Video games are constantly trying different ways to make you feel like the game you’re playing has exciting, tangible stakes. Some are more creative about it than others.
Without some sort of stakes or risk, victories in a video game feel hollow and unexciting. That can be fine for a low-stakes, low-impact game, but can make it hard to get all that invested. Conversely, if the stakes are too high or the punishments too severe—say, the game destroys your save file after a single death—players might feel alienated and just give up.
Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly drawn to difficult games, games like Bloodborne, Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Monster Hunter. Each of those games makes me feel risk in a different way, which can be frustrating or exhilarating depending on the circumstances. I’ve played other games like Undertale and Nier: Automata that have subtly come out into the real world with me, breaking the fourth wall and making me consider my game progress in a different way.
All that’s gotten me interested in the many ways that games can make us feel like our in-game actions matter in this age of interconnectivity, online events, Souls-alikes and perma-perma-permadeath. I set out to make a list of common ways games go about adding stakes, and came up with five.
This is the most common punishment that I have seen for failure in a video game, and usually one of the lowest-impact. Almost all games do it, though it takes a number of forms. First and most prevalent, if you die in a game, you lose whatever time you put into the game from the last checkpoint or save spot. Maybe that’s 10 minutes, or maybe it’s 30 seconds. In exchange for that time, you presumably got a chance to practice your skills. You may do better on your next try.
This kind of punishment was common in classic arcade games—where you not only lost progress but had to pay to try again—and carried over to early home console games. It rarely stings in modern ones, because few modern games has checkpoints that feel punishing on their own. (They do still turn up from time to time—Gravity Rush 2 comes to mind as a recent example of a game with irritatingly inconsistent checkpoints.) Games like Super Mario Odyssey use a time-tested hybrid approach, giving you a set number of lives to spend reloading at nearby checkpoints, but eventually kicking you back to the start of the level on repeated failure.
Bunk checkpoints notwithstanding, I usually consider the loss of time due to my failure as a player as fair. It rarely even registers for me as a real-world cost to dying in a game. Yeah, I have to redo the last five minutes of this game, and if I hadn’t died, I could have spent that five minutes cleaning the house or watching TV. The amount of time I lose still factors into how much a given failure stings, and losing a fruitful, 20-minute hunting expedition due to a last-minute faint in Monster Hunter: World can be enough to make me quit playing the game for a night. But without failure, I wouldn’t learn and improve, and that cycle of failure -> learning -> improving -> success is such a fundamental part of so many video games that it barely registers as punishment.
The next method of adding stakes is becoming more common thanks to the rise of FromSoftware’s Souls games and their many imitators. In a Souls game, you can only level up at designated safe spots. Leveling up also resets the area around you, meaning the enemies you just defeated will be right back where they were. However, in between leveling up, you carry your unspent experience points around with you in the form of souls. Die while carrying a bunch of souls, and you lose them. You get one chance to get them back, and if you die a second time, they’re gone for good.
The Souls system has been widely imitated in part because it strikes a fair balance between adding stakes and unfairly punishing players. When I’m deep in uncharted territory in Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3, I’m unusually alert and cautious. The more souls I acquire, the more alert and cautious I become. As critic Chris Dahlen put it: “I imagine this is how a feral cat feels, prowling the same neighborhood night after night, looking for fights.” My eyes are peeled, and I’m constantly thinking through how I’ll react to an attack or other unforeseen circumstance. It’s a completely different headspace than I’m in in the middle of, say, a scary encounter in Resident Evil VII. The latter game may be aesthetically frightening, but if I die, I just restart at a checkpoint and am free to try again. I don’t actually lose anything, aside from a bit of my time.
The Souls approach isn’t the only way to make players risk actually losing items or progress, however. There are lower-level risks, like how in Splatoon 2’s difficult Octo Expansion, you have to spend a certain amount of currency to begin a level. If you lose the level, you lose that money, and you can get to the point where you’ve taken on in-game debt to keep trying. Games like The Witcher 3 and others let you gamble on your performance in mini-games, risking more money for greater rewards upon victory. Monster Hunter: World lets you spend a token before a mission that gives you extra rewards if you succeed, but is spent for nothing if you fail.
