Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
Jepp: 1) Please keep critiquing games by building new ones :)...
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1. The Invincible Hero
You are ein superhero – perhaps of your own design. One super-power that wouldn’t be up to you, though, is invincibility. You cannot die.
But wait! Where would the challenge be?
I put it to you, sir, that you cannot die in any game. Termination of your current existence leads to reloading of an old savegame, or respawning in a different location. In the first case, the death is erased from history and never happened, and the second is not death by any sane definition of the word. Death, look it up, is pretty permanent.
Currently, games punish you for your character expiring. A huge problem with all games is that they don’t know by how much – the inconvenience may be a matter of replaying the last few seconds, or trundling down the road from the respawn point (not just deathmatch games – WoW and San Andreas both use this). Or it could be hours of work, or a huge, utterly dull journey back to where you were. This is disastrous. It’s enormously off-putting to new gamers, incredibly frustrating for existing ones, and any dissatisfaction you felt with the game – particularly if it’s related to the reason for your character’s demise – is magnified tenfold. Modern games like Half-Life 2 do a good job at trying to limit this, with both frequent auto-saves and unlimited quicksaves (of which, by the way, it stores your last two – an achingly sensible precaution I’ve been begging for for years). I’d like to see time-based autosaves (every five minutes, keeps the latest two of these) in tandem with crucial event autosaves (so you can go back and make an important decision differently hours later) and manual quicksaves (for the personal touch). But let’s see what happens if you can’t die.
Superheroes don’t die a lot anyway – hardly ever. The risk is never their own demise, it’s that they might fail. And the objective they might fail at is almost always saving someone.
But wait! Failing is just like dying, only worse because you don’t see why you should have to restart when you’re not dead.
Yeah. Let’s do away with that too.
So you can’t fail?
The exact opposite: you can fail. It’s okay. You carry on. Lives were lost, it was partially your fault, but there’s no reason to force you to erase that part of your life and save everyone.
What’s to stop people reloading and making sure they do save everyone?
There’s no overwhelming reason to stop this, but I will anyway just because it ought to be interesting: you can’t save. You can pause the game, in case the phone rings or whatever, and when you quit the game it auto-saves before it exits, but when you start it back up it loads that save and deletes it. Short of restarting the game completely, you have to live with your mistakes.
So how do enemies stop you from saving people?
By killing them, duh. There are three ways for this to work:
a) The hostage situation. Easily the best excuse for stealth in any game – you have to take out the hostage-takers before they realise an attempt to do so is even underway. If they smell a rat, they’ll do it. Sometimes you’ll save one but in doing so alert another HT and lose the corresponding H or Hs. Sometimes you’ll do it perfectly, an artwork of silent takedowns, goon avoidance and lateral thinking. Sometimes you’ll screw it up and everyone will die, and however many goons you beat up in vengeance, you’ll still feel empty inside and you’ll still know it was your fault. This is what games should be all about – making you feel bad.
b) The time limit. There’s nothing stopping you, but bullets will slow you, enemies will wrestle you to the ground and powerful blows will knock you down. And if you don’t get to the bomb before it detonates – the psycho before he reaches the victims – the controls before the plane crashes – hundreds of people will die. Being fast means dodging bullets, incapacitating nasty bad guys swiftly and dashing by the rest.
c) The villain. He’s as fast as you, as strong as you and also completely invincible. He’ll pounce on you as you try to get to the innocents or the weapon of mass destruction and throw you to the floor, fling you across the room, grab you by the neck, smash you to the ground. Sometimes it’ll be the other way around – he’s trying to get to the objective and you’re trying to stop him. In both cases it’s a case of administering a blow that causes your opponent enough grief to give you time to get to the objective and do what you need to do before they catch you up. I’d love to see a system whereby prone-time is proportional to the force in newtons administered to your head – so if you use the physics system perfectly and drop the corner of a concrete block on his eye, he’s down for the count.
