A few weeks ago I started a post about death in gamebooks, and wound up writing a post about death in games. The basic conclusion I reached is that death is fun if it's part of the learning experience, moving the player one step closer to mastery, but not fun if it's just tedious.
But what I meant to talk about what what some of the other alternatives are to death. Risk of failure is an important part of any game, and consequences are an important part of failure. Death is only one possible consequence.
This week, let's look at what a few other types of consequences might be:
Loss of Items: A tried and true method of consequence, you can always dock stuff from the player. Players hate losing things, so use this method with some caution. Items, especially unique items, are a certain measure of progress for players, so taking their shit away can feel even more devastating than a death--especially if it's permanent.
Lose Everything: Even more devastating is to completely strip everything from the player. This can be a great story technique as it introduces challenge and struggle, and at the end of the day, the player can feel even more heroic when they get all their cool shit back, knowing they don't actually need it to succeed. As long as they get their cool shit back sooner or later.
Lose a Companion: This is a technique I used in Peledgathol: The Last Fortress (pronounced Peh-led-gat-hole btw; no blurring of consonants). Early on you are introduced to Ghuzdim Halfjaw, a stalwart dwarf warrior who swears to protect you, the young king, with his life. He is quite earnest, and will, in fact, protect you with his life. The first time you die in combat over the course of the story, if Ghuzdim is with you, you instead get re-directed to a section in which Ghuzdim leaps in at the last moment and takes the blow for you. He dies of course, and he isn't there to protect you next time, but it gives you one "get out of jail free" card over the course of the story, while still making the failure seem meaningful.
Fall to a Different Story Thread: This is one that I'm using in the project I'm working on now. There's one whole part of the book in which, if at any time you fail too severely, instead of dying, you get captured as a slave and must fight your way free. It's a different story thread, and it permanently bars you from succeeding at your original goals for the chapter, as such, but it also opens up some new opportunities that you might never have had otherwise, such as a new companion who you can meet in the Arenas. Also, it's cool. (I actually use this technique several times in said upcoming project...)
Future Consequences: Maybe the consequences of a player's actions won't kick in right away. Maybe you won't know until later on what really came of the decisions, or failures, that you just went through. I'm using this in my current project as well; in my case, if you fail at sneaking into a certain location and get caught, you won't get killed, but word gets around that you were doing something sneaky. Later on, you will find certain doors closed to you. This is an extremely open ended option that packs a double whammy: not only does it suffice as an alternate method of doling out consequences, but it also gives the world a sense of breathing realism. What you do has an effect, and you'll see that effect for time to come. That can be a very rewarding game experience.
Lose Points: Rather prosaic, but surprisingly effective, if your story has some measure of tracking progress (dollars, units of time, number of zombies killed/acquired) you can clearly signal success or failure to the player by manipulating the point numbers. Everybody likes their numbers to be better.
In some ways, I might even argue that a non-death consequence is more meaningful than a death scene, because in most games, what "death" actually translates to is, "try again."
What do you guys think? What have I missed?