There’s also the family of Rogue-inspired games, which are commonly called Roguelikes or Rogue-lites or, I don’t know, probably a bunch of other super specific terms that lots of people argue over. Games like The Binding of Isaac, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Dead Cells or FTL: Faster Than Light, where you typically lose all of your progress, items, and power-ups on death and have to start over from the beginning. Newer games in the sub-genre tend to let you gradually unlock permanent upgrades to improve your chances over time, but the fact remains that when you die, you lose a lot of stuff.
When I’m doing particularly well in Dead Cells, I’m more alert and aware of the stakes than when I’m playing, say, Mega Man or Castlevania. I begin to play more conservatively, and my heart picks up when I find myself thrown into an unexpectedly violent situation. The game’s randomness contributes to that—you never get the same weapons and items twice, which makes the items you’ll lose on death even more precious. I recently lost an incredible loadout of weapons and items that worked so well together—turrets that froze enemies, swords that did bonus damage to frozen foes, argh it was so good—and when I died, I knew I would likely never see that loadout again. I’ve mostly gotten used to death in Dead Cells, but that one hurt.
Whether I’m dropping my souls in Dark Souls or losing my hard-earned items in Dead Cells, eventually I get used to losing and start to take a more detached relationship with my progress. The more numb I become, the more it takes to make me feel actual regret over losing. The thing that ultimately makes this kind of approach work is that it gives me some degree of agency over how much I’m risking, and when. In Dark Souls, I can always turn around and cash in my Souls and level up. In Dead Cells, I can always play cautiously, keeping my distance from danger and progressing slowly or methodically. If I decide to take a risk, it’s because I’m betting that my skill will be enough to see me through. I prefer it when games give me a lot of choice in how to engage with its riskiest systems, because the more I’m able to control the stakes of the bet, the more I’ll own the outcome. Even if that occasionally means owning my own owning of myself.
As more and more video games go online, more are experimenting with limited-time events and challenges. So when I say “gives you a limited amount of time,” I don’t mean that the game puts a countdown timer in the corner of the screen. (Though that does add to the pressure and difficulty of some games.) I’m talking about how games have begun to open up difficult challenges that must be completed during a window of real-world time, after which they close, either for a set period of time or forever.
Destiny 2’s Whisper of the Worm quest is a recent example of that. The quest i super-tough, and due to how it’s designed, you can only try it once an hour or so. It first arrived on a Friday, then vanished on Monday morning. Last weekend it came back, and it’s gone again. That limited time window adds stakes to the endeavor, and makes each failure sting a little more. I got the Whisper in a couple of attempts on Friday, and my excitement upon getting it wasn’t just tied to having a good new weapon; it was also tied to a slight feeling of relief that I no longer had to worry about getting it. It was like getting my homework done a couple of days early.
Some games don’t just limit the amount of time you have; they limit the number of attempts, as well. IO Interactive’s fantastic Hitman reboot used limited-time stress really effectively with their one-chance-only Elusive Target assassinations. For a few days, a target would appear somewhere in one of the levels. You get one chance to kill them, and if you blow it, you can’t try again. That one’s a double-whammy, in that it limits your time window and limits the number of times you can attempt the challenge at all.
A couple of games have attempted, with limited success, to take the “limited tries” thing to its most extreme logical conclusion. It’s a grabby concept: you get one shot at the game and if you die, you’re done. Forever. A pair of 2015 early access games, Upsilon Circuit and One Life, both proposed that “perma-permadeath” approach. Unfortunately if unsurprisingly, neither game actually came out. One Life fell off the map and Upsilon Circuit was cancelled in 2017.
A game doesn’t have to delete itself on your first death in order to make you feel constrained and pressured, of course. I usually find time- or attempt-limited special events to be effective and enjoyable, provided they’re just that: special events. I’m not sure I could handle an entire game that was built around that kind of severe limitation (nor could most people, if past failed attempts are anything to go by), but when games I otherwise play at my leisure introduce special limited time challenges, they usually provide a nice little jolt of motivation.
When games involve other people, I tend to find that even their most mundane aspects feel more “real” than they otherwise would. The involvement of others could be something as abstracted and longstanding as leaderboards, which have been around since the first arcade games. Completing a race in a minute and thirty-two seconds doesn’t mean all that much taken on its own. But if you’re shown that someone else completed the race a second faster, you’ll immediately put your own performance in a different context. You want to go even faster and take the top spot, in part because someone else will know you beat them. It matters in a different way.
