Addicted to Death: More Thoughts on Gaming and Masochism

I used to say that my favorite games were puzzle games and RPGs. Then, for awhile, I was all about open world games. In more recent years, though, my favorite games, the ones I keep coming back to again and again, include The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and This War of Mine. More recently, I have really gotten into both Darkest Dungeon, Tharsis and The Flame in the Flood. This week, thanks to a sale in the Humble Store, I have started playing an unhealthy amount of Dungeon of the Endless.

So, yeah, I’m kind of addicted to death, my own.

I have written a fair amount about death in video games over the years, both in regards to its usefulness and instructiveness as well as its more tragic and even nihilistic qualities (see “Death Is Boring: Immortality as Character Development in Video Games” and “Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game ‘Endings’”, for example). Death is, of course, not really death in video games. With unlimited lives, saves, continues, and the restart button, video games always have an air of immortality about them. Even the roguelike and the oft used descriptor that — in part — defines the genre, “permadeath,” still allows the player the ability to have one more chance, even if it means starting over from scratch to get that chance.

Death in video games is more like pain. It represents loss and failure, so it can hurt, but it is not really ever permanent. In the roguelike, because of the consequences of permadeath (beginning from the beginning while largely not retaining any power gained in a previous run), it just hurts more.

Pain has never really bothered me, though. Okay, that’s not true, pain bothers me (It is pain, after all. It kind of “bothers” by definition.). It’s just I’m not one of those people that thinks pain is something to avoid at all costs.

Pain is useful. Pain is a signal to the body to let you know what is occurring around you and in you. It’s communication, and the nature of that communication is often tremendously useful. It warns of danger, it warns of limits, and it lets you know when you need to pay more attention to what you are doing and how you are doing it.

The lesson that I have taken from death, from pain, in my most recent experiences playing Dungeon of the Endless are especially indicative of that latter idea. The central message of Dungeon of the Endless feels a lot like it is something quite simple that after many years on this planet I still need to hear once in awhile: “Pay attention, stupid!”

It communicates that message with every death that I experience in the game.

Dungeon of the Endless is a tower-defense roguelike. Yes, you do control a party of two to four adventurers who explore a dungeon and fight monsters. These are not immobile creatures. They are not turrets. However, as you explore the dungeon, you establish production nodes in various rooms that represent industry, energy, and food. Industry is a resource used to build more production nodes, and energy allows you to research other types of nodes and also defenses for nodes (which can then be later built with industry). Yeah, this stuff should sound a lot like the elements of a tower-defense game.

To complete a level of each dungeon, you need to locate an escape point on that level and carry a crystal from the room that you started that level in to the escape point, allowing you to unlock it and allowing the party to escape. When one of your party members picks up the crystal, monsters will begin to spawn throughout the level to prevent your escape. This is mainly (though not entirely) where the most obvious tower-defense part of the game comes in.

While you can deploy your other heroes to defend the party member carrying the crystal to the exit, to be successful, what you really need to do is to have built up a series of nodes, turrets, and other defenses along the path to the exit that will hold off the creatures so all of your party members can make it to that exit.

It’s actually a really interesting twist on both the tower-defense genre as well as on the dungeon-delving-style roguelike. Combat between your party and monsters is pretty simple, enter a room with monsters, and they will automatically fight them. The only thing that you need to pay attention to is their health.

They will fight, while you watch their health bar. If a character’s health gets depleted too much, you can click a button to restore your health (an action powered by the food resource — so, yeah, have some on hand before you do something stupid or potentially suicidal in the game).

Otherwise, everything else in the game is pretty much automated, too. If you set up turrets around a node or in some other room along your party’s escape route path, they will attack monsters if they are present in or try to pass through the room. What you have to do as a player is to manage things: build production nodes, consider where defenses are best placed (within the confines of limited resources) during exploration and importantly where they should be along your future escape route, note where monsters are spawning, and build appropriate additional defenses as necessary while deploying heroes along routes when needed.

Yes, it is a lot to think about at one time. I think that is sort of my point.

Unlike some other roguelikes that I have played recently, like Darkest Dungeon and The Flame in the Flood, death of several heroes or the entire party comes quickly and often very, very shockingly quickly in Dungeon of the Endless. The two aforementioned games, Darkest Dungeon and The Flame in the Flood, toy with the player, crippling their heroes physically or mentally over time in order to begin a slow death spiral towards failure should you find no way of alleviating the current state and predicaments that those heroes have found themselves in.

These are games that revel in hopelessness, in making you struggle to find solutions, and that reward you when you do find solutions or that punish you when you do not — eventually.

Dungeon of the Endless can feel very manageable at times, as you build up your resources and thoughtfully plan out and implement a defensive strategy. Death doesn’t come in inches, though.

Death more often comes from simply not paying attention to the right thing at the right time. I have set up well defended nodes and escape routes, seen a wave of monsters spawn, deployed heroes at appropriate spots along that wave’s paths, then gotten distracted by my consideration of a second monster spawn point. The result is that I failed to realize that while I sent three heroes to fend off forces in one room, one of my faster, but fragile champions, arrived in the room before the slower tank that I sent along with her. Boom. She’s suddenly dead before I can even glance at the HUD to see her health depleting.

As the tank arrives shortly afterwards, she is overwhelmed. I can heal all I want, but she just isn’t doing the kind of damage that the other dead hero would have supplied. I rapidly waste my food supply trying to heal her, but then it runs out. Bam. She’s dead too, and the whole campaign is going to have to be scrapped. A single remaining hero will be able to do nothing about the still swarming hordes.

You can pause the game (which is essential to play, for making decisions), but the truth is that sometimes, you just forget about something like the varied movement speeds of characters and how deeply they can affect a battle and you let the automatons run, assuming they will succeed, while paying attention to movements elsewhere on the map.

I should have paused. I know that. I should have sent the heroes to a room adjoining the monsters to group up together, and then once they arrived there, sent them to the room in which combat would take place. I know that.

You know what I really know, though? I should have been paying better attention.

Other times, I’m paying attention to a room battle, managing my heroes’ health, and during that time, I lose track of other waves that are poking holes in important parts of my infrastructure in another room across the map. My heroes might survive the attack because of my health management, but they are about to be brutally and quickly decimated because power has been cut to the turrets that I needed to fend off the next wave.

I sigh because I know what I should done: “Pay attention, stupid!” Lesson learned.

Honestly, I don’t hate the game for killing me. I simply consider how I need to be more thoughtful when I plan out my next attempt. I appreciate the lesson. I know that this is the “more please, sir” approach to gaming, but, you know what? It works for me. I get less stupid, I think, each time I give this thing another try, and, frankly, that’s okay with me. Less stupid is better than where I started from.

As noted before, not every roguelike handles death in the same way, but what they do have in common is that whether they toy with us or kill us quickly, they use death to educate us. They hone us through failure, changing our attitudes about how we play and enforcing a more thoughtful approach to play. Games sharpen the mind. Roguelikes simply remind us that being sharpened is, well, sharp.