That's really cool! Games with high difficulty where you die a lot aren't really my cup of tea; I appreciate that some people love the challenge, but for me, things like Dark Souls are really frustrating. So reading something like this where you're rethinking the death mechanic is great :D
Rethinking health and failure states
Those that follow me somewhere else on the Internet might be aware that I have slightly different opinion when it comes to difficulty in videogames. In my eyes, most statements about not giving players options to reduce the degree of challenge in games (particularly those that are very hard), range from being either incredibly exclusionary, or just very shallow. Splinter Zone, my first commercial game, already had a menu with that gave you a lot of options to adjust the game's difficulty. You could decrease damage enemies' do to you, you could increase your own damage, and a bunch of more stuff.
It was important for me to point out that even though I made the game with a specific experience in mind, I'm not in a position where I'm going to force people to play it that way, if they don't enjoy doing it. Generally speaking I think that no matter what you intend as a game designer, players will end up making games into something of their own. You can see it fairly clearly in extreme cases such as speedruns, where players are sometimes completely breaking the game's internal logic, just because it's faster doing it this way, than the way the developer intended it.
A few weeks ago, while the idea about the nature of what Aether Stone II is hopefully going to be formed in my head, I suddenly asked myself: "What if it's impossible for the player to die?"
It sounds silly, right? The risk of death and the potential loss of progress is one of the main sources of tension in action games. You can see it when you make yourself invincible in other games. Most of them start to get really boring, because suddenly there isn't any real need to dodge enemy attacks and to actually engage with most of the game's systems. I still wanted people to do that, but I also just didn't want to remove all combat from the game, because I believe that when applied correctly, conflict and violence in games can lead to very interesting experiences.
So I had to find a way to make engaging with enemies still interesting, while getting rid of the whole "you're going to die and have to repeat a bunch of stuff, should you get hit too often" stuff. So instead of just focusing on the player dying, I looked at what causes it: Healthpoints.
I basically turned "health" into a system that ties into a bunch of other stuff. First of all instead of having a bar that goes down when you get hit, the "health bar" in Aether Stone II will go up. This is tied into the characters backstory, in that she's technologically augmented in such a way that any kind of damage to her physical health gets converted into "Aether-Energy*", which she then can use to use her own weapons, tools and advanced movement techniques. You can get this energy through different means. Getting hit is one of them, but so is destroying enemies. There are also environmental elements that increase said energy.
The higher your energy is the more stuff you can do and the more damage your attacks deal. However should you exceed the limit of energy you can currently carry, it will reset to zero and your character will get stunned for a few seconds. Not enough to be frustrating, but enough to hopefully make running through everything incredibly boring and tedious. You can also avoid this reset and stun, when you press a button at a specific point. Instead losing everything, you retain half of your energy and as a bonus you'll do some kind of impressive special attack (those don't exist yet, but I'll make them eventually).
The idea behind this is that the systems that store your energy only have a limited capacity and in order to prevent harm to the user it completely discharges, should it ever reach its limits.
My hope is that turning "health" into a system that drives a lot of your core interactions with the game, players won't just run through everything and instead engage with the game in similar way as they would with a normal health system.
This whole thing is still a large work in progress and I'm probably going to adjust a lot of stuff, once this game gets in contact with other human beings, but it already comes with a huge benefit in that I let people know that they will never lose progress just because they got hit too often.
For those people that do want to torture themselves, I'm going to implement an option to literally switch off the limits of their capacitators. When they do that, they keep accumulating energy over their limits, which will keep increasing their damage output. However should they get hit even once while in this overcharged state, they will immediately die. There will also be a very punishing checkpoint system in place just for them.
Personally I like this approach, because I make my intentions clear right from the start: I don't want my players to be frustrated with this game. I want you to explore what I build and hopefully have a nice and interesting experience.
We'll have to see if I can get it working the way I want it.
*"Aether is the word I use for the strange magic energy that drives everything in the game's world and that at some point got fused with modern human technology"
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