IF game mechanic help

Hey all,

I’m currently working on an interactive fiction / CRPG hybrid (yeah, I know. I’m just writing it for fun, I don’t expect to have a huge amount of interest) and am after some feedback on a particular mechanic.

It is an entirely text based interactive fiction game with a parser and CRPG elements. You play as a single rogue character with a set of skills (pick locks, climb etc) that can be upgraded as you level up. Your objective is to descend into the underworld and visit hell to free your soul (which you unwisely sold to a demonic entity while in a drunken stupor). You’ll have an imp with you (that sits on your shoulder) who can cast a limited set of spells. Combat will be mostly deterministic and treated somewhat like tactical puzzles but will also be gated by your level.

The game is intended to ‘feel’ like a mix between a fighting fantasy game book and a D&D module. The atmosphere of the game is intended to be horror with an emphasis on exploring strange and sinister places. The problem is, I want the player to feel some kind of jeopardy, like every corner could lead to a horrific death. But if the player can save anywhere (or use an undo command) then there is no real risk and thus no tension. In a roguelike, perma-death is a viable mechanic to achieve this, but that doesn’t really sit well in an IF context as they’re not very replayable. So what to do?

Here’s an idea I’m playing with: the player is cursed and will be reborn a certain number of times when they die. The player will never know exactly how many ‘lives’ they have, as it will be randomly determined (it might be, say, 5 to 10 times). If the character looses all their lives, their soul is lost forever, they become a mindless undead and the game ends (i.e. perma-death). So every time the player is in a risky situation, there’s that fear – could this death be the final one? Thus, an average player might require several runs through the game to win. Some elements of the game could be randomized to make each new game slightly different, but the puzzles would obviously not change so the ‘core’ of the game would remain the same.

What do people think of this approach? Would the possibility of having to start over a few times, just piss people off and make them quit after the first perma-death. Is there a better approach to evoking fear in the player? Or should I implement save-anywhere and be done with it?

First, let me say I find your general idea very interesting. Interactive fiction with RPG campaign elements, stats and puzzles? Cool!

Now, I don’t like the idea of permadeath very much, but I guess I also wouldn’t really mind it if a) I enjoyed the game mechanics, and b) there were enough randomised elements to make each playthrough feel different. However, having a focus on mechanics and randomisation may clash with your idea for a narrative adventure… And as for the narrative, replaying through the exact same story moments kills tension for me more effectively than loading a saved game. So I guess to me, personally, whether I would hate the perma-death solution or not would depend mostly on the amount of repeated text and puzzles. (Things that would keep my interest would be, for example: puzzles that requires you to collect some items, and these items are spawned randomly every time, even when the general solution remains the same; many dialogue options; different possible routes to take; randomised enemy encounters and, of course, the different skills you mentioned).

However, one idea I definitely wouldn’t like is to have a random, secret number of failures before hitting a permadeath. Because if I lost, say, on my 7th “death” and had to restart, and then lost on my 5th one, without achieving as much as in my previous playthrough… yes, that would annoy me very much.

Anyway, good luck with your project! I’m interested to see where it goes!

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I like the idea of an RPG-style game. (In fact, I had ideas for one of my own, but as usual, I went totally overboard in terms of scope, and thus never finished it.)

Addressing your main question, I (personally) think games should be fun, not stressful, and as such am an advocate of “save anywhere, as often as you want”. However, I’m well aware that a large number of game developers across all genres seem to disagree.

The style of game you have in mind reminds me a little of the old King’s Quest games. They were partly point-n-click adventures, with some stat-based combat elements.

In a roguelike, perma-death is a viable mechanic to achieve this, but that doesn’t really sit well in an IF context as they’re not very replayable. So what to do?

One way to look at this is that roguelikes inherently have a very high replay value, but it’s generally impossible to make sure that a game is winnable, so the permadeath is there to complement those other qualities as much as it’s there to make every decision matter.

On the other hand a game that relies mostly on plot has a low replay value (about the same as a book or movie), and permadeath would be frustrating because you’d play through again to the point where you died in exactly the same way instead of restoring a save. Obviously that’s not possible in a roguelike.

Here’s an idea I’m playing with: the player is cursed and will be reborn a certain number of times when they die.

This won’t help much, IMO. It’ll still mean replaying parts of the game, which will still mean those parts of the game will need to be fun to replay (same as if you had only one life).