Naturally any mission could be a combination of these – you only have a certain time after the goons discover you to get to the hostages before the villain does, and if you meet each other first it’s the fight that’ll determine the winner. It should also go without saying that we’ll need a ragdoll recovery system, whereby someone flung across the room with ragdoll physics knows how to get back up and into normal animations without too big a glitch. No small feat, but I’ve heard it’s now possible. Knocking a villain down will allow you to drag him into a position to be victim to an even more devastating attack – chuck him under a falling block of masonry, throw him into a meat-grinder. And being invincible shouldn’t mean this stuff doesn’t hurt – getting shot in the face should be a blackout as well as a knockdown, and when you awake in a second’s time, you’re groggy and weak. A good punch causes vision blurring, and sometimes you’ll be taking so many hits you can hardly see or run in a straight line.
Success would mean feeling like a real hero, genuinely making a meaningful difference and feeling cool. Failure would be tragedy rather than irritation – no chore, no inconvenience, just irreplacable loss and anger at yourself. Sadness is something other mediums relish in making you feel, but games aren’t very good at yet. It is – like fear on a rollercoaster – a good thing. Irritation is never good, and games are extraordinarily adept at inspiring it at the moment.
More Game Design Ideas
Graham: Hmm. I wasn't sold on the whole "no dying" thing at first, but you put forth a fairly decent argument for it. I like the idea of "irreplacable loss", that your acts are meaningful and final and can't be undone unless you restart the game from the beginning. It would make everything you did more important, and everyones play through the game more unique. Rather than everyone having the same "I won" story, some people would have the "Oh, they all died" story, and that'd be great. The big losers.
But I'm still not sold on the idea of me feeling bad because I failed to rescue the hostages but am, myself, still alive. Have you met any hostages in games recently? Complete tossers. If they die, it's an irritation because the mission is failed and I have to do it again before I can progress. If they die and I can still continue on regardless, well... then who cares? I'm not saying I'm a sociopath who feels no compassion, but just that it takes some actual *character* in the characters to make me care for them, and Anonymous Hostages #6 doesn't really cut it.
Perhaps if the game had some sort of system of social degradation. If you were a superhero in a city like GTA, then maybe you have friends. You like your friends because they *do* have character, and are seen frequently during your play. So when you succeed at a mission, they congratulate you, and are friendly. But maybe when you fail, they throw eggs and fruit.
Or something. That probably wouldn't make them very good friends. Or make it a very good game. But like I say, would I feel bad if the hostages died? I'd probably just be irritated, because the game would shift from being about Winning to being about Perfecting. The challenge is no longer to get all the way to the end, but to get all the way to the end by doing everything perfectly. And if the hostages die, I haven't done it perfectly, and thus have to try again from the beginning.
Nick: The 'no dying' mechanic was put forward very well in the delightful 'Lego Star Wars' where dying is a high score killer but nothing more serious than that. (ie autosave every 3 seconds) If you care about unlockables then you will learn the l33tness required not to die so frequently. If you just want to play through the game and see the sights then you can without pause. It's one of the thoughful features that contributes to it being the most fun I've had playing games for months.
Tom Francis: You're probably right that I'm underestimating the perfectionists, Graham. I think what I'd do is have some very easy missions for training, and expect people to restart if they don't get those right (but not force them to by any means), then once they get the hang of it keep the difficulty like that for a while, so that by the time they get to one they might actually fail at, they've come too far to want to start again.
The hero would definitely need friends, as you say, but I'd have them counsel him - firstly that he should be prepared to lose a few, and - if he does - comfort rather than admonish him. Talk about how many he did save (if any) and what a difference he's making, and how serious the threat is and that he's doing well to fight it at all, more than most, etc.
Then of course you have the problem of him not caring too much about the hostages. I wouldn't want to try to develop them as characters because there are going to be loads of them and they might all survive to the end, so that would be an impossible writing task. Rather, just make sure they're well-modelled, human, genuinely terrified and not in any way annoying. What is up with the annoying hostage clichÃƒÂ©? How do developers not foresee that they'll be annoying if you make them annoying? It's hardly a leap of logic.
