Enjoying the Social Death

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how roguelikes and other difficult systems-focused games foster the “good death.” Games like Spelunky are harsh but satisfying. Their rules are consistent and understandable, so each death is an instructive experience. Each death is also a clean end to a singular story. You start the game, build up supplies, and eventually your adventure comes to an end. There is no need for mental gymnastics when faced with respawns in story-driven games.

I think these aspects explain much of the current roguelike renaissance, but there’s another phenomenon that is equally important. We’re tackling challenging games in a more socially connected way than ever before. We don’t mind dying because we’re dying together.

In Spelunky, this social death is baked right into the game. Once a day, a set of levels is generated and everyone gets a single shot. The resulting leaderboard is a monument to the huge successes and utter failures of your fellow players. I’ve seen players who have unlocked characters (that I’ve never even seen) fail on the earliest levels while novices rocket to the top of the charts after finding a hidden cache of treasure. It’s a beautiful reminder that even the best of us have terribly bad runs.

Before the rise of latent online features like this, failure was a much more isolated event. Maybe some folks in your immediate circle of friends were playing the same games. Perhaps you were ahead of the curve and posting on BBSes. It’s more likely you simply struggled through on your own, maybe gleaning a few tips from EGM or Nintendo Power. Demon’s Souls is probably as difficult as Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but the former offers a way to directly share the burden with other players. Whether it’s leaving a warning note or taking a more active role by invading someone’s game, there is always the sense that other people are struggling along (and sometimes against) you. When you pass a blood stain, you know someone else made a mistake, just as you have dozens of other times.

There’s certainly some schadenfreude in watching videos of Derek Yu felled by enemies of his own design in Spelunky, but there is also a larger phenomenon at work here. Even games that don’t have any native social interaction tend to transcend the single-player experience. Go on Twitch at any time, and you’ll see people streaming games The Binding of Isaac, a game that foils even the best players. The community that has sprung up around the game has given rise to a host of variants ranging from traditional “no-item” runs to BOILeR, a Binding of Isaac competitive racing league (seriously). The consistent rule set coupled with random levels and enemies has turned the game into a persistent hobby. Failing is public and expected in the same way a baseball player will occasionally strike out.

In this public environment, failing in high-stakes games can become the stuff of legends. Consider one of my favorite Minecraft videos of all time:

Over 7 million views later, what would once have been a quiet failure has become a shared experience. Without Minecraft’s insistence on disastrous consequences and the technology to broadcast them, this death would have not have added to our collective memory. Challenges make for interesting stories, and now that we finally have the tools to easily document and share these stories, we prize games that give rise to meaningful, hilarious stories that often end in some sort of failure.

I’ve said it before, but I remain convinced that the most important aspect of the new consoles will be their ability to expand the game-streaming community. Removing the technological barrier to sharing gameplay videos lets people regularly broadcast, which increases demand for games that are both challenging and slightly different in each playthrough. The recent migration of Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, and Rogue Legacy to Sony’s machines suggest there is an appetite for challenge, especially when there is a community involved. Every one of these games has the potential to inspire a heroic run or a hilarious failure, and the hardware now offers an easy way to make sure these moments are captured and shared.

Clearly people are fine with inevitable death in games, just as long they don’t face it alone.