Sierra Deaths were Great (and How to Make Them Greater)

It’s a bold statement given the great frustration that dying can cause in the old Sierra games, but let me lay out why they were great and how to make them even better.

The Good:

My thesis on Adventure Games is that the Experience of Exploration is the highest goal the developer should aim for instilling in the player. A large part of that is an interesting world, but not just interesting – Interactive. If something “sticks out” in the art, the player better be able to interact with it, and hopefully in clever and interesting ways.

What’s that got to do with dying?

Deaths add interactivity, even if “negative.” If the world is too static, it’s boring. If there’s a man-eating plant, it’d be a shame if it didn’t eat you when you get too close. Even though a hazard like this isn’t “positive” in the sense that it helps you progress, it adds another element of immersion, and one that adds a little apprehension and tension.

Bonus points awarded if you can use a death-hazard for positive uses too. Space Quest 3 does just this with these little alien pods that suck you up and eat you if you wander to close. But, if you’re clever, you can lure your enemy into the same trap, adding even another layer to the interactivity resulting in the elusive feeling you’re looking to instill in the player: delight. That feeling when your Experience of Exploration meets with your cleverness.

Hints: Death sequences also yield a great opportunity to distribute a hint. If a death is the result of some “less-than-perfect” line of play from the player, it could mean that the player could use a bit of assistance. Hence the death text is often humorous (to soothe the player’s negative feelings toward dying) and insightful. Sometimes the hint is veiled and sometimes it is more direct, depending on the situation.

Speaking of bad feelings.

The Bad side of Sierra Deaths

Loss of Progress – This is usually the worst part of dying in Sierra games and has led to the mantra, “save early, save often,” which seems a bit of cop-out on the side of the designers. The ability to save anytime is really a fantastic feature that I’ve always enjoyed, but it puts a lot of responsibility on the player, and when many players were young when they played these games, the idea of saving the game each room wasn’t second nature. I wonder how many people quit these games after losing progress…

The Fix: For Betrayed Alliance 2 I’ve implemented a simple solution to this problem. Each screen autosaves the game. If you die and haven’t saved lately, you can just start the room over fresh all while allowing the player to make use of the “save anytime” feature.

Unfair or unforeseeable Death: Frustration can also come from lazy or incompetent (or just plain sadistic) design. King’s Quest 4 had a dark cave. No problem! You have a torch – but the problem is the torch doesn’t illuminate much, least of all a surprise chasm that claims your life through no fault of your own. Deaths of this nature must be avoided if you wish to keep the trust of your player.

The Fix: Be careful how you design deaths – make them fair and avoidable.

Random Chance of Death: Unlike real life, death should be predictable, not based on random number generators. Walking in front of a knife being thrown in Quest for Glory 1? That death’s on me! Running into a randomly generated shark in the water in King’s Quest 4, that’s just frustrating.

The Fix: Avoid randomness is death events. If randomness is necessary, make sure the player has some way to manipulate the variables. Perhaps King’s Quest 4 could’ve featured an item that warded off sharks?

It Just Feels Bad to Die: Dying sucks not only because you may have lost progress, but because it means you failed. Where’s the fun in that? This feeling is often subverted with a fun animation, funny dialog, and hopefully a well-placed hint for the player to understand where the mistake came into play. All of these things were present in the classic Sierra games, but a friend of mine developed an idea which I think transforms death’s “feeling bad” experience to something positive.

The Fix: His idea was to tally the amount of deaths and their unique causes in a list.

WHAT!? A list of failures for the player to be disappointed by? That’s your fix?

Yes! But what it really does is turn deaths into a collectible! If you tell the player how many unique deaths there are, don’t you think they’ll shoot to find them all? I’m even thinking of adding some “hidden” deaths for the more intrepid players!

Conclusion

Dying is mechanic that early Sierra games were known for. Some franchises used them with greater success than others. The designer’s goal is to maximize the feeling of playing in a living (albeit dangerous) world, while at the same time minimizing the frustration that can come from the mechanic. If the dangers can be used for immersion and creative puzzle-solving, that’s even better.

Sierra’s death design could have benefitted from a “nicer” approach to game-saving. An non-intrusive autosave is my solution. I’m also eager to see if the “death as collectible” idea is as popular with others as it is with me.

Let me know.

8 thoughts on “Sierra Deaths were Great (and How to Make Them Greater)

    • Ryan J Slattery February 9, 2021 / 7:44 pm

      I’ve never seen that before, but that’s hilarious! The death message being so cruel is a nice touch too! Honestly, I think that’s how the King’s Quest games death messages felt like. It was hard to find a single one that offered a helpful hint at all.

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  1. Nowhere Girl February 10, 2021 / 12:48 am

    “Ate too much amnan” – what is amnan? Something psychoactive, perhaps?… ๐Ÿ˜‰ I really like drug sequences in games (magic mushrooms in QfG1, weed in QfG3, mushroom in “Hand of Fate”, and of newer games – opium in “Heaven’s Hope”, poisonous flower in “Foxtail”…).

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    • Ryan J Slattery February 10, 2021 / 2:06 am

      It’s a made-up honey-like compound that may or may not exactly be healthy for human consumption.

      I love the mushrooms in QfG1 and how the background changes to those great colors!

      Like

  2. Nowhere Girl February 12, 2021 / 4:48 pm

    Yet something regarding the “game deaths as collectible” idea: do you perhaps know the game miniseries “Snail Trek”? It defnitely does take this approach; dying in all the possible ways is a special achievement. It it, by the way, a retro game too: it has a text parser, although in a modernised version (with hints available – I still don’t know anyway how to choose the word I want to type instead of typing it whole), it uses the EGA palette, but also has the option of 640×360 display with more colours, which is supposed to mimic the way pixels were displayed on some old screens…

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    • Ryan J Slattery February 26, 2021 / 3:08 am

      I’ve heard of Snail Trek, but I haven’t played it. I’ll have to look into it! Thanks!

      Sorry it took so long to reply, for some reason I must’ve overlooked your comment and didn’t see it until now!

      Like

  3. Paul March 11, 2021 / 11:05 pm

    Loving the “death as collectibles” idea! Seems like it’d be a good place to implement Steam Achievements, tooโ€””Die once,” “Die five times,” “Die every way possible,” that sort of thing.

    Like

    • Ryan J Slattery March 13, 2021 / 4:30 am

      Yes! That would be a great idea. I don’t know if I’ll ever have my game on Steam, though. The fact that it requires an external program (DosBox or something similar) might make that impossible? Maybe…maybe not. I haven’t really looked into it to be honest!

      I also like the idea of having “hidden” deaths for the more intrepid players ๐Ÿ˜›

      Like

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