This, like physics-based combat, is something that's only recently been made possible. Previously it was difficult to even make a character look scared - except with a fixed mask of terror - now we could actually make them cry.
Heh. Here's an idea for a consequences-of-your-actions device: you have to drop the hostages back to their families when they're saved, or tell the families of their fate if you failed. Potentially rather harsh, and difficult to stop it getting repetitive.
Tom Francis: Nick - yeah, that helped a lot. But it still had the pod race, which imposed absurd failure conditions (why do I have a time limit for this section? Can't I just come first overall?) and was unreasonably difficult for a kids game. Hell, it was unreasonably difficult for me, and I've come first in that bastard race in Mafia, and am currently breezing through every race mission in San Andreas without even catching sight of the other drivers after the starting pistol.
Graham: Perhaps it would be a good idea to extend the dynamic nature of the city beyond that of just your friends reactions - i.e. negative consequences other than a specific failure state.
Say for every crime you prevent, it discourages further crime to be carried out. Criminals know that if they commit a crime they're likely to be foiled by the heroic Superheroman, so they don't. But if you continually fail, then crime doesn't just continue, maybe it rises. Maybe as you travel through the city you notice signs that things are getting worse - less people out walking, more stores that have closed down and boarded up, more prostitution etc. It means that if you fail a mission you don't have to do *that* mission again, but perhaps now there's some other mission you have to do which you didn't have to do before. The flipside is that this may be seen as a bonus for the player though, since it's increasing the length of the game, and an obvious downside to the development time.
Perhaps if you fail enough missions in a certain area then that area simply becomes closed off. You have failed that part of the city, and while you can continue on, it remains as a permanant mark upon your record - the wrong side of the tracks, if you will.
It should all be about providing negative consequences to the player without arbitrary annoyances like deaths and restarts.
And that race in Mafia may have been a complete bastard, but Mafia is still one of the most underrated PC games ever.
Jason L: Note to non-Pentadacts: Cf. the save and difficulty structure in Darwinia (darwinia.co.uk), which was discussed on Old James :)
Nick: Yes, that Pod Race was a world of evil, all the more amusingly hard if you were playing with a friend since unlike every other part of the game when one died a restart was required. The only good thing I can say about it was that it brought us together in a united front against the game. A sort of blitz spirit if you will. I'll also admit to using an invincibilty cheat to prevent the loss of lego bricks on that level to obtain the superkit piece, after all I only have so much hair.
And yes Jason, good spot on Darwinia, although it's still possible (and a little too easy) to get into complete failure states something that I feel is against the spirit of the discussion; that there should be consequences for failure but that soldiering on despite them is worthy behaviour.
Jason L: Yeah. I can't personally imagine how to get into a fail state without actively trying, but anyway I was just referring to the save structure. When it works, at least, it does The Right Thing.
Graham: Darwinia is on my 'List Of Worthy PC Games I'm Too Stupid To Have Played Yet', but it is rather a big list.
I'll get round to it eventually.
Jason L: Same here, with different games. It almost makes me miss the days when this was a small medium. I think it's been four or five years since we passed the point at which an employed person could physically play all the games which truly deserved attention. Me, I'm storing them up for old age and "supporting the industry." Curse progress!
To get back to on-comment, Prince of Persia also had a very interesting method for (near-) invincibility - though that one may have been too backstory-specific.
And to follow on the post about quests, and the idea about city deterioration: Assuming that not every studio has the skill do design failureless systems or Valve's talent for creating convincing characters - what if uncoolness led to less interesting stuff? I'm again thinking of Darwinia/Uplink, where challenging missions are 'deeper' than unchallenging ones, not just 'steeper' - and results lead to promotion/demotion.
Coming full circle: Maybe if you're a crappy superhero, you could start getting upstaged or assisted by fellow supers in the news (ala the Marvel universe). Even better! Maybe second-rater "leagues" could start muscling in and "helping out" on your tasks/territory! (message: "You're only as good as these twerps") *I'm* smiling...