Some elements of the game could be randomized to make each new game slightly different, but the puzzles would obviously not change so the ‘core’ of the game would remain the same.

There might be some middle ground here. Games that are story-driven can still have decent replay value if there are other elements that are fun on their own, like combat. There can also be room for the player to try a different approach, like bringing along different party members, learning a different skill tree, things like that.

Keep in mind the replay value of roguelikes doesn’t only come from random level generation… it also comes from being able to play different characters with different play styles (stealth vs. nuker vs. melee vs. ranged).

If you have enough elements like that, replaying part of the game can be a different experience, and the story will be more like a backdrop the second or third time around.

Also, you could look at other options besides save-anywhere and permadeath. For example you could have checkpoints / savepoints, or have the game divided into chapters and allow starting from the beginning of any chapter you’ve completed. That could be useful if you have some non-linear, non-obvious things to do between checkpoints where you’re not sure if you’ve done things properly until you reach the next checkpoint, if that makes sense.

If you go that route, make sure to still autosave the current game (like you would in a permadeath scenario), don’t rely on checkpoints in case players need to take a break and come back later.

The mechanics you use will also make a difference if you’re writing in choice or parser.

In Baker of Shireton - a parser game - I used Emily Short’s “Recorded Endings” extension which can write named endings to a file as the author specifies.

record "Martyrdom among the lions" as an ending;
end the game in death.

The cool part is recorded endings don’t necessarily have to end the game, and rules can check for recorded endings and carry out other rules based on that…

if "Turning into a pumpkin" is a used ending: ...

So Baker checks a whole lot of things at the beginning and alters the game world accordingly. If the player purchased the sword, it checks for that at the beginning and will put it back in their inventory so they don’t have to do it again.

If the player burned down the bakery in a previous play-through, it shows a “patch note” in the beginning saying the devs fixed the game to prevent that and won’t let the player do it again, and it moves the “destroyed in the fire” version of the Baker to the backroom for the player to discover.

You could easily modify this - perhaps recording a checkpoint and asking the player if they’d like to start at Level 2 of the dungeon if they’d been there before, and outfit them accordingly.

In a choice narrative, if there’s no way to save data externally, the game could provide “cheat codes” at checkpoints and allow the player to type them in to accomplish the same sort of effects. Perhaps important quest items could each have a code and the player could essentially customize their run-through by granting themselves important items they’d already gotten hold of previously. That way they don’t have to start at zero every play.

The other neat thing I figured out and used in [robotsexpartymurder] - there are certain choices that might not make sense on a first play, but the player can choose them on a second run with their out-of-world knowledge. The first time you meet a character, the scene plays as if you have no idea who they are, but there is a choice that has several variations of the stranger’s name, after which the character introduces themselves. On your next play, if you remember the character’s name, you can select it and the scene plays out differently - since you remember them. Another scene that occurs repeatedly involves an elevator with a bewildering array of floor buttons to choose from. If the player has seen which one is normally selected by another character previously and presses it, they are given an option to skip forward through a long scene.

Peramdeath works well for roguelikes like Kerkerkruip, but is a terrible fit for a narrative/puzzle game. So the design challenge is to create a feeling of tension without punishing the player too much for failure. Now depending on your game, the tension could just come from the story, or from the inherent tension in the combat situations. This summer, I donwloaded an app with which you could play a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Bloodbones. The official way to play those gamebooks was in permadeath mode. But did anyone play them that way? Were they most enjoyable that way? Surely not; far too many deadly random combat for that! The makers of the app smartly decided to allow unlimited save games. I still had a lot of fun with the game. Sure, the tension is lower than it would be with permadeath… but with permadeath, I would never have finished the game. (In fact, I didn’t finish it anyway, because the last fight is unwinnable without a magic item that I never found. But hey.) So allowing saves anywhere could be less problematic than you think.

Still, there are other ways, that can roughly be divided into two types: (1) limit saving; (2) punish failure.

(1) (a) An approach that is very popular in console games is the use of specific save points. These can be physical locations in the game, or special moments in the story. Allowing the player to save at such a point, or even making an autosave there, ensures that you’ll never have to replay more than the sequence after the save point if you die. It has the advantages and disadvantages of permadeath, just notched down a few levels.

