Unloved features explores features that have either fallen out of favor or aren’t being utilized to their full potential in modern gaming.
The disappearance of character death from RPGs as a gameplay mechanic has absolutely baffled me, the age old argument being: “If things go wrong and I lose a party member I will just reload my game so its just as handy to have characters fall unconscious for the duration of a battle than to have them die outright.”
Sigh. Where to begin? On a personal level I think it’s outrageous when my party falls unconscious in a battle but my enemies die outright. I don’t want or need this special protection, I want risk and consequence for my decisions. From an immersion perspective, if a fireball, bullet, grenade or giant fucking moose hoof crushes my character; I don’t want them to survive, unless they do so by their own sheer luck. It’s great if a character survives a fight with 1 health or is actually knocked unconscious but not quite damaged enough to die (Wasteland 2, Might and Magic VI) or they do die but through the games mechanics/spells/abilities are brought back to life. That makes for a story, that makes each combat meaningful and unpredictable.
Knowing the exact outcome of your characters poor decisions is a dreadful safety net that undermines the purpose of planning out an attack or defense. As an example, when playing Dragon Age I knew I had to protect my mages from melee combat to a certain degree but it was never life or death. I didn’t have to constantly shift strategies or worry about my mages getting turned to paint by big burly fighters whereas in Baldurs Gate it was always a deadly balancing act between getting the most out of ones squishy mages whilst taking care that they weren’t caught flat footed against a rogue or warrior.
Often I had to take a risk to win fights, rushing my mage into a deadly area to cast a devastating spell, sending my fighter into a powerful group of enemies to buy me some time or attempting a nail biting heal from my cleric whilst my characters were barely standing.
What I’m trying to convey is this entire feeling of risk has been neutered, furthermore I can do straight up crazy shit knowing it will win me battles without much repercussion; When playing Neverwinter Nights 2 as a mage I can cast a fireball on friend and foe alike, knowing the worst it will do to them is knock them out; why they’ll thank for it later. This same fireball will turn our enemy combatants into charred paste but with my good chums it just gives them a bit of a sore head.
Real death can turn victory into defeat and make a standard fight a nail-biter, its absence in so many modern games is a disservice to your experience. There’s plenty of great, great games that use this pansy ass system from KOTOR up to Pillars of Eternity (where you only live twice, Mr. Bond) and it doesn’t ruin the experience but it absolutely takes away from it.
I’d like to finish with a special mention to Wasteland 2’s super unpredictable, super beautiful death system. Your characters can be knocked out cold, killed outright or put into critical condition… all in the middle of a fight. Do you continue fighting your enemies or do you rush in with your medic, exposing him to enemy fire? ITS BALLS TO THE WALL. It’s the kind of decision making that makes games great.