Game Design Element: Realistic Risks and Recovery

Recently, Jay Barnson wrote RPG Design: Quest Abuse in which he details the problems with the quest system in CRPGs. Some of his comments sounded familiar, and so I looked back through the archives of Gamasutra until I found what I was looking for.

Back in 2000, Ernest Adams wrote A Letter from a Dungeon from the point of view of a video game hero who does not feel heroic at all. There were multiple issues that led to this feeling of inadequacy, but I want to address the problem of risk.

And as if that were not enough, we also have spells of resurrection! Yes! The greatest miracle of all, which I had thought solely the province of God, is available in this place for the price of a few gold coins. I myself have died half a dozen times, through want of attention to my body’s condition in the heat of battle, and in a moment my companion brings me back to life. I sip a healing draught and we proceed as if nothing had happened. Death holds no terrors for me here, and in a place where there is no death, can there indeed be a hero? Courage is the conquering of fear, yet I have no fear; no reason to fear, and therefore no need for courage. The stirring stories I read as a child in school are meaningless here; they provide no example to guide me. Richard the Lionheart did not cast a spell and fly home to England whenever he felt tired! He is no adventurer who returns upon a moment’s whim to sleep in safety every night.

Indeed, master, I am no adventurer. I no longer know what I am.

I am sure that permadeath in some games attempts to address this issue. If death meant that you had to start over, and there was no easy way to prevent it short of copying save files in and out manually, then you might feel more invested in your character. Death would be a major risk, and you wouldn’t be so willing to charge into a room full of zombies just to see what was there.

But what about injuries? What if you played an RPG in which there were no magical healing potions? Heck, what if any game you played didn’t offer an item that absurdly heals your player, good as new? Seriously, why would dog food and bandages also provide cosmetic surgery to fix the shrapnel that used to be your face? If you get hurt, you are hurt until your character can realistically recover. A few scratches wouldn’t be a problem. A broken leg would slow you down quite a bit and probably keep you out of action for some time.

Now, it isn’t heroic to hang out in the hospital while your leg heals, either. Time can pass in an instant, but perhaps there you will miss out on some opportunity to strike against the Big Bad’s forces. If realistic risks are a key element in the game, must time also play a key role? After all, in real life, if you get hurt, it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that is the problem. The problem comes from what being hurt prevents you from doing. If you cut your hand badly, you won’t be able to write with it until it heals. If you could still write, it wouldn’t be a serious injury anymore.

Recovery time plays a key role in whether you think taking some action is worth the risk or not. If you don’t think you can recover at all (permadeath), then you will have to think long and hard before taking an action. If an injury would prevent you from playing in the big game, you might be disinclined to risk it. On the other hand, if you only risk a few scratches on your arm, those scratches won’t stop you from doing anything if importance. You know, unless your day job involves looking beautiful on a runway.

But if recovery would be instant, then anything short of death is not a factor in your risk assessment. What’s the worst that can happen? Death due to your inability to find something to let you recover!

If realistic risks are a part of your game design, then you probably need to provide ways to minimize such injuries. After all, how many stories have you read in which the hero gets injured throughout his adventures, and I mean besides Don Quixote? Getting injured in your game would probably become as serious as death is in games today. After all, if berries can’t instantly heal you, then you only need time to recover, but the world isn’t going to wait to get saved. You can’t put the world on hold while you recover, and the world will need to seem alive enough to have changed when your character is well enough to move.

If you focus on the mechanics of realistic injuries in a game, it might sound like a step backwards. Having to stop adventuring because you broke a leg or otherwise injured yourself badly doesn’t sound like fun. The legend of King Arthur isn’t riddled with pauses in the action due to injuries. Even if a hero did get injured, it wouldn’t stop him from acting heroically. Still, I think the idea that the player has to keep risk of injury in mind while playing adds a bit of strategy.