Graham: Thing is, I'm not an "employed person", and that's actually one of the things preventing me from playing all the games on the list. Funny how that works.
To continue the idea of Leagues, perhaps being able to *join* the Leagues would be a good idea. You start off in the bottom rung, in the Amateur Savers Society, and gradually climb your way up the ladder till you're in the best league of superheroes around. This doesn't necessarily have to correspond with dealing with AI sidekicks or whatever, but merely a reward system where you get access to better headquarters and equipment as you go on. I guess the whole thing is akin to being able to store more cars in GTA3 as you progress. Except more interesting.
I think maybe this'd create a decent paradigm between the success/failure, as you move up or down the ladder based on your achievemnts in completing missions.
Oo! Perhaps if you really sucked, and people kept dying everytime you tried to save them, then you'd get an offer to join a league of evil-doers? Perhaps they think you're deliberately killing the innocent hostages, or perhaps they just think that your being shunned from the city's favour has put you in a position to feel disenfranchised, and thus are giving you the chance to be remembered for something *else*. Although to be honest with you, creating *an entirely different game* just for the people who suck probably isn't the greatest idea ever. But it'd be cool.
Jason L: If I could accomplish that design by an act of will, I would make "fallen" characters hunted by progressively more difficult heroes, leading to inevitable failure - while forcing them to rely on progressively larger numbers stupid AI henchmen and gadgets. It limits the size of that game, and it's canonically correct too!
Tom Francis: Heheh. The ultimate insult. "Oh, I'm sorry. It's just, you've let so many people die. We just assumed you were evil - we didn't even consider anyone could be that incompetent."
More seriously, if it went along the lines of "You can't save them. Your talents lie... elsewhere." it could be ace. The game is already compatible with alignment symmetry, a term I just made up. By which I mean, whether you win or lose a mission, the game carries on. That means you could switch sides, and the progression along the plot line wouldn't be affected - the eventualities of the good or bad guys winning are already factored in to the design of the next mission - specifically, it'll be more or less independant of what happened before. Only your character and friends change, not what remains to be done - for both sides.
Let's quit our jobs and non-jobs and make a superhero game.
Tom Francis: Sands Of Time did indeed have the beginnings of a great save/load alternative, but you could still easily get screwed because they mindlessly went along with the 'limit everything' convention in game design. Here's my question - if I've gone back two seconds, why don't I have the same amount of sand I had two seconds ago? Rewinding time has never made any sense. They need to just admit that the timescale they're rewinding relative to is not a special one made up just for a pile of sand in a dagger (what is even up with that?), but our timescale. It's rewinding for the player, not for anyone in the game. Let's get our failure system conceptually coherent here, folks!
Short version: it was great but it should have been unlimited. And scrap the sands of time guff - it's a game function, just like save and load. No-one (intelligent) feels the need to integrate those into the game's mechanisms.
Note! System Shock 2 didn't either. It had a regular, out-of-game save/load system. It just happened to also have quantum entanglement thingies that could respawn you if you died. It was fundamentally different to loading or lives, because the world didn't revert.
Graham: "Let's quit our jobs and non-jobs and make a superhero game."
"No-one (intelligent) feels the need to integrate those into the game's mechanisms."
One of the things I actually liked about Sands Of Time was the way it all made a kind of logical sense, in itself. Admittedly I hate when games try to integrate the save/load thing into the game - trying to find freaking typewriters in Resident Evil, for example - but the 'telling the story in retrospect' thing seemed like decent justification for many of the games mechanisms, and the Sands of Time gubbins was a decent way of explaining the arbitrary ability of being able to rewind time. To me, it's the equivalent of Valve justifying the on screen HUD by way of the HEV suit (which in turn justified health kits, armour upgrades, and so on). Verisimilitude is important, and a lot of these things go some way to creating a sense of cogent universe.
Tom Francis: I find them generally lame. I mean, the HEV suit doesn't even have a helmet, so it hardly accounts for the HUD. HUDs wouldn't make any sense to a game character anyway - he knows how badly hurt he is.