(b) One could also introduce specific items in the game that are consumed when you make a save. This allows the player to choose her own save points, but only a limited number of them, turning saving into something of a tactical mini-game: is this going to be hard enough that I want to save before trying it? Clearly, this would work best in a game where it’s clear how hard the next challenge is going to be.

(2) (a) Your suggested approach of a limited number of lives is one way of punishing failure with a punishment less severe than permadeath. It can work, but in the end a player will still have to start from scratch if they fail too often. There’s also a perverse incentive to restart the game after losing a few lives early on. (Perverse because it doesn’t really fit your design intentions, and leads to too much replaying of the early game.) If you do something like this, don’t make the number of lives random and hidden! This has no advantages that I can see and will only frustrate or confuse the player.

(b) There are less severe forms of punishment than having to start over. One is to weaken the character after a death: you come back to life, but with -1 hit point. Something like that. I strongly advise against this, however, because it sets up a self-reinforcing circle of failure. Dying makes you weaker which makes you more likely to die which makes you weaker which…

© However, one can make the player pay in in-game or out-of-game currencies that do not affect combat effectiveness. For an example of an in-game currency: perhaps you get uglier after each death, and if you become too ugly, the husband you’re trying to rescue won’t recognise you and will believe you’re just another monster. (That may not be very subtle, but it’s just an example.) For and out-of-game currency, think either score (lose points when you die) or achievements (get achievements for not dying, dying no more than three times, and so on).

Hope this helps!

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I also have to say that having a random number of lives where I don’t know how many there are sounds like an instant turnoff for me. I’d much rather a mechanic where you can make your character really powerful but doing so reduces the number of lives you have to work with. Let a squishy spell-caster have nine lives, but a hulking brute who can survive nearly anything only have one so they might plow through the game but have a chance of getting tripped up by a random misstep and perma-deathed on a technicality.

Thanks for the feedback agat - all very good points. You’re absolutely right that replaying the same story over and over would quickly kill any tension generated. I think, on reflection, whatever way I go, there will at least need be an option for save-anywhere.

Thanks for the feedback, ArdiMaster. Yeah, I tend to have the same issue of designing a game that’s too large in scope and essentially impossible to complete. I’ve been pretty careful this time round to keep the scope manageable, particularly with the CRPG aspects - there is only one character, there are only 10 skills and 10 only spells etc You’re point about fun versus stress is well taken and the general consensus seems to be that the proposed mechanic would be a detriment to the game rather than an asset. I’ll need a rethink!

Thanks Chris. A checkpoint system might be a good comprise between tension versus convenience. I’’ have a think about that one.

Good point there about class/party selection making rogue-likes more repayable. As it stands, for practical reasons, I’m essentially only going to implement one class (the rogue). I was initially playing with the idea of a partially randomized branching story so that each play-though would have a variant story, but this would obviously create a lot of extra work and I want to concentrate on completing a minimum viable product before I go down that route.

The approach you used in robotsexpartymurder is very interesting and something I’ve not heard of before. Sounds like a great way to expedite the player to new content on subsequent play-throughs.

I’m actually programming my game using python, so the only practical limitation I have is the amount of effort I’m prepared to put into it. Incidentally, the only reason I chose Python over one of the many IF authoring tools out there, is that I felt like it. :slight_smile:

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Thanks Victor! You’re point about not playing permadeath rules in Fighting Fantasy books is well taken, especially since I specifically mentioned them as an influence. I did the exact same thing as a kid (the old finger on the previous page tactic in case the outcome wasn’t good!).

With regards to my proposed permadeath mechanic, you’re point about arbitrarily restarting the game if too many lives are lost early is a really good one and something that would really kill the story. At this point, I’ve pretty much decided to ditch the permadeath mechanic completely - there are just too many downsides. Option 1(b) is a really neat solution/compromise, and something I’m going to seriously consider.

Thanks for the feedback Hanson! It’s pretty much unanimous that the permdeath mechanic I suggested would not go down well with a lot of players. I’ll need to rethink.

Plan B. :slight_smile:

So the permadeath approach is out.I quite like the idea of limited saves (using collected save tokens in-game), which I’ll need to ponder on more.Another option would be to use a story based approach to creating tension rather than a game mechanic.

