I could practically feel the impact of my blows while playing Dying Light, and its physics engine is top notch, with zombies tumbling over and picking themselves up in realistic ways. Once you play it, the zero-mass rag-dolls of yesteryear’s physics engines will seem utterly ridiculous.

You know, just in case you didn’t already think they were ridiculous.

But if you’re looking for a satisfying sense of danger and fear, Dying Light will not scratch that itch in the slightest. In fact you’ll probably find yourself doing more missions at night because you get bonus XP.  And while I’m using Dying Light as the whipping boy here, it’s only because it was the most recent example, there are plenty of other games guilty of reducing difficulty to the point where there’s no satisfaction to winning.

And I do understand why games have become easier. As a person with increasingly less and less time to actually play video games, I don’t want to have to repeat the same level four times. However, there’s streamlining the difficulty for the player’s convenience and then there’s just holding their hand the entire time, and tutting us like an irritated mother when we fuck it up. Dying Light falls distinctly into the latter category. When you die in Dying Light, the game gently soothes you, wraps you in a blanket and gives you some hot coco before placing you safely back in the game. What it should have done is tell you what a disappointment you are to them and then toss you back into the streets with the monsters.

Now some of you might be finding this stance a bit hypocritical given that Planescape Torment does pretty much the same thing. You die, you end up back in the Mortuary safe and sound. The difference is that Planescape Torment’s death mechanic makes sense in its world, and not only that, it also fits into the themes of mortality and identity. Plus I’ve heard, though not yet experienced myself, that certain powerful deities and creatures you meet in the game can Permakill you if you piss them off. That’s the key, Planescape Torment makes its death mechanic part of the story and thus it doesn’t undermine the stakes when you’re reborn.

Dying Light just teleports you to safety with no explanation and no penalty.

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Yeah, if you could just carry me back to my room, that’d be great thanks.

My brain’s ability to deal with difficulties has been completely atrophied after years of playing games like Dying Light that go out of their way to make sure I never feel challenged. Planescape Torment, aside from having an amazing story, has reminded me just how important difficulty and the possibility of failure is to a satisfying video game. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with a full review and story breakdown of Planescape Torment.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll support my Patreon page and keep on reading the site!


  1. Wahoo! Sorry I’ve been quiet for the last two weeks, and yeah, the comabt in these older games takes some practice. I played through plabescape about 6ish months ago, and didn’t he entire Mort 2 times (eg, made two characters) just to learn how it works (and then after that made a no save scrubbing commitment).

    And yes, there are some people who can permakill you in planessape, although if that happens players generally only have themselves to blame.

    More importantly, waking up time and time again on the slab really got me immersed in the world.and the main character. I think a games story is at its strongest when it gets a player thirsty, either to learn more about the setting, the character, or the plot. More importantly, the game makes sure to play, not tell. The background is that the Nameslessone wants to figure out is past lives, but if he dies he looses his memories. The gameplay is basically the same thing. Yeah, you could day the player knows more than the character (how does the name less one know to go back to place x or whatever) but there are ways to patch that hole.

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