I can't let the topic of retrospective as a device in game narratives pass without mentioning Monkey Island 2. "You're telling me you died?" "Er, no, that can't be right."
I miss Guybrush, but I fear that going back and playing Monkey Island 2 again would just result in disappointment. I need a new game with as many ideas executed with as much wit.
Tom Francis: Might I recommend the 2005 Chateaux Psychonauts, sir? The Schafer grape is particularly sharp this year. I also hear it's coming out in England soon.
Graham: I've heard good things and plan on playing it, but I always thought vintage Gilbert better than Schafer.
I was thinking maybe I'd try some of the games on the aforementioned list. Morrowind, Planescape: Torment, or perhaps even some game with the initials 'D' and 'E'. Quite terrible I haven't played these games yet, but I guess I just fell in with the wrong crowd.
Tom Francis: Amusingly I actually failed the Containment mission the first time I played it. I wiped out all the virus but had only collected 160 odd souls, so there was no way of making my Darwinian quota. They've since reduced the number required on that mission.
It took my flatmate and I at least an hour of frustration before we worked out it'd be easier if only one of us was playing. I did it in five minutes after that.
I liked to imagine that Darwinia wasn't even saving when I quit, but that changes I made to the world were being written straight to disk as I played.
I appear to be posting this a day later than intended.
Bobsy: Firstly, that's a fantastic idea. There's something awfully romantic about a superhero and supervillain genuinely being locked in a never-ending struggle which neither could win.
Secondly, HEV suits do have helmets. The dead Xen explorers you encounter at the end of HL1 are all behelmeted. In fact, it's the presence of a helmet that adds credability to Gordon's remarkable resistance to headcrabs, along with the security guards and government soldiers, although Gearbox were happy to invent the fantasy of soldiers and security guards TAKING THEIR HELMETS OFF and becoming prey to headcrabs.
Jason L: That was originally my opinion too, but welcome to deathmatch - no helmets. Same with the orientation course in 1 and the suit while it's hanging in the lockers; also the oxygen supply would have to be pretty chintzy for the underwater bits - too chintzy to offer any value to a helmet. I guess only interplanetary teams get the full rig. Overall, Gordon's resistance to headcrabs remains a mystery. Here's hoping they don't bring the Wachowskis on board and write a psionic anti-headcrab field into the story for the third chunk :P
...Maybe there are electives in alien combat at MIT.
Tom Francis: Heheh. I noticed those dead HEV dudes in Xen too (fat lot of good their helmets did them), but for Gordon I was, as Jason is, going by what it looks like before you step into it - I can't see where a helmet would come from, certainly not a boxy one like the other HEV suits.
I wish he did have a helmet. Quite apart from the headcrab resistance and HUD explanation, it would mean we didn't see his face even in out-of-game artwork, a la The Master Chief. I don't like knowing what Gordon looks like. The whole point was that he didn't look like anything, he was you.
Hermes: Your next assignment is to go to the Brain Slug Planet and not wear helmets.
Jason L: Oh God do we ever need that line to be in a sci-fi movie.
I wish there was a helmet too, but I never minded knowing what Gordon looks like. I feel that the genius of Valve's transparent characterization is not to pull you into the game world, but to pull you into a role in that world - if you see what I mean. I enjoy being Gordon, to the extent that I know who he is - throwing trash at guards, fuming at the Black Mesa dips with their broken equipment, dreaming of crowbar-murdering his squadmates, and all. It helps that his appearance helps set the game apart - he looks fine, but you wouldn't look twice at him if you met him IRL. No Buffman stereotype, but no spindly geek stereotype either.
Jason L: Oo! Maybe it's the glasses. Nobody else in the game world has the same glasses that Gordon does. They must have a Bluetooth link to the suit with holographic projection on the lenses and be structurally headcrab-couple-proof.
