6 Games where you are expected to die and how that dying feels, as described on Schmidt’s sting pain index

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Games are often hard and because they are hard you will sometimes die. Dying doesn’t feel very good and being stung by an insect also doesn’t feel very good. Using this logic, and with the support of these studies (Naomi I. Eisenberger, et al. and Ethan Kross et al, 2011) that show mental pain is as real as physical pain, I’ve decided to go about describing exactly HOW not good dying feels in several titles notorious for being hard and inflicting upon you, repeatedly, the pain of death.

Since I’m going to be referring to real science I’m gonna have to outline some metrics for how I’m measuring how bad it feels to die in any given game. I’m also gonna need to outline some criteria for how a game earns a Schmidt sting pain index ranking. A lot of this is going to be based on my own experiences with these games (and I am bad at games) or the experiences of my friends with these games. So it’s subjective as hell, basically.

The games were picked based on one simple rule: Was dying a game mechanic? That means, instead of just reloading from a save point (because in the game canon the character didn’t die there, you just suck) your deaths are canonical, significant and in some way alter the way the game is played after your death.

This meant that some obvious titles got in immediately (Dark Souls) but also allowed for some more unexpected ones, such as Crusader Kings where although you definitely do die it does not actually halt the flow of the game.

I’ve decided where the games fit on the ranking list by asking several people, including myself, how bad it sucked to play that game and then averaging out the results. How bad it sucked is defined by three things:

1) How hard it was to progress in game
2) How significantly your death impacted your gameplay
3) How much the game made you want to try again after you died

They were then given a pain score between one and six and were then compared directly to whichever description I thought was most funny/relevant to the game from a sting of the comparable pain class. Additionally point three is scored using golf rules. Bigger number, less desire to return.

Each title will be described using the below format:

  • Title
  • Relevant Schmidt pain level insect Common name and (Latin name)
  • “Quote from Schmidt Himself describing the feeling of that insect’s sting”
  • Justification and comparison
  • Three defining questions and justification for (individual scores)
  • Overall pain level score

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Shadow of Wardor

(I was gonna call it Shadow of MorWar but really this is better)

Feels like: Water-Walking wasp (Euodynerus crypticus):

“Clever but trivial? A little like magic in that you cannot quite figure out the difference between pain and illusion.” – Schmidt

If you enjoyed the SOM/W games then I highly recommend you go outside, find yourself an E. crypticus and enthusiastically press it against your forearm because they both hurt about a one on the Schmidt sting pain index. And you might be into that kind of thing, I’m not one to judge.

This LOTR spinoff duet was an unexpected gem from a venerable franchise that has dipped it’s tip into a myriad of mediums, ranging from a couple of RTS games (that were bomb) to a third person slash ‘em up trilogy (which was bomb) to an MMO (which was not bomb). And many, many others besides.

This feux Assassin’s Creed style/Batman hybridised action RPG (I think? Genres are hard, yo) had a wealth of quality material to live up to and, for a variety of reasons, it did. This is not the space for genuine game reviews, however, if you want that then check out the other quality content on this site, I’m here to discuss stings. And death mechanics.

And on that note, SOM/W had both of those things, now that I think about it, with those crappy little Morgai fly hives and the Nemesis system, the latter being the subject of our sting comparison (and now that I think on it those flies bit, they didn’t sting).

The Nemesis system is actually pretty groundbreaking insofar as I’ve never seen anything like it before and therefore it didn’t exist outside of these games (because I Know Everything). Its use of death to progress the player’s machinations and influence the power dynamics of the in-game factions is both unique and impactful. The story and gameplay are both affected, with the orc that lands a killing blow on you receiving a promotion, a strength boost and also Big Ups.

This could be used strategically to quickly elevate your preferred minion to a place of power and influence or to empower undesired orcs into viable loot farms for powerful equipment. This, coupled with zero negative effects from dying, caused the pain of death in the MorWar series to make you wonder if you’d really been stung at all, earning its place as the sting of the water-walking wasp on our sting pain index.

How hard it was to progress in the game. – Not hard at all (1)

How significantly your death impacted your game play. – Death has an overall positive effect on gameplay (1)

How much the game made you want to try again after you died. – No adverse effects (1)

Overall Pain Level: 1

—————

Slay the Spire

Feels like: Ferocious Polybia Wasp (Polybia rejecta)

“Like a trick gone wrong. Your posterior is a target for a BB gun. Bull’s-eye, over and over.” – Schmidt


I’ve written about this game before, I’m pretty sure, and by the gods Imma write about it again because it’s a good game that you should play and have no reason not to play because it doesn’t even hurt that bad to play.

If you’ve ever been stung by P. rejecta and you haven’t cried then you’ve no reason to P. rejecta this title (I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.)

Slay the Spire is, and does, exactly what it says on the package; you are a person and you are trying to slay the big ass Lovecraftian tower for undisclosed Reasons. This is done in the form of card based combat whereby you try and build a deck of cards (which represent actions in combat, predominantly) as you climb.