It’s similar to the anger I sometimes feel when I’m repeatedly defeated by the same person in a PvP game. It’s just not the same as losing to the same tough computer-controlled enemy, because I know someone else is on the other side of the exchange, gleefully shooting me. Maybe they celebrate afterward. Maybe their screen-name is designed to be a taunt. My rivalry with this other player takes on new dimensions, because I know they’re a person just like me.
When I’m playing a cooperative game with other people, our wins feel like they “count” in a meaningful way simply because they’re shared experiences. Sure, my friends and I were just pushing and manipulating a bunch of polygons in a pre-ordained direction, but because we coordinated and strategized and did everything together, it feels like we actually did something. And that’s because we did actually do something; just not something in the physical world. (Incidentally, this ties in with my theory of why the lives of those who unknowingly lived in The Matrix were still “real” in at least one sense. A far worse digital prison would’ve created a separate simulation for each prisoner.)
The galaxy exploration/survival game No Man’s Sky recently got a major update that, at long last, allows other players to join your game in corporeal form and cavort around the galaxy at your side. I spent a bunch of hours last weekend building a new base and charting a nifty moon I found, two activities I’ve undertaken plenty of times in this game in the past. There’s a difference now, however: I can now invite my friends into my game to check out the things I built. The idea of inviting a friend to see my base has changed how I approach constructing it. Aesthetics matter not just because I’ll be sharing pics on social media; now I’m going to have company. It’s something I’ve felt in Animal Crossing and Minecraft, or even how I look at my living room when I know guests are coming over. People are going to see this, so we better get things looking nice.
As more and more games experiment with more and more ways to go online and connect their players, those players’ shared experiences—whether cooperative, antagonistic, or simply parallel—increasingly define what gives the game “meaning.” It’s been true of competitive games for decades, and is becoming increasingly true of games of all types. When other people come into my game, I begin to see myself, my accomplishments, and my failures through their eyes, which gives each of those things a new dimension of meaning.
Your save file is probably the most tangible evidence of your progress in a game. It’s the part of the game that is most incontrovertible yours; you own it. Like a lot of people, I tend to talk about save files in terms of time investment, treating them almost like physical objects. I’ve got a 200-hour save file for The Witcher 3, and that’s usually how I describe it. When I imagine it on my hard drive, it feels heavier than some of my other saves.
Game saves are precious possessions. They are to be protected and backed up. One of the worst bugs a game can have is one that deletes or corrupts save files, as seen recently in Dark Souls Remastered and No Man’s Sky. If I were to drop my Nintendo Switch in a lake tomorrow, I’d be less upset about losing the hardware and far more upset about losing hundreds of hours of progress in Breath of the Wild and Stardew Valley. Walking around town with my Switch in my backpack feels like walking around with a wallet filled with hundred dollar bills. When Nintendo adds cloud save backups in September, I’ll finally deposit all that cash and breathe a sigh of relief.
While some unfortunate bugs can corrupt or erase save files, very few games mess with saved games on purpose. That’s likely because most game designers understand how precious our saves can be. However, some clever games do come up with ways to make us manipulate, risk, or even sacrifice our save data.
Undertale famously manipulated your save such that, under normal circumstances, you couldn’t start a new game “fresh” unless you manually destroyed your old save. Until you did that, you had to live with the consequences of your actions. The devious visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club broke the fourth wall similarly by having a character “infect” your computer, requiring you to doctor your save file in order to recover from certain decisions and see certain scenes. And most famously, the philosophical android beat-em-up Nier: Automata ended with a wonderfully difficult bullet-hell sequence that, in its climax and without warning, had other players from around the world sending their ships in to help you persevere. That joyous moment of collaboration was followed by a difficult choice: would you sacrifice your save game to help another player, somewhere in the world? Say yes, and the game deletes your save and all your progress.
Unlike so many sacrifices in so many other games, that one felt real. In fact, I’d say that messing with or purposefully deleting your save file is about the most “real” a game can get, short of actually coming into your house and smacking you on the knuckles every time you lose. It’s a double-edged sword, of course, and if a game is going to mess with your hard-earned progress, it had better be sure to justify such extreme action. But when it works—and in the three examples I named, at least, I’d say it does—it can be unforgettable.