Jason L: Actually, there's an idea. Headcrabs presumably "fire" their damage along a vector against hitboxes just like every other non-splash actor. I'd like to see an SP mod for HL1/2 where a (yellow) headcrab "headshot" = instant death. Can you imagine the tension? Even when you know where they are, you still have to dodge as you attack so they catch your chest if you miss. Maybe the mod could have an HEV headcrab zombie model - the camera pulls out, it twitches a bit as the headcrab couples, then just uses the zombie animations and AI to walk/crawl randomly away...probably not. Neither game seems to support different types of death ala Quake/UT's gibs.
Tom Francis: Half-Life had gibs, I recall - they were horrible. Organs, bones and everything. The mounted guns would shred marines into bloodied messes. HL2 had the zombie bisection death, too, so both 'support' alternative demises. I did always want to see proper headcrab posession, though - not just set pieces where it happens. If any headcrab could possess a combine or rebel, there'd be an interesting 'tide' to battles.
The only problem with buffing headcrabs is that it makes saw blades and explosions inviable ways of killing zombies - both turn it into a much greater threat than before, so you'd be better off just squeezing past them politely. It'd also make the black headcrabs rather an anti-climax.
Jason L: I thought players couldn't get gibbed, just mobs? I need to go back and check now.
Well, with sawblades you already have to deal with the headcrab afterwards - which I find annoying, so I only use them for multi-kills, headshots, or as a last resort anyway. With explosions, they already burn the headcrab. No change. Zombies which block your way are suddenly an actual threat? You'd rather avoid them? Yes! :) Finally, I was wrong to specify yellow crab headshots only. For some crazy reason my brain at that time thought they were the only ones that coupled to the head. Coupleable hissers would be less distinctive, I admit - though given decent head-defensive skill their poison would still be a factor.
Jason L: Veering back vaguely on topic, I was on an indie-game-downloading jag today when I found this. While it is oh so very crappy in many ways, it claims, and seems, to include many of the features on the combat wishlist for Das Ubermensch - physical hits, dynamic recoveries... I think the recoveries from knockdowns are still scripted, though. In any case, a possible prototype.
Tom Francis: Lugaru is nuts, but a good point - I'd forgotten how it worked. I've always wanted people getting up from ragdoll knock-downs, and apparently Oblivion had it when my friend on X-Box World went to see it. They weren't sure if they could polish it up enough to keep it for the full version, but it looked good to him.
I fixed your leaking tag.
Fat Zombie: Lugaru DOES have those dynamic recovery thingies. It works very well, although it's usuallly to fast to see.
I like your idea. That game would be AWESOME. Now we just need a character creation process, and it would be the offline equal to City of Heroes. What the hell; Equal? BETTER!
Jason L: Sue 'em, Tom, sue 'em!
Tom Francis: Heheh. Honestly, I'd just like to play a game like this. But being Superman kind of ruins the choose-your-own-hero possibilities.
Jason L: They boned it, of course - now, to limit everything, Superman has a *stamina bar*. Genius.
Tom Francis: Oy gevalt! Why always with the limiting, mainstream game developers? Eh?
Jason L: Much later:
Re time and limiting: Number None's upcoming Braid. Almost certainly woo!
This just occurred to me on a reread - in the original proposal, we see the suggestion that Das Ubermensch should try to prevent/hide/delete savegames behind the scenes. In the later post about Hitman: Blood Money, we see that Hitman's developers "should do jail time" for preventing/deleting saves. "Woe unto ye, hypocrites" etc. :)
Tom Francis: Heh. But Blood Money allows you to save, then deletes the save when you quit the game, thus screwing you over if you want to do something else and come back. The Invincibles would always save when you quit, specifically so that you can come back to it later. It would only 'delete' in so far as it would replace that savegame with a more up-to-date one the next time you quit. From the 'too busy to play for hours at a time' perspective, it's the opposite philosophy.
Ledundead: The Invincibles? Is that your prototype name?
Malagate: Sounds like the action game equivalent of Animal Crossing, you might have to include a way for the game to recognise when you've quitted without saving (i.e. just unplugged it) so that it can do something about it. It would have to be nothing too bad though, as it would suck to either have a system crash or some other kind of power related accident and come back to find out that the mission you were doing is auto-failed and everyone hates you.