This game follows the ever more familiar RogueLike format of your first run including Scrub Crap abilities and bonuses that slowly accumulate over the course of many runs with the intention of having a successful run be less common than not. This results in death being a necessity for progression and the game has several mechanics to soften the blow of death and entice you up the tower again.

Firstly, you get delicious unlocks in the form of cards, game modifiers and, eventually, characters. This results in each playthrough being strategically unique and encourages a wide variety of approaches.
Secondly the game challenges you to scoreboard challenges, updated weekly (I think, it’s actually been a few updates since I last played) and nothing nullifies pain like a competitive drive.

And finally; the game offers you Condescension From A Whale.

Much like the sting of P. rejecta, this results in repetitive, small scale hurts that can irritate but never truly damage your will to stick your hand right back into that wasp nest for whatever it is that wasps make so that you can eat it (if you haven’t watched It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia then this isn’t gonna make a lot of sense as mostly wasps make a kind of vomit-paper).

How hard it was to progress in the game.- Hard but the same kind of hard as the gib board wall you are currently trying to headbutt your drunk ass through. Achievably hard. (3)

How significantly your death impacted your game play. Death’s impact, much like you in this game, is insignificant. (1)

How much the game made you want to try again after you died. Repeat attempts are strongly incentivised. (1)

Overall Pain Level: 2

Honorable mention: Crusader Kings, whereby you experience firsthand the immortality that comes with having children as we all, in truth, live on through our descendants (Wisman A, Goldenberg JL., 2005)

—————

FTL

(Faster Than Light or, alternatively, Large numbers of hornets)

Feels like: Baldfaced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata)

“Rich, Hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a rotating door.” – Schmidt


I would absolutely describe the experience of playing FTL as “crunchy” and if you would not you are wrong and that is OK.

This is another game that I’ve written about before and, like a talented harpist (harper? harpy?), it plucks on a lot of the same strings as the previous entry, only more so and more skillfully. So I won’t linger on this title too long.

FTL, as a game, is beautiful and compelling, its music is great, its balance is great, its sparse story is great. It’s great. I love this game. It has just enough narrative to make you want to push onward through the many deaths you will experience and rewards repeat attempts with ship unlocks and achievements.

Insofar as your death is canonical, this one might be a cheat entry. I like to think there are a bunch of pilots all flying at the same time and that it’s just one out of a hundred that get through. Or that the war is played out endlessly, over and over again with the sides taking turns. Or that it’s set in parallel dimensions.

Ok, this one being on the list is as bald faced as the hornet it stings like, but I’m the one writing it and I say it stays. Also it’s a three on the pain index. So there.

How hard it was to progress in the game. Just hard enough. (3)

How significantly your death impacted your game play. Frustrating on a long run but each run is not so committed that it deters you. (3)

How much the game made you want to try again after you died. Like, yeah, a lot. Although RNGesus is a real thing here sometimes. (3)

Overall Pain Level: 3

Honorable Mention: Hades, you are the son of death and are constantly derided when you fail to escape Hades, it’s too perfect for this list to ignore. Death is not at all a deterrent, however and in many ways the very spirit of the game is to defy death.

—————

Darkest Dungeon

Feels like: Fierce black Polybia wasp (Polybia simillima)

“A ritual gone wrong, Satanic. The gas lamp in the old church explodes in your face when you light it” – Schmidt


I don’t think any description of pain on this list more directly and exactly captures the essence of the game I’m using it to describe than this one. I mean it pretty much sets up the actual premise of DD, minus Ol’ Man Cthulu.

I’ve honestly not gotten very far in this game. Its pitch black tone, its grueling combat, its complete disregard for your characters feelings and lives all grind me down too quickly for me to be able to get very far. Its difficult in the same way that the last title on this series is but is pushed down a couple pegs due to its pretty compelling narrative.

And the narrative is compelling, capturing the essence of any dungeon crawling game and then making that essence miserable and slimy. The drive to find out what lies behind the next door, even though it’s almost definitely gonna be bad. The relief at reaching home alive so you can tend to your wounds, both physical and mental. The dread anticipation of gearing up for another delve. It’s all there.

The mechanic that death plays in this game is the loss of your characters. Unlike the previous titles this does very little to slow the flow of the game, with new recruits ready and (initially) eager to dive into the manors murky bowels in the place of your fallen comrades.

For me, this use of death is a real kick in the balls. I find myself growing attached to each character, imagining backstories for them and trying to coddle them for as long as is possible.

So when some crappy cultist or tentacled nightmare sees fit to remove a significant part of their cranium that represents, in my eyes, not only the loss of one extra turn per round and the relevant tactical abilities of their class. It also represents the rude and abrupt end to hours of emotional and practical investment.

The game mechanics themselves aren’t actually that hard to learn and work with but the effect of death is as sanity destroying as that most metal of wasps; P. simillima. Smliamlilma? Simmillmima.

