LET IT DIE: GAMES AS SERVICE AS EVIL

This was originally posted as a zero star “review” of Let It Die on March 6th, 2017 on my old Wordpress site, the following is an unedited repost for preservation purposes.

Do you ever worry that we don’t talk about numbers enough? They’re so vital to so much of “game design”; not only in the obvious surface numbers of experience points or levels, but in the hard mathematics of system-driven play and the mechanical deliberateness of finding the right amount of frames for a Castlevania whip or a Gunstar Heroes bomb catch. Numbers are perfect for conveying rules and information, and the cheap thrill of artificial progress when you succeed in making a number slightly bigger is undeniable. This isn’t to say numbers are untrustworthy as they’re essentially neutral, but they do mesh well with the human brain which can turn them into a dangerous tool.

That brings us onto Let It Die; a nasty, manipulative, repulsive little potpourri of all the worst kinds of numbers; a coin-operated treadmill placed directly in front of a brick wall. Let It Die has been routinely argued by many to be one of the best examples of a free-to-play game of all time. Whether that statement is true or not, the only conclusion we can draw from it is that this model of free-to-play games is at best exploitative and at worst ethically questionable.

Let It Die is a roguelike, Soulslike and videogamelike where you tale control of a collection of disposable bodies to ascend the Tower of Barbs. The premise of climbing a tower revolves around the most simple videogame number; get to the next level. The tower has (at time of writing) 40 levels separated into four segments of 10 floors. Each segment ends with a floor dedicated solely to a boss battle, defeat that to advance to the next segment where all the enemies will have much higher numbers and you feel self-conscious about your own inadequate numbers.

That’s only the beginning however, Let It Die has a dump truck of bonus numbers to pile on top of those. Joining the party are experience points, character levels and classes, two types of currency, capacity for body storage, quality of equipment, death bag size, Death Metals and season ticket passes. Most of that probably doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t played the game, and Let It Die is ecstatic to show off how huge and complex it is right from the start.

The opening segment of Let It Die plays like it’s constructed for the sake of game journalists in the noble cause of getting sympathetic day one takes. The initial concept for this service comes to us from another dodgy videogame number Suda51 and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture, who employ their trademark and conveniently GIFable “quirkiness” throughout the first hour of the game. We have women on motorcycles, references to retro games and a skateboarding grim reaper in swirly glasses, most of which is immediately pushed into the background once the tower climbing part of the game (all of it) begins but it’s enough to tick the “Japanese and wacky” box. After ensuring the audience that the proceedings are going to appropriately silly Let It Die dumps you into the waiting room, which acts as the safe zone outside the tower and hub world for system management. Once you get here every aspect of the game is over-tutorialised in excruciating detail, which makes it come off as much more intimidating and complicated than it would be if the designers had said nothing. Among these tips you’re given a stack of resources (and an even larger stack if you’re a PlayStation Plus member) which normally would be purchased via the micro-transactions.

It’s easy to see why Let It Die was able to earn the benefit of the doubt from so many people early on. The amount of information piled onto the player at the start creates an illusion of complexity and sophistication that no journalist will dare question during their first impressions. There’s also the promise of free resources and daily login bonuses which, when connected with the fact that the lower levels of the tower aren’t very difficult to climb, creates the idea that the game is somewhat forgiving and the micro-transactions aren’t going to be intrusive at all. This is a dirty and very deliberate lie.

Let’s talk about what the micro-transactions actually are; there are season ticket passes which allow you to use a special elevator for 24 hours to travel straight to floors you’ve already unlocked for free while having more space to carry items, materials and equipment. Using the regular elevator costs more money the higher the floor you go so having to rely on it can be a problem when you’re low on cash, making the game more annoying without a season ticket pass but it never feels essential. You can also buy material packs for developing better equipment and weapons (which IS essential) but they don’t contain anything you can’t find lying around the tower if you know where to look. The main attraction of the micro-transactions is the Death Metals; little rainbow coloured skulls that grant you the ability to trade one to bring your character back from the dead immediately.

Let It Die contains all the usual frustrations of videogame death by halting your progress, but because you’re rotating between multiple fighters you’re also losing a commodity. When a fighter dies you not only lose the ability to play as them, but you also lose everything they were carrying or picked up along the way. There’s three ways to reclaim a body; first there’s the grinding option where you can buy it back with in-game money, but the cost rises significantly the higher up the tower you go so this becomes a chore late into the game. Secondly there’s the risky option, when a fighter dies it re-animates itself as an enemy on the floor it was killed on, if you can get back there and defeat it you’ll be able to reclaim it for free. The drawback to that is you’re rolling the dice again by potentially losing another fighter, which stacks up the loot you’ll need to make the first option viable. There’s also the issue that defeating your fallen avatar will destroy all their equipment and character perks further draining out of resources, and in a game so obsessed with numbers as Let It Die that’s still a rough deal.

