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I can’t remember a game pushing me the way Dead Cells has the past few weeks, and it’s lead to some of the most rewarding play in ages.
Like most, I’m a creature of habit, and have to really put in the work to break those habits. This is true of my desire to eat all the peanut butter M&Ms in kitchen after eating a salad for lunch, and the way I approach playing video games. The path of least resistance may not be the most satisfying one, but it feels familiar and good. It’s easy to fall back on the status quo, which usually means picking up a sword and shield—a combo I know well—and moving on.
But it’s helpful to have external forces guiding one to a better path. Maybe it’s a life partner doing you a solid, and eating all the M&Ms before you can get to them. In games, you need designers realizing players are likely to fall into boring, formulaic habits, and build methods of pushing them in different direction. Dead Cells doesn’t only have mechanics to support this; the whole game reinforces this agenda.
In typical roguelike (roguelite?) fashion, after dying in Dead Cells, you’re sent back to the start. There are meta perks you’re unlocking along the way, like additional health potions and blueprints, which drop new items and weapons into the random drops the game hands over.
The latter is what really matters because unlike most games, Dead Cells doesn’t have three, five, or even 10 weapons for the player to consider using. The game has literally hundreds of different gear options, which slot into two primary weapons and two accessory weapons. The combinations are seemingly endless, and as you unlock more gear, you’re actively lowering the chance you might get something you’re already familiar with. The only way to find out if you might like something more is to add it to the pool, but once it’s there, it’ll become harder to put together previous builds that worked. You’ll be relying on chance to make that happen.
What this means, then, is players have to ditch what felt comfortable and embrace what feels weird. This means trying items and weapon combinations that previously didn’t make sense, and seeing if there was something you missed. Most of the time, that’s the case. Part of what makes Dead Cells so brilliant is because so many of the weapons are items are incredibly useful, but your old, rotting habits have convinced you there’s no other way to play the game.
There are subsystems to needle the player even further, too. There are three main stats in Dead Cells—brutality (red), tactics (purple), survival (green)—and while all three upgrade your health, you’re picking and choosing between the three based on what color alignment your weapons have. If you’re mostly using red drops, you’ll want to continue investing in red, so you’re getting more benefits from those drops (i.e. deal more damage per hit). And once you start down a stat path, you’ll want to stick with it, which means that even if you find an item or weapon you’re rather use, it may not have the color/stat alignment that makes sense with your current build. If you’re primarily upgrading red, but the weapon is purple, it’s not going to be very useful. As a result, you may end up having to use color-aligned drops that aren’t usually part of your repertoire. At every level, Dead Cells is pushing on player habits.
Some of my best runs in Dead Cells have come when the first weapon sets the game is offering up don’t seem to work in concert with one another, and I don’t know how to use them. Not-so-coincidentally, these usually become the runs were I make the most progress, or have a meaningful breakthrough in understanding how to bend new weapons to my will.
Because Dead Cells is explicitly built on repetition, it’s easier to pull this off, but I wish more games found ways to identify when players slid into familiar combinations and purposely pushed them out of their comfort zone. If the game doesn’t demand it, the player probably won’t do it. It’s a little counter-intuitive—Why should a game make the player feel bad?—but it’s usually the case that players are overlooking systems and design because they aren’t encouraged to engage with it.
Sometimes, the only way to rectify that is by forcing them.
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