Musings on Death (in video games)

It is the 25th Anniversary of Dragon Quest—in Japan, the first game took three more years to get to America—and since I’m currently playing Dragon Quest VI, I thought it might be a good ides to celebrate one of the series best features. Dragon Quest is the bread and butter of the JRPG genre, with nearly every other game using it at as a starting point or inspiration. For as much as the series is copied, too few other games use Dragon Quest’s no game over strategy.

In most RPGs, as well as most other types of games, if you die you get a blood red “Game Over” screen and it kicks you back out to the title. However, Dragon Quest, even as far back as the first game in the series, just tosses the player back to the last—or only in the case of DQ1—church. All experience and items gained stay with the player, though the gold the player was carrying is cut in half. It doesn’t quite take all the penalty out of dying, but it does severely lessen the blow. Most importantly, it assures the player that they are never wasting their time. In the normal death model, being wiped by a boss means that all the progress through the dungeon has been lost, where in Dragon Quest all is means is you have to fight the boss again. It allows the game to up the difficulty of fights without frustrating the player since progress is never lost.

How do games like Final Fantasy get around to loss of progress problem? By adding more save points, an imperfect resolution at best. With more save points, frequently one just before boss rooms, there is less loss of progress, but it still wastes time. It takes the player out of the game. Sure, you’ll just reload your save and try again; nothing has changed from the last time other than any knowledge of the boss gleaned from the failed attempt. Instead of distressingly punitive consequences, there are none. Why games refuse to adopt Dragon Quest’s elegant death mechanic is puzzling.

Many ill-informed critics don’t seem to grasp the Dragon Quest system and instead deride the series for its draconian saving policy (i.e. at churches, only at churches). That is a feature, not a bug. Though a quick save feature like the DS games have is a welcome feature. By restricting permanent saves to town, it encourages players to reevaluate their approach after a death.

Playing Dragon Quest just really makes me wish more RPGs considered what they are penalizing on death. I love Persona 3, but its death mechanics are unfriendly for the sake of being unfriendly. In the game, there are two separate battle situations. There are the full moon story segments, usually a boss and maybe a small dungeon with a few random battles, where a game over makes sense. There is little progress lost and the fate of the world rests specifically on that time. However, Tartarus, the randomly generated grinding pit, is the opposite. A game over loses all progress on the long trek to the next safe floor. Everything is stacked against the player. If the main character dies game over, many enemies like to spam instant death magic. The battles are not really random, but the enemies in each are.

Very little challenge would be lost if instead of losing everything upon death the player was instead forced out of the dungeon for that day. The floors a randomly generated, so there is no memorizing the layout. The player would still have to start from the last safe/boss floor and make it to the next safe/boss floor in one go. All the player would keep are the levels from the battle that they already won. There is no loss of challenge, just a loss of time wasting bullshit.

I’m not sure the same could be said of the Etrian Odyssey series, where the challenge is to survive in the maze-like dungeon. If dying merely sent the player back to town, with say the loss of all items being carried, most of the challenge would be lost, turning the game into one long tedious, toothless grind. Of course, Etrian Odyssey is much less dependant on gotcha deaths than Persona, at least after the first couple of floors. Instead of no penalty, it could use a rescue system, where the player uses other characters from the guild to go get the ones who fell, but as it is I think it works. While Etrian Odyssey could undoubtedly be friendlier, it at least seems well considered in its hostility.

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One thought on “Musings on Death (in video games)

  1. I kinda liked the death system of DQ too, for the reasons you mentioned. Also, going through a cutscne or a long text of dialoge before a boss can be annoying when you are on your 3rd or 4th try. :/

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