With all that in mind it’s obvious that the optimal option is the third one; use the Death Metal to resurrect your fighter immediately for no extra cost or penalty. Upon every single death the game will tease with this carrot. The cute woman riding the motorcycle from the opening greets you politely and offers you the choice to spend a precious Death Metal for a revival. If you don’t have any Death Metals choosing the “Yes” option will take you straight to the PlayStation Store where you’ll be confronted with approximately eighty billion choices for purchase including some that come in at over £100. Hover over the “No” option and the motorcycle lady will make a sad little droopy face that you can immediately convert back into a smile by scrolling back to the “Yes” option. Selecting the “No” option will make her have a little strop, claiming to understand your decision while deliberately trying to make you feel bad about it in the same manner of an emotional abuser. It was inevitable that some jerk in a suit and tie (and skinny jeans and gold-trimmed sneakers) was going to take a look at Dark Souls and come to the conclusion that its tension-building high stakes “oh no MY STUFF’S GONE” approach to death was crying out to be monetised. It’s still shocking how blatant and manipulative it is.

The appraisal for how Let It Die handles these in-game purchases comes from the idea that having free alternative options to paying means that the “choice” in buying Death Metals lies solely with the player. Not to sound like a jerk, but this is a take that shows no understanding of mathematics, human psychology or game design. It’s irrelevant that everyone going into Let It Die is fully aware of the micro-transactions and can make a decision on whether they want to pay or not beforehand; no-one is more prone to wasting money on gambling than someone who thinks they’re smart enough to beat the numbers. Anyone who has logged onto the internet within the past five years is familiar with the concept of “clickbait”, but it’s still an undeniably successfully tactic because even when you know that the actual article is going to be a waste of time the headline is designed to massage your brain’s curiosity spots. Choices are fickle, choices can be swayed, sometimes choices can be made for you without you realising.

Therefore you can’t absolve Let It Die of its free-to-play nature by merely claiming that the micro-transactions are the player’s “choice”. That assumption implies that the game has a neutral stance on your decision and isn’t an expensive, meticulously crafted slot machine invested in earning its budget back. Game design can be extremely manipulative; Let It Die isn’t only manipulating you by presenting the choice with a cute anime girl and threatening you with the alternative busywork if you say no, but it’s also in the game’s interest to manipulate you into playing for as long as possible so that it can manufacture as many deaths and roadblocks as possible.

First, there’s the problem that Let It Die isn’t exactly a well-polished action game. Despite being a celebrated action game “auteur” for over a decade Suda and his team have never excelled at the action part of it; this is the same company who made chainsawing a zombie’s head off about as satisfying as tearing up a phone book underwater. Deaths often feel cheap, the targeting system and dodge mechanic aren’t reliable, the controls are over-complicated and a lot of the weapons (especially guns) are clunky and unsatisfying to use. You can tap the attack three times in a row quickly, put the controller down and watch your character flail around in a full combo without extra instruction. This is probably supposed to mimic the commitment to an action of a Souls or a classic Castlevania but it feels more like programming a path for one of those little robots you sometimes got to play with in primary school.

But there’s also the way Let It Die is structured, there’s a lot of subtle methods that the game employs to keep you on the treadmill. Like Ratchet and Clank you have to use weapons (including your bare fists) hundreds of times to level them up to make actually viable to use on the higher floors. For decent character buffs you’ll need to grind certain areas to find special skill mushrooms. You’re going to be constantly grinding for both kinds of currency since it’s essential for maintaining and purchasing the equipment that the game is borderline impossible without. As you climb higher up there’s a sharp difficulty spike in each new segment of the tower, usually not in an interesting way, but rather the same kinds of enemies and traps you’ve been running into before but now with better armour and more damage. This means you’re going to have to be constantly researching and developing your own weapons and armour, which the game is all too happy to turn into a labouring process.

To start off you’ll need to search the tower to find blueprints to build equipment in the first place, of which there are dozens upon dozens of, then to make it actually useful you’ll have to upgrade it multiple times. This process requires you to search the tower even further for specific materials (again, of which there are dozens of different kinds) with every individual piece of equipment requiring its own combination of materials. So your choices here are to play the game a lot to find where specific materials are likely to be, figure out what you want to upgrade and grind certain small parts of the tower over and over again, or to give in the micro-transactions once again, and use your Death Metals to expand your item storage and season tickets to increase how much you can carry at one time.

All this clunky obnoxious design exists only to keep you on multiple treadmills at once, but it’s not only to enhance the amount of opportunities for death and frustration as there’s a more insidious intent as well. The first half of the tower has its struggles but broadly speaking it’s not that difficult, but considering you’ll still be in the stages of figuring out all the game’s systems and the early stages of equipment management you’ll rack up a lot of playtime anyway. Let It Die intentionally uses this against you when progress during the second half of the tower comes to a crashing halt. The vast majority of players are going to have no chance against enemies (especially bosses) on the later floors without developing some high tier weapons and armour. This is a problem since at the later stages of the game it’s impossible to meaningfully upgrade anything without finding some very rare coloured materials that are dropped randomly in a mere handful of locations.