How hard it was to progress in the game. Fundamentally achievable, mechanistically. (3)

How significantly your death impacted your game play. It’s not a great time. (5)

How much the game made you want to try again after you died. The game doesn’t care if you come back, the game laughs at the weakness of your resolve. (5)

Overall Pain Level: 4

—————

Dark Souls franchise

(I, II and III as well as Bloodborne and Demons’ Souls)

Feels like: Velvet ant (Dasymutilla klugii)

“Explosive and long lasting, you sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep fryer spilling all over your entire hand” – Schmidt


It was always gonna be on this list. There are so many reasons for it to be on this list. If you haven’t played it but you know about it, that’s a reason for it to be on this list. If you HAVE played it and haven’t finished it there’s another reason for it to be on this list. If you have played it and have also finished it then you are probably gonna be all like “nyeee it’s not even that hard, why is it a number 5, what are you some kind of wussy boy?”.

To answer your questions in reverse order; Yes I am and I’m not ashamed and because we are not ranking difficulty here, we are ranking how painful it is to die in a game. It IS painful to die in Dark Souls. Sure you can level up and eventually losing your built up currency doesn’t really matter and fundamentally every enemy is defeatable. I know all this, you know all this.

But when you first meet that bloody Capra demon and he just nukes you 15 times in a row. When it straight up guilts you for being a monster (if you killed Priscilla then you know this is true). When actually finishing any and or all of the games was considered an achievement for a respectable amount of time (and I’d argue still is). When those things are true then I’d say it’s pretty fair to say it sucks to die in these games.

And in much the same way that only one velvet ant bite hurts not nearly as bad as the nibbling swarm that is now covering your legs, the pain of any one death does not compare to the agony of the hundreds of deaths you are going to experience across your first playthrough. The only reason Dark Souls doesn’t get ranked a 6 is because it feels So Freaking Good when you finally win (unlike the swarm of ants covering your legs).

Bonus points for the emotional pain everyone in the entire game world is feeling all of the time.

How hard it was to progress in the game. Notoriously hard. (6)

How significantly your death impacted your game play. Not that bad all things considered in terms of resources or progression but heavily in regards to psyche. (5)

How much the game made you want to try again after you died. Not only the game itself but the culture that surrounded it drove players to try and try again. (3)

Overall Pain Level: 5

Honorable mention: Sunless Seas/Skies. Equally grim but far more whimsical. And far more cannibalism.

—————

Battle Brothers

Feel like: Bullet ant (Paraponera clavata)

“Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel” – Schmidt


And so we come to this. The bullet ant of video games. Battle Brothers.

When I originally found this game I had just finished a Mount and Blade binge and was in the mood for an open world mercenary sim where you just rove around taking contracts and being baddasses. And that is almost exactly what this game is. Almost.

Except not quite. I’ve read the guides. I’ve researched the builds. I’ve bought the gear. One hundred a twenty three hours I’ve played this game. And I’ve never breached the end game.

Sometimes it’s a simple mistake, a miscalculation in combat that sees three of your men die unnecessarily. Sometimes it’s forgetting to account for the increased food requirements of those promising new recruits you picked up in the last town. Sometimes it’s a pair of lindwurms right outside the citadel that you’ve been guarding that caravan for three full days to reach.

Whatever it is, this game just reams me repeatedly. Which translates to it’s a hard game, but as we established in the previous entry, we aren’t here to talk about hard, we are here to talk about pain. And dying HURTS here.

There are two forms death can take in Battle Brothers; the individual deaths of your bros (the accepted term on the forums for any individual battle brother) and the final death of your whole company.

The individual deaths hurt in the same way the individual deaths hurt in Darkest Dungeon, and for many of the same reasons.

Except. Darkest Dungeon had you make up your own backstories for the characters and the involvement you have is relatively self driven. In Battle Brothers every unit has a background summarising their life up until you hire them for your company. You see them grow from simple farm hands to veritable killing machines. You pit them against terrors and tyrants. And then an orc decapitates them. It’s intense. It’s brilliant. It’s a bullet ant on your earlobe.

How hard it was to progress in the game. You’ve just got your first full company? That’s cute. (6)

How significantly your death impacted your game play. When your brother dies, you die. (6)

How much the game made you want to try again after you died. You came to the wrong county, friend. (6)

Overall Pain Level: 6

Author: Marius Cederman

References:

Schmidt Pain IndexGame Pain Index
11
1.52
23
2.54
35
46

Naomi I. Eisenberger, et al. Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science 302, 290 (2003); DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134

Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, Tor D. Wager. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2011, 108 (15) 6270-6275; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1102693108


Schmidt, J. O. (2016). The sting of the wild. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-colorful-pain-index-of-the-stinging-ants-bees-and-wasps-around-the-world

Wisman A, Goldenberg JL. From the grave to the cradle: evidence that mortality salience engenders a desire for offspring. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2005 Jul;89(1):46-61. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.89.1.46.

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