McFiggy: This would make a fantastic game, reminiscent somewhat of Dr.Who (in terms of callousness, relative invincibility etc)
Jason L: Courtesy of one of the PCG Podcasts, Champions Online has some portion of The Invincibles. You create both your hero and his archnemesis who keeps coming back in all the big quests...
Mobba: I didn't read all comments, but I know for a fact with only one save game, I'd get stuck in a clipping 2 days into the game and have to start over. Otherwise I like the rest of the argument.
Alex: heavy rain, anyone?
Superhero Games – Some Ideas | Pc Gaming | Gaming Daily: [...] people he’s failed. The solution? Well it’s not mine I’m afraid, a while back Tom Francis wrote an excellent idea for a game in which you play as an invincible hero. You can’t die, [...]
Lampica: Great ideas. I have always been partial to the permanent death philosophy. But in a game that is non-linear enough that starting over will not be repetitive.
NOLF did some things really well that relate to this concept in some ways. Some things I loved about the original No One Lives Forever that combined to create a fantastic experience I have yet to find in any other game. No health pickups. You could replenish your armor but your health was non-replenish-able during the course of any missions. No death traps that you had no way of being prepared for and re-acting fast enough unless you had already been the victim at least once. Many games often throw things at you that you will almost certainly be killed by at least the first time. Only after you have reloaded a save or come back from a checkpoint armed with foresight of what you are about to face will you stand much of a chance. Even with no health pickups, and even without it being an excessively easy game, I was able to play through all of NOLF the first time without dying. There were a couple exceptions to this though. The fat lady viking opera singer on the rooftop was a stupid puzzle boss that was setup so you would likely die many times until you figured out the trick, the stealth level where you had to get something from the offices without hurting anyone was a a re-load fest. But aside from those two instances the whole game could be played through as one continuous, exceeding well paced action adventure that did an exceptional job of immersing the player in the roll of their character. Getting through mission after mission without picking up health packs, or regenerating, and without dying and reloading really took the level of immersion to a level I have seldom experienced in video games.
Ok, but onto my thoughts on your Invincibles concept. I think it must be key to make the failures work and not temp people to start over or make them feel annoyed, or inspire trainers to hack the autosave functionality to allow manual saving, or cause people to make backups of saves before the game can delete them.
I think a good way to make that work is to make failure just as engaging as success. With great cut-scenes, interaction with the environment which should be distinctly effected by both success and failure. Easter eggs which can only be found through failure, but have some that can only be found through success as well. Like maybe even have some things that could happen differently in a mission 3 levels later because of a failure earlier. Like you must stop some villain from derailing a train by destroying his his super-magnetic gauntlet. He gets away whether you succeed or not. But if you fail he gets away with his gauntlet intact. Then much later, you have an opportunity to get that gauntlet for yourself, because of that earlier failure.
The rewards system would be even better if it was randomized to some degree. So it would not become common knowledge on msg boards that if you want the magnetic gauntlet you should fail the 4th mission. If he gets away the gauntlets might appear in several different situations later in game, but they might not. And when you face that guy the first time, he enters the scen from a random directions, so based on that and how the battle moves around there could be a couple chances to use something in the environment to sever his arm without damaging the gauntlet.
Also things like news that plays on TVs in the background environment here and there could be effected by successes or failures. A failure here could be used as material in some stand up comics routine in a scene much later.
There could be other superheroes at work in the world. You might help them in some places and some of them may come to your aid at times. They would not always succeed either. Maybe one of them would give up on being a super hero and turn bad because they failed. Again it could be random which one because of which failure. Maybe in one playthrough it could be because of a failure where you came to their aid and that you could have prevented. Later you will have to fight them because they turned bad and it was partly your fault. But on another playthrough it's different hero that turn bad because of a different failure that you only heard about.
The point is that if it is well done, immersive enough, and dynamic enough, then failure will be just as engaging as success and continue to drive the player onwards...