Game Design Themes: Sacrifice

[verb] Give up (something important or valued) for the sake of other considerations

Giving up. It’s not really something you associate with the timed-reward structure of most games. Gamers have become accustomed to a steady accumulation of, well, pretty much everything, so who in their right mind would ask players to give something up?

Trading within games is a well-established mechanic, and one that players will recognise immediately from the world outside of games. You give something of value, and you expect something of equal (or hopefully greater) value in return. Whether it’s foraged rupees for a boomerang, or disenchanting epics for their crafting components, the bargain is clear and mutually beneficial.

The differentiating factor with sacrifice is that it’s not a straight trade as in a barter system, but the immediate surrender of something of value for the potential of future benefit. The implication is that the future benefit will be greater than the immediate gains of retaining the thing that is sacrificed, however this is not guaranteed. Sacrifice is almost universally an act of faith.

One common aspect of sacrifice – be it to the gods for a bountiful harvest, or to the volcano to ensure its peaceful slumber – is that the thing to be sacrificed must be of value and significance to the person offering it. Food and drink are perhaps the most common of sacrificial offerings, which is hardly surprising given their immediate value for survival. In ancient greek culture it was normal to sacrifice a symbolic amount of wine (normally the first cup at a meal) as a libation to the gods, a practice that is still common in eastern cultures today. Many cultures practice the ritual sacrifice of food animals, such as the muslim Eid al-Adha or festival of sacrifice, in which a domestic animal is sacrificed and the meat divided between the owners, their relatives and neighbours, and the poor.

Fortunately, the practice of human sacrifice – though common throughout ancient history – is universally treated as murder and exceptionally rare nowadays. Though extremely popular in mythology as the image of a terrified virgin girl tied up and left to a terrible fate by cowardly villagers (usually to be saved in the nick of time by the hero of the tale), the true image of human sacrifice more often resembled the mass execution of slaves to follow their master in the afterlife.

Regardless of the exact form of the sacrificial offering, its value more often than not was in its scarcity. In game design, scarcity is often overlooked as a limiting factor outside of defining the game’s difficulty. Whilst scarcity of ammunition is a common method to force a conservative strategy on the part of the player, it’s seen as far less acceptable to limit the rewards offered to the point that the player is unable to earn something that she desires.

Scarcity, whilst the more common basis for value, is far from alone. Investment is another means by which the player may imbue her possessions with value. Many games offer some means by which a player can invest some combination of time and resources into the creation of a new item or artefact within the game world. Whilst crafting or customisation tools are predominantly the domain of role-playing games, these mechanics are finding their way across a broad range of genres to encourage player investment.

Finally, beyond the physical bases for value, one aspect that cannot be overlooked is the player’s emotional attachment to a potential sacrificial offering. Whilst emotional responses to games are far less predictable than the simpler (and heavily conditioned) responses to scarcity and investment, skilled game designers have a wide range of narrative and psychological tools with which to manipulate a player’s emotions in ways both subtle and profound. It is in exploiting the emotional value a player assigns to an item or character that the most significant reaction to sacrifice may be observed.

There are 3 levels of sacrifice immediately apparent: token sacrifices, major sacrifices, and self-sacrifice.

Token sacrifices

Obviously the thing should be of value to the player, otherwise it’s not a sacrifice. The aim here is to prompt the player to assess what’s important to them within the context of the game. There might not necessarily be a right choice here, and the result of the sacrifice might not be an absolute requirement for progression.

Token sacrifices may be renewable resources, though it is expected that the player should invest some effort to replace her sacrifice lest it devalue the act.


The player could be asked to sacrifice score.

As play progresses, game gets more difficult and the player runs the risk of losing. At any point the player can retire, permanently sacrificing a relatively larger proportion of score in order to not lose. (Although score is accumulated throughout the game, as the player’s last act is one of sacrifice it cannot be reclaimed later.)

Score could be used as a proxy for player power, a resource to be exercised in order to perform some action. The player would have to find a balance between accumulating score with low risk strategies, or risking the loss of score for potentially higher gains

The player could be asked to sacrifice her most useful weapon.

Determining which weapon the player favours and asking them to relinquish it for possible future gain is a difficult choice for many players. It’s also a great twist on the cliche of having all your weapons except your weakest magically removed in an FPS.

The player could sacrifice a pet, or other such replaceable resource.

Great examples of this are the Warlock sacrifices in World of Warcraft, where a summoned demon can be sacrificed for a temporary bonus such as brief invulnerability or increased damage. As demons have a high summoning cost sacrifice is usually an act of last resort.

Major Sacrifices

The player is asked to sacrifice something which in normal circumstances a person would never consider sacrificing.

In general terms, the point here is to offer the player a moral dilemma. On the one hand the player’s natural instinct should be to protect whatever it is she is asked to sacrifice, but on the other hand there must be a valid moral imperative to the sacrifice. (Or at least the appearance of one.) Again, the sacrifice might not be an absolute requirement for progression, however the apparent consequences of refraining from the decision should be significantly detrimental as to warrant the decision being difficult.


The player could be asked to sacrifice the life of an NPC in order to prevent more lives being lost.

The climax of Mass Effect 2 can put the player in the position of choosing NPCs for potential suicide missions and thus losing them.

The player could be asked to sacrifice her friendship with an NPC.

Several Bioware RPGs require the player to sacrifice her friendship with one NPC in order to become closer to another NPC, such as choosing to let Loghain live and join your party causing Alastair to permanently leave in Dragon Age: Origins.

This makes for a great setup for the cliched return of the NPC as an adversary later on.

The player could be asked to murder an NPC as an order from a superior.

The player could choose to sacrifice an NPC for considerably greater power.

This is used to its logical extreme in the Star Wars games as the critical differentiator between the Jedi and Sith factions.


Self-sacrifice is the ultimate act of selflessness, and an oddity in games where players are conditioned by the medium to look for an optimal winning condition. There are significant barriers to encouraging a player to sacrifice himself in order to progress in a game: from a logical standpoint it’s impossible to progress once you’re dead, and from an emotional perspective you have to convince the player to care more for the outcome than she does for himself to satisfy the narrative impact of the sacrifice.

It’s probably for this reason that self-sacrifice is an exceptionally rare mechanic in games, and for games where it does exist the cost is generally mitigated by other game mechanics that allow a rapid return to life. The final, permanent death is rare enough that it is normally considered the ultimate form of punishment or failure within a game.

One game which makes use of this mechanic exclusively is the short but provocative art-game ImmorTall, where the player’s only available choice is whether or not to sacrifice himself to save a small group of civilians caught in a war.

It’s important to distinguish here between self-sacrifice as a specific gameplay mechanic, and self-sacrifice as an emergent gameplay style. Taking World of Warcraft as an example, the Paladin class gains the ability to sacrifice the player’s life in order to confer temporary invulnerability on another player. This gameplay mechanic is extremely useful, however its serious nature is negated by the prevalence of resurrection abilities and negligible cost of death. For the player it’s a decision taken lightly as a normal class mechanic.

An example of emergent gameplay might be a situation where, in order to prevent the death of another player, a player attracts the attention of monsters and as a result sustains damage resulting in death. The first type of sacrifice requires a deliberate choice and action on the part of the player, with no uncertainty as to the outcome for him. The second type is the natural consequence of taking on an overwhelming foe, and the player may not always be certain of death. In a game where the cost of death can be crippling such as Eve Online, emergent mechanics such as these are literally life-and-death decisions in the game: players in smaller cheaper ships will often sacrifice themselves in order to prevent larger ships from escaping combat and thus earn their fleets valuable time to turn the tide of a battle.

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