In some first-person shooters, falling from a great height does nothing. You just bounce away, shooting everything in sight. In a realistic FPS, however, falling from even a seemingly short distance can still injure you, and you can’t do much more than limp away. And you continue limping until the match or your life ends. It results in slower games than the arcade, twitch shooters, but winning a particularly scary Counter-Strike match can give you a feeling of heroism that I just can’t compare to a Quake 3 free-for-all. In Quake 3, I can just throw myself at the enemy like cannon fodder. The risk is that while I am waiting for respawn, someone else will get more kills. I can’t play this way in CS. Death means I can’t do anything until the next match, leaving my team that much more vulnerable. I would have to be a lot more courageous to try to charge into a room in CS than to do the equivalent action in Quake 3.

Can an RPG make use of realistic injuries without ruining the fun? I think it is possible. It is easy to see how the implementation could be flawed, but if our current systems are already flawed, why not think about other possibilities? While there are many issues addressed by Jay Barnson and Ernest Adams, perhaps giving more importance to risk might improve RPGs. Charging into a dungeon and killing hordes of zombies would be a feat of courage and strength, an uncommonly heroic thing to do, rather than another run-of-the-mill side quest. After all, what makes someone a hero is that they are doing something uncommon. If everyone did it, why would you look up to one more person who did? Being an indie game developer wouldn’t be so heroic if everyone did it.

Granted, I don’t play nearly as many RPGs as Jay Barnson does, so maybe I missed the games in which such elements already exist and my post is like someone complaining that there aren’t any match-3 puzzle games. If such RPGs do exist, I would love to hear about them.

3 comments to Game Design Element: Realistic Risks and Recovery

  • Nothing put the fear of death in me than the first years of Everquest. There was no permadeath of course but the penalty for death was harsh.

    You took a major xp hit, had to travel dozens of zones and maybe take a 20 minute boat trip to recover your corpse. All the while traveling naked with no armor, weapons or cash. You body may have dropped in the very room loaded with zombies making it impossible to recover it by yourself. I remember one time at higher levels, it took me more than 7 hours to get my gear back.

    All this changed over time because of the outcry and death became no big deal. I don’t think you need to have permadeath in a game but for hardcore players making the penalty harsh can be accomplished.

    There are some “realistic” injuries in some RPGs such as malaise and poisons that drop stats and require you to run away and recover. What you are talking about would be interesting to see.

  • Problem here is, what’s the fun in dying? There is none really, unless part of the game requires you to go into the land of the dead to retreive a loved one or some other such thing, maybe the game’s goal is to haunt someone, but other than those extreme cases, where would dying be fun. In fact where would realistic injuries be fun? It wouldn’t be. I mean what are you going to do with your time? In real life you wouldn’t be moving you’d be bed ridden for days or even weeks. I mean I don’t think anyone has days or weeks to wait for their character to heal.

    So what do you do about it? Maybe a solution is you would do tasks that don’t require as much physical effort for the character, that would aid him or her in healing, or further advance the plot?

    You’ve seen the movies where a character is injured, and he hears some soldiers coming, so he ducks into a hole in the ground, and can over hear the enemy soldiers, only to find out that they’re committing a major offesnsive against the good guys… So when the soldiers leave our guy gets up and crawls to the nearest phone or base to give the good guys the news. Some movies have even been based on this little bit of information and their whole goal is to get it to some place where it’s needed. You could do stuff like that. You could make it so you didn’t die very often, but when you did it had very dire consequences. I mean there are possibliities. But who wants to die anyways?

  • MMOG’s aside, any single player game is going to have a way to reload the game, either built-in or via backing up your saved game files. If getting injured has serious consequences, people might reload their game and try to avoid getting hit. So, being wounded becomes the new death, and we’re back where we started.

    Ultimately, we want to motivate the player to avoid getting hurt. If we can make it so that the game becomes a bit less fun when you are hit, that might be a good start. Make it more of a gameplay penalty. For example, if something hits you with a sword, your character recoils and needs some extra time to recover. The player is unable to do the fun thing, which is swing his sword and kill stuff. Or he can’t cast spells for a few seconds. Something like that. The game becomes more fun when you get better at avoiding attacks. It’s just one idea.

    But this means that defensive strategies become optimal, and RPG gamers don’t like having choices forced on them… Yeah, it’s a challenging problem!

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