So here’s ‘plan B’:
The hero sold their soul for immortality while drunk. Who needs a soul if you never need to face the consequences in the afterlife, right? It however transpires that when the hero dies, they are resurrected but some other poor random bastard dies in your place (in a similar fashion) and you get a vision of it happening. This approach has the advantage that it’s well integrated into the actual story and should create some tension and sense of consequence for failure without necessitating that the player ever has to start over. I guess some players would recognize this as inconsequential in a practical/mechanical sense and not be particularly motivated by it, however I imagine many players would feel kinda bad that they’ve just gotten another game-NPC horribly killed (an in-game counter would help reinforce this :slight_smile: ).

What do people think of this approach?


For the save token thing, take a look at how the first Resident Evil combined save tokens (ink ribbons) with save points (typewriters). With limited save tokens, you’d want to make sure the player can’t save themselves into a corner, so the save points are probably essential there. Actually I can’t think of another game besides RE that used this approach, but there are probably more.

Your Plan B sounds decent. I’d probably be the guy who’s not particularly motivated by it, but if it contributes to your overall “score” somehow or gets you a less satisfactory ending, it could work.

Yeah, a ‘restricted saved’ mechanic would need to be implemented very carefully. I suspect in the end, I’ll just go with a ‘save anywhere’ approach just to be safe. Regarding ‘plan B’, having deaths impact the score seems like the obvious route.

I don’t think the saved game approach is the secret to a compelling adventure. I am a big fan of the new rebooted Tomb Raider series. Autosave is built in, so if Lara dies, she comes back with (only) about 5-10 seconds replay required. This is very short compared to adventure-type text games. However, the tension is palpable and adrenalin still flows. Perhaps it is a result of small time-based things, like get off a collapsing bridge, or dodge enemy bullets.

I think it really depends on the type of game. If the game is essentially kill everybody as quickly as possible, go through a door, repeat, then you’re gonna want to save every time you’re about to go through a door. If the game can handle that for you, great. Those games are very much “in the moment” and your decisions don’t matter much anyway in the long run.

But then you have games where every decision matters, and the player is supposed to feel the weight of those decisions. Imagine you have a room full of items, not fully identified, and the room is slowly filling with lava. You only have time to grab some of the items. If you can save the game first, grab some things, fully identify them, decide if you really wanted them, then restore and repeat, your decisions really didn’t matter.

In a permadeath situation, you have to think carefully before you start grabbing things, since there’s no saving and restoring of old game states. I think the question here is about how to make decisions actually have some weight without going full permadeath or requiring the player to replay large portions of a game. In other words, how do you encourage the player to think twice before doing something, instead of getting into a mindset of “I’ll just restore if this doesn’t work.”

The ink ribbon / typewriter system in RE actually did work pretty well for this. You were never really short on ink ribbons, but blowing a consumable made you think twice about saving, and the save points were positioned so that you wouldn’t have to replay hours of the game, but you’d still have a chance to search for better items or rethink your loadout if you did die.

I come from a tabletop RPG background and always loved the sense that your choices matter and have consequences (and once, made, you have to live with them). While I love CRPGs, you can just reload and try each option until you get the optimal one. Or reload and try that fight again. You could say, ‘don’t abuse the save system’, but CRPG creators essentially expect you to abuse the system and ratchet up the difficulty with that in mind. But I digress…

In any case, after thinking about it, I agree with the posters here that perma-death (or anything like it) would not work well in an IF/CRPG hybrid. Part of the approach I’m going to take instead is that you’ll need to make moral decisions throughout the game and these will have story consequences later down the track, but will not prevent you from winning the game. As the choice and the consequences are far removed, you can’t just reload.

That kind of save-scumming sounds like a typical case of players optimizing the fun out of the game. It’s good to be aware of stuff like that; plenty of perfectly good games have a lot of the fun taken out of them by making optimal play a boring grindfest, a series of no-brainers, or overly micro-managed.

Final Fantasy III on SNES (called FF6 now) comes to mind here. Overall a great game, but optimal play meant constantly paying attention to who about to level and switching runes around so everyone could train as many spells as possible. There was also a two-spell combo that would insta-kill anything including bosses (invis and break I think), so there was basically no reason to play any other way after discovering that bug. And it was a grindfest just because that was typical back then, I guess.

Seems like “optimizing the fun out” is a well known issue now and game designers are looking out for it more, at least.