So the grind kicks in harder than ever, you’ll be doing the same loops of the same locations (which are deliberately not placed on a floor with an elevator so you can’t fast travel to them) desperately hoping the next boring run is the one that gives you what you need. Every time you’re rolling the dice, every attempt could be a death that adds to the endless grind cycle you’ve been trapped into, and the higher up you are the more the cost and work will pile up if you slip even once. Every second wears away at your impulse to give in and buy the materials you need and the Death Metals that would make this so much less stressful. And you’ll do it too, because Let It Die suckered you in at the beginning, giving you an impression that this wasn’t going to be like those *other* manipulative free-to-play games. Now you’ve played the game for tens of hours, how bad would you feel if you had to stop now? You can’t stop now. You’d feel better if you just paid.

Some players will defend all of this, insisting that they’ve got tons of playtime out of it without having to pay anything and genuinely like the game enough that they don’t mind having to grind. But having a high playtime is not something that is inherently valuable; again game design has the capacity to be highly manipulative and it’s odd that people in general aren’t more critical of this; only in videogameland do the words “compulsion” and “addiction” get thrown around so often as terms of endearment. I played this game for an obscene amount of time, I don’t know exactly how long it was, I don’t even want to think about how long it was, but it was a number of hundreds of hours, and all I got out of it was this essay.

As far as anyone who enjoys Let It Die as an action game goes, that’s their opinion, but it’s also the final nail in the game’s free-to-play coffin. Some people will argue that the game keeps itself fresh through its moving tower and randomly generated floors, but the level design in general isn’t exactly mind-bending and all “randomly generated” means in this case is what order the exact same rooms and combat scenarios are stuck together in. Still, there’s enough good ideas and mechanical depth in Let It Die to understand why a certain type of person might get something out of it, maybe enough to forgive the micro-transactions, but what is inarguable is that what merits this game does possess are all compromised by its free-to-play nature. There’s so much bad design in Let It Die that only exists because it’s in the developer’s interest to maximise playtime and stress the player out at the expense of a coherent and varied experience. Celebrating this brain poison as “good design” or “fun” because it’s effective is not very critical, and praising Let It Die for its success with mechanically driven micro-transactions is ridiculous because it’s the perfect case study for how they make games worse.

There is one final line of defense for Let It Die however, one thing that supposedly absolves its crimes and puts it on a higher pedestal than its free-to-play brethren. There’s an argument that the decision to spend real money on reviving your in-game character ties into the game’s themes. Many areas in the towers contain piles of disposable fallen bodies, you yourself are constantly switching between bodies and dumping the lower level ones you don’t need anymore, all your equipment is a torn together improvisation that breaks easily and also has a shelf life. When your character dies you’re being asked to make a decision, how much does it mean to you, how much does a person’s possessions and abilities affect your assessment of their worth? What is the value of human life and how does the structure and mentality of this world change that? It alters your relationship with the on-screen avatar, because their loss can be your loss if you don’t have the “willpower”, possibly adding a tension to the action that even a Souls game couldn’t hope to recreate.

There is nothing artistic about a transaction.

Exchanging money for someone’s art is an unfortunate necessity of this capitalist hellscape we have carved out for ourselves. People need to eat, live and sometimes fund future projects, we buy their art to support their work as an acknowledgement of this. Let It Die breaks this contract between creator and audience through its manipulative tactics and its push for snap decision purchases that can cause people to lose track of how much money they’re paying. It’s a dishonest, unbalanced and dangerous relationship to have with any piece of media. When you pay in Let It Die it has nothing to do with supporting the game or anyone who made it, you’re merely trying to get something back that the game has taken from you and that is not something that deserves to be respected. Or to put it another way; Monopoly wouldn’t be an effective parody or critique of capitalism if everyone playing actually lost their homes at the end. Not to mention, an artistic reading of the game gives more credit to Grasshopper than they probably deserve. Between the money grubbing Let It Die, the work with Electronic Arts, selling the company, the god damn chainsaw zombie game and the upcoming Switch exclusive No More Heroes 3: Hang On A Sec We Found Some More Heroes (again!), maybe it’s time to admit the anarchic imagination that brought us killer7 has long dried up and now they’re predominately motivated by business.

Let It Die barely deserves to be recognised as a videogame at all; it’s a proud holder of the “games as service” model. If it wants to judged as a “service” then that’s fine, because the only service it provides is a string of time wasting exercises held together by petty victories and that’s not something anyone needs in their life. Under normal circumstances Let It Die wouldn’t warrant getting a score or a rating as a videogame whatsoever, but seeing as it’s such a devoted fan of numbers it can have a big fat zero to chew on while it thinks about what it’s done.

To close on a personal note; as someone currently in the process of losing their home and not having any expendable income right now I am the target audience for a huge free-to-play project like this. The fact that it took so much of my time and got me to spend a tiny amount of money that I didn’t have, all while I was hating every second of it while mentally deconstructing and being aware of every design decision implemented to give me those impulses, is terrifying and repulsive to me. If you haven’t played this game, don’t. If you’re currently playing it, stop as soon as you can. If you’re an employee at Grasshopper Manufacture, call your mom yea? Go back to your childhood home and see if you can find the reason why you wanted to make videogames in the first place, because I seriously doubt it was to make